De Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, needs, as The Cycling Mole says below, no introduction. We're going to give it a short one anyway. For many the highlight of the classics calendar, it's normally the second Monument of the year and is followed a week later by Paris-Roubaix. In this weirder than weird season we have no Hell of the North, making this year's Ronde the curtain closer - rather than raiser - to the one-day season.
For reasons of public safety, the full route has been kept under wraps. We do know, however, that it will avoid the legendary Muur and therefore the Bosberg. That doesn't mean there'll be any shortage of cobbled climbs, however, all of which will provide plenty of opportunities for small groups or lone wolves to escape the clutches of the pack. Rarely does the race arrive at the finish in numbers.
But who could that soloist be? Which riders might make it into the elite selection of riders to duke it out for the win? There are a few likely lads and plenty more that will want to give it a whirl. Could a dark horse ride away to victory like last year?
Mathieu van der Poel - Alpecin-Fenix
After Gent Wevelgem's stalemate, hopefully Alpecin Fenix and Jumbo Visma put the blinkers on their Vans so that Aert and Der Poel can't spend half the race just staring at each other and we finally get the much anticipated shootout that we are all waiting for.
Oliver Naesen - AG2R
I’m going with my heart on this one. In 2016 at the IAM Cycling wrap party I told Oliver I thought he’d win Paris Roubaix one day and he told me he’d rather win Flanders. He came awfully close at least to a podium in 2017 until he ended up spooning with Sagan on the cobbles. Since then he’s had one ruined classics campaign after another. Even this year hasn’t been great with a crash at the BinkBank Tour and another at GW last week. I still think Roubaix is an option but since there’s no Roubaix this year, I’m going to hope like hell he wins the Flanders he wants.
Mads Pedersen - Trek-Segafredo
I fancy one of the younger generation to take this, but which one? With that in mind, Van Aert and Van der Poel to mark each other out of contention while Alaphilippe has one of his jittery bonkers days after too many espressos, allowing the 24-year-old former world champion to take off unguarded, while the new rainbow jersey-wearing Frenchman starts dancing on his top-tube. This is a recurring dream scenario, a sure sign I need to get out more. Just me, then?
Yves Lampaert - Deceuninck-Quick Step
It’s going to be a cagey one that comes down to front group numbers and shaking your tactics, and just look at Ghent-Wevelgem - Lefevere’s lads didn’t win, but I think they’ll get it right for the big one. A proper tractor-driving phlegmatic Flandrian winner for their race, then, who’ll probably slip away underwhelmingly.
Wout van Aert - Jumbo-Visma
I long ago learned that it's a fool who bets against Wout van Aert. He won the first Monument of the season and has looked indefatigable ever since. I can't see him being shaken off and if it comes down to a sprint, none of this lot has a faster kick.
The Cycling Mole says...
Flanders, no introduction is required. In the men’s race we have two ultra-strong favourites, Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. These two stared each other out of contention in Gent-Wevelgem, will something similar happen here? As both arrive with weak teams, winning this race won’t be straightforward. As expected, the team have picked WVA and MVDP, Ben and Nick are on the money. Olivia is attempting a name drop here, doesn’t she know that’s what I do. She’s on my old pal Oli Naesen, if that happens I will be a happy boy. Ian is going with the man in form, Mads Pedersen. The Dane won Gent-Wevelgem and will fancy his chances if the race ends in a reduced sprint, it’s good to see that Ian is upping his game. Andy’s pick of Yves Lampaert isn’t too bad either, QuickStep arrive with the strongest team and this race can often get tactical in the closing stages.
What about me? I’m looking at the QuickStep team and I see strength in depth, something that no other squad has. They will ensure a hard race, they will try and force WVA and MVDP into chasing moves, burning matches in the process. This will allow a certain world champion to save energy for the majority of the day and launch a killer attack on the Paterberg. Allez Julian!