Tour of Flanders – Wild Cards for the Ronde

Before we all (myself included) run away and hand the first three places in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Filippo Pozatto, let’s not forget that there are still 255 kilometers and about 190 other riders standing between these men and a win in one of the sport’s most prestigious monuments.

Here’s a rundown of some wild cards to consider come Sunday:

Peter Sagan – For many, Sagan’s not a wild card—he’s a favorite. But to me, his chances Sunday are bit less certain for one simple reason: his inexperience. The Ronde is a race where knowing the roads and climbs counts for a lot—knowing where to be and when to be there helps on narrow roads that crisscross the Flemish Ardennes. Sagan’s also still more of a sprinter than an attacker. While he’ll certainly be a major threat should a large group hit the line together, I wonder if he can follow the attacks of men like Boonen, Cancellara, and Van Marcke on the Kwaremont and Paterberg.

Vacansoleil – Only two teams boast having a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders: Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Vacansoleil. Stijn Devolder finally looks as if he’s once again the rider who won the Ronde in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Bjorn Leukemans has finished 8th, 4th, and 7th in the last three editions, while Marco Marcato is proving himself to be a pretty handy cobbler as well. If they ride cohesively Sunday and use their underdog status to their advantage, they could easily pull-off an upset.

Oscar Freire – Freire’s best finish in the Ronde was 24th back in 2004, but the Spaniard finished 2nd at the E3 Prijs and 4th at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend. His GW result was no surprise—it’s a sprinter’s race and the Freire’s won it before. But the E3 Prijs? That’s not the kind of race where we would expect Freire to perform well as sprinters like Freire often don’t survive the constant pace changes of the E3’s difficult route. That said, Freire’s Katusha squad is surprisingly strong and boasts a talented and experienced lieutenant in Luca Paolini. If he can stay out of trouble and some how survive a dense stretch of bergs between kilometers between kilometers 208 and 242, Freire could pull-off the one of the most surprising wins of his career.

Team Sky – Sky’s seemed to have a lost a bit of swagger since Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice and Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen looked as if they could go 1-2 in Milan-San Remo. They now head to the Ronde with Boasson Hagen and the Spanish cobble stalwart, Juan Antonio Flecha. Flecha hasn’t raced since breaking a bone in his hand earlier this month, but still bears watching this weekend—even if he doesn’t have the legs to be his team’s captain, he’ll certainly prove to be a valuable domestique and valuable decoy for his Norwegian teammate.

BMC – After signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd this past off-season, BMC had a right to expect big things at the Tour of Flanders. But with Gilbert and Hushovd out of shape (Gilbert) and recovering from illness (Hushovd), the team will likely be turning to Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, and Greg Van Avermaet in this year’s Ronde. Of those three, Ballan’s been the most impressive so far and as a former Ronde-winner, will likely be the team’s most protected rider. There’s also the poetic justice to consider: a Ronde victory from one of the team’s “original” classics stars would add an interesting twist to the team’s off-season spending-spree.

Leif Hoste – Hoste was the Ronde’s runner-up in 2006 and 2007. That was indeed a long time ago, but something tells me the Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas rider has one more high finish in him. He’s enjoyed a trouble-free build-up; he’ll have the entire team at his disposal; and he’s riding with a chip on his shoulder as his team was (justifiably) left off the list for Paris-Roubaix.

The Weather – The current forecast calls for a mostly cloudy day with only a 20-percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. Then again, this is Belgium and we’re still a few days out—things can change quickly.

The Course – Perhaps the biggest wild card of all, the Ronde’s new course will certainly throw a wrinkle into some riders’ plans. Three trips over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg (the last of which comes only 13-kilometers from the line) will certainly make tactics interesting while negating the chances, in my opinion, that we’ll see a large group sprint. Tactics will play a tremendous role and at least one favorite could be caught-off guard by being either too aggressive or too hesitant.

So while you’ll hear a lot about Boonen, Cancellara, (Vanmarcke if you listen to me), and Pozatto over the next few days, don’t forget that wild cards often play a big role in the cobbled classics. Even with a stacked field and a new course, this year might be no different.

 

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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti

 

 

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4 comments

  1. michael

    i am going reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep in the bold predictions game – namely, one of these following cats will end up top 10 and may just nudge on to the podium;

    Svein Tuft, who has been very strong all spring on domestique duties for GreenEdge. He has been betting stronger in the last couple of weeks, and his ride in De Panne was strength on strength. If he is one of the protected riders for them it will be very interesting to see where this powerful Canadian rider ends up in the end. On a related note, let’s not underestimate the strength in depth of the GreenEdge squad – they could play spoiler with all the powerful riders on the roster if 2 or more of them get in a dangerous late break.

    David Veilleux – he is more suited to Paris-Roubaix, but word on the street is he has been reconning the heck out of those Flemish roads and hills. Will he be just using the Ronde for hard training before hitting peak form at PR? He is a very versatile rider, I think he could crack top-15 at the Ronde as he is going very well right now, even if his results don’t reflect that.

    Mikhael Ignatyev – going very well at the moment. I suspect that he may have rolled a little too hard at De Panne, but if he is not on Freire support duty, he and Paolini make a respectable 1-2 punch to hit the late breaks and perhaps steal a high finishing result.

  2. grolby

    Sagan has been there-or-thereabouts throughout the last month, but the races and results sheets seem to show that he’s arriving at the final kilometer just a bit too gassed to contend for the win. I don’t know whether that’s a matter of physical development or inexperience causing him to burn his matches at the wrong moments, but I don’t think it’s his year just yet. But I also don’t think it’ll be long until he is a genuine threat for the win, and the favorites aren’t going to just let him go up the road. He’s obviously very strong.

    And it’ll be interesting to see what Devolder can do, that’s for sure, but I think not being on the same team as Tom Boonen and (to a lesser extent) Sylvain Chavanel severely limits his chance at a third victory, no matter how good his form.

  3. Michael Schlitzer

    With the changes to the course, I’m not sure unfamiliarity with the course is a knock against Sagan. It’s tired to go with the same guys each year, but there’s a reason they’re the favorites. I’m sticking with the “older” guys who know what it feels like at the end of the RVV. Cancellara, Boonen, and Hushovd are hard to root against. I think that Omega Pharma has the brainpower and the horsepower to deliver Boonen to the victory though. Roubaix is different.

  4. DavidA

    Hard to predict in a race like Flanders the kassien or stones can throw a kink in the best made plans, but an on form rider makes his own luck alot of times. Boonen..Vanmarcke…Van Avermaet…Cancellara…maybe even Hincapie will all be in the first groups. It comes done to no bad luck and who is the toughest in the last hour of racing. who can die 7 times when they have already died 6 times….

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