Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen kicked-off the run to the cobbled monuments with a gutsy solo win for Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra. Now all eyes turn to the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem, two races who have seen quite a bit of change over the past few years. Traditionally held a week and a day before the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Prijs was considered by most to be the final check-point for riders hoping to win the Ronde. With many of the Ronde’s key climbs included over the E3’s 203-kilometer parcours, it provided both training and reconnaissance for riders hoping to be at their best the following weekend.
Then came Ghent-Wevelgem’s move to the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders, a move that forced teams and riders to choose between the two legendary events (many would start both, only to abandon one or the other at the first feed zone, angering both organizers and fans). The E3’s organizers soon cried foul, worryied that Ghent-Wevelgem’s World Tour status would attract the best competitors. So a deal was struck and the E3 was granted World Tour status for 2012—in exchange for a new date on Friday. Is it the best solution? Probably not. (I personally preferred the traditional Ronde-Ghent-Roubaix “Holy Week” format.) But it appears to have worked this year as the start lists of both events are jam-packed with star power—which also makes it a bit easier for pundits to preview both races simultaneously.
So without further ado, here’s my rundown of favorites for the weekend—with riders ranked according to my confidence in their ability to come through with at least one win.
Tom Boonen – Omega Pharma-Quick Steps’ Tom Boonen is the top favorite for this weekend’s races—both of them—for three simple reasons:
1. His current form is par with that during the best springs of his career.
2. He’s won the E3 Prijs four times and Ghent-Wevelgem twice—including last year’s edition.
3. He rides for the strongest team in both races with Sylvain Chavanel, Dwars-winner Niki Terpstra, and a full complement of able-bodied domestiques at his disposal.
Of course, Boonen might choose to “disguise” his fitness in favor of next weekend’s Monument—then again, he won the E3 and/or the Ronde and Roubaix on two occasions.
Sep Vanmarcke – Of all the riders taking part in this weekend’s races, I’m most excited to see what last year’s E3 Prijs fourth-place finisher, Garmin-Barracuda’s Sep Vanmarcke, can do. Vanmarcke announced himself as a main contender in this year’s cobbled classics by beating none other than Tom Boonen to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He then finished fifth behind Boonen after make the critical split during the windy Stage 2 of Paris-Nice. In Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, the young Belgian laid down an attack on the Oude Kwaremont that blew the peloton apart.
John Degenkolb – I’m going way out on a limb here: Project 1t4i’s Degenkolb took fifth in Milan-San Remo but should be even better this weekend in Belgium. A sprinter who is quickly becoming a classics challenger, I see Degenkolb as Boonen’s top challenger in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem. Even thought Marcel Kittel starts alongside him, I think harder parcours at Ghent will suit Degenkolb more. He has also proven himself over the Flemish bergs and stones, while Kittel is a bit more of a cobbled unknown.
Fabian Cancellara – If cycling were truly an individual sport, Cancellara would easily be a 5-Kite favorite. But as we’ve seen, his lack of a teammate talented enough able to draw some attention away from him has hurt Spartacus’ chances in major races. Daniele Bennati’s the team’s best bet currently, he rode a perfect race in support of Cancellara at L’Eroica (a race which Cancellara won) and finished second to Tom Boonen at Ghent-Wevelgem last year. I suspect we’ll see Cancellara do his best to win his third consecutive E3 Prijs Friday, before spending at least the first half of the race Sunday working for his Italian colleague.
Filippo Pozzato – After sixth-place finishes in both Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Farnese Vini’s Filippo Pozzato looks to have rediscovered the form that won him the E3 Prijs in 2009. Pozzato easily followed Vanmarcke’s Kwaremont surge during the Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen and has the added benefit of an in-form Oscar Gatto serving as his lieutenant. While a win would hardly be a surprise, the Italian might choose a more tranquillo approach to the weekend, hiding his good legs until next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Matti Breschel – After a disastrous 2011, Breschel looks to have regained the form he displayed in 2010 when he won Dwars door Vlaanderen and was arguably the strongest rider in the race at Ghent-Wevelgem. Perhaps more importantly, Breschel’s Rabobank team displayed its ability to control the front of the a Saturday at Milan-San Remo, something the Dane will certainly appreciate this weekend. With Lars Boom, Carlos Barredo, and Mark Renshaw (Sunday only), racing as well, there will certainly be enough men in orange to prevent Breschel from being marked exclusively.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire is on the start lists of both events this weekend, but it’s safe to say that his best chance for a win will come Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he won in 2008. Freire’s enjoyed a good season so far but fell a bit short in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. Katusha will likely back Luca Paolini in the E3 Prijs, while the talented young sprinter Denis Galymzianov provides a solid back-up plan on Sunday should Freire falter.
Peter Sagan – Sagan’s also on the list for both races for team Liquigas-Cannondale, but like Freire, the Slovakian a better candidate for Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem than Friday’s E3 Prijs. Sagan’s underwhelmed during his cobbled excursions thus far in his career, but could take his first Flemish scalp Sunday should the course not prove too difficult for him. Daniel Oss is another Liquigas rider to watch—he finished fifth in Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010 and ninth in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. That said, he and Sagan will need to communicate if the team is to be successful—meaning one rider will have to willingly take a backseat to the other.
BMC – Aside from Alessandro Ballan, BMC has done little over the past two weeks to warrant serious consideration as a contender for this weekend’s races. Philippe Gilbert is still recovering from a sickness from Tirreno. Thor Hushovd has adjusted his program after missing both Milan-San Remo and the Volta Catalunya but is clearly racing to train. Even Greg Van Avermaet has Achilles issues. On a positive note: George Hincapie finished with the leading peloton at Milan-San Remo, a good sign for a rider who often flies under the radar until just the right moment. I’d expect to see the team back Ballan in E3 and Big George Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem. Adam Blythe bears watching Sunday as well, as does Marcus Burghardt. With such a star-studded roster, who’s going to grab the bottles?
Tyler Farrar – Garmin-Barracuda’s Tyler Farrar took third in Ghent-Wevelgem last year behind Boonen and Bennati. Still winless in 2012, at Ghent-Wevelgem he has the undivided support of a strong Garmin-Barracuda squad that includes lead-out specialists Robbie Hunter and Murilo Fischer along with David Millar and Johan Van Summeren to cover breakaways.
Stijn Devolder, Bjorn Leukemans, and Marco Marcato – Vacansoleil brings three riders capable of bringing home the team’s first win in a major cobbled classic. Devolder’s the biggest wild card here—he spent the last two season dodging criticism after back-to-back Ronde wins in 2008 and 2009. Leukemans has become one of the most quietly consistent cobbled specialists in the sport without a victory—could he be this year’s Nick Nuyens? As for Marcato, he’s an aggressive rider who can handle himself in the hills and in small group sprints. Look for him to stick his nose out in front at least once over the course of the weekend.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol took a big hit with the crash of Jurgen Roelandts in the Tour Down Under as he was their best for hillier cobbled races—he finished second in the E3 Prijs last year. On Sunday, Andre Greipel is the team’s best chance to score an important home victory at Ghent-Wevelgem. He’ll have the team entirely at his disposal—they should find plenty of help from other squads hoping for a bunch kick as well.
Matthew Goss – Before he won grand tour stages and Milan-San Remo, GreenEdge’s Matt Goss was considered a star-to-be for the cobbled classics. That said, not much has come of it since his third-place finish at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2009. Assuming he’s timed his peak a bit later than last year, Goss could continue GreenEdge’s World Tour run with a win Sunday.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – Team Sky’s EBH was the last to win Ghent-Wevelgem on a Wednesday—back in 2008. At Tirreno he appeared to be at his best once again, but the Norwegian rode an anonymous Milan-San Remo. Assuming he’s over whatever caused his early exit from Tirreno and flat performance Saturday, he could be one of the best this weekend—especially on Sunday.
Juan Antonio Flecha – If the start list is accurate and he’s only riding Ghent-Wevelgem, don’t expect to see Flecha as a major protagonist Sunday—especially with both Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen lining up beside him. It’s more likely that Flecha’s using the weekend more for training purposes—he knows these roads like the back of his hand and would certainly trade a weekend of teamwork for the sake of their unquestioned support at the Ronde and Roubaix.
Arnaud Demare – The current U23 road race champion from FDJ makes the first World Tour starts of his career this weekend. A talented sprinter, he’s hoping for a high finish in Ghent-Wevelgem.
Lloyd Mondory – Another Frenchman, Ag2r’s Mondory has been steadily proving himself to be a skilled rider in cobbled races. He made Wednesday’s select chase group and has a good chance to at least repeat his fifth-place finish in last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem.
Jose Joaquin Rojas – Aside from Flecha, it’s been a long time since we’ve Spaniards to watch in a cobbled classic. That said, Movistar’s Rojas possesses a powerful sprint and the ability to make important selections in tough races. Ghent-Wevelgem is just his cup of tea.
Kris Boeckmans – With seven top-10 finishes so far in 2012, Vacansoleil’s Kris Boeckmans could finish in the top-10 Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem. Without Leukemans and Devolder taking the start and teams with more favored sprinters doing the lion’s share of the work, he should have a relatively easy ride to the finish—if such a thing is possible in a race like Ghent-Wevelgem.
Oscar Gatto – He’ll likely spend most of the weekend working for Pozatto, but Farnese Vini’s Oscar Gatto is just the type of rider to make Friday’s winning breakaway—and finish third.
Jens Keukelaire – Those who were watching Dwars door Vlaanderen might have witnessed the transformation of GreenEdge’s Jens Keukelaire from a field sprinter to a classics rider. Let’s see if this weekend proves it was no fluke.
The usual protagonists will all be present and accounted for, but this weekend will continue the anointing of two new heroes as Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke wins the E3 Prijs and Project 1t4i’s John Degenkolb wins Ghent-Wevelgem.
Enjoy the races!
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti