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
At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International