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.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Monument #2 of the season is this Sunday: the great Tour of Flanders. No other race in the world takes a series of short hills and turns them into such a series of body blows that even Muhammed Ali would have to take note. Maybe even compose a little poem.
And if you think I’m about to write a commemorative poem for the Tour of Flanders you’d be both right and wrong. I’m just not sharing it here.
Fully 82 percent of all stories on cyclists in Belgium right now concern Tom Boonen and the Tour of Flanders. It will be a national crisis if either he or his team doesn’t deliver something like the Second Coming on Easter.
The list of riders who want to win Flanders is nearly as long as the list of men who’d like a date with Heidi Klum. Similarly, the number of riders truly capable of such a win is just as short as the number of men Miss Klum would allow to buy her coffee.
In my mind this year’s race is an either-or. Stijn Devolder, as great as he is, has been something of an interloper, mopping up spoils when Boonen was just too marked. I don’t think he’ll get that sort of opportunity a third time. No, Belgium wants Tomeke crowned king of Flanders. With his second at San Remo Boonen has proven that he is both fit and hungry for a big win.
So who’s the or? Simple. Cancellara. He has made it clear that he likes new challenges. With Roubaix, San Remo, a World Championship and the Olympics under his belt, he’d like to win something he hasn’t won before. Hmm, Flanders fits the bill.
So here’s the challenge to you: Do you think the winner will be someone other than this oh-so-dynamic duo? If so, who? More important: Why?
Not to point too fine a point on it, but here’s a real challenge: Make a case for why Pozzato could pull this off.
Oh, and while you’re at it, as unlikely as it ought to be, Da Robot has picked up the H1N1 virus. How a Robot gets a pig disease, we’re not sure, but you might wish him well as he suffers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The peloton is coming! The peloton is coming! In the Land Down Under, Oz, the country formerly known as “Penal Colony,” hearty souls are already cranking their cranks in anger. The TDU is nigh. Rider itineraries are leaking out into the starved press. The softer among them are shivering in an unseasonably cold Spain. The harder are training in Belgium (Hello, Stijn Devolder!).
And you, our avid and ardent and aardvark-like readership, are spinning your rollers and braving your weathers and thinking about all the kilometers you hope to pass beneath your rubbery roundnesses over this 365 day period we call the “year.”
In other words, all is well and right in the cycling universe.
Given that we are in this nice, soft, clean spot in the calendar, the season stretching before us tabula rasa-styley, let’s take a moment to express wholly subjective opinions about the quality of the thing we are yet to see. Here is this weeks question:
In your (possibly) humble opinion, will the 2010 pro cycling season be better or worse than 2009? Why?
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
It’s been an interesting year in the world of cycling. There have been some duels for the ages between larger-than-life figures. I decided to ask each of RKP’s contributors to pick their three favorite stories of the year. Some of their answers may surprise you.—Padraig
Lance Armstrong. No other figure in cycling has ever made headlines worldwide the way Lance Armstrong does. Whether it’s his battle to rid the world of cancer, the birth of a new son, doping charges or his battle of wits with Alberto Contador, Armstrong is a headline wherever he goes, whatever he does. He is also significant because no other figure has half the ability to polarize a group of cyclists as Armstrong. To some, he is a virtually convicted doper, to others he is a champion and figure of hope. No matter what you think of him, he has the ability to keep cycling in the mainstream worldwide, which, ultimately, is good for cycling.
The conviction of Dr. Thompson. That Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson was even tried for one felony—let alone six—was a big success for cyclists everywhere. There were more opportunities for this case to go off the rails than can be counted, but some significant points were in the initial investigation, once the case was turned over to the district attorney and, of course, in Thompson’s cross examination. This case will be cited as a turning point in the recognition by the average person that cyclists are both vulnerable to the actions of malicious drivers and have a right to the road.
Doping. From Christian “cycling has changed” Prudhomme, to Danilo “the killer” DiLuca to the blood transfusion kits found among Astana’s medical supplies, one should draw the conclusion that some riders might be cleaner than in the past, but cycling, as a sport, has yet to shed the taint of doping. Prudhomme, the Tour de France director, made the ludicrous statement, “I recently confirmed that ‘there were no suspected cases’ (during the 2009 Tour de France). This means that the fight against doping progresses.” Astarloza’s positive proved his statement was both premature and dead wrong. If anyone should have been fired from the ASO, it shouldn’t have been Patrice Clerc, but rather Prudhomme for making such a reckless statement on behalf of such a storied institution.
The fire sale of Iron Horse bicycles to Dorel. Iron Horse wasn’t a prestigious brand, but it was long known as being a good value for new cyclists. Its descent into bankruptcy was an ugly, backbiting mess full of recrimination and charges of shady deals involving owner Cliff Weidberg and his son, who owned Randall Scott Cycles, a significant debtor to Iron Horse. Dorel (the parent for Cannondale, GT, Schwinn, Mongoose, Pacific, etc.) purchased Iron Horse for $5.2 million at auction, less than what Iron Horse’s three biggest secured creditors were owed, for a classic pennies-on-the-dollar deal. The sale left hanging dozens of unsecured creditors who were owed a combined $17 million as well as CIT Group for another $4 million, and made cycling’s biggest corporate colossus just a little bit bigger.
Lemond v. Trek. Just wait, the plus-size gal isn’t even on stage.
Contador and Schleck denying Armstrong an 8th TdF. When the Lance returned, so much of the American cycloratti was hoping he’d return to his throne, but personally, I was ready to move on. As the hype ramped up and up and up, through LA’s collar bone break, through the Giro and into the initial stages of the Tour, I was really wishing for the sport to move on. Not to be ungrateful for contributions made, but I was ready for some new legends to emerge. And they did.
Philippe Gilbert’s end of season wins. What I love about Gilbert is his incredible tactical sense and timing. This is a guy who beats riders head and shoulders stronger than he is, by keeping his wits about him and playing them against one another. Not a weak rider, Gilbert shows what racing might be like in the absence of race radios, when smart riders win as much as strong ones.
The emergence of Edvald Boasson-Hagen. While everyone was talking about Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador (myself included) another young rider was winning races (10) and taking the overall in smaller stage races like the Eneco Tour and the Tour of Britain. Boasson-Hagen is 22. He is exactly the sort of rider that today’s top guns should be wary of, because he’s going to get better.
USA Bike industry ignores its mounting inventory crisis for an entire year (repercussions will impact retail pricing and corporate profits until 2012). If you ever had any doubts as to whether bike companies know what they’re doing, well, here’s your answer.
Lemond v Trek: no matter which way it ends up (short of an out-of-court-plus-gag-order settlement), this story still has the potential to become the biggest scandal in US cycling history. It’s also the #1 story the cycling press wishes would just go away: no matter how—or even if—they report it, it’s a lose-lose for them.
American public starts to figure out that bikes are actually a lot of fun (and practical transportation, too). This is THE biggest sea-change in public attitudes about cycling since That Skinny Blonde Kid won some race over in France 33 years ago … although sometimes I liked it better when we were just a bunch of geeks and outcasts instead of too-cool-for-school fashion mavens in skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts.
Bonus: Mavic’s parent company (Amer Sports) puts it up for sale, can’t find buyer, de-lists it, fires its own President. You know the economy’s bad when no one wants a highly regarded company with the lion’s share of a long-term lucrative market.
Contador’s Tour win as part of the Bizarro World of Team Astana. I know of no other time in cycling history when, after the designated team leader takes the Yellow Jersey, the team manager wanted to put on sackcloth and ashes. The psychological war Bruyneel and Armstrong waged against Contador remains about the oddest thing I ever saw in cycling.
The death duel between Di Luca and Menchov in the Giro. While I watched it, I tried to forget Di Luca’s past doping offenses (he made sure I was reminded later…) and watched 2 superb athletes fight until neither had a watt left. Menchov’s crash in the final time trial made even the race’s last moments exciting. His poor performance in the Tour showed he had gone truly deep in the Giro.
Grand Tour VAMs. Both the Giro and the Tour had some spectacularly high VAMs (average rate of vertical ascent in a climb). There was one day in the Tour that saw the Tour climbing speed record Bjarne Riis set on the Hautacam in 1996 eclipsed.
Bonus: And the UCI says they are getting a good handle on doping. I’ve got some good ocean-front land here in Arkansas for anyone who believes that. I believe we lost ground during 2009 in the hunt for a clean sport.
Contador wins second Tour de France. The lead up to the race was more drama than MTV’s “The Hill” leading up to prom night. Every day there were hints that all the indicators being tossed out by Astana that “all is well” and “we are all behind our leader” and “Contador is our GC leader.” It was something everyone who listened and watched knew was slick talk and that there was 2 GC riders on the team, neither submitting to the other in reality. To see the dynamics play out was something that kept us all tuned daily for the month of July. I personally cannot wait ‘til 2010′s TdF!!
Fabian Cancellara SMOKES TT world championship. Fabian is a statesman for cycling and in my opinion one of the peloton’s classiest riders. He can be many things, but his TT skills are phenomenal and his lead up to the World TT championship brought us to anticipate a performance, which he delivered in jaw-dropping fashion.
Devolder repeats at Tour of Flanders. I love all the Classics, but I love the Spring Classics especially. Seeing Cav win Milan San Remo was incredible, to see Boonen win Paris-Roubaix was great, to see Schleck win Leige was sweet as well, but to see the Belgian Devolder repeat his win at Tour of Flanders held a meaning that goes to the very core of this race, to his pedigree, which makes him a national hero yet again, and brings this one to the top for me.
Notables: Team Columbia HTC should have an honorable mention notably as they really pulled off greatness in light of adversity, despite the other teams riding senslessly against them at times (Hincapie’s maillot jaune loss in TdF), they stuck it out and perhaps had the team of the year.