Ahead of last year’s centenary edition all focus was on a final Flanders flourish between Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara – two greats with a combined 14 monuments between them.
Fast forward a year and our two main protagonists are undeniably two of the sport’s biggest stars in Slovakian world champion Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Belgium’s Olympic gold medallist Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). Be that as it may, these two Flanders favourites have but one solitary monument win between them: Sagan’s belated account-opener in last year’s Ronde, when he soloed to victory by 25 seconds over the departing Cancellara.
Sagan had already finished runner-up in Flanders in 2013 before going one better last year, while a fortnight ago the 27-year-old narrowly missed out on the Milan-Sanremo crown for the second time in his career. His record in 20 monuments reads: top five on eight occasions, runner-up three times, winner once. A paltry return for someone once dubbed the new Eddy Merckx.
If that record seems out of sync for someone feted by many as the best rider of his generation, then spare a thought for his big rival. Thirty-one-year-old Van Avermaet has now ridden 35 monuments without ever standing upon the top step at the finish. In fact, the Belgian has only finished on the podium on three occasions since making his debut in the Ronde exactly a decade ago: he was third at both Flanders and Roubaix in 2015, one year after being pipped by Cancellara in a tense sprint finish at Oudenaarde.
Last year, Van Avermaet entered the Ronde as one of the principal protagonists before crashing out with a broken collarbone after the BMC train derailed on the curb of one of the many bleak Belgian towns that punctuates the route.
Firm favourite: van Avermaet
This year, the omens look good for GVA. Almost too good. He got his Belgian classics season off to a flyer with victory in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad back in February before picking up where he left off with back-to-back wins in E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem last week.
Should he secure his maiden monument win on Sunday, van Avermaet will enter the record books as the only rider to pull off that highly particular quadruple. Although it’s perhaps worth noting (at least, if you’re a fan of geeky stats) that of the previous 10 winners of Flanders, none had won Het Nieuwsblad in the same season, four had won E3 and only two had triumphed in Gent-Wevelgem.
Can GVA do it? Of course. He’s riding the cobbles as if they were smooth macadam, cutting through their coarse grooves like a skier carves through a corduroyed piste. Omloop he won in a three-way sprint between Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke, repeating the feat in E3 Harelbeke alongside Philippe Gilbert and Oliver Naesen. Meanwhile, he showed his strength with a decisive attack on the Kemmelberg in Gent-Wevelgem before riding clear from the likes of Sagan, Niki Terpstra and John Degenkolb on the flat before dispatching compatriot Jens Keukeleire at the finish.
These are the kind of races GVA would previously contrive to lose – and those are the kind of riders who would normally kindly do the honours. Such is his form that Van Avermaert has already been dubbed the ‘King of Flanders’ by Belgian media. Surely, to be crowned the actual King of Flanders all Van Avermaet needs to do is continue exactly what he’s doing? Even he’s getting excited.
My win on Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem was incredible, and as I said then, I don’t think I can pretend that I’m not the favourite anymore for the Tour of Flanders. I’ve had the best start to the season possible, and what gives me even more confidence is knowing that my favourite race, the race that suits me the most, is still to come.
Solitary Sagan’s dilemma
There’s no denying that the BMC team Van Avermaet has at his disposal – which boasts the likes of Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato, Silvan DIllier and Martin Elmiger – is far better equipped than the Bora-Hansgrohe ensemble behind Peter Sagan. Then again, Sagan has always been a bit of a lone ranger. That’s what makes him the unique talent he is. But that’s what also makes him vulnerable.
Put simply: work with Sagan and you’re signing your own death warrant. It’s why Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe sat back on the Poggio and it’s why Niki Terpstra refused to pull at Gent-Wevelgem – sparking Sagan into labelling such tactics as “a cheap game”.
But why would anyone willingly help out the strongest rider in the peloton? That’s Sagan’s dilemma. He’s too strong for his own team, and too strong for anyone to contemplate an alliance because they will only get slaughtered. And so, save for riding clear alone – as he did in last year’s Tour of Flanders – Sagan must live in a world where his swashbuckling dominance often results in him paving the way for his rivals to take the spoils.
If anyone can beat Van Avermaet, Sagan can. That seems the sensible conclusion. Although it’s worth noting that his recent head-to-head record with a rider he used to keep in his pocket is not good. If fact, it’s woeful. His only classics win this season – Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – came over a field devoid of Van Avermaet.
Sure, Sagan’s form in Tirreno-Adriatico was superb – and he frequently got the better of GVA en route to his two stage wins – but successive disappointments at Milan-Sanremo, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem have been a stark reminder that GVA has become the world champion’s bete noir.
In the past few years Van Avermaet has got the better of Sagan in Montreal, at Omloop, at the Tour de France and twice in Tirreno. Indeed, six of GVA’s last 10 victories (excluding the Olympic road race, which Sagan didn’t enter) have come in head-to-head sprints with second-placed Sagan. Quite staggering when you think of all the column inches dedicated to Sagan’s unparalleled brilliance.
The implications are obvious: Sagan cannot afford to leave it to a final sprint between him and van Avermaet. That means attacking on either the Peterberg or the Oude Kwaremont – the dastardly cobbled duo twice tackled by the peloton on Sunday. And the pressure is clearly getting to Sagan, who was criticized heavily by Belgian media this week after footage emerged of him body-checking youngster Maxime Vantomme (WB Veranclassic) on the Kemmelberg after finding himself boxed in when Van Avermaet split the pack with his attack in Gent-Wevelgem.
That said, calling Sagan a dark horse accordingly seems a trifle disingenuous. He’s as much of a dark horse as Desert Orchid or the sea crashing against the cliffs of Dover.
Who else can rewrite the Flandrian script?
As if often the case when the focus lies on just one or two riders, someone else comes in – and not necessarily from nowhere – and upturns the apple cart.
Sagan is one of four former winners taking to the start in Antwerp and if veteran Stijn Devolder, the 2008 and 2009 champion of wildcard team Verandas Willems-Crelan, can perhaps be overlooked for a third win, then the same cannot be said of 2015 champion Alexander Kristoff or the triple winner Boonen. Kristoff’s season has been disappointing, the Norwegian having struggled for results now since that famous Flanders win. But a victory in stage 2 of the Three Days of De Panne has put the Katusha-Alpecin rider back on the radar.
While Boonen’s best days are behind him, the soon-to-be-retiring Belgian is part of a super-strong Quick-Step Floors team that also has the in-form Belgian champion Gilbert – the De Panne winner who’s been a revelation in this year’s Flemish classics – as a Plan A, bolstered by numerous Plan Bs in Yves Lampaert (the recent Dwars door Vlaanderen winner), Zdenek Stybar, Matteo Trentin, Julien Vermote and the cheap gamer himself, Terpstra.
Belgian powerhouse Sep Vanmarcke is also another rider who cannot be discounted – although he’s struggled for form and fitness this season after switching from LottoNL-Jumbo to Cannondale-Drapac. Clearly a huge talent, Vanmarcke seems to be a rider incapable of finding that little extra required to win a major race: he’s finished in the top five in five of his last eight monuments yet doesn’t have the requisite kick or tactical nous to beat a Sagan or a van Avermaet in a sprint.
And moving to a team renowned for not winning is hardly the best option for a rider looking to get back to winning ways; Cannondale being without a WorldTour win in – what is it now? – three years and counting.
Sunday’s 259.5km Ronde van Vlaanderen features 11 cobbled climbs – or hellingen – and this year sees the return of the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen, albeit some 95km from the finish. The Oude Kwaremont gets things started after 115km of riding and is revisited again twice in later doubles with the Paterberg, the last of which is inside the final 20km of the race.
Sunshine and clouds are expected with a temperature around a clement 15 degrees – although two days of rain preceding the race may make the cobbles slippery and leave banks of mud alongside the narrow roads, especially on the infamous Koppenberg climb which comes 50km from the finish and usually signals the start of the business end of the race.
Given their form, you’d be mad to bet against either Van Avermaet or Sagan taking the victory – in that order, in a two-up sprint, in all likelihood – but cycling’s monuments have a knack of delivering the unexpected. What we can be sure of is a dramatic race full of thrills and spills – that and Andre Greipel burying himself for Lotto Soudal in his annual stab at being a domestique.
Greg van Avermaet (BMC)
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac)
Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal), John Degenkolb (Trek Segafredo)
Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Luke Rowe (Team Sky), Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo), Dimitri Claeys (Cofidis), Filippo Pozzato (Wilier Triestina), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal), Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors), Oliver Naesen (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana)
Follow the race live on Eurosport 1 from 9:15 to 10:55 and from 12:20 (UK time) on Sunday. Eurosport.co.uk will offer live text commentary from 10am.
Read the original article on Eurosport: Blazin’ Saddles: Can Sagan stop the GVA juggernaut in Flanders?