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Tour of Flanders 2015: preview

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

Boonen and Cancellara out. Quick-Step in turmoil. Degenkolb and Thomas registering the biggest wins of their respective careers. Kristoff imperious. Stybar and Vanmarcke riding strongly. This year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen is wide open.
The course
The ninety-ninth edition of the Flandrian Monument features 19 hellingen, the first appearing after 87km with the Tiegemberg, and ending again this year on a finishing circuit that will twice send the riders up the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
The climbs come with greater frequency and severity in the closing 40km of the race, with the third ascent of the Kwaremont serving as entrée to a further seven ramps, including the Koppenberg and the Taaienberg.
Recent history
Recent editions of the Ronde have met with disapprobation from purists, incensed at the axing of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the introduction of a finishing circuit, but the racing has been first rate and its victors able to stand comparison with any.

Cancellara claimed the last two editions, with a crushing display of power in 2013 to despatch Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) on the Paterberg, before winning last year in equally impressive, if entirely different fashion by outwitting Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) Sepp Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-Quick-Step) in a cat-and-mouse finale.
In 2012, Boonen won in a sprint from Pippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), after a series of brave, if increasingly desperate attacks from Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing), and you have to go back to 2011 to find anything in the way of an upset, when Nick Nuyens won for then Saxo Bank-Sunguard. Stijn Develolder won the two previous editions and will lead Trek Factory Racing’s challenge at this year’s edition in Cancellara’s absence.

Five favourites
The Classics season this year has been characterised by the consistency of a handful of leading men, and it’s likely that one of their select number will have the final word on Sunday.
1.Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step)
The Czech champion has all the talents required for victory at De Ronde: endurance, power, bike handling, and the tenacity required to remain in contention on steep bergs. He has made an excellent transition to the road after coming to prominence as world cyclo-cross champion and victory last month at Strade Bianche proves he is ready to lead Etixx-Quick-Step at the Belgian team’s “home” race.

Therein, however, might the problem lie. Etixx-Quick-Step have been in turmoil since losing the first of the Flandrian Classics to Ian Stannard (Team Sky), who overcame a numerical disadvantage of three-to-one to successfully defend his title at Het Nieuwsblad. Quick-Step contrived to lose last weekend’s Gent-Wevelgem too, when Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh seemed more intent on racing Stannard’s team-mate Geraint Thomas than pursuing the fast disappearing (and ultimately successful) Luca Paolini (Katusha).
Stybar, however, is this writer’s pick for this year’s Ronde. Physically, he is tailor-made for the Flandrian Monument, and even in its current state of disarray, Etixx-Quick-Step is still likely to field the strongest squad in the race, with reigning Paris-Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra a formidable support.

2.Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
Geraint Thomas has made an almost perfect start to the season, winning the Volta ao Algarve, finishing fifth at Paris-Nice and taking out E3 Harelbeke. He’s been a leading contender in a host of other races too, riding clear on the Poggio of Sanremo, and finishing third at Gent-Wevelgem – a race he might have won.

While there is little doubt that Thomas has hit peak form, he remains far from a certainty for the win. The Welshman remains accident prone and lacks tactical acumen. His Sky team is strong, but has little pedigree in one-day races and even in its favoured stage race environment is tactically one-dimensional. Cancellara in similar form would start as overwhelming favourite; backing Thomas remains akin to purchasing a lottery ticket. 

3.Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
Alexander Kristoff is another to have made a blistering start to the season. He won three stages at the Tour of Qatar, a stage of the Tour of Oman, a stage of Paris-Nice, and earlier this week wrapped up victory at the Three Days of De Panne by winning all three road stages.

His one-day form has been excellent, too. Kristoff came within a whisker of successfully defending his Milan-Sanremo crown, finishing second to John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), and was second to Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. He led home the chasing pack at E3 Harelbeke to finish fourth and made the top 10 at Gent-Wevelgem.
More importantly, Kristoff is specifically targeting the Ronde this season, and his performances earlier this week at De Panne suggest he has prepared perfectly. He’ll also have the support of the best road captain in the peloton in Luca Paolini.

4.John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin)
John Degenkolb’s mission to emerge from Marcel Kittel’s sizeable shadow was completed at Milan-Sanremo where Giant-Alpecin’s other German fastman claimed the biggest victory of his career. After winning Gent-Wevelgem last season, Degenkolb was on everybody’s radar, but in a display of agression and power, passed defending champion Kristoff within metres of the finish line on the Via Roma, bagging a Monument and thereby matching Kittel’s accomplishments in Grand Tours.

His form in the immediate past, however, does not compare to that of Thomas, never mind Kristoff, and while his victory at Hatta Dam on stage three of the Dubai Tour proved that a single steep ramp will not finish him, there is a sense that the multiple climbs of the Ronde may prove too much for the German powerhouse.

5.Sepp Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo)
Sepp Vanmarcke lives for the Northern Classics: his season will effectively finish next weekend at Paris-Roubaix. Vanmarcke’s showing so far this season has been promising, and while time remains on his side (the Belgian is still only 26), he has been close on so many occasions already that there is a growing sense he must win big soon. No-one is as likely to be as relieved by Cancellara’s absence as Vanmarcke, who has twice been out-finessed by the Swiss, most recently at last season’s Ronde.

Fourth at Strade Bianche has been Vanmarcke’s best performance so far this season, though he has posted top five finishes too at the Omloop and E3 Harelbeke, and was sixth at Gent-Wevelgem. In Tuscany, he ground his way back to the wheels of a leading trio of Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) as they passed beneath the flamme rouge, but had cooked himself in the process and was swiftly dropped on the finishing ramp. He is far better suited to the Ronde as his recent performances on the road Wevelgem and Harelbeke attest.

…and four on the fringe
1.Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing)
Twice a winner, Stijn Devolder has a close relationship with the Ronde, and his bravery in last year’s edition, repeatedly riding back into contention after a series of crashes, showed the his desire to succeed in his home Monument burns as brightly as ever. Cancellara’s absence has cleared the field to leadership of Trek Factory Racing for this year’s race.

2.Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo)
Absurd that someone as talented as Peter Sagan should be regarded as a fringe contender, but such are the continued disappointments of his recent career that victory would surely be regarded as a surprise.
3.Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal)
Evidence for Jurgen Roelandts’ good form can be found in his exceptional ride last weekend at Gent-Wevelgem, and his Lotto Soudal team have impressed this season. He was summarily despatched by Cancellara on the Paterberg two years ago, but still finished third and should not be discounted this year.
4.Daniel Oss (BMC Racing)
Daniel Oss has been off the front in almost every race he’s ridden this season, with his performances at Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo the most notable. Victory for Oss would be an upset for the odds makers, but not the form book. He has the legs to become the first winner from beyond the closed circle of pre-race favourites since Nuyens.

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