Antwerp > Oudenaarde 272.5km
The big one is here! Now that we’ve had time to process Van Aert’s absence, it’s time to focus on the race.
When the race starts the temperature will only be 2 degrees, and it will only reach a maximum of 7 degrees. Luckily, the sun will be out and there won’t be any of snow that the region had in the last couple of days. Getting your clothing right will be very important, as will the timing of removing the extra layers.
For me, the finale starts with the approach to Berg Ten Houte, which is narrow and fast. After the climb we then have the Kanarieberg, Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg and Oude Kruisberg before looping back round for another crack up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. That’s an awful lot of cobbles and climbs in 64km of racing.
The absence of Van Aert will have a big impact on how Jumbo-Visma approach the race, they can no longer explode the race early. They still have two of the strongest riders, so they will be one of the teams controlling things, but they have to save their bullets until later than was originally planned. In terms of team strength, it looks like QuickStep, Jumbo-Visma and Ineos will be the strongest.
Recent races haven’t gone to plan for QuickStep, but they should be closer to their best for Flanders. Asgreen needs support in the closing stages, the team will be demanding that Sénéchal and Lampaert last deep into the race. Jumbo-Visma have lots of strong riders, the likes of Van Hooydonck, Roosen, Affini and Teunissen can be used to make the race hard. The big advantage they have over the other teams is the form of Benoot and Laporte, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they don’t make the front group.
Then there’s Ineos, with the improving Pidcock. We don’t know how he’ll react to this race, but he’ll obviously give it everything he’s got. Van Baarle has been disappointing in recent races, but Ben Turner has been outstanding. Despite not having one of the top favourites, it’s the collective strength of Ineos that will give them a chance to win this race.
What about van der Poel and Pogačar? A lack of teammates in the closing stages could be a big problem for both, but it’s something van der Poel has always had to deal with. Both will want the proper racing to start early, it suits their style. Without Van Aert, van der Poel is now the big favourite to win the race, all eyes will be on him.
As we’ve seen over the years, it’s impossible to predict when the race winning move will go, it can happen at any point in the final 60km. What we know is this, the Koppenberg will be used to make an initial selection, it’s such a difficult climb. After this, we’ll see more selections on the Kwaremont and Paterberg. Whoever gets up the road has a big chance of staying away, it all depends on who has riders to chase. I think it’s pretty clear we’ll see Ineos, Jumbo-Visma and QuickStep looking to get ahead of the race, forcing van der Poel and Pogačar into chasing. Teams with numbers must use them, they always need to be in the front group, otherwise they’ll need to waste their riders on chasing moves. The Tour of Flanders isn’t just a bike race, it’s also a chess match.
Mathieu van der Poel – he’s not 100% yet, but incredibly, he can still win this race. After taking his time recovering from his back injury, he was fast tracked into Sanremo. He followed that up by racing Coppi Bartali, before winning on Wednesday in Dwars door Vlaanderen. This race will be a big test for his back, hopefully he doesn’t feel any pain throughout the race. His team aren’t as strong as some, which means they need to ride an attacking race to try and drop other domestiques. They were keen on opening up the race with 90km to go on Wednesday, this is a squad that don’t follow the usual rules of cycling. The best scenario for van der Poel is a race that develops into a fight between the very best, especially if no one has a teammate in the front group. Last year he lost the sprint to Asgreen, it will be fascinating to see what happens between the two of them this year.
Tadej Pogačar – his first Flanders, I don’t expect him to win. He’s clearly very strong just now, but his team isn’t very good. The constant rush for position means you need help moving up the bunch, it’s very hard to do by yourself. Pogačar clearly has great legs, he was very close to shutting down the gap to the front group on Wednesday, but this is a different beast.
Kasper Asgreen – his performance last year lives long in my mind; he was simply outstanding. Recent races haven’t gone his way, but he’s always been at the front. He made the front split in E3 but had to cover a lot of attacks by the Jumbo-Visma 3. In Gent-Wevelgem we saw him attacking on multiple occasions, he’s clearly got good legs just now. The problem in these races was a lack of teammates in key moments, something I expect to be better in this race. He can win solo, and last year showed he can also win from a sprint, I’m excited to see how he approaches the finale of the race.
Christophe Laporte – 2nd in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, he’s loving his time with Jumbo-Visma. Given his current form, it’s hard to see him not making the front group, especially considering the way he’s climbing. Jumbo-Visma will hope that they have two cards to play in the closing stages, that would give them a massive advantage over the other teams. Laporte packs a very fast sprint, but he also has a big TT engine, don’t expect him to simply wait and hope for a reduced sprint.
Tiesj Benoot – I’ve watched Tiesj closely for many years, I get the sense he’s on the verge of a huge result. He started the season in flying form, dropping most of the peloton on the Berendries in Omloop. Unfortunately, he was involved in the huge crash in Strade Bianche, where he got a nasty cut on his knee. This put him out of action for a few weeks, but his return in E3 was perhaps better than expected. He backed this up by making the front group in Gent-Wevelgem, before finishing 2nd in Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. That day he was in a poor position when the elastic snapped but managed to make up a lot of ground near the top of the climb and made the split. In the closing stages we saw him take control of the race, I’ll be honest, I thought he had won it. Moving to Jumbo-Visma has been brilliant for Tiesj, he’s now at a team that seems to understand him and how to get the best out of him.
Stefan Küng – he’s been so impressive this season, always making the front group. He’s one of the riders who’ll be looking to get up the road, before the main action kicks off behind. E3 is a good form guide for Flanders, Küng was 3rd that day. He’ll approach the race with confidence, I think he’s hit a new level this year, he’ll be one of the riders in the mix for the win.
Tom Pidcock – it’s very hard to predict how he’ll react to this race. Stomach issues hampered him in Milano-Sanremo, but his performance on Wednesday was encouraging. Ineos have a strong team, they’ll be one of the squads looking to animate the race and put pressure on van der Poel. If Pidcock is at his best, he can challenge for the win.
Matej Mohorič – 1st in Sanremo, 4th in E3 and 9th in Gent-Wevelgem, it’s been an impressive run of results for the Slovenian. In E3, I thought he looked on his limit on the climbs, that would make me a little worried about his chances here. He knows that the big favourites will drop him last time up the Pater, he’s one of many riders who needs to get ahead of the main group, before the big action kicks off.
Jasper Stuyven – 4th last year, Stuyven is currently flying under the radar, I’ve not seen many mention him as a contender for this race. He made the initial split in E3, and he was also in the front group fighting for the win in Gent-Wevelgem. Trek – Segafredo arrive with a strong team, Stuyven will be looking to attack relatively early and see if he can hold on when others bridge across to him.
All it takes is one win to turn a crisis into a brilliant year. I’ll take a win for Kasper Asgreen.