by Fabio Valente (twitter: @cyclingideas_)
One of the five cycling monuments, the Ronde van Vlaanderen is ready for its 102nd edition, dating its birth back to 1913. The race helds the record for the longest uninterrupted streak for a cycling race, having been raced every year since 1919. The race, one of the major cobbled classics along with Paris-Roubaix, has became through the years one of the most loved one by the cycling fans due to the great show it always put on on the Flemish roads. Also, the Ronde van Vlaanderen has now established itself as one of the symbols of the Flemish nationalism. The Muur van Geraardsbergen, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg are just some of the legendary names of the steepest hills the rider are used to face while racing for the Tour of Flanders win. No rider won this race more than three times, as six cyclists hold the record for most wins: Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw. The only active riders with at least a Flanders’ win are Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert.
Starting in Antwerp and ending as usual in Oudenaarde, this 102nd edition of the Ronde will be a 262.8km long one. The very demanding route will feature 18 climbs, all coming in the last 140 kms: between them, the frightening names of Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Taienberg, Kruisberg. All the most famous and steepest cobbled climbs find their place in the Tour of Flanders route, setting up one of the most loved and tough races of the season. Wolvenberg will be the first tough climb, 700 metres raising up to 17.3% but the riders will find it with still more than 120 km to go. The key of the race is the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combo, which will be faced two times during the race, last time with just 13 km left to the finish line. The two hills are a crucial point, as they can be the perfect terrain for a late, lethal attack from the freshier legs in the group. Paterberg is a beast which can make a huge selection: even if just 360 metres long, it averages 12.9%, with an highest gradient of 20.3%, all on cobblestones. The race will surely explode way before the last passage here, but these two last climbs may be the key moment for a winning move.
A cloudy day with good chances to have some rain drops too is on the menu of the Easter day in the Flanders. Weather should not be one of the keys of this Sunday race, as we will not have the worst of the days for a cycling event, even if temperatures will be constantly around 3-6 °C. A cold but not too windy day will be expected in the Flemish region as the landscape of the expected show brought by the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Team strenghth and contenders (prices from b365)
Top form, the ability to race on cobbles and narrow, uneven streets, great resistance, the capacity of doing strong, powerful attacks and also a good sprint are some of the required characteristics for every rider who aims for a win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Lots of competitors comes in Antwerp after racing the Doors Dwaars Vlaanderen a few days ago, which could both mean they will be more fatigued than the others but also in better shape for a long, tough race like Sunday’s one. Our analysis start with 2016 winner and odds’ favourite Peter Sagan (3/1), riding as the leader for Bora Hansgrohe Team. The slovak world champion has his eyes on this race, coming here already with a win in last week’s Gent-Wevelgem. Confidence is a key in these one-day races and Sagan has ita long with everything required to win a monument like the Flanders Tour. I give rate his chances pretty high even if his price is not very appealing, considering the amount of strong riders starting the race. Bora will try to protect him until the last climbs with trusted men Marcus Burghardt and Daniel Oss.
Maybe one of the most credited between Sagan’s enemies, Greg Van Avermaet (6/1), will look for a win in Flanders too leading the BMC Team. The belgian one-day veteran had a solid start of his home soil campaign, concluding E3, Gent-Wevelgem and DDV all in the top15. Still, he looks for his first one-day win of the season and finding it in a monument would be a nice achievement for a champion like him. He will have to cover the attacks of lots of men or even setting the perfect move himself on the last two climbs, but he will not be given lots of freedom as he is one of the most feared rider in these kind of races. He has chances but he is not my favourite one to win it.
The Quick-Step Floors armada lines up a strong 7-men team, as it usually happens in these belgian one-day classics. They won everything raced in Belgium this year except Gent-Wevelgem, so they start this Tour of Flanders as one of the main favourites too. I can see Philippe Gilbert (13/2) as their best man, both as he won with a mgnificent action last year and as he showed a nice form in the last few races. Niki Terpstra (11/1) and Zdenek Stybar (12/1) are QS’ two golden second choices: two excellent riders for these kind of races who both have chances to challenge for the win if they are given freedom to run their race. I think QS can win this one too if playing their cards in the smartest way: the peloton is full of strong riders, so tactics will be fundamental.
Two riders I like a lot for their riding style and will to attack almost every time they have a chance to, are Tiesj Benoot (9/1) and Oliver Naesen (25/1). The first one, captain of the belgian side Lotto Soudal, has been magnificent so far, winning one of the best editions of Strade Bianche and finishing top10 in both E3 and DDV. The boy has huge talent and his legs look always one of the freshiest pair in the peloton. He never fears to attack and sometimes his moves can be the right ones to follow: his price is short but I can see Tiesj fighting for the win Sunday. About Oliver Naesen, I think the AG2R captain has not been enjoying his luckiest season so far. He missed podiums for a matter of inches both in E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, while he crashed in DDV a few days ago. I think his price is massive, since he showed in his latest training rides that the crash did not affect him and that his legs are good as his body. Worth of a try for Sunday.
There’s no way to avoid Sep Vanmarcke’s name (12/1) when previewing a race like Ronde van Vlaanderen. Even if this unlucky prince of cobbles rarely wins races, the Education First-Drapac captain is always up front when the race heats up and always comes very close to the highest podium spot, often failing though. The 2018 version of Vanmarcke is maybe one of the best of the last few years and his very good placements in the first three one-day races in Belgium speak for him. I’m not sure he has what is needed to win a monument since he lacks some speed in a potential reduced sprint and also uses to spend too much energy in pointless efforts during the race. I would love to see him lifting his arms up in Oudenaarde but I do not think it will happen.
Team SKY find themselves at the start of this edition of the Ronde with at least two, if not three good shout for a good result. First choice has to be Michal Kwiatkowski (16/1), even if the pole is not in his best shape if you ask me. Still, this is a race which can suit him pretty well and his name at this price means value to me. Second choice must be shared between Gianni Moscon (33/1) and Dylan Van Baarle (66/1), even if both have been the shadow of themselves so far. Their talent and their ability of racing in tough conditions and on long distances could be enough to put them in the selected group fighting for a good placement on Sunday though. Team Bahrain Merida has clear plans for Sunday: covering breaks, trying if possible a long-range attack with Colbrelli and going all-in for Vincenzo Nibali (40/1), who will be assisted by Heinrich Haussler in the end. It could sound an overly optimistic tactic, but the italian shark is on the form of his life after his majestic triumph in MSR and his latest recognition on the Flemish cobbles look a clear proof he will be fighting for an heavy result in his first Flanders partecipation.
Team Trek-Segafredo has two horses for the Ronde, Jasper Stuyven (28/1) and John Degenkolb (66/1). If I was the team manager, I would go all for the belgian, who said he has great motivation for the race on Sunday. Stuyven has great chances to stay with the best ones and maybe even surprising them with a late move, taking advantage of the other captains covering each other. Even if he likes one-day classics, John Degenkolb does not look already fit to impress in a 263 km long race to me and I don’t think we will see him challenging for a top result on Sunday. About Team UAE, Alexander Kristoff looks to be their only chance for a result, sitting at 28/1 too. Former winner of the Ronde, the norwegian does not look even close to his best shape and I would honestly be very surprised to find him in a selected group of riders fighting for the final victory. Even if supported by a whole team and being an experienced rider, it’s a no for me.
I can’t see many chances for sides like Team Sunweb, Team Astana, Mitchelton Scott. The dutch men have Ed Theuns (150/1), Soren Kragh Andersen (200/1) and Mike Teunissen (200/1) as their best men but I fear the race could be an hard one in the end, maybe too hard for all of them, even if they all showed some very good form in DDV a few days ago, ending the race respectively in 24th, 38th and 2nd place. Team Astana’s chances shines in the solo name of Michael Valgren (33/1), even if also Alexey Lutsenko (125/1) would be a good option in a race like this one. I don’t expect a top results from both of them though. Two names catch the eye when looking at the Mitchelton Scott Team line-up and they are Matteo Trentin (25/1) and Luke Durbridge (125/1): both the italian and the aussie suffered an early injury in January but they are now focused on the part of the season they like the most. I give more credit to the italian’s chances for Sunday, even more after reading his latest words about the race. He said there are no more than about ten riders who could win Flanders this year, and he is between them.
Not so reliable long-shots paragraph features some other WT teams: Team Dimension Data has Julien Vermote and Edvald Boasson Hagen as their two race leaders. The belgian is not even priced, while the norwegian stands at 80/1 after his strong performance in DDV, ending it in 4th place. Honestly, I don’t think we will see any of them up front on Sunday, so it’s a no for me about both. Team Katusha’s lone hope is Tony Martin (80/1) but even after some efforts a few days ago I can’t see him challenging for a top result; similar talk for Lotto NL Jumbo’s Timo Roosen (100/1). No chances for Arnaud Demare (50/1) and the whole Groupama FDJ squad too.
An eye on the lower continental teams: forced mention for Wout Van Aert (33/1) for Verandas Wilems Team. The ciclocross wonderboy’s odds are every time lower than the ones he had in the previous race and that is a clear sign of the great improvements he is making even on road races. Flanders could be a bit too much for him, looking at the huge distance to be covered (263 kms) but he may surprise everyone once more. Possible surprises: Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (250/1, Team Wanty Gobert) and Alex Kirsch (400/1, WB Aqua Veranclassic)
I can’t see a large group coming together on the finish line at the end of and hard, demanding route like the Tour of Flanders’ one, so I avoid any kind of sprinter or possible surprise. I think Sagan could win this race too but I will not try him at such low odds with a lot of other strong riders all with their eyes on the win on Sunday. Instead, I will be trying my luck on some value with Michal Kwiatkowski (16/1 EW), Oliver Naesen (25/1 EW), Zdenek Stybar (12/1 EW) and TIesj Benoot (9/1 EW). About possible h2hs, I see bookies are all against Vincenzo Nibali, who could instead have a very good day on Sunday even if lacking experience in this race: Nibali to beat Boasson Hagen at 2.20 and Nibali to beat Van Aert at 2.62 and Nibali to beat Degenkolb at 2.15 all look very appealing to me Other ideas: Stybar to beat Van Aert at 1.72 and .
Good luck and thanks for reading!