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KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — The wave of illnesses and sickness continues to pour unabated across the peloton, and some of the biggest names in the spring classics could be KO’d going into Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Riders across the elite men’s peloton say staying healthy is the first and most important key to having any chance of winning the Tour of Flanders.
“If you want to come to the classics, you need to be 100 percent. So if you are at 98 percent, you’re struggling,” Bora-Hansgrohe’s Marco Haller told VeloNews. “I was out with COVID two weeks before Tirreno-Adriatico. And that was an important part of the classics preparation and I am chasing back. If you’re not at 100 percent, it’s difficult against the main contenders.”
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Nearly every major team is getting zapped by illnesses and sickness at alarming rates.
Israel-Premier Tech is just one of many, and two riders were last-minute non-starters ahead of Dwars door Vlaanderen, leaving the already bereft team with just three riders to start Wednesday’s mid-week classic.
“We were already five and now we are down to three,” Israel-Premier Tech’s Hugo Houle told VeloNews. “The team is looking at it and how we can improve. We are struggling and we will do our best to fight back from those health problems.”
Houle, 31, ended up being the sole survivor at Paris-Nice, and managed to finish 13th overall despite being the only rider from the team’s Paris-Nice roster to make it all the way through the final stage to Nice.
It’s an uneven balance, however. Not everyone is in the sick ward.
Any rider or team staying healthy will have a distinct advantage at Flanders and the remaining races among the spring classics.
Mathieu van der Poel, who actually missed the spring season due to a back injury, might have found a blessing in disguise with his forced stop. He raced to a morale-boosting victory Wednesday.
“I am healthy right now and I do not feel anything in my back, so that’s a good sign for Sunday,” van der Poel said. “I know many others have been sick. For me, now, it’s about keeping this shape until Flanders, and I think I will have good chances.”
The demands of the classics are so intense, anyone coming into the major races even just a little bit off peak form is automatically on the back foot.
“In these races, unless you’re 120 percent, because the level is so high, you don’t even have a chance,” Bahrain-Victorious rider Heinrich Haussler told VeloNews. “Even if you’re at 95 percent, you’re still going behind the top riders.
“The racing is super, super hard. The level is still very high right now,” Haussler said. “There are a few guys sick, but if you’re not at 100 percent, there’s no way you can be at the front.”
Trek-Segafredo’s Quinn Simmons is another example of a rider who’s been hit by the recent wave of illness. He was flying at Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, where he was attacking on several stages and won the King of the Mountains jersey.
The U.S. rider fell ill in the days after what was a very cold edition of Tirreno-Adriatico, and came into the Belgian classics trying to recover.
“Gent-Wevelgem was not good for me. Two more days of rest, so let’s see how I do,” Simmons said Wednesday at the start. “It’s three days rest until Flanders. We’ll see how I do and if I am not at the front, we might change the race program.”
Simmons did not finish his next three races, and DNF’s filled out his results sheet at E3, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Team officials confirmed to VeloNews on Thursday that Simmons would not start the Tour of Flanders.
Whoever wins Flanders might have won the race by staying healthy in the weeks and months before. For everyone else, it’s about trying to be there even if they’re not fully in ideal condition.
“We are all chasing shape,” Haller said. “The riders who are here are ready to race, but it’s been a very hard past few months for everyone.”