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Cancellara is top favorite heading into Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen

We make our case for the main contenders in the Tour of Flanders field, and conclude that “Spartacus” is the man to beat

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The 97th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) rolls out from the markt square in Brugge, Belgium, on Sunday morning. The peloton, headed by a single five-star favorite in Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) will face a route of 256 kilometers, with 17 climbs in the Flemish Ardennes and seven cobbled sectors. The final battle of the true contenders should come on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs, which each feature three times in the race’s hectic finishing circuits.

These are the men we expect to see at the head of affairs late Sunday afternoon.

Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) ★★★★★
Though he’s only won De Ronde once — while Tom Boonen has won it three times, and Stijn Devolder has done so twice — Fabian Cancellara will take the start of De Ronde on Sunday morning in Brugge as the overwhelming pre-race favorite. Why? Because prior wins matter less than current form, and the form of one’s opponents, and in this context, Cancellara appears to have no rival.

When the RadioShack rider attacked on the Oude Kwaremont during the E3 Harelbeke last Friday, the rest of the peloton was powerless to do anything. Even an on-form Peter Sagan (Cannondale) could only drop his head and stare down at his front wheel as the rider known as “Spartacus” powered away and gained time over the subsequent 35 kilometers. Boonen, who has struggled after a turbulent off-season, dropped back into a second chase group, later saying he’d simply bonked. Either way, it was an attack reminiscent of Cancellara’s superhuman strength that saw him sweep Harelbeke, Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix in 2010, and a reminder that, while the Swiss star is often faulted for trying to win on brute strength alone, it’s a winning tactic when he has the legs to back it up.

With three trips over the 2.2km Kwaremont at De Ronde, followed by the shorter, steeper Paterberg, Cancellara will have ample opportunity to repeat his demonstration of power on Sunday. And if Harelbeke was any indication, there may be little the rest of the field can do other than regroup and hope to pull him back in the final kilometers.

In 2012 Cancellara left the race on a stretcher after crashing in a feedzone and breaking his collarbone, completely altering the complexion of the cobbled classics and opening the door for Boonen to win Flanders and Roubaix. After a week in the yellow jersey in July, his Olympic bid was also foiled by a late-race crash that ended his road race and ruined his medal hopes in the time trial. For a champion of Cancellara’s caliber, that’s a difficult pill to swallow, and it’s clear he spent his off-season focused on snagging victories at the classics. In the absence of a crash or ill-timed puncture, this year Cancellara is likely to leave De Ronde a two-time champion, and a five-star favorite to take a third Roubaix victory one week later. —NEAL ROGERS

Peter Sagan (Cannondale) ★★★★
This isn’t a hard case to make. Peter Sagan is on fire right now, having won Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday with a four-kilometer solo attack from a small group and toyed with the field on Tuesday in the opening stage of VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde.

He’s been on the cusp of classics success for what seemed like ages, given his talent (and media coverage), though he’s only logged one full campaign, in 2012. He finished fourth in Milano-Sanremo, second at Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth at Flanders, and third in the Amstel Gold Race one year ago. He’s shown sharp form this year, winning two stages at the Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico and finishing second at Milano-Sanremo and E3 Harelbeke, but the more important indication we’ve gotten from Sagan’s early-season classics romp is that with a year to reflect on the Flemish hellingen, the Slovak champion is arriving to the finales in better position than in 2012.

Obviously, Peter Sagan can win bike races. But can he win this race? Clearly, things change in a race as lumpy — and long — as Flanders, at 256km. He will likely be in the selection once it’s made, as will his chief rival for this cobbled monument, Fabian Cancellara. Sagan has proven the more crafty racer as of late, and has a much faster finishing sprint. Cancellara can churn out devastating power numbers for greater distances.

Both those riders’ strengths have been in play when they’ve gone head-to-head. In stage 1 of last year’s Tour de France, Sagan jumped on the wheel of “Spartacus” when he attacked on the 2.4km, 4.7-percent Côte de Seraing — textbook Cancellara. Sagan won his first Tour stage that day, ignoring Cancellara’s pleas for him to pull through before sprinting for the win.

Cancellara won in Harelbeke on Friday after he got clear of Sagan and the other contenders over the top of the Oude Kwaremont. Cancellara was at his best and should be again on Sunday. The only question is if Sagan can hold his wheel on the climbs and arrive on the Minderbroadersstraat with a shot at a sprint. —MATTHEW BEAUDIN

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) ★★★
At 32, Tom Boonen has reached the point in his career that the only races that count are now. This week. And more specifically, two Sundays in late March/early April: Flanders and Roubaix. Forget field sprinting, or any pretenses of winning another Tour green jersey. The spring classics are what get Boonen’s pulse racing these days.

The man from Mol, Belgium, has had a rough ride so far this year, hampered by an infection dating back to a January mountain bike crash. A crash at Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday further handicapped a season marked by a race against time to catch up on form before the week that counts.

Will he be ready? That’s the million-dollar question that even Boonen has said he won’t know the answer to until crunch time in the marathon, six-hour stampedes across the bergs and pavé. But it would be an error to count him out for a Vlaanderen revival on Sunday.

Seventh at E3 Harelbeke, and hard work at the front in the opening two stages of De Panne, provided tell-tale signs that “Tornado Tom” might be coming into form. Both Cancellara and Sagan have emphatically put their cards on the table with huge wins last week. Tommeke’s been holding his cards very close to his chest.

Flanders is a race where there is no place to hide. You have it or you don’t. The world will find out if he’s bluffing as De Ronde turns into the final hour of racing. History says Boonen, a three-time Flanders champion, will be there. —ANDREW HOOD

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) ★★★
On the cusp. That’s how best to describe Sylvain Chavanel at the classics, both in 2012 and 2013. He comes into the Ronde van Vlaanderen having shown consistent form — fourth at Milano-Sanremo, sixth at E3 Harelbeke, fifth overall at Paris-Nice, and fresh off a stage win and overall title at Three Days of De Panne — but remains without a big one-day victory. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

The same pattern took shape last year: Chavanel took the overall victory at Three Days of De Panne only to fall short at De Ronde, a race he said on Thursday that he does not prioritize, slotting into 10th. But team dynamics at Omega Pharma are markedly different in 2013. Tom Boonen is not untouchable as he was in 2012; a recent crash and knee injury haven’t helped the Belgian star to bolster his status as undisputed team leader. Thus, Boonen and Chavanel take to the cobbles of Flanders looking to be more equal than not. Throw in the ever-strong teammate Niki Terpstra and you have the makings of a three-pronged attack.

Still, Chavanel has proven that he can come close all on his own. He was second in 2011 behind the crafty Nick Nuyens, and ahead of Cancellara and Boonen. If circumstances arise where Chavanel finds himself alone at the front with only those closing flat 10km between himself and victory, his time trialing acumen — he obliterated the field in Thursday’s short TT at De Panne — is sure to be of great benefit. It’s something difficult to imagine, but strange things do happen along 256km of Belgian roads. Will Chavanel remain on the cusp, or will he finally close the deal? —CHRIS CASE

Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) ★★★
With a kilometer to race in 2012, the Tour of Flanders was Filippo Pozzato’s to lose. Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) had twice attacked and Tom Boonen had burned matches chasing down the Italian. But Pozzato did just that — “The Shadow” lost Flanders by half-a-wheel to Boonen.

Pozzato’s embarrassing false celebration at Roma Maxima earlier this month, his three-month ban by CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee, in late 2012 over his association with doping Svengali Dr. Michele Ferrari, and his botched 2012 Ronde leadout can’t but energize the Italian this Sunday.

The 31-year-old Pozzato knows how to win on the cobbled climbs and beyond.
Over his 13-year career he’s stood on the top step at Milano-Sanremo, Omloop Het Volk, E3 Harelbeke, and Tirreno-Adriatico, and has won stages at the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. Sunday will show whether Pozzato can channel the fury of his 2012 disappointments into victory — or remain in the shadows of riders like Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. —MARK JOHNSON

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) ★★★
Another consistent spring campaign brings Greg Van Avermaet to De Ronde with a chance for a real upset. Last year, after a string of top-five finishes in the spring classics, he could do no better than fourth at Flanders, best of the chasers. This spring he has steadily presented a late threat, coming fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, sixth at Strade Bianche, and third at Ghent-Wevelgem. But BMC Racing’s Belgian captain hasn’t been able to close the deal, despite making the final selection in countless one-day races.

With teammates Taylor Phinney and Philippe Gilbert not taking the start, and Thor Hushovd lacking any signs of his former self, Van Avermaet goes in without the distraction of team dynamics or co-leadership. This may be his time. The presence of an on-form Daniel Oss, as well as seasoned veterans Marcus Burghardt, Manuel Quinziato, and Michael Schär, means the team should be capable of protecting Van Avermaet and positioning him well for the finale. Look for the Belgian to animate the race late, and use his craftiness and sprint prowess to either upset the bigger favorites, or once again finish just off the podium. —CHRIS CASE

Geraint Thomas (Sky) ★★★
The 26-year-old Welshman is a former world champion and Olympic gold medalist on the track, a former junior champion at Paris-Roubaix, and one of the hottest names of the early season in 2013. He showed his class on the pavé in stage 3 of the 2010 Tour de France, which used seven sections of Paris-Roubaix cobbles, finishing second on the stage behind Thor Hushovd and riding into the best young rider’s jersey.

Thomas was 10th in the 2011 Tour of Flanders, but spent the spring of 2012 focused on his Olympic track program. An untimely crash dropped him from contention on the Cipressa at Milano-Sanremo earlier this month, but Thomas has logged two fourth-place finishes in Belgium this year, in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke.

With Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ian Stannard by his side, Thomas could take advantage of a likely Sagan/Cancellara duel to launch himself onto the podium in Oudenaarde. —BRIAN HOLCOMBE

Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) ★★★
The party boy is back in Belgium and means business. Since finishing second at Flanders and Milano-Sanremo and winning a Tour de France stage in 2009, Heinrich Haussler has had little to celebrate. A quadriceps injury plagued him in early 2010 before a May drunk driving incident, a violent crash with Mark Cavendish at the Tour de Suisse, and a subsequent move to Garmin after his Cervélo TestTeam folded. The German-Australian toiled in relative anonymity for almost three years.

Enter IAM Cycling, the new Swiss Pro Continental team, and Haussler is back at the head of racing this spring. He was 13th at Milano-Sanremo, 11th at E3 Harelbeke, and fourth at Ghent-Wevelgem, after forcing the final selection in the latter. Haussler’s stock is rising and he could very well benefit on Sunday from the attention paid to Cancellara and Sagan.

Can Haussler beat Sagan in a small group sprint after 256km of racing? We don’t know. He’s certainly not the top favorite for a Flanders win, but the uncertainty in the Flemish Ardennes is one of the characteristics that make De Ronde arguably the single best day of racing on the calendar. —BRIAN HOLCOMBE

Matti Breschel (Saxo-Tinkoff) ★★★
Rewind back to the 2010 classics season, in the days just prior to De Ronde, and few would have believed that, three years later, Matti Breschel would have yet to appear on the podium at the Tour of Flanders. That classics season belonged to Saxo Bank, with Breschel winning at Dwars door Vlaanderen and puncturing out of an eight-man group at Ghent-Wevelgem; even race winner Bernhard Eisel claimed the Dane was the strongest man at the front of the race.

Over the next two weeks, Breschel’s teammate Fabian Cancellara went on to win both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. A botched bike change during that Tour of Flanders, where Breschel was mistakenly given Stuart O’Grady’s spare bike while the lead team car followed Cancellara, was the beginning of the end of his tenure at Saxo. Breschel crossed the line at Flanders in 15th, furious, and for the 2011 season he moved to Rabobank. His transfer to the Dutch squad for 2011 was anything but smooth. He required knee surgery, with an extended recovery period that prevented him from contesting the 2011 classics. Last year, with Rabobank, he took third at Ghent-Wevelgem and ninth at De Ronde, but thus far this year ― now back at Saxo ― his classics results have been mediocre, with 13th at Ghent-Wevelgem and 52nd at E3 Harelbeke. —NEAL ROGERS

★★ Favorites
John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano)
Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM)
Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol)
Ian Stannard (Sky)
Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

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