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At least that’s according to Lotto-Soudal, whose riders and staffers believe the race will be even more unpredictable and attack-laden than ever.
“On paper, not having Wout in the race will offer more possibilities for us, but everyone else will be thinking the same thing.” said Florian Vermeersch, second in Paris-Roubaix last year. “Everyone will want to open up the race much earlier. It’s unpredictable about who will try to control the race now, although Jumbo-Visma still brings a very strong team.”
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Speaking during a press conference Friday, members of Lotto-Soudal’s classics team said the likely absence of pre-race favorite van Aert, who is suffering with health problems, could see a Tour of Flanders without a clear center of gravity.
With teams like Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl also struggling to hit dominant form, there could be a major power vacuum at the center of the elite men’s race Sunday.
“I expect a race that opens up early,” said Lotto-Soudal sport director Nikolas Maes. “That’s the trend from the past few years. With Pogačar and van der Poel in the race, we have two favorites who don’t have a team to fall back on. That means they don’t want to wait and give other teams a chance to attack, so they are going to try to attack and open up the race early.
“The absence of Wout van Aert is important,” he said. “Everyone is going to adapt. That means less from us, because we do not have the top favorite. But other teams are going to have to more pressure on their shoulders.”
Lotto-Soudal chasing podiums and points across the spring
Tim Wellens said he is racing Flanders in part to put in some hard miles ahead of Amstel Gold Race and the Ardennes classics, where he hopes to be on the front line favorites.
Wellens also said he expects Flanders to open early because riders will be trying to get a head start on riders like van der Poel and Quick-Step’s Kasper Asgreen, who also vows to be aggressive.
“The problem is half the pack will try to anticipate,” Wellens said. “There are not too many riders who can follow van der Poel when he attacks, and the leading group at Dwars does not lie. The weather could be another factor. If it’s 5C or 15C, it doesn’t matter, but as soon as it starts to rain, that’s another story.”
There’s also another race to watch this weekend. The Belgian team is among several squads chasing results and chasing points this spring as part of a season-long battle for supremacy in the WorldTour.
With the next round of WorldTour licenses up for bids at the end of 2022, end-of-season rankings and points could be a decisive factor if there is a surplus of teams trying to enter cycling’s top league.
Lotto-Soudal lost sprinter Caleb Ewan to illness ahead of Milan-San Remo, where the Aussie was a five-star favorite for victory.
Despite his breakout Roubaix performance last year, Vermeersch is struggling with health issues this spring and has yet to deliver a confirming result so far this spring.
All eyes will turn to Victor Campenaerts, who’s been one of the team’s most consistent performers this spring, with fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, sixth at Le Samyn, and fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen. The Belgian, however, was quick to play down his chances Sunday.
“Fourth at Dwars doesn’t make me a favorite for De Ronde,” he said. “I lack the stamina to go the distance at Flanders.”