Preview: Your guide to the 2020 men’s Tour of Flanders

There were rumours it would be called off due to COVID-19, but as things currently stand, the 2020 Tour of Flanders is going ahead this Sunday. Here’s what you should know about the 104th men’s edition of Belgium’s biggest bike race. Follow the link for our…

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There were rumours it would be called off due to COVID-19, but as things currently stand, the 2020 Tour of Flanders is going ahead this Sunday. Here’s what you should know about the 104th men’s edition of Belgium’s biggest bike race. Follow the link for our preview of the women’s race.

The course

As with Gent-Wevelgem last weekend and Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, race organiser Flanders Classics opted not to publicly reveal the course for this year’s Tour of Flanders. “Given the current health situation in Belgium, we as [an] organisation call on you to follow the race at home,” the race’s website says. “It was therefore decided not to release any information about the course.”

Indeed no fans are allowed at the course’s most popular spots, including the start in Antwerp, the finish in Oudenaarde, the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, the Koppenberg and so on. Fines will reportedly be issued for those that turn up.

We mightn’t know the exact nature of the course, but thanks to an earlier news item on the race website, we do know the most important parts. The race has been shortened from its usual length of roughly 270 km down to 241 km, “To provide the teams and riders with enough opportunity to rest between the races that will follow each other in rapid succession in October.” As a result of the change, the Tenbosse and the legendary Muur van Geraadsbergen will not feature in this year’s race.

We won’t be seeing this in this year’s race, sadly. Not only has the Muur been removed from the course, but there won’t be any big crowds.

The now familiar final 50 km of the race is set to remain intact though. The Koppenberg will feature “followed by the cobblestones of the Mariaborrestraat, Steenbeekdries and Taaienberg.” The race’s two final climbs will be the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg as they have been for several years now.

From the top of the Paterberg it’s 13 km of mostly flat roads to the finish.

Here’s how last year’s profile looked. This year’s seems likely to be much the same, albeit with some changes two-thirds of the way through the race.

How it might unfold

Even with the distance reduction, this is still a long and very hard race. The cobbled climbs are where ‘De Ronde’ is usually decided. Expect plenty of attacks inside the final 50 km as the favourites start to make their presence felt up front.

The Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are likely to play host to the most decisive attacks. The race will already be down to a select subset of the peloton by that point, and it will split up even further on the final two bergs.

History tells us that the race is likely to be won by a solo rider or from a very small group. Of the past 10 editions, six were won solo, one was won from a group of two, two finished with a group of three, and one had four sprinting for the win. Yep: it’s a hard and selective race.

The contenders

When considering the favourites for Sunday’s race, there are two riders who come to mind immediately: Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). The Dutchman and the Belgian have had plenty of battles on the cyclocross track — they have three world titles each — but we still haven’t seen them race head-to-head on the road, at full strength, all that often. Both are absolutely peaking for this race.

Both riders are in scintillating form, having done incredible things this season. Van Aert won Strade Bianche solo then won Milan-San Remo in a two-up sprint. He won a stage of the Dauphine, the Belgian ITT title, then two sprint stages at the Tour de France. He was also second in the Worlds time trial and second in the Worlds road race.

Van Aert beating Julian Alaphilippe at Milan-San Remo this year.

Van der Poel took a little longer to get going this year, but won the Dutch road race title with an impressive 44 km solo move, he won a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico with a late attack on the uphill finish, and then he won the BinckBank Tour courtesy of an outrageous 50 km solo attack on the final stage.

Both riders are brilliant at getting away solo, and they’re both strong enough to win a bunch sprint, let alone a sprint from a small group (which is much more likely on Sunday). On paper, one of these two is likely to win on Sunday. Predicting which one, well, that’s another matter.

Van der Poel on his way to a great stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico.

Van der Poel has the better record at Flanders — he was fourth last year in his debut edition, even after a crash, while Van Aert has “only” managed ninth and 14th in his two visits. If forced to choose I’d probably say Van der Poel is slightly more likely to win, given he seems more willing to attack from much further out the Van Aert. Maybe that gives him another card to play on the day. But really, who knows.

It’s worth noting what happened between the pair at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend. Both Van der Poel and Van Aert were in the lead group when the winning move went with a few kilometres to go. Each was seemingly more concerned with stopping the other from winning than they were with taking the risk of helping their rival bridge across. It’s going to be fascinating to see whether the same happens again at Flanders.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is on debut in Flanders but he’s got a great shot at victory. He comes in with enviable form having won Brabantse Pijl, gone close at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, won the Road World Championships, and taken a great stage win at the Tour de France.

On paper, Alaphilippe should be fine on the climbs, and he should be able to match the inevitable accelerations of Van Aert and Van der Poel. If it comes to a sprint and those guys are there, Alaphilippe might struggle (see Milan-San Remo this year), but then he might not (see Brabantse Pijl).

Ideally, Alaphilippe will look to get away on his own on the Paterberg with around 13 km to go. This is roughly the distance the Frenchman attacked from to win stage 2 of this year’s Tour, stage 3 of last year’s Tour, and this year’s Worlds.

Note too that, as usual, Alaphilippe has a great team around him. Zdenek Stybar, Kasper Asgreen (second last year), Bob Jungels, Yves Lampaert — that’s a lot of strong guys that are capable of their own good result if ‘LouLou’ is having an off day.

Alaphilippe beat Van der Poel in a sprint at Brabantse Pijl, but only just. It probably helped the Frenchman that Van der Poel got boxed in.

Speaking of world champions, Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) deserves to be in the conversation on Sunday. His second place in the 2018 edition (behind Niki Terpstra) was a breakout performance and he’s only improved since then.

It’s a shame he didn’t get to contest Flanders in the rainbow bands (thanks to coronavirus) but his form is certainly in the right place for Sunday. He won a stage and took a second at the BinckBank Tour earlier this month and last weekend he won Gent-Wevelgem from a small group.

Unfortunately Pedersen had to quit Scheldeprijs on Wednesday with a hamstring ailment so hopefully he’s fine for Sunday. If he is, he’s a great chance. His best bet is probably from a small group, but a solo win is well within his range too.

Pedersen winning Gent-Wevelgem last weekend.

Matteo Trentin (CCC) was in the winning move with Pedersen at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend (and when Pedersen won Worlds last year!) and ended up third. He looked very strong throughout the day and is clearly hungry for Classics success.

The Italian is yet to win with CCC — what better way to break the drought than by winning Flanders? His best result so far is 13th. Based on current form he should easily improve on that come Sunday. Like Pedersen his best chance of victory is probably from a small group, so long as he’s the fastest finisher there. Otherwise he might have to get a bit more creative.

Trentin on the cobbles of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier this year.

Judging by his recent results, Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos) is on track for a strong Ronde. Fourth at Worlds, sixth at Fleche-Wallonne, 10th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, sixth at Brabantse Pijl, and all after a stage win at the Tour de France. It was at Flanders back in 2013 that Kwiatkowski really made a name for himself, but, surprisingly, he’s never finished higher than 27th. We can expect that to change on Sunday.

Like so many of the riders above, ‘Kwiato’ has a couple relevant strings to his bow: he can go it alone if the opportunity arises, and he can win from a small group too. Note that Kwiatkowski has a strong Ineos team around him as well: Gianni Moscon (fifth at Paris-Roubaix), Luke Rowe (fifth in 2016) and Dylan van Baarle (a fourth and a sixth) are all proven Classics performers.

Kwiatkowski (right) winning stage 18 of the recent Tour de France.

Stefan Kung (Groupama-FDJ): The Swiss powerhouse has been quite impressive in recent weeks with third in the Worlds ITT, third overall at the BinckBank Tour, then fifth at Gent-Wevelgem. Based on how he’s been riding, we can probably expect him to be in the mix late in proceedings. If he’s going to win, he’ll almost certainly need to go it alone. Don’t rule that out.

Of course, I need to mention last year’s winner, Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling). He was a surprise winner last year, but he wouldn’t be this time around. His form’s heading in the right direction too: he was fourth at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday from the winning group. He’ll probably need to go solo again if he’s to win back-to-back titles. That said, he mightn’t be given as much freedom this time …

Alberto Bettiol made his move on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont to win in 2019.

Note that at the time of writing, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) was unsure about whether he’d start, after breaking some ribs and tearing a ligament in his shoulder in a crash at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He’s said he won’t take the start just to make up the numbers, so if he does start, definitely keep an eye out for him. He’s got eight top-10s at De Ronde, including three podium finishes without a win.

The outsiders

As Bettiol showed last year, it’s not always the big favourites that win at Flanders. Sometimes its a smaller-name rider who can take advantage of the race situation. There are many riders that could feature in this way come Sunday. Here are some of them.

Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) won this race back in 2015 when he got clear with Niki Terpstra. He’s not as strong now as he was then, but as he showed on stage 1 of the Tour de France we definitely shouldn’t be writing him off yet. He’s probably unlikely to win it, but his best chance of doing so is from a small-group sprint.

Kristoff winning the 2015 edition.

Speaking of Terpstra (Direct Energie), the Dutchman went on to win the race in 2018 (solo). A bad crash in training back in June has derailed his 2020 season and another win would be a surprise, but he knows how to race De Ronde and on his day he can be very dangerous.

Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) is one of those riders that seems to be perpetually close to a big one-day win without actually getting one. His seventh last year was his best Flanders result and he’s certainly capable of improving on that if the race unfolds in his favour. He’s not the strongest soloist nor the best sprinter, but the podium is certainly a possibility.

Naesen won the final stage of last year’s BinckBank Tour.

Tiesj Benoot (Sunweb) has been nibbling away at a good Flanders result — his three finishes in the race are fifth, eighth, and a ninth last year. He was eighth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege a few weeks back so he’s clearly in good form. A late solo dig would likely be his best bet.

Another rider with three Flanders top-10s without a win is John Degenkolb (Lotto-Soudal). Like Kristoff, the German’s very best is seemingly behind him, but a seventh at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend suggests he could play a role on Sunday.

Degenkolb’s compatriot Nils Politt (Israel Start-Up Nation) is a rider who seems destined for a big win in the Classics but who hasn’t quite got there yet. He was fifth in last year’s Ronde (and second at Paris-Roubaix) and would love to improve on that in 2020. His results haven’t been spectacular in recent weeks, but Flanders is a different beast to just about anything else on the calendar.

You should also keep an eye on Soren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb). The Dane had a breakout Tour de France, winning two stages solo with late attacks, and very nearly won the BinckBank Tour after taking out the stage 4 ITT. It took a rampaging Van der Poel to dislodge Kragh Andersen from the top of the GC at the last possible moment.

The 26-year-old has only been average at De Ronde before — finishes of 53th, 74th and two DNFs — but he’s clearly stepped up a level in his rides this year …

How to watch

If you’re in Australia you’ll want to check out coverage via SBS TV and its digital platforms, or Eurosport and its online platforms. Eurosport is a great option in many European markets and the UK too, while viewers in the US and Canada should be able to get coverage via FloBikes.

[ct_highlight_box_start]Click through for our preview of the 2020 women’s Tour of Flanders.[ct_highlight_box_end]

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