The race around the region of Flanders in northern Belgium has almost a mythical status in road cycling. Many races take in the area and it's a staple of any preparation for the monument to include the cobbled semi-classics. Races like E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Omloop het Nieuwsblad take on extra significance as indicators for the 'Ronde van Vlaanderen'.
The 2017 Tour of Flanders will be broadcast 2 April on SBS Viceland and streamed live on Cycling Central from 9.20 pm AEDT.
All the climbs that make up the Tour of Flanders route have been seen before already and the course has largely remained the same from last year's race. The final 75 kilometres is exactly the same as last year and again, it looks like the double punch of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg is again set to be the scene of a lot of the action. It is the Tour of Flanders though and attacks can come at any moment and inattention is punished severely.
It seems crude and simplistic to break down a race that contains 18 climbs, 260 kilometres total distance covered and 202 riders as a race between two. Nonetheless, the dominant narrative heading into the Ronde has been the anticipation of the rivalry between the Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Sagan will clip in at the start as defending champion after out-duelling Fabian Cancellara last year in a performance for the ages and as always comes into the race seemingly in a great position to win. Of course he is a perennial contender to win any race that he lines up in and it seems that he has been feeling that pressure more in recent weeks.
At Milan San Remo, he remarked that Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) owed him a beer after sitting on his wheel in the final kilometres to take the final victory in the sprint before getting worked up over Niki Terpstra’s (QuickStep Floors) lack of cooperation at Gent-Wevelgem when van Avermaet and Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) made the race-winning move.
Van Avermaet is a very different character to the bombastic Slovak, as reserved as Sagan is out-going, but he comes into the race with supreme confidence after taking out a unique triptych of semi-classic races. Omloop het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem have all ended up in wins for the Belgian star and he’s coming into the Ronde van Vlaanderen with arguably the best form of his life.
Last year’s race ended in tears by the side of the road, nursing a broken collarbone and shattered dreams. He’ll get a chance to make amends this year and looks in supreme shape to do so. Going up against Sagan won’t faze van Avermaet, he is one of a select few that will back himself in a sprint after 250 kilometres against the world champion and by no means will he just sit back and wait for a bunch kick.
The problem that both the favourites will share is that they are 200 other riders on the startlist equally keen to see themselves win the race and they don’t have the strongest teams to support their bid. Other riders will feel that they have a great chance at causing an upset as van Avermaet and Sagan can’t afford to chase down every move and it could well be a surprise winner that spoils the party for the big names.
Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) is the great Australian hope in the race, his form in the last month of classics has been nothing short of outstanding and he’s confirmed that he deserves to be mentioned in the top echelon of contenders for the race. A sixth at Strade Bianche was followed by two fourths in Dwars dor Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke and his form is topping off nicely with a series of strong showing in Drieesdage de Panne over the last few days.
The power which once saw Durbridge regarded as one of the top time-triallists going around has been put to good use with his improved grit and endurance and it’s got to the point where he could spring a surprise over the more established classics stars. He will have to arrive at the finish solo, the Australian has never been renowned as having a great turn of pace in a sprint.
The strongest team in the race will be the Belgian squad QuickStep Floors who boast former three-time winner Tom Boonen along with a squad of hopefuls. Boonen is reaching the end of his career but still has plenty of fight left in him and it would be folly to expect anything less than a full gas effort from ‘Tommeke’.
He will be aided by Niki Terpstra, who finished second in 2015 and has been in the Top 10 four times in the past five editions. Terpstra is arguably the most consistent rider in Flanders, a race where ill-chance and missed opportunity mar even the most blessed riders. Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar and Phillipe Gilbert are all other potential winners and the QuickStep Floors squad will be very unhappy if they aren’t at the pointy end of the race with multiple options for the win.
The other Belgian squad, Lotto Soudal, will be keen to show their numbers in any final split as well. They don’t quite have the pedigree or sheer numbers of QuickStep but they have a bit more of the surprise factor about them and an aggressive mindset that should serve them well. 23 year-old Tiesj Benoot came from nowhere in 2015 to finish fifth as a neo-pro and will deservedly take leadership into the race here after consistent showings so far this season. With names like Jurgen Roelandts, Andre Greipel and Jens Debusschere alongside him, expect the red colours of Lotto Soudal to have a significant impact in shaping the race, particular if they work with QuickStep.
2015 winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) may not be the rider everyone is talking about heading into the race but that is when the big Norwegian performs at his best. He surprised to win his first monument at Milan San Remo then caught everyone except Niki Terpstra napping with a superb attack in Flanders to win in convincing fashion.
He looks to be coming into good form, his fourth at Milan San Remo has been franked with good showings at Drieesdage de Panne and he’ll be a dark horse. He’s said in the past that he prefers the hellingen of Flanders over the pave of Roubaix in a week’s time, so it would be little surprise if Kristoff is aiming to peak his form here.
The other sprinter-come-classics specialist is John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo). Conversely to Kristoff, he’s a bigger fan of the Northern France cobbles than the ones in Belgium but it wouldn’t be smart to write him off either way. His comeback from the horrific collision with a car in early 2015 has been slowly gaining momentum and this will be the first proper peak of form for the German. He’ll be utterly determined to make up for lost time and there are few as gritty and determined as Degenkolb in the hard races.
The 153.3 kilometre women’s event will have its own live stream and hopefully the host broadcaster switches over to live pictures whilst the men’s race is still getting going to watch the decisive kilometres in the finale. From an Australian perspective, it should prove to be great viewing as Orica-Scott has been racing with a very attacking mindset over the spring classics season.
The Australian squad is the team that consistently is the one making it tough over the climbs and trying to instigate moves. Gracie Elvin and Dutch star Annemiek van Vleuten will be their strongest cards going into the event and will be right at home in any elite selection in the closing stages of the race.
The field is without a standout favourite this year, Boels-Dolmans haven’t been the dominant powerhouse of previous years and there isn’t the domination of a name like Marianne Vos (WM3 Energie) or Lizzie Deignan (Boels-Dolmans).
Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) probably deserves top billing as a former winner and one of the most consistent performers in Flanders over recent seasons. Her dramatic Strade Bianche win was a while ago however, and she hasn’t been in quite the same form since.
That will open the race up for names like Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3 Energie), Ellena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM) Ellen van Dijk and Lucinda Brand (both Sunweb). Maybe even a strong sprinter like Lotta Lepisto (Cervelo-Bigla), Amalie Didereksen (Boels-Dolmans), Chloe Hosking (Ale Cippolini), Jolien D’Hoore (Wiggle High5) or Coryn Rivera (Sunweb) can survive the cobbled climbs and make everyone else in the field nervous about taking them to a reduced bunch finish.
Regardless of the name that crosses the line first, the Ronde van Vlaanderen always throws up action, melodrama and nail-biting racing and is rightly regarded as one of the best days of racing on the calendar.