This year the pressure metre is off the Richter scale.
For the classics specialists, with Paris-Roubaix COVID cancelled, this is the last big race of the year.
It’s Mathieu van der Poel versus Wout van Aert versus the rest.
The rider under the most pressure is the Mathieu van der Poel. His big targets - Amstel Gold Race and Paris-Roubaix - have both been cancelled, his team didn’t ride the Tour de France and he’s been close but not quite able to get a win in his last three races.
Meanwhile, his arch-enemy, Wout van Aert, has won Strade Bianche, Milan-Sanremo, two stages at the Tour de France and two silver medals at the world championships. It’s been a hugely successful year. He’d love to top it off with Flanders but it won’t define his season.
For Van der Poel a win this Sunday will define his season.
The Van Aert versus Van der Poel rivalry is one of the best in cycling, born during their cyclocross battles. Last weekend, at Gent-Wevelgem, it cost both of them any chance at victory.
Van Aert accused Van der Poel of riding to make sure he didn’t win. That certainly looked to be the case in the last two kilometres, as they both became totally preoccupied with each other. But before that Van der Poel was absolutely on the hunt for victory.
They’ll be watching each other closely again at the Tour of Flanders but Van der Poel will need to get away from Van Aert, who has his measure in a sprint. Van der Poel must attack.
I can feel the tension from here.
But they’re not the only two to watch.
Mads Pedersen, who won Gent-Wevelgem with smarts and horsepower, has declared himself an equal favourite. And in a sprint he’s on par with Van Aert. Pedersen also has a super team around him, particularly Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns, who grew up on the tricking Flemish roads.
Plus there’s the world champion, Julian Alaphippe, making his Flanders debut. Normally, in Flanders, you need experience and knowledge of the roads. But it’s Alaphilippe.
After finishing fifth in last year’s Tour de France he was asked if he’d now focus on the trying to win the Tour. He said yes, the Tour of Flanders. So here he is.
He can definitely win. Provided he sprints straight. Oh, and provided he doesn’t celebrate too early.
Other contenders include former winners Alberto Bettiol (2019) and Alexander Kristoff (2015), along with John Degenkolb, Sep Vanmarcke, Michal Kwiatkowski, Matteo Trentin, Stefan Kung and Marc Hirschi, who has ridden the U23 race but is making his first appearance in the elite race.
And I hope Mark Cavendish rides. I also hope he gets in the breakaway so we can talk about his incredible career, just in case it is his last race.
Grace Brown is in the with a chance to create history, by becoming the first Australian to win the Tour of Flanders. Gracie Elvin (2017), Heinrich Haussler (2009) and Phil Anderson (1985 and 1988) have all finished second. But a Flanders victory has so far alluded Australia’s best.
Brown has shown the form and attitude required to win. At Liege-Bastogne-Liege she rode away from Marianne Vos and, in the space of 12 kilometres, close down one minute on Lizzie Deignan, who held on to win by just nine seconds.
As per any race she starts, Vos, who won Flanders in 2013, will be one of the favourites on Sunday.
Deignan, who won Flanders in 2016, is backed by an incredibly strong Trek-Segafredo, is also among the favourites. Her and the 2015 winner, Elisa Longo Borghini, are a lethal combination. Plus they have Ellen van Dijk, who won in 2014.
Three former winners in one team. Trek-Segafredo have options.
As always Boels-Dolmans have plenty of cards to play, led by world champion Anna van der Breggen (Flanders winner 2018) with a support cast of 2017 world champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Amy Pieters and, Sunday’s winner of Gent-Wevelgem, Jolien D’Hoore.
It is the strongest peloton you could assemble. Except for the retired Emma Johansson, a second and third-place finisher in Flanders, everyone on the podium in the last seven editions of the race is on the start list.
Coryn Rivera, the 2017 winner, will lead Sunweb and the defending champion, Marta Bastianelli, is backed with Ale BTC Ljubljana for support.
So can Grace Brown really win? Yes. Particularly given the strength of her Mitchelton-Scott team.
Annemiek van Vleuten, who won Flanders in 2011, will catch most of the attention of the other big favourites. Amanda Spratt is scheduled to make her return to racing. Sarah Roy was fourth at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Gracie Elvin knows the roads and was second three years ago. And Jessica Allan is one of the most reliable domestiques in the peloton.
Van Vleuten will be the team leader but, as we’ve seen so often in the classics with Deceunick - Quick Step, the number two on the team regularly delivers.
Catch all the action from the men's and women's races at the Tour of Flanders, LIVE this Sunday October 18 via SBS on Demand from 6:50pm (AEDT) and LIVE, FREE and in HD on SBS VICELAND from 10:30 pm (AEDT).