All (cobbled) roads lead to Flanders: will the favourites fire?

With the postponement of Paris-Roubaix, the men's Tour of Flanders has become the culmination of all the intriguing narratives from the classics season.

Julian Alaphilippe, Deceuninck-QuickStep, Tirreno-Adriatico

Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-QuickStep wins Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of Mathieu van der Poel Source: Getty

The Tour of Flanders always looms large above the rest of the cobbled classics season, while victories at E3, Gent-Wevelgem and Omloop are big successes, all post-race conversation is couched as what it showed in the run into the 'Ronde van Vlaanderen' (Flemish for Tour of Flanders).

Paris-Roubaix stands a bit on its own normally, the French race is practically and culturally a bit removed from the Belgian classics, and now that it has been moved back into October, the monument that is the men's Tour of Flanders stands alone as the culmination of all the effort, pain and hard racing that has gone into this section of the racing season.


Three outstanding favourites no more?

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed inevitable that there would be a repeat of last year at the Tour of Flanders, that it would again come to a showdown between Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep). 

Each can lay claim to being the best rider in the world and the foundations of such claims lie in winning the biggest races. Alaphilippe is the world champion and arguably isn't as well suited to the cobbles but still competes there with the best. Van der Poel is a phenomenon that keeps on wowing the world with his absurd athletic feats as he adds victory upon victory to his growing palmares. Van Aert has shown himself to be brilliant, versatile and selfless throughout his career, the most consummate allrounder in the peloton.

Their battle began in earnest at Strade Bianche, Van der Poel emerging the victor after escaping with Alaphilippe and unleashing a truly ferocious surge up the final climb. 

They then each took a stage victory at Tirreno-Adriatico, van der Poel bagging two wins, while van Aert also did a very impressive general classification ride to finish second behind Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates). All three backed up for impressive showings at Milan-San Remo, but marked each other out and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) jumped away to win.

From there, they've each taken their own path, revealing at least some chinks in the armour for each of the top contenders. Van Aert was off the pace of the best at E3 Harelbeke, then won Gent-Wevelgem, and is probably the strongest going into the race.

Van der Poel was right up there at E3, but was outpointed by consistently good Deceuninck-QuickStep tactics and a very strong Kasper Asgreen as he finished third. He then suffered a rare case of admitted bad legs at Dwars door Vlaanderen, slipping backwards when the best on the day went ahead on the climbs. He returned to the peloton and then did a mountain of work to pull the race almost all back together for his team's sprinter, but he paid the price for that effort massively in the finale and there are question marks over how he'll pull up for one of the hardest races of the season.

Alaphilippe has only appeared at Dwars door Vlaanderen, he was held up in a crucial moment by a crash and missed the crucial split, but subsequent attacks saw him miss his customary punch up the cobbled climbs and he was contained. 

While it would be folly to completely write them off, the top trio are certainly looking beatable. 

Deceuninck-QuickStep dominance?

It has been a consistent theme of recent years, when it's not the top names winning, it's the champion Belgian team beating the stars of the WorldTour peloton with superior numbers at the front of the race.

That narrative has certainly been present this year, the E3 Harelbeke performance was rightly lauded as they took 1-2 on the standings there with Kasper Asgreen and Florian Senechal. Sprint wins in Brugge-De Panne and Omloop het Nieuwsblad also tell the tale of very good victories, but there have been a number of times where the mighty Belgian squad has been caught out with just one or none in the front selection at the crucial point of the race. 

The most recent outings at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem have been the chief cases in point. Just Senechal was in the main chasing group at Dwars door Vlaanderen and then there was no one in the move at Gent-Wevelgem when the crosswind split happened really early in affairs.

Unlike the top contenders' issues with form, Deceuninck-QuickStep have multiple top trumps to play, including perennial favourite Alaphilippe. There are more riders who have to be on a bad day for the Belgian super team to not have anyone present at the front, and the more who are there, the more options they have to push for the win.

It's not just been the likes of legends Tom Boonen and Alaphilippe winning these races in the past, the likes of Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, Yves Lampaert and Philippe Gilbert have all stood up when required. Now the baton is being passed to the likes of Asgreen, Senechal and Davide Ballerini. They've proved that they can win in lesser races, can they step up to the level required to win a monument?

SBS will broadcast the men's Tour of Flanders from start to finish with the early stages of the cobbled monument starting from 1755 AEST on SBS On Demand and the TV broadcast on SBS VICELAND joining the livestream coverage from 2030. The women's Tour of Flanders race coverage will start at the conclusion of the men's, with an expected start time of 0015 AEST on SBS VICELAND and SBS On Demand.  

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6 min read
Published 3 April 2021 at 12:25pm
By Jamie Finch-Penninger