By David Hunter
Harelbeke – Kortrijk 206.1km
After the fun of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, we continue in Flanders. This is one of the best races of the year, hopefully we get another cracking edition.
With the Taaienberg coming 70km from the finish, this normally is too early for any real action from the big riders. However, this season has seen a group of riders willing to attack from distance. The top riders will be at the front, ready to attack if necessary.
The most important section should be the Paterberg, quickly followed by the Kwaremont. Unlike the other races, the Paterberg is first, then the bone crushing Kwaremont. As I love the Kwaremont, I do like this.
From here we have 30km remaining and just one more demanding climb. After that, it’s the wide open roads heading for Harelbeke. Breaks can be caught as we head for home, but that really relies on who is chasing in the bunch.
Trying to beat Sagan is the main problem for the teams. In this race, they can expose his weak team. Expect to see QuickStep try a similar tactic that worked for them in DDV, get riders up the road early. The problem might be the attitude of the others. Not all teams can make the breaks, so, other teams will want to chase. It would be a strange day if everyone put pressure on Bora.
The main riders will be on the front from the Taaienberg and won’t move! The other area where Sagan can be exposed is the lower half of the Kwaremont. This is his weakest part of the whole of Flanders and others can take advantage. The problem is the second half, he is immense here, not many can follow his wheel.
If teams want to beat Sagan, they need to take their chances by riding an attacking race. Either that, or hope he makes a mistake in the last kilometre!
Should be dry, with the wind coming from the east. The wind isn’t overly strong, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get some echelons.
Peter Sagan – rarely have we seen a rider with form like this. Sagan continues to show what an incredible bike rider he is. He is also not scared of attacking, something us fans love! Yes, it might cause him to lose a few races, but it is the type of racing I want to see. His tactics for this race will be fascinating, as he can win from a break or waiting for a sprint. We will have to see how he tackles the race, but he clearly starts as favourite.
Greg Van Avermaet – looked good in Milan-Sanremo, but was positioned poorly on the Poggio. That meant he couldn’t respond to the Sagan attack and his race was over. Now back on home soil, he starts the race with a good chance of taking the win. Unlike Sagan, he does have a strong team. They should be able to control any breaks and help place their leader into a good position for the important sections of the race.
Luke Rowe – the Welshman has started the season in impressive form. His performance in both Omloop and KBK was excellent and he seems to have progressed well over the winter. Since then, he’s been off helping Sergio Henao win Paris-Nice. Now back in a leadership role, I hope he continues to ride in an attacking fashion. Sky have multiple options, as they also bring Stannard, Moscon and Puccio, but Rowe is their main man.
QuickStep – they have four potential winners of the race: Stybar, Terpstra, Boonen and Gilbert. That puts them into an incredibly strong position, but it still won’t be easy. They got their tactics right in DDV, but against a better level of opposition, I’m not sure how they will go about winning this race. The best options seems to be attacking on the Taaienberg and hope to make the teams of BMC and Bora chase hard. The problem with that is there are always other teams will to help. Another option is to keep all four together for the Paterberg/Kwaremont and then start attacking. This is a risky tactic, as Sagan and GVA will be hard to drop. I can’t wait to see how they try to win the race.
Tiesj Benoot – secured another top 10 finish on Wednesday, but didn’t really feature at the front. He briefly tried to go across the gap with Edward Theuns, but they had too many passengers. Benoot is a hugely impressive cyclist and I hope we see Lotto Soudal giving him their full support.
AG2R – after illness disrupted the early part of Stijn Vandenbergh’s season, we eventually get to see what he and Oli Naesen can do! Having two strong riders, gives them a great chance of animating the race in the closing stages. On Wednesday, Naesen continued his impressive run of top 10 results, something I think we’ll continue to see here. This is a big moment for Vandenbergh, as he gets to be team leader for the first time. A firm favourite of most, I’m looking forward to seeing him attack and test the legs of his former teammates.
Edvald Boassen Hagen – a strong candidate for this race. He has looked in impressive form, but hasn’t quite been able to land a big win yet in 2017. Will need to take his chance by attacking early and hoping the break stays away.
Trek – arriving with Stuyven and Degenkolb makes Trek one of the big teams in this race. Stuyven impressed in Omloop and KBK, but didn’t manage to take a result. I’m fascinated to see Degenkolb here, it is perfect preparation for Flanders. On paper, both riders should be able to have a big say in the outcome of this race. Saying that, I’m not sure Degenkolb quite has the form yet.
Alexander Kristoff – had a terrible time here in 2016, a day he’ll want to forget. He has enjoyed a good start to 2017 and looks slimmer than in previous years, that will help in this race. He has done well here in the past, but I only seeing him winning from a sprint, I can’t see him attacking with Sagan and Van Avermaet.
It is clear that Sagan and Van Avermaet are a class apart, but that doesn’t guarantee wins. It’s up to the other teams to try and disrupt the race, particularly QuickStep. I think the Belgians might just stop the big two from winning. I liked the look of him on Wednesday, so I’m going with Zdenek Stybar.
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