The route

Once again, the Tour of Flanders route has been changed compared to previous editions. The finish is the same but the race organisers have listened to criticisms of last year’s route. They have taken out the long sections of flat roads, which demotivated riders from attacking from far out.

This means the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg combination will feature only twice in the race: once with 50km to go and once just 18km away from the finishing line. It’s also worth noticing the position of Koppenberg. This steep hill (600 meters with an average gradient of 10%) is now placed just 45km from the finishing line and will make for a big selection in the peloton.

Due to these route modifications, it will be much more difficult for teams to control the race. The last 50km includes no fewer than eight cobbled hills and, without any long flat parts, we might not see a big group arriving together at the bottom of Oude Kwaremont for the final time, like we did in the past two years.

Oude Kwaremont is where Fabian Cancellara put down the hammer last year with only Peter Sagan able to follow him (watch from 3:11 here). Pippo Pozzato did the same thing in 2012, with Tom Boonen on his wheel (watch here from 2:18). Usually this is where the winning group gets away.

The climb itself is 2.2km long and has an average gradient of 4.2%. The steepest part is from 600 to 1,200 meters with a maximum gradient of 11%. Just 3km after Oude Kwaremont it’s time for Paterberg, the last hill of the race.

It’s only 380 meters in length, but its average gradient of 13% on the cobblestones makes it unbelievably hard. Last year, Fabian Cancellara dropped Peter Sagan on the steep part of 20% and soloed away to win the race (watch here from 5:58). The final 13km are flat towards the finishing line.

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The favourites

To me, the number one favourite for this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen is Fabian Cancellara. This is Cancellara’s first big goal of the year and he has been looking stronger and stronger in every race. In E3 Harelbeke, Cancellara was caught up behind a big crash. He missed the front group but almost managed to close the gap all by himself. He was clearly the strongest rider on the hills that day and I think he will be even stronger this Sunday.

Fabian Cancellara knows that he can’t beat Peter Sagan in a sprint and, therefore, has to drop the fast Slovakian like he did last year. He’s still one of the best time trialists in the world and if Cancellara gets just a couple of meters on the top of Paterberg, the rest of the riders won’t see him again until they cross the line.

Without any incidents, I have no doubts that Fabian Cancellara will be among the first three riders on the top of Paterberg. The only question is, who else will be there?

Peter Sagan should be one of them. He’s only 24 years old but already has 59 wins on his palmares. However, he’s still missing a big Classic win. Therefore, Sagan has changed his race schedule a little. He’s now focusing on quality over quantity. Ronde van Vlaanderen is one of his big goals this season and he seems to have timed his run perfectly.

The last two years he entered Oude Kwaremont among the first two riders in the group of favourites. In 2012, he hit the front too early and ran out of legs before Pozzato put in his attack. In 2013, Sagan looked stronger but made another mistake. Instead of staying on Cancellara’s wheel, Sagan started to take turns and he paid for that effort on the steep part of Paterberg.

Tom Boonen says that you can’t win this race without experience. This is true. Peter Sagan hasn’t got a lot of experience in this race but he’s a phenomenon and has shown that he knows when to be at the front. If he rides a bit smarter this year, he might pull off the biggest win of his career so far.

In the past, Peter Sagan didn’t have a very strong team to support him. This year he has Oscar Gatto at his side. The Italian rider would have been a solid top 10 contender himself, but is now focusing 100% on helping Sagan. I think Gatto will be a very important factor on Sunday.

On paper, Tom Boonen is one of the top favourites for Ronde van Vlaanderen as well. However, after a great start to the season, luck has changed for Boonen. He had to skip Milan – San Remo due to family matters (his partner Lore had a miscarriage) then, in E3 Harelbeke, he crashed and injured his thumb. Boonen still managed to finish 11th but admitted he “rode all race long with tears in my eyes”. An injured thumb is never fun and it’s especially painful on the cobblestones.

Personally, I hope Boonen will be on top of his game this Sunday. It would make for an amazing battle. However, I must say I have my doubts. With all the things happening lately, it will be extremely difficult for Tom Boonen to keep cool. He will do whatever he can to stick to the front, but I don’t think he will be able to follow Fabian Cancellara when he attacks on Paterberg.

One rider who might be able to follow the likes of Cancellara and Sagan is Sep Vanmarcke. He has been in great shape so far this spring, making the top five at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Vanmarcke made a name for himself when he won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2012 by outsprinting Tom Boonen.

Last year, Sep Vanmarcke once again showed his talents for these kinds of races as he finished second in Paris-Roubaix after Fabian Cancellara. Personally, I haven’t seen Vanmarcke stronger than he seems right now. I think only crashes and punctures can keep the young Belgian from making another top result this weekend.

The moment Sep Vanmarcke lost last year's Paris-Roubaix, when he let Cancellara get behind him.

The moment Sep Vanmarcke lost last year’s Paris-Roubaix, when he let Cancellara get behind him.

The outsiders

In case Tom Boonen won’t be 100% this Sunday, Omega Pharma-QuickStep has a lot of jokers ready to step up. Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, Guillaume van Keirsbulck and Zdenek Stybar are all in great shape right now. With or without Tom Boonen, these riders will be eager to attack from afar to make the race hard and maybe have a chance to shine themselves.

My personal joker for this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen is Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEDGE). In Dwars door Vlaanderen, Keukeleire was one of the strongest riders on the cobbled hills. However, he probably spent too much time in front of the peloton and he paid for that mistake in the final sprint as he finished ninth in the race. Still, Keukeleire proved to be in great shape and this race is one of his big goals this season.

It won’t be easy for the GreenEDGE captain to follow Cancellara, Sagan and Vanmarcke but if he manages to get up the road, like Jurgen Roelandts did last year, he might have a chance to make a big result. Jens Keukeleire is very fast on the line and should he arrive in a small group, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Another very strong outsider is Greg van Avermaet. He missed out in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year when he let Ian Stannard take him by surprise in the final sprint. Nine times out of 10, Van Avermaet would have won in that situation. However, the strong Belgian didn’t let the defeat knock him out. He was active in Milan – San Remo and narrowly missed out on joining the winning move in E3 Harelbeke.

There is no doubt that Greg van Avermaet is in very good shape right now. He finally has the chance to lead a team in Ronde van Vlaanderen and he simply can’t afford to miss out this time. Van Avermaet is not afraid of attacking from afar and I think doing this will be his best chance of success. He has been knocking on the door for a long time now. Maybe this is finally the day the door opens and Greg van Avermaet bags a big win on the cobbles.

Greg van Avermaet gets pipped on the line by Ian Stannard at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Greg van Avermaet gets pipped on the line by Ian Stannard at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

For other strong outsiders, look to former double winner Stijn Devolder, Pippo Pozzato, Sylvain Chavanel, Kenneth Vanbilsen, Jurgen Roelandts and the sprinters John Degenkolb, Borut Bozic and Alexander Kristoff (winner of Milan – San Remo). And don’t forget the Team Sky duo Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

Thomas was very strong on the hills of E3 Harelbeke. If he shows the same strength this Sunday, he might also fight for the podium. The same thing goes for Boasson Hagen. He has been near the front on Oude Kwaremont the last two years. He hasn’t been able to stay with the favourites though. However, this year, Edvald Boasson Hagen seems very strong and focused. If, for some reason, the race comes back together for a sprint in a select group, don’t count out the Norwegian multi-talent.

If you are looking for super-super jokers, look to Steve Chainel and Dries Devenyns. Chainel really impressed me in Dwars door Vlaanderen when he — from a poor position — jumped past the rest of the peloton to follow Tom Boonen and Jens Keukeleire on Taaienberg. He’s in a very good shape right now and I would be surprised to not see him attack this Sunday. Ag2r also has Damien Gaudin and Sebastien Turgot in the race, but I think Steve Chainel will be their best card for a good result.

Dries Devenyns has proven to be very strong this season. He finished eighth in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and put in an amazing amount of work for John Degenkolb in both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem (which Degenkolb won). Devenyns is now 30 years old and he has the needed experience to do well in this race. He’s been blocked from trying his own luck at OPQS the last five years. This time, he finally has the chance to prove his worth in these kind of races.

As mentioned, Giant-Shimano also has John Degenkolb in the race. However, Degenkolb’s best chance is a sprint. He won’t be able to follow Cancellara on Paterberg. Therefore, it would make sense to let Devenyns try to attack from afar and hope he can stay in front when the top favourites join him.

Who’s your tip?

Australian fans will be able to catch the Tour of Flanders live on Eurosport (Foxtel Channel 511) from 8.30pm on Sunday night, and on SBS TV or streaming on Cycling Central from midnight (AEST) on Sunday. Viewers elsewhere should check their local guides. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to join our free Spring Classics Tipping Competition, which starts with the Tour of Flanders.