It’s time for the second big one day race of the season, and just like last time (Milano - San Remo) my favorite is Peter Sagan. The Slovakian wonderboy has been outstanding the last month or so, and he showed in Gent-Wevelgem that he also has what it takes to go solo in the final and finish it off.
The new racecourse, introduced last year, means no more Kapelmuur but instead three times on Oude Kwaremont followed by and Paterberg. The last time on the two hills starts with 18 km to go and last year it was all back together at this point. I would imagine Omega Pharma Quickstep to have one of their outsiders up the road when it’s time for Oude Kwaremont, but at the top I expect the favorite to be together in front. Fabian Cancellara used this hill to get away when he won E3 and I would imagine him to put the Swiss hammer down again here this Sunday.
Peter Sagan ran out of power on Oude Kwaremont last year when he hit the front of the peloton trying to chase down Ballan, but I’m sure he has learned from his mistake. Sagan couldn’t followed Pozzato’s move with Boonen on the false flat, but on Paterberg he kicked hard, went away from the chase group and almost managed to close the gap. I expect Sagan to be in the front group when starting on Paterberg and I doubt anyone will be able to follow him if he kicks like that again this year. Fabian Cancellara is probably the only one able to catch up with Sagan on the final 13 km towards the finishing line, but I can’t see him beat Sagan in a sprint or drop him on the way.
Tom Boonen hasn’t been as strong as last year after his recent crashes and even if he’s able to follow Cancellara and Sagan, he still lack the speed to beat the Slovakian in a sprint. Luckily, Quickstep have a couple of other strong cards to play. Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel have been showing great shape the last couple of months and you can be certain that both will try their luck.
It’s also important to mention Team Sky, when pointing out potential winners. Their tactic of skipping Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and train together on Tenerife instead hasn’t really paid off yet, but it’s also important to remember that the coming races are the ones they have been targeting. I think Geraint Thomas will be on top of his game this Sunday and I wouldn’t be surprised if he manages to get himself in the front group after Paterberg. Some may think the steep percentages aren’t for Thomas, but don’t forget he dropped the whole peloton on 17% in Tour Down Under earlier this year. Ronde van Vlaanderen is his first big target of the season and together with teammates Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ian Stannard, Team Sky have strong team for Sunday.
Looking at a few jokers, let’s start with Heinrich Haussler. So far it hasn’t worked out for Haussler this spring, but he showed in Gent-Wevelgem to be in great shape. Haussler says that he has never been climbing better than right now, and if he manages to position himself up front when hitting Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg for the last time, he should be able to fight for the podium.
Another good outsider is Luca Paolini. The Italian veteran seems to be in the shape of his life right now and he knows how to ride these races. He won Omloop Het Nieuwsblaad after a sneaky move in the final and took second place after Boonen in the peloton’s sprint in E3. Last year Paolini almost closed the gap to the front trio after Oude Kwaremont and even though he isn’t as explosive as Sagan, he still has enough experience to know when to open up and when to save the energy. I doubt Luca Paolini will win Ronde van Vlaanderen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends on the podium.
If you are looking for a super-super joker, look to Zdenek Stybar. He’s only ranked fourth in the Quickstep team for this race, but he is very strong on the hills right now. I would expect him to be in the moves with about 50 km to go and in case the other Quickstep riders strike out, Stybar could the man for a surprising result.
Winner pick: Peter Sagan
Jokers: Heinrich Haussler / Luca Paolini / Zdenek Stybar
For live race coverage, as always, go to steephill.tv