Ronde van Vlaanderen Preview: Boonen vs. Cancellara Showdown

The Ronde is on deck. After E3 and Gent-Wevelgem served as appetizers, the first Belgian feast of the season is just a few days away. This Sunday, April 1st, the first of the two major cobble Classics kicks off with the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

The 2010 rivalry of Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen is already ignited. At Milan-San Remo, Fabian was the strongest rider, yanking Vicenzo Nibali and eventual winner Simon Gerrans the final 10km before being nipped at the line by the nimble Australian from GreenEdge. Nibali refused to pull through as the trio rode away, and Gerrans put in a short, unconvincing pull on the front to leave Cancellara to do all the dirty work in staying away from a hard-charging peloton. The pointed sitting-on was eerily similar to last year’s Classics at the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, with all the favorites fighting to stay on Cancellara’s rampaging wheel but refusing to work with the Swiss Time Machine. After his double romp in 2010, Cancellara is essentially too good for his own good, being marked by everyone with a chance at the win.

Last year, Garmin planted Thor Hushovd on Cancellara’s wheel and dared him to chase the break alone, having slipped Johann van Summeran ahead on the road. Fabian switched between trying to chase the leaders down himself and recruiting help, once even sticking his head in a few team cars to garner support from other squads when he was forced to admit as his own was too weak to help. The running joke was that if Cancellara stopped for a coffee, the rest of the race would have stopped, too.

But the momentum in 2012 is going the way of Tom Boonen. After storming to victory at the Tour of Qatar and taking multiple wins already this season, Boonen took both E3 Prijs and Gent-Wevelgem this past weekend. With all the momentum and the constant team support in the tense moments of the race, he should be the solid favorite heading into the Ronde. A two-time Flanders winner and a three-time Paris-Roubaix champ, Boonen is the hometown hero of past years with an unmatched cobbles pedigree. A former World Champion and the 2010 champion of Belgium, the swarming fans in Flanders are skipping praise on this year’s champ Philipe Gilbert and lavishing it on the rejuvenated Boonen. Still, he says Cancellara is the favorite, and may try to play for a sprint as he did at Gent-Wevelgem, where he nipped a faster Peter Sagan on the line by timing his move to absolute perfection.

The Ronde is much harder and much more selective, and Cancellara should be strong enough to bring a serious fury to Flanders in a week’s time. His effort at E3 Friday was impressive but marred by two crashes and three punctures. In fact, he had a five-man break formed ahead of a desperately chasing Tom Boonen when a puncture and a later crash took him out of contention. Every time Fabian Cancellara has attacked since Milan-San Remo, he’s shattered the field and left Boonen and other favorites in the clogging dust. But it’s not all about getting alone.

Cancellara cannot out-sprint Boonen at the line, nor is he likely to beat the likes of Peter Sagan, Oscar Freire or Juan Antonio Flecha. The other favorites need to be on his wheel at all times and hope to survive alone, mano-y-mano against Spartacus to force a sprint. The trouble is, if Cancellara gets ten meters, even a cohesive group of favorites would be hard pressed to bring him back. At Gent, Cancellara put in one strong attack from 30km to test his form. He got over 20 seconds almost immediately and gapped Boonen. The group included Peter Sagan, but didn’t organize to stay away as Boonen’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step team used its numbers to bring back the break.

This Sunday, expect a dual between Boonen and Cancellara, but with a host of others looked to take advantage of the marking and mind games. In addition to Sagan, Flecha and 2011 winner Nick Nuyens, BMC’s super-squad of Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, Greg van Avermaet, Philipe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Taylor Phinney with threaten. Other contenders include Sebastian Langeveld, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Fillipo Pozzato and Matti Breschel, just to name a few.

kolo tc will pick Cancellara for the win, with Boonen second and Sagan third. Livestreams will be up early Saturday morning on the blog and Twitter, and follow @kolotc for all the racing action.

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