It’s an odd edition of de Ronde, but once the wheels it the cobbles, it’s still Flanders.
With Paris-Roubaix canceled, the Tour of Flanders will be the last monument of the season and the final big test for the Classics man. Even if a few of these riders do plan on joining the Vuelta a Espana in service of their teams, the odds of that shortened Grand Tour finishing, or even starting, are feeling longer every day.
The cloud of COVID-19 is perhaps thickest in the women’s race. Earlier this week, three teams pulled out of the event due to positive tests, including last year’s winner. Both the men’s and women’s races will be run to eerily quiet and empty roadsides, with the usual throngs of enthusiastic and often inebriated fans asked to stay home. Like at the Tour, we may see the favorite slugging it out on famous climbs with their shifting and breathing perfectly audible without the screaming spectators pressed against the barriers.
With three teams out, Marianne Vos electing not to race, the 159km race is again one of the most open events on the women’s calendar. Anna van der Breggen enters as the five-star favorite, although we’d give Lizzie Deignan the nod to take her first Flanders wins since she her primary success in the rainbow jersey back in 2016. She’s leading the WorldTour and has what has proven itself to be the strongest squad of the season. Deignan also has teammate Elisa Longo Bourgini, and either could win. More importantly, they’ve both shown a willingness to sacrifice their own chances to support each other.
On the men’s side, Greg van Avermaet is perhaps the most heartbreaking scratch. He couldn’t quite recover from injuries sustained at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. For the first time in nearly a decade, the race also will miss Peter Sagan, who opted to take on his first Giro d’Italia instead of undergoing the Classics campaign this fall.
Those two riders’ absence only makes the two top favorites shine even brighter. Wout van Aert and Matthieu van der Poel will be racing after essentially canceling each other out at Gent-Wevelgem, which turned into a more vocal rivalry from what has largely been silent in its criticism.
They’ll be up against the on-form and newly crowned World Champion Alaphillipe. He’s not considered a true cobbled Classics rider, but his stunning fall wins and his experienced support team makes the Frenchman a top-tier threat. in addition to bagging the rainbow jersey, he won Brabastje Pijl, a semi-Classic with enough cobbles to serve as a worthy test. If his recon ride is any indication, he looks good.
Last year’s winner, Alberto Bettiol, leads what we’ll call the second-tier of contenders, elbow-to-elbow with the likes of Matteo Trentin, Sonny Colbrelli, and Michal Kwiatkowski. After winning Gent-Wevelgem, former World Champion Mads Pedersen pulled out of Brabastje Pijl to rest a niggling hamstring injury, and he’ll have a strong team to support him, perhaps the second strongest support squad behind Allaphillipe.
After picking Geraint Thomas for the Giro, only to see him immediately crash out, we’re being careful with our kiss of death. In fact, our other GC pick, Simon Yates, was yanked from the race along with his whole team after becoming the first rider to test positive for COVID-19 in competition. And so, while you might expect us to pick Michal Kwiatkowski (because he’s always our pick in any race), and you might expect us to pick Mads Pedersen, we’ll put the gamble on a rider who can afford a little extra burden and go with Wout van Aert.