I was going to call this "who will win?", but the power of the jinx is strong, and I am bound to be wrong anyway! But as I said in my course preview, EVERYONE in the women's peloton wants to win Flanders, but there's only space for one on that top step. So who are the likely contenders? Have a look at the recent podiums, since the race first started in 2004:
||Zulfiya Zabirova (Kaz)||Trixi Worrack (Ger)||Leontien van Moorsel-Zijlaard (Ned)|
||Mirjam Melchers-van Poppel (Ned)
||Susanne Ljungskog (Swe)||Monia Baccaille (Ita)|
|2006||Mirjam Melchers-van Poppel (Ned)||Christiane Soeder (Aut)||Loes Gunnewijk (Ned)|
|2007||Nicole Cooke (GBr)||Zulfiya Zabirova (Kaz)||Marianne Vos (Ned)|
|2008||Judith Arndt (Ger)||Kristin Armstrong (USA)||Kirsten Wild (Ned)|
|2009||Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Ger)||Kirsten Wild (Ned)||Emma Johansson (Swe)|
|2010||Grace Verbeke (Bel)||Marianne Vos (Ned)||Kirsten Wild (Ned)|
|2011||Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned)||Tatiana Antoshina (Rus)||Marianne Vos (Ned)|
Of course, that's on the old course - but look at those names - there are Classics experts like Gunnewijk, as you'd expect, but also power sprinters like Teutenberg and climbers like Antoshina... So THAT doesn't narrow things down. Below the jump I'll tell you my thoughts, and show you a video - and in the comments you can tell me how wrong you think I am, and add anything you see about the race before it happens. Here's the startlist to get you thinking - and I should add, this is from my fangirl perspective, not actual knowledge!
Marianne Vos and Rabobank
I'm starting off with Marianne Vos, of course, because not only has she started the Road World Cup season in impeccable style, winning both the Ronde van Drenthe and Trofeo Alfredo Binda, but this is one of the races she hasn't won yet and I'm imagining her eyes lighting up at the thought of it. One thing about Vos is that she really, really, really loves to race, and at this point, new goals will be lots of fun for her.
Why she might: She's Marianne Vos! She's a force of nature!
Why she might not: There are two big things that might stop Vos - and the first is her own team! Not in a bad way, but Vos combines spectacular skills with being a great team player. If they send another Rabo rider down the road, or someone takes her chance and jumps on one of the climbs, as Sarah Düster did last year, I can see Vos helping her out by unsettling the chase group, and then attack for the highest placing left.
Of course, there's always the chance that the peloton might work out how to stop Vos! If I were them, I'd be working together, burning off the Rabo riders with attacks, and making Rabo do any and all the chasing. So none of the "whole team on the front" that looks so nice on coverage for anyone other than Rabo (Team USA, I'm thinking of Trofeo Binda and looking at YOU!). It will probably feel hard for the teams to think about working together against someone, but the Italian national team have been demonstrating over the last few years, that this is the only reliable way to beat Vos!
Which other Rabos to watch: Van Vleuten is the reigning champion, but she only started racing at Binda a fortnight ago, after her off-season leg surgery, so she's not on top form just yet. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is on superb form right now, and her CX and MTB background mean that the cobbles shouldn't phase her. Last year Düster escaped early, and was only caught 1.8km from the end - I'd love to see her go all the way, but it might be too hilly for her. Basically, don't discount any Rabo - they're all likely to get into breaks.
Watch Emma prepare for RvV!
Johansson may be Swedish, but she's based in Oudenaarde in the season, so she knows all of these roads intimately, and to all intents and purposes, she's the local girl. If she doesn't get on the podium, I'll be surprised if she's not top 5. She's probably perfect for this race, and she really loves it too.
Why she might: Local knowledge - and after breaking both her collarbones when a car hit her in training over winter, she has a new determination. And she's fabulous!
Why she might not: Everyone else knows how fabulous she is, so if she gets away, everyone else will immediately chase her
Kirsten Wild, Lizzie Armitstead, Emma Pooley and AA Drink-Leontien.nl
The biggest problem with this team is knowing who to ride for! On paper (my screen) they have SO many options - Pooley's never won this, and is pretty allergic to the peloton, but there's enough climbing that she could do some killer attack early in the race just to get away from them, and stay away - and with that short distance from the last climb home, if she was away, she could get into that ITT rhythm home. But is she too slight for the cobbles?
Wild, on the other hand, loves those cobbles, and although she could get dropped on the hills, if it gets bunchy-sprinty, she's phenomenal. She'll want to make every race count, too, before she drops the road for her hopes of Olympic omnium glory. And check out her history here! I just wish there was a women's Paris-Roubaix, that could be her absolute ideal race - but Flanders is a great one for her
And AA are very likely to use the old Cervélo Test Team tactic, of sending Sharon Laws and Lizzie Armitstead out early, so either the peloton chases them down and gives Wild/Pooley a lift to the finish/best attack point, or they make it all away - which resulted in Lizzie's win at Gent-Wevelgem. Now, there's a big difference between G-W and RvV (especially as the biggest World Cup names were all in Italy at Trofeo Binda) - but Armitstead has been the revelation of the cobbles season. Up until now, she was all about the track at this time of year, but focusing on the road has resulted in some lovely results for her. And her descending skills will be a huge advantage here.
Why they might: They're a team full of stars! Chantal Blaak and Lucinda Brand are contenders in their own right, and they're there as domestiques? Any one of this team could get into a breakaway/go solo and make it to the end - and if they don't, the others will have to exhaust themselves chasing them down - and then there's Wild/Armitstead waiting at the end.
Why they might not: Too many stars, not enough domestiques?
Whatever happens, one thing to hope for is they strap a camera onto their riders, like they did last year - check out their video of RvV from last year - with on-bike footage from 2:37:
Judth Arndt, Loes Gunnewijk and GreenEdge-AIS
Arndt and Gunnewijk both have pedigree here - Arndt's a former winner, and Gunneijk is made for the Classics, with a third place in her name. And GreenEdge could also play the "Make Rabobank chase our attacking riders" game (well, if the rest of the peloton play their cards right and let Rabo DO all that work!).
Why they might: Gunnewijk is one of those riders who has a special ability - everyone knows what she's capable of, and everyone knows if she attacks, she could make it to the end - but still, she can escape their clutches and get away on what might be suicide attacks (eg in Binda) but that also results in wins - and as in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, she's both capable of working very well with other breakaway artists, AND out-sprinting them at the finish. She's more of a "jump at a kilometre to go" rider than a short-sharp sprinter, but that can be devastating. And Arndt is Arndt - legendary, savvy, good at everything - what she doesn't know about racing isn't worth knowing!
Why they might not: The whole peloton knows all of this, and will be watching them both!
Evelyn Stevens, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg EDIT! AND TRIXI WORRACK! and Specialized-lululemon
I confess that when I looked at the startlist, I was bemused by the lack of Trixi Worrack for Specialized, because she was on my list of favourites right from the start. She has pedigree, and prior results here, she's tough as hell, and the hard racing, cobbles and short-sharp hills are perfect for her - not to mention that this team seems to have given her a new lease of racing life. But if there's a DS who knows what they're doing, it's Ronnie Lauke & Jens Zemke, so I still have faith!
Edit! She's not on the startlist, but Specialized-lululemon tweeted that Worrack is definitely riding! In that case, look out for her - she's always had the skills, but this year she seems inspired, and as long as she can cope with the cobbles (which previous experience suggests!) she'll be very dangerous indeed!
Teutenberg started racing late this year, with Binda has her first big race - I assume she's all about the Olympics this year - but she's another former winner, she's great on the cobbles (in my imaginary Paris-Roubaix Femmes, she'd definitely give Wild a run for her money!) and if she can make it over the hills, she's still the queen of sprinting.
Besides Teute, there's Evelyn Stevens, who is fabulous, but might lack the technical skills of riders who've been racing since they were four years old -
Amber Neben and Clara Hughes, both of whom could dark-horse it.
Why they might not: It's a shame they don't have Worrack there
Why they might: They're Specialized-lululemon! You can never, never discount them! Even if they don't podium, you can guarantee at least one of their riders will be part of the action! Edit: And Worrack!
Also look out for:
- Martine Bras of Dolmans-Boels (she's THE rider to bet on getting into the top 5, in any race. So many tactics, so much skill!)
- Tatiana Guderzo and Monia Baccaille of MCipollini-Giambenini (they're both great riders, and Guderzo was fabulous in Trofeo Binda, so clearly has great form)
- Adrie Visser and Amy Pieters of Skil-Argos (Visser loves her cobbles and escape action, but it might be too hilly for her - but I'll lay money on her trying anyway!)
- Noemi Cantele of Be Pink (Because Cantele is likely to be a lone wolf who is never afraid to attack)
- Grace Verbeke of Kleo (Her 2010 win was a high point, and she's been pretty anonymous since, but she is Flandrian, and she'd be a hugely popular winner if she could do it again)
- Elena Berlato of Fassa Bortolo-Servetto (We haven't seen much of her so far this season, but she's a great climber)
- Megan Guarnier and Amanda Miller of Tibco (both likely to get into break groups and EDIT! as I've been reminded, when Teute won Flanders, she did it off the back of winning Redlands, just like Guarnier has just done! )
- Nicole Cooke of Faren-Honda (She doesn't seem like she's on-form at the moment, but if she has ridden it in, she's always worth a top 10 punt - and if she's got to TOP form, she can be devastating!)
So, here's to Sunday, and getting proved terribly, terribly wrong! And spare a thought for all the riders, especially those facing this race for the very first time - it'll be SO hard, but exhilarating, and a big, huge GOOD LUCK to everyone. Just starting this race is a great achievement - here's to all the young riders facing their cobbles with a shiver of fear, who will look back at this as one of the biggest races of their lives - the players and winners of the future!