The Stalemate Sprint
Last year, racing was subdued in de Ronde as riders felt out the new course, especially the three final circuits of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs. As a result, there were more people relatively fresh into the finale of the race and a group of three got away, followed to the finish by a group of 43 riders. Yes, 43. Despite the tendency of the race to end in a small group or solo breakaway, Flanders is not nearly as selective as Paris-Roubaix and it is not unheard of for a largish group to enter the final 15 kilometers together. For a more recent example, see E3-Harelbeke this year where even after the race was blown apart, a group of five riders still contested the sprint for second.
Should we see a group of 2-10 riders hit the finish together, expect a sprint, especially with a headwind predicted for the final 10km run into Oudenaarde like last year that will stifle attacks. In short, there will be little chance of a larger chase group splintering under the impetus of attacks on the final run to the finish as happened in 2011. Instead, look for someone not necessarily the strongest rider but the canniest and quickest sprinter to take the win. Who could win this way? Here are my picks, in descending order of probability.
Greg Van Avermaet
Edvald Boasson Hagen
The Oude Kwaremont Solo
The Kwaremount is a beast of a climb. It is 2.2 kilometers long, the longest climb of the race. Its maximum gradient is only 11%, half that of the feared Paterberg which follows. But maximum gradients aren't all that define the climbs. The steepest pitch of the Kwaremont comes in the middle of the climb, but legs are broken on the long false flat over rough cobbles that follows. Many riders can hang tough for the first kilometer of the climb, but only the best will be there after the end, and when one explodes on a section like this, time gaps open ever so rapidly.
All this to say that the Kwaremont is a prime spot to pry open a big gap, quickly. See Fabian Cancellara's attack to win E3-Harelbeke in last week - he had at least 15 seconds by the top of the climb. Look back to last year where Alessandro Ballan decimated what was left of the lead group on the Kwaremont with only Pozatto and Boonen able to follow. This is a better launchpad than the Paterberg for a solo move too, for it is impossible to pry open such a gap on the 350 meters of hell there. Could a solo move go earlier? Theoretically, yes, but don't count on anything serious going before or after the Kwaremont.
If a solo move wins the race, it will go from the Kwaremont. The distance to the finish is 17 kilometers, just long enough for someone other than just Cancellara to hold. So, who might try to go alone on the Kwaremont? Here are my picks, in descending order of likelihood of pulling it off.
The Long-Range Hail Mary
Second tier favorites and lieutenants won't be waiting until the final circuit of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg to make their moves. No, that is too late, for that is when the favorites will be itching to brandish their power. The Sebastian Langevelds and Niki Terpstras of the Flanders peloton will play their hands earlier, as far as 60km out from the finish. But really, I forsee a small group of riders escaping on the non-cobbled Kruisberg at kilometer 209 or the penultimate ascent of the Oude Kwaremont at kilometer 219. The Koppenberg and Steenbekdries will whip the peloton into a frenzy beforehand, so odds of escaping before now are lower than the lull before the final several bergs.
It's rare that a group of second tier riders stays away to contest the finish, or the final survivor of that breakaway inexplicably holds off the chase behind, but if there is enough of a stalemate or staring match behind amongst the favorites it is possible. Think of the 2011 Paris - Roubaix where Johan Vansummeren made an earlier break in the final 100 kilometers and Fabian Cancellara was left isolated to bring them back, refusing to tow Thor Hushovd with him to the velodrome and a likely sprint defeat. With Cancellara and Sagan both likely to be lacking team support in the final 50 kilometers and eyeing each other while Tom Boonen, off the form he held last year, has a vested interest in a smaller sprint, this could be the year for the long-range breakaway to stick once again. Here are your likely protagonists:
Juan Antonio Flecha