It's reached the point where I get paralyzed thinking about de Ronde. It's here? After most of a year spent anticipating it, how do I switch into the mode where I am actually present in the race? Do I dare just start writing about the race, after holding back so long?
Psychobabble aside, it's also hard to come up with new things to say from year to year. Thankfully (I guess) the course isn't radically different from last year, with the Oude Kwaremont circuits dominating the end of the race, punctuated the last time through by the Koppenberg and Taaienberg. The hellingen count is up to 19, if you're scoring at home. The map is all the way at the bottom of this post. Same basic brew: hills, cobbles, tight turns, tiny roads, open irrigation ditches, crosswinds, tractor protests, and more people by the side of the road than any other day of the year.
In other words, it's Ronde van Vlaanderen time. Forget the mystique, this is a race. A really great race. And here's who is going to win.
[Dirk Waem, AFP/Getty]
Geraint Thomas, Sky
Why he could win: Thomas has been the strongest rider in Belgium over the last ten days. He won E3 Prijs, looked just as dangerous in Gent-Wevelgem after picking himself out of a ditch, and has generally had an excellent season. Flanders has been kind to Thomas in the past, starting with his surprise campaign in 2011 when he entered the final KM with the leaders. Add to that the services of the strongest team on Earth, including the incredibly valuable powerhouse Bradley Wiggins and old hands like Bernie Eisel, and you've got a Classics campaign coming together in a way that so often portends success in Flanders. So often you can see the winner coming from a mile away, even if you wouldn't admit it to yourself until the last moment.
Why he probably won't: For all Thomas' success in the classics, he sure shows a big split between the 200-ish km races and the Monuments. Yeah, that split is shrinking, but for now it's there. Also, this is noplace for a poor bike handler. Thomas's skills are probably better than "poor" but he will need to be "expert" and stay off the floor if he's to win Sunday.
[He is my pick to win, by the way. So if that last paragraph doesn't sound convincing, it's not.]
Just Below the Top Tier
[Yorick Jansens, AFP/Getty]
Sep Vanmarcke, Team Lotto NL - Jumbo
Why he could win: Everybody knows he has the qualities. He's 26 and has already been on the podiums of both Monuments. His finishing kick is nothing to sneeze at, but more than that it's his aggressive instincts that can easily make the race, on any of de Ronde's final few climbs.
Why he probably won't: Sep has looked good, but has he looked great? Thomas has been his equal over the last week, or better. Certainly Thomas has had better luck and a better team. That stuff counts. Plus, I hate to say it, but should Vanmarcke be as aggressive as he has? I know Belgians don't like to win the easy way, but that doesn't mean leaving it all on the road with 5km still to go. I dunno, mostly I think Sep has the right instincts, he just hasn't had the overwhelming strength to put people away. If his peak happens next, it'll be all smiles.
[Bryn Lennon, Getty]
Zdenek Stybar, Etixx-Quick Step
Why he could win: Without Boonen, Stybar takes the helm of what we thought (and some still think) is the strongest team on the road. The Quick Step machine rarely emerges from this part of the calendar without multiple major victories, a testimony to their depth and experience, not to mention their mandate from the masses to do so or don't bother coming home at all. Anyway, Stybar has been strong as an ox from the start of the season, or at least the part where he could grip his bars again. Victory a month ago in Strade Bianche is not a bad harbinger of future success, and second in E3 was another sign that he is on top of his game, alongside the very best. Unlike Thomas, his pedigree screams "Monument distance" after two top results in Paris-Roubaix. Still hard to believe he was (is?) a cyclocrosser.
Why he probably won't: I need to type a little faster here before I talk myself into changing my mind. I guess Thomas has looked ever so slightly better, and we know almost for certain that the strongest rider will win. So far, Stybar has never won a Belgian classic. That's not nothing.
[Susie Hartigan, Podium Cafe]
Peter Sagan, Tinkoff-Saxo
Why he could win: Another rider with all the qualities you'd want -- tough, versatile, capable of applying those merits over the long distance. Sagan was second here two years ago to a guy who's back in Zurich with scars on his elbow. Nothing is stopping Sagan -- fourth at MSR two weeks ago -- from winning a Monument.
Why he probably won't: Except maybe Sagan. Or maybe his new team. Or maybe it's just one of those things where a guy does everything right but for some obscure reason his body won't quite go to the next level. How close is he to that level? At E3 he was in the final selection, but at almost 200km, when Thomas launched, Sagan simply had no response. I'd say it's just as important not to overreact to one moment of weakness as it is to not overreact to his past reputation and assume he'll be a favorite again. Sagan, so far, has the most to prove Sunday.
[Lionel Bonaventure, AFP/Getty
Alexander Kristoff, Katusha
Why he could win: For three days he's been the strongest man on the road. And yes, I remember how to tell De Panne from De Ronde, but Kristoff is at the very peak of his powers, and is a solid rider in the hardest races, which this is. Kristoff came within a whisker of punishing the lead quartet at last year's Ronde for messing around in the finale
Why he probably won't: Tactics will limit his chances, almost surely. Nobody wants to go to the line with Kristoff, and everyone will know that he's strong enough to do anything but climb the Paterberg with the lead group. If Kristoff manages to look good, I'm sure more than a few DSs willl tell their classics climber to leave Kristoff behind on the Oude Kwaremont.
[Eric Lalmand, AFP/Getty]
Niki Terpstra, Etixx-Quick Step
Why he could win: Pedigree, fpr starters. We know this is in his wheelhouse. Second on a beastly Sunday shows his form is there. And with Boonen out, the Etixx juggernaut is his to deploy, with Stybar.
Why he probably won't: Terpstra has not seemed terribly explosive at any point this season. He won't catch anyone by surprise this time around.
[Dirk Waem, AFP/Getty]
Jurgen Roelandts, Lotto-Soudal
Why he could win: Last time he made it to Oudenaarde intact, it was for third place. Roelandts is possibly in the best shape of his life, which he has mostly squandered on long attacks. Some better choices and better luck may be all that stands in his way.
Why he probably won't: How on Earth did he parlay that form into a pair of seventh places? Tactics will only get more difficult from here.
[Bryn Lennon, Getty]
John Degenkolb, Giant-Alpecin
Why he could win: Gone are the days when de Ronde played into the hands of every type of rider, whoever was strongest on the day. Now, with the final climbs so close to the finish, it's hard to see pure sprinters, more than any other type of rider, still contest the overall victory here. But Degenkolb is no pure sprinter, and he's having a breakthrough season after his MSR win.
Why he probably won't: Like Kristoff, the sight of him anywhere near the front will touch off every attack you can think of before they get to Oudenaarde.
[David Stockman, AFP/Getty]
Greg Van Avermaet, BMC
Why he could win: Van Avermaet can always win. He survives to the late stages of practically every race he enters with a chance at winning. He was one of the leading protagonists in E3 Prijs before doing a header into the grass. His worst finish since they moved the finale to Oudenaarde is seventh.
Why he probably won't: Someone always seems to have a bit more. Last year he was as good as ever, and lost the sprint to Cancellara. The competition is improving; is Van Avermaet?
[Luc Claessens, AFP/ Getty]
Edward Theuns, Topsport Vlaanderen
Why he could win: His ride in Dwars was very convincing, and he held it together in Gent-Wevelgem for 11th (second among the big bunch). Those performances are big leaps for the 23-year-old, portending big things to come.
Why he probably won't: Big things rarely come in Flanders at 23. Give him another year or two before we start getting ahead of ourselves.
[David Stockman, AFP/Getty]
Luca Paolini, Katusha
Why he could win: The guy is a beast. The oldest rider to take the start at Gent-Wevelgem also finished first. He's got the Flandrian mentality and skin of leather that come in handy this time of year. Everything Katusha is coming up roses. He's been on the podium in Flanders.
Why he probably won't: What do we do with information from Gent-Wevelgem? It was a day that tries men's souls, but Sunday will likely be a more conventional spring setting, sunny, cool and a bit breezy. Paolini won't have the luxury of knowing that 90% of the field is not interested in riding their bike at the moment.
Ignore These Guys At Your Peril
Daniel Oss, BMC
Why he could win: Might be the strongest rider on his team right now.
Why he probably won't: They'll make him work for Van Avermaet, last year's runner-up, as long as GVA is still in the race.
Lars Boom, Astana
Why he could win: Um, he's a classics specialist?
Why he probably won't: He's listed here mostly out of habit, or maybe a reminder to include him in next week's rounding up of the usual suspects. Nothing about Boom's season makes it look like he's about to put on the ride of his life. But I suppose he hasn't done anything to assure us he won't either.
Filippo Pozzato, Lampre
Why he could win: The power of Imodium. Long long history of being great in this race, including 2012 when he was half a wheel from beating Boonen in the sprint.
Why he probably won't: He seems to have lost the plot since that fateful sprint, in Flanders and elsewhere. Perhaps it'll come back, but given his stomach issues Paris-Roubaix is a bit more likely for Pippo.
Jelle Wallays, Topsport Vlaanderen
Why he could win: His win in Dwars wasn't merely lightning in a bottle, it was the extension of his rise up the ranks of the peloton to a very dangerous position.
Why he probably won't: His history at Flanders is two DNFs. Just a bit too inconspicuous.
Stijn Vandenbergh, Etixx-Quick Step
Why he could win: Another super-strong guy, who keeps showing up at the front of race after race. He's been one of the top performers in the classics for several years now. Fourth in De Ronde last year.
Why he probably won't: Vandenbergh is always working for someone else, if there is another Etixx rider in sight. And if there isn't, it's hard to see who he beats in a sprint.
Tiesj Benoot, Lotto-Soudal
Why he could win: Like Oss, one of the bulls of the peloton this week, and a bit of a revelation at age 21(!).
Why he probably won't: He's 21! He was a trainee a year ago. Strong or no, there are simply too many others in front of him waiting for their chance, and conventional wisdom is that at that age being good for 200km isn't a sign that you've arrived. Lotto alone fields a handful of guys who'll get the green light before he will. I mean, in this race. By next year or the year after... I'm not so sure.
Jempy Drucker, BMC
Why he could win: An emerging (slowly) star of the classics scene, Drucker has pulled down several top tens on home soil in the last two seasons.
Why he probably won't: It'll take more than top tens to convince BMC to unleash Drucker. More like desperation. He's solid, but not a convincing threat at this time.
Sylvain Chavanel, IAM Cycling
Why he could win: Another rider from the files of past glories. He simply has too many strong performances in the classics to overlook, including second in 2011.
Why he probably won't: Chava's form is nothing special at the moment. He's good for something with a time trial involved, Driedaagse was easy pickings for him toward the end of his Quick Step days.
Dylan van Baarle, Cannondale-Garmin
Why he could win: Looked strong in his second run through the Classics, taking third in Dwars, a terrific result for a 22-year-old.
Why he probably won't: Age, experience. Not there yet. But he'll be one of the interesting stories to watch this weekend.
Bradley Wiggins, Sky
Why he could win: Because when Sir Bradley gets on the front of any group, he can shatter them like Cancellara in his prime. The climbs shouldn't be an issue either, and after taking on Paris-Roubaix last year, the cobbles should be starting to feel familiar.
Why he probably won't: Sky don't overturn their pecking order on the fly too often, and right now they are all in for Thomas. Wiggins might have a chance if Thomas falls off his bike again.
Matti Breschel, Tinkoff-Saxo
Why he could win: Because miracles sometimes do happen.
Why he probably won't: Are we talking about good fortune? For Matti Breschel? I bet you $5 his derailleur is jamming right now, as you are reading this.
Stijn Devolder, Trek
Why he could win: He is the only person taking the start who has previously won the race. Also, he looked pretty good in Driedaagse, all things considered. So if his form disappears halfway through the race once again, it'll be an even bigger mystery than usual.
Why he probably won't: Apart from a few of the postal codes, this race bears very little resemblance to Driedaagse De Panne.
Jens Debusschere, Lotto-Soudal
Why he could win: If the race comes down to a sprint, Debusschere has that part in hand. The Belgian champion is pretty decent at surviving across the cobbles on a long day.
Why he probably won't: I can't see a big peloton finishing, and if there is one, it'll include someone like Kristoff or Degenkolb who's faster than Debusschere.
Some Old Guy I Forgot About
Why he could win: Two words: Nick Nuyens
Why he probably won't: This undersells Nuyens' form leading into the 2011 Ronde, when he actually began to look like the guy people had hinted at for most of the previous decade. There's only one rider who fits this description... one rider, on a quest to become the next treble winner... and I already mentioned him.
OK, here's what it's all about. By the way, the poll from earlier in the week suggests we should leave our traditional toast for the Koppenberg, no matter how late it is. The people have spoken.