It's been impossible to have a discussion about Flanders in the last ten years without having it centered around Tom or Fabian or both. They have won six of the last ten editions and of the three others it was only in 2007 that they didn't really have an impact on the race either as part of team tactics or through their attacking. So clearly this leaves something of a void, especially as Boonen had been looking sharp and on a progression to be at his usual high level for April as had Fabian who has been hungrier this spring than he has in a few years. For the Flemish supporters in particular the loss of Boonen is hard to bear given the status he has, they may love their cycling stars but the position that Boonen holds ranks somewhere above that, somewhere in the worship/deification range.
But as in all walks of life the show must go on and having watched the commentators of Sporza give their thoughts on what will play out on Sunday (that is a long talk but well worth a listen and for those of us not fluent in Flemish the main points can be translated from the written story) I've landed firmly in the camp of saying that the race will actually be better for not having the two giants there.You can say it's a bit of making lemonade out of the lemons we've been given but it goes beyond that really.
The rider preview Chris did shows in no uncertain terms that there is a large, perhaps larger than ever group of favorites with an actual chance of winning this year. I'd hate to be the one setting odds for this thing because how for example do you weigh a walking/riding crashfest of a man in top form like Thomas vs a man like Sagan who we were all talking about as "how can he not win?" a year ago but who has looked to be a few % off his form up until now? The answer is you can't of course. Especially since we have all grown so accustomed to putting all other riders performances in relation to what Tom&Fabian will do in the race. Sagan last year is the perfect example, a massive favorite and we were all talking about "how does he react when Fabs goes on the Kwaremont?", "can he shake Fabian on the Paterberg, should he wait to take him in a sprint?" because we all knew what the basic pillars of the race would be. Tom&Fabian's massive gravitational pull had all the other riders in their grip, regardless of how strong they were proven to be. This was true in the races as well as in the pre-race speculation. And in ways it was stifling.
The new course with the finish in Oudenaarde has for better or worse come to rotate mostly around what Spartacus is going to do on the Oude Kwaremont. For two years we saw a pretty locked down race, a trend broken last year by some course tweaks but still Cancellara's action on the Kwaremont was what everyone but two were anticipating and it ultimately made the race. This year there are no old rules, no historically given facts, there is only uncertainty and new factors coming into play which is relieving in many ways. Instead of Cance here's some of the stuff that will matter
- Shaking off Kristoff. Surely no one is dumb enough to discount what we've seen from the Katusha captain this spring? He was close to being a factor last year, he looks X% stronger (and leaner) now. How do you make sure he is well out of it by the time you crest the Paterberg? Because if he isn't, you're about to have a really bad day. Kristoff, with the help of his fuzzy little lieutenant Paolini, is to me is the big racemaker in this edition. He is the one big factor that needs addressing for other teams.
- If you managed to lose Kristoff, is Sagan still around? It's almost unfathomable that with Tom&Fabian out we aren't looking at this as an open goal for Sagan but it's hard to ignore what we've seen with our own eyes these last weeks, the guy is an enigma coming into RvV. Is he as strong or has he simply not got the form right for 2015? Has he underplayed his hand so he won't come into Sunday with a huge target on his back? It feels unlikely but other teams can't afford to ignore the possibility, a suddenly 100% Sagan would be a seriously bad man to find yourself with in a finale.I wonder if this won't be the case after all.
- Etixx-QuickStep now have to work for it. We've seen them struggle to get life without Boonen right and Flanders will be another chapter where failure is not an option. Most likely we will see them play multiple cards this time, simply saving all their cards (Stybar, Terpstra and Vandenbergh mainly) for last isn't getting them results, maybe it's time for plan B. Of course if the conservative pattern of the first two years of the new course comes back, they will and simply hope that one of the three ends up being the strongest on the day but the open nature of this years startlist almost excludes that as a possibility, there will be too many factors to control that they will have to commit riders earlier.
-Will Sky finally get strategy right in a cobbled Monument? Roubaix last year was a coming-of-age moment for Sky as a team in that it was a race where they didn't make a complete hash of good components in a monument. They didn't win in the end but they did more things right than wrong for a change. Stannard now looks a bit faded from February but Thomas and Wiggins are clearly on fire as are the major helpers. But, and it is a big but, this will be a tricky race tactically with anarchy rather than set hierarchy as the predominant theme. This is not Sky's forte and never has been. Can they dictate the race like they do stage races or can they perhaps be more adept at actually reacting correctly to rapidly evolving scenarios than they have in the past? And can they keep staying upright at the crucial moments? For sure more teams will be looking at Sky and reacting to them than they have before. (See how I graciously avoided calling them wankers for introducing a silly gimmick bike on the eve of the biggest race of the year? Except I just did, didn't I? Doh!)
- Where are you Sep? Are you A: as strong as you were going into Paterberg in E3 or B: as tired as you were in the finale of Gent-Wevelgem? If the answer is A then well, Sunday is going to be rock'n roll but Wevelgem was a chilling look for crazed Sep-ists (not implying there are any out there). Also, Sep seems to struggle to have teammates to use late in the game which could be a bad cross to bear if you look like the most powerful man in the race who no one want's to work with. If groups go up the road then a feisty Sep could once again be spending all his superior power trying to chase down people instead of riding away from them.
- Where are you Greg? A huge favorite before he went arse over tit the other day. Reportedly he isn't feeling any effects of the crash so he's still on my "certain to be on the podium"-list. I seriously think that if Greg Van Avermaet doesn't win on Sunday he never will. There are such things as windows of opportunity, and they don't stay open indefinitely. After last year he knows exactly what he needs to do on this course to win and an open race like the one I'm expecting should play right into his hands.
- Could this be the year for a long range effort? With the super-dominants out and Etixx with a bit of a tattered confidence we could se the earlier efforts really coming into play. Sky aren't going to take command I would assume and Tinkoff and Katusha don't really have the firepower. BMC might I suppose but it is a real possibility that a long range attack could go un-attended long enough to be dangerous this year. We always think this of course and reality slaps us back in line once we get to it but some time it's going to happen.
In short, the absence of the elephants in the room really brings a lot of these other possibilities into play and we are left with a race that is a lot more dynamic. There aren't the obvious developments where everyone is looking to Fabian and Etixx to take charge of the race, creating situations to react to. A lot of variables that would never be allowed to come into play in a race with a clear hierarchy can now become interesting. Even the fact that Sagan is an unknown quantity makes for a lot better race I would guess, it breaks a lot of mental barriers. It could make for some massive fireworks on Sunday.