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Tour of Flanders Preview

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A look at the big races on Sunday

Boonen on Muur 2010 Lars Ronbog, Getty

You can keep your Tours de France and your World Championships. For those of us in the know, there’s no better race than the Tour of Flanders. We’ve got a Sunday in the sun coming up, with two superb races over the cobbles to Oudenaarde. More detail and some predictions below.

The Men’s Route

There’s really very little I can add to what was outlined last year by Chris. The course is, insofar as it’ll matter, the same as last year. The gory details are here – 17 helligen and 5 sections of “flat” cobbles, 270km from Antwerp to Oudenaarde.

What maters? Well, the first named obstacle is the Lippenhovestraat after 87km, and the first hellig is the initial passage of the Oude Kwaremont after 119km. We hit the Muur after 171km, and that’s always fun and is arguably where the race starts.

Me, I have the second passage of the Oude Kwaremont (214km) as the start. After that, it is thick and fast apart from the final 14km. Your handy guide to the milestones:

  • Oude-Kwaremont (214km)
  • Paterberg (217km)
  • Koppenberg (224km)
  • Mariaborrestraat (228km)
  • Steenbeekdries (230km)
  • Taaienberg (232km)
  • Kruisberg (243km)
  • Oude-Kwaremont (253km)
  • Paterberg (256km)

Any of those could prove the decisive point, and teammates will be think on the ground once we hit the tough end of the course. Don’t expect a bunch sprint, is the key message here.

The women’s route

There’s more change on the women’s route, which grows ever tougher and includes the Taaienberg for the first time this year. This year’s course is 159km (from Oudenaarde to Oudenaarde, but if you think it resembles a loop, you’re clearly unfamiliar with Belgian course maps) with 10 hills and 4 sections of cobbles. There is action from the off with the pave all dealt with in the first 61km, as well as the first climb. I can’t find a version of the route map that I can include, but you can see it here.

Where does the race really kick off? Again, take your pick, but without multiple loops of the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo, I’m happy to put the Muur, basically halfway through the race, as the beginning of business time. From there:

  • Muur-Kapelmuur (86km)
  • Kanarieberg (114km)
  • Taaienberg (118km)
  • Kruisberg (133km)
  • Oude Kwaremont (143km)
  • Paterberg (146km)

The practical stuff

The good news for riders (and, I guess, Belgians having street parties) is the bad news for sadistic TV fans – the weather looks set fair. Whichever forecast you look at, and I tried a few, it’ll be unseasonably warm, with low winds and very little chance of rain. The better news is, we can expect start-to-finish coverage of the men’s race and decent coverage of the women’s race. Sporza, Eurosport, and the usual suspects will all be airing the raecs.

There’s also good news for those of you worrying about race clashes, after we’ve seen men holding up women and women holding up men so far this season; with the men pootling in from Antwerp the women will have the core course to themselves early on. The women are scheduled to hit the Muur between 1319 and 1333, and to cross the line between 1509 and 1535. The men, meanwhile, are due for Oude-Kwaremont 2 between 1530 and 1614, and to the finish between 1645 and 1741. Given the weather, I’d expect all those times (which are, needless to say, local) to be towards the earlier end. Make plans accordingly. TV coverage is due to start around 0830 local.

You can get more timetables, maps and the like over at the Flanders Classic page.

Who wins the women’s race?

If there’s one question I like less that “who’ll win men’s race X” it is “who’ll win women’s race X,” but let’s have a look.

You can’t go wrong starting your analysis with Marianne Vos. She returned to the race last year for the first time since winning it in 2013, and boasts six top tens. She’s looked in stellar form thus far in the road season, winning Alfredo Binda and never far from the front. Leader of the CCC-Liv team and will get strong support from the likes of Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, who is strong enough to win herself and was 4th last year and also in good form.

Another useful place to look for winners is the Boels squad. Last year’s winner Anna van der Breggen doesn’t return, as her mountain biking exploits have left her understandably spent. In her absence, the team have looked strong but tactically confused thus far in 2019, and that may prove the case again. Chantal Blaak won Omloop and is perhaps their strongest card, though Amy Pieters has four top-five finishes in five rides this year and was 2nd last year.

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Trek warmed up for this race by winning Dwars with Ellen van Dijk, the evergreen rider who took Flanders in 2014. She, Lotta Lepisto and Elisa Longo Borghini make a threatening trio and will look to be involved in every move. Canyon have also been prominent this season but this tougher course will make it harder for them. Kasia Niewadoma is probably their brightest hope but keep an eye on the tough and fast-finishing young German Lisa Klein.

There are plenty more riders to watch. Sunweb’s Lucinda Brand is riding well but hasn’t enjoyed this course in the past. I would have thought this course was too tough for a bunch finish, but Brand’s teammate Coryn Rivera won from a group of 16 two years ago and something similar could happen again. Lotte Kopecky boasts less course experience than Rivera but better form and is another rider nobody will want to tow to the finish. Another form rider to keep an eye on is Cecille Uttrup Ludwig, who’ll be tough to drop on these short climbs. Emilia Fahlin wears the Swedish champ’s jersey, which normally means a gallant second place, but though she’s riding well she’s never enjoyed this race.

The favourite, however, is Annemiek van Vleuten, who in the absence of van der Breggen is the strongest rider in the field. She’ll get decent support from her Mitchelton squad, particularly the experienced Gracie Elvin. Her two Belgian road races this year have seen her fourth in Omloop and seventh in Dwars. Between those two rides, she went to Italy and strolled away with Strade Bianche, riding into Siena in glorious isolation. She won this race in 2011 and has been in the top ten every year since 2010. Now she’s proven to have recovered from a horrible leg injury, I simply don’t think there’s anyone in this field who’ll be able to stick with her on this parcours.

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The men’s race – where is the favourite?

Yesterday, Conor sent me a question: there are six guys between 7/1 and 8/1 to win the race. How unusual is that? My answer was so long that I’ve turned it into a part of my preview. Even if you’re not interested in bookmaking, the implications for the race are apparent. Tl;dr version: what is unusual is not the six guys at 7/1 or 8/1 it is the lack of a prohibitive favourite, or favourites. This race is peculiarly wide open. We’ll get onto why in the next section, but first, some thoughts on the book.

I’ve crunched the numbers for Roubaix and Flanders with Bet365 (to pick one at random) and turned odds (shown fractional and decimal, so pick your poison) into implied percentage. I’ve then, very roughly, split the group into three. The “likely winners” are anyone at 25/1 or less. Then there’s a group of “have a chance riders” at 28/1 to 100/1 (and I’ve just counted them and assumed they’re all 50/1, which is a bit quick and dirty, but works well enough), and then there’s the group at more than 100/1 for whom the bookies will be praying, and who I haven’t even included in my sums.

Flanders Betting Chances

Rider Fractional Decimal Percentage
Rider Fractional Decimal Percentage
Stybar 7/1 8 12.50%
GVA 7/1 8 12.50%
MVdP 15/2 8.5 11.76%
WvA 15/2 8.5 11.76%
Sagan 8/1 9 11.11%
Jungels 9/1 10 10.00%
Naesen 14/1 15 6.67%
Gilbert 18/1 19 5.26%
Terps 18/1 19 5.26%
Benoot 20/1 21 4.76%
Kristoff 25/1 26 3.85%
Top 6: 69.64%
Likely winners: 95.44%
24 @ 28/1 to 100/1 51 1.96%
47.06%
Approximate book 142.50%
Share for top 6 48.87%

Roubaix Betting Chances

Rider Fractional Decimal Percentage
Rider Fractional Decimal Percentage
Sagan 7/2 4.5 22.22%
Terpstra 8/1 9 11.11%
GvA 8/1 10 10.00%
Degz 10/1 11 9.09%
Stybar 11/1 12 8.33%
Rowe 12/1 13 7.69%
WvA 14/1 15 6.67%
Naesen 14/1 15 6.67%
Gilbert 14/1 15 6.67%
Lampaert 18/1 19 5.26%
Benoot 20/1 21 4.76%
Demare 22/1 23 4.35%
Stuyven 25/1 26 3.85%
Top 6: 68.45%
Likely winners: 106.67%
27 @ 28/1 to 100/1 51 1.96%
52.94%
Approximate book 159.61%
Share for top 6 42.89%

Let’s start with the similarities. The top 6 in the market have implied percentages of 69.6 and 68.5, and make up 48.9% and 42.9% of the “book” (that is, the value of adding together the implied percentages, which is always over 100% and in this case is 143 and 159 (or thereabouts) for the two races. Flanders’ top six in the market are therefore viewed by the odds compilers as collectively likelier winners than the top favourites at Roubaix. That fits the historical pattern, where outsiders have a marginally better chance in the latter race. The full group of likely winners are at 95.4% and 106.7%, which suggests they are slightly likelier at Roubaix and is sort of vaguely surprising (though not that significant). Part of that is also down to where I drew the artificial boundaries – there are 13 guys at 25/1 in Roubaix and only 11 in Flanders. In essence, we have very similar books.

What does that have to do with your question? Well, you start a market by pricing up your top couple of riders, and work backwards. Thinking as a bookie, if you don’t have a short-priced favourite or two, you _have_ to have a few riders in the 6/1 - 10/1 range to get the percentages up to the point where the book is profitable.

Let’s run a counter factual. Bob Jungels stays in the Ardennes, Gilbert and Naesen succumb to bronchitis, or pneumonia, or whooping cough or whatever, and don’t turn up. GvA and Sagan come into the year firing on all cylinders. Greg wins Omloop and E3, Sagan takes KBK, MSR and GW. Now what does our market look like? You start with those two at, let’s say, 11/4 and 7/2, which in that universe is generous, but it makes the point. Combined, they’re now making up around 50% of the market (48.9, actually), so your next few have to be longer to keep you in the same ballpark for the top favourites. I have Stybs at 10/1, Lampaert and MvdP at 12/1, and Wout at 14/1. Even at that sort of range for top favourites, my top 6 combine for over 80% implied odds.

An alternative Flanders Market

Rider Fractional Decimal Percentage
Rider Fractional Decimal Percentage
GVA 11/4 3.8 26.67%
Sagan 7/2 4.5 22.22%
Stybar 10/1 11 9.09%
Lampaert 12/1 13 7.69%
MVdP 12/1 13 7.69%
WvA 14/1 15 6.67%
Terps 18/1 19 5.26%
Benoot 20/1 21 4.76%
Kristoff 25/1 26 3.85%
Stybar 25/1 26 3.85%
Trentin 25/1 26 3.85%
Top 6: 80.03%
Likely winners: 101.59%
24 @ 28/1 to 100/1 51 1.96%
47.06%
Approximate book 148.65%
Share for top 6 53.84%

That’s actually much closer to what we’d have seen in a year with Cance and Boonen flying. Or to a Tour market. What I take from the data is not that 8/1 the fifth favourite is odd - it is that 7/1 the (disputed) favourite is really odd. Why did that happen?

Who wins the men’s race?

I can’t offhand think of a big race where I’ve been consistently confident that I can spot a winner, and yet changed my mind as to who that winner will be. All offseason I was strongly of the opinion that Peter Sagan would grab his second Tour of Flanders. In the face of his early season form, Oliver Naesen was my pick. Then I decided we were going to see another Deceuninck winner and Phillipe Gilbert seemed to be the winner. We have multiple favourites for this race because Sagan, like Greg van Avermaet, is yet to show his best form, whilst Naesen and Gilbert are coming into this race with bugs that have disrupted their preparation. I’m confident picking van Vleuten as a winner. She might not win, but I’m confident she’ll finish, and finish strongly. The men’s race gives me no such confidence. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each of the big candidates.

The DQS quartet

Zdenyk Stybar (7/1), Bob Jungels (9/1), Philippe Gilbert (18/1), Yves Lampaert (28/1)

In favour: This is the strongest team in the race and the four will be well-supported by Declercq, Asgreen and Keisse. All have shown excellent form, with Stybar winning Omloop and E3 (the best two trials for this race), and Jungels taking Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Gilbert and Lampaert haven’t won but have been active at the front of races and sometimes stopped by the need to support teammates.

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Against: Picking one of them to win means assuming they won’t ride for another guy. As a quartet this isn’t a disadvantage but individually it is. Jungels may have the best form of the four but hasn’t ridden Flanders before (though he knows the roads and is a monument winner). Gilbert is sick.

Conclusion: Stybar is in the form of his life and is the favourite with the fewest blemishes. Can stick on the hills, attack and ride intelligently, and has a kick at the finish. Jungels will need to go long and go solo but is on a team that will support him to do just that, though he’ll be watched more closely than ever.

The big two

Greg van Avermaet (7/1) and Peter Sagan (8/1)

In favour: Coming into the year, the two strongest riders in the world in these conditions. Sagan is a former winner of this race with five top-6 finishes. Van Avermaet hasn’t won and has been unlucky but has won every similar race that matters (Roubaix, E3, Omloop) and has 7 top ten finishes. Both have the ability to win from any size of group, and to finish strongly. Both know these roads very well.

Against: We thought coming in that Sagan’s team would be stronger, but Drucker’s injury and a lack of form for the remainder hasn’t inspired. Similarly, the support at CCC has been as bad as the pessimists feared. Worse, both riders have looked below their best all spring. Neither has been terrible, and both have had moments, but it hasn’t been a dominant build up.

Conclusion: With 3rd in E3 and 2nd in Omloop Greg has a better form case, and I see him as likelier to finish on the podium. However, I believe that Peter is better on his best days and I think he’s likelier to return to form good enough to win the race.

The new two

Matthieu van der Poel (15/2) and Wout van Aert (15/2)

In favour: How can we separate these two? The cyclocross stars have shared their careers to date and have brought that rivalry onto the road, and both youngsters are already among the very best on the course. Wout was 2nd in E3, as well as 6th in MSR and 3rd in Strade, whilst Mathieu won Dwars and Denain, as well as finishing 4th in Gent-Wevelgem. Van der Poel has a decent sprint, too.

Against: A lack of experience may hurt, and both have looked tactically naïve and too willing to work at times. MvdP is making his debut and won’t have much team support, whilst WvA was 9th last year and has a good Jumbo team behind him but does lack a fast finish.

Conclusion: I’ve been proved wrong again and again by both men, who are true stars already and only getting brighter. I do think this race will be too much too soon for van der Poel, who might wish the race was a little shorter. Van Aert, however, seems certain to be involved at the sharp end and could manage a podium.

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The rest

Oliver Naesen (14/1): Desperately unlucky to fall ill at the worst time whilst in superb form. If fully-fit, looks among the absolute favourites, with very few holes in his form or experience, especially now he’s developing a sprint. Hasn’t won as much as he should have.

Nikki Terpstra (18/1): Won last year when part of the Wolf Pack; life has proved predictably harder since starting out on his own. Okay, he has teammates at Direct Energie (and Anthony Turgis looked great at Dwars) but his “go early” style is helped by support and it is hard to see a repeat.

Alexander Kristoff (25/1): Another who proved me wrong with his win in a massively entertaining Gent-Wevelgem, but I think the repeated climbs here will be just too much for the Norwegian, who has a better chance next week.

The Puppy pack – Jasper Stuyven (50/1), John Degenkolb (80/1): I mention them purely because these odds reflect the season so far. Stuyven, like Sagan and van Avermaet, needs to return to form. Unlike them, he needs to be better than he’s ever been before, and probably needs to win solo. Both will have a better chance at Roubaix.

Luke Rowe (28/1): Has looked the strongest man in cycling for the last few weeks, but would need an awful lot to go right to be at the front in the biggest race of all. Top ten chance.

Michael Matthews (28/1): Recovered from concussion, with sneaky-good support and looking like he’s climbing better than ever, if things do stay in a biggish group he’s one to watch. Expectation is that the toughest climbs will see him dropped, however.

Matteo Trentin (28/1): Looks on great form this season and has been there or thereabouts without picking up a big win. Suspicion is that this is just too far and too tough, but can’t be entirely ruled out.

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Tiesj Benoot (20/1) and Tim Wellens (40/1): Benoot had another of “those” races on Wednesday, when he forced a split, looked the strongest in the lead group for miles and then finished fifth of a five man group. That could happen again. Lotto have a history of disappearing in the biggest races but I do think Benoot will be visible, I just can’t see him winning. I mention Tim Wellens because I think he has the best chance of the outsiders in the race. Was third in Omloop on his only cobbles run this year. This is his Flanders debut, and the distance is a concern, but I believe the Kwaremont loops make the “new” Flanders course more climber-friendly than any other cobbled classic. It could suit him.

Alejandro Valverde (28/1): The world champion makes his Flanders debut at the age of 38. The case I’ve just made for Wellens applies equally well here. Valverde can cover a short sharp climb with the very best in the world, and whilst he might not have much cobbles experience, he has a superb racing brain. Unlike Wellens, he also has an excellent record in the longest and toughest races he rides, with 14 podiums between Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the World Championships. I came very, very close to predicting him as the winner.

Prediction Time

In the women’s race, I think we’ll see a second consecutive Dutch sweep of the podium, with Annemiek van Vleuten ahead of Chantal Blaak and Marianne Vos. I’m not sure where AvV’ll will leave the remainder in her dust, but I think it’ll be a fair way out, giving Blaak long enough to go clear of the lead group in a chase, and Vos to roll back the years and win the small group sprint for third.

Among the men, I think Zdenyk Stybar will be the last, and strongest of the DQS attackers and I think he’ll win solo, with Alejandro Valverde beating Peter Sagan as a small group fight for second. Wellens, van Aert, Lampaert and Benoot will maintain Belgian pride with top tens.

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Update

This article has been updated to improve my butchered spelling of Annemiek (and my inexplicable decision to call her Anna in the predictions).

I’ll also take the chance to add a few things I should have mentioned earlier - my choice for the most useful men’s and women’s startlists, and a reminder of where you can check who’s riding for your FSA-DS team. If anything else earth-shattering happens, either I or one of the other eds will be back to provide further updates. If not, who’ve you got, and what are you doing for the race?

As I’ve said, I’m settling in with four excellent beers and the fudge I’m about to boil up. I’m quite happy with my team, but worried that the Seal is bringing Jungels and Stybar, inter alia. Think she’s going to increase her lead?