The top storylines ahead of the Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix combo

The Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix are the two main cobbles one-day races disputed every season and along with the Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia compound the Five Monuments of cycling.

Over the last 10 years, these races, run on consecutive Sundays usually around Easter, have been utterly dominated by two men, who combined to take 13 of 20 events since 2005. However, both Belgium’s Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick Step) and Swiss Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) are out injured at this time, the former due to a dislocated collarbone suffered on the Paris-Nice and the latter after suffering two fractured vertebrae on last week’s E3 Harelbeke.

Those injuries and the emergence of a fresh, promising new wave of candidates opens up the field of potential winners significantly, which means that cycling fans are up for two hugely entertaining races.

Ahead of the main showcases, the end of February and the month of March are sprinkled with one-day classics, most of them run on the Flemish region of Belgium and those races serve as kind of a springboard for the big events.

Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara (back) won’t face off in 2015

These preparatory races are usually divided in two categories. On one side there are contests like the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the Scheldepris (run after Roubaix) and Ghent-Wevelgen, which are usually tackled by the best sprinters on the World Tour since their course and history has shown that they can be controlled and settled on a final dispute between the fast-man. Conversely, competitions such as the Omloop Het Niewsblad, the Dwars door Vlaanderen and the E3 Harelbeke offer other challenges, being viewed as the main roadblocks in preparation for the Tour of Flanders. These races make the cyclists wind up along the same narrow roads of the Flemish countryside, competing back and forth on the cobbled climbs that only the strongest classics specialists can use to their advantage on explosive bursts that select the candidates for the final win.

From all those races, the E3 Harelbeke is probably the closest to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (the local name of the Tour of Flanders). Run 10 days before the main event, features the same climbs that will decide Flanders, namely the pivotal Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont, but lasts 50 kilometres less (215 to 264 km in the 2015 routes), a difference that can be huge on the legs of the less prepared. On the Ronde, the last 60 km include not only a couple of passages on both climbs mentioned above, but also a run on the Koppenberg, an even more difficult hill, as well as trio of less intimidating slopes. Somewhere along these hills, the sturdiest will make their moves and by the time the front-runners reach the last 13 km, the final flat section until the finish line, the winner and podium positions may be close to settled.

Meanwhile, next week’s Paris–Roubaix is not run on Flanders but the cobbles continue to be the deciding factor. The so-called “Hell of the North” is almost flat from start to finish but his magic lies on the rough, irregular and poorly-maintained cobble sections that make even the most powerful racers suffer with the constant trembling sensation.

The French classic is a nightmare for both the cyclists and their teams as the crashes, technical problems and punctures pile up on the “pavé” in unexpected and untimely fashion, most of the time decisively influencing the men who lead the race entering the vélodrome of Roubaix. Holding the cobble stone awarded to the winner on the final podium is a distinction only at the disposal of the brave men who gather the strength necessary to thrive on mythical “pave” sectors such as the five-stars (the most difficult) Le Carrefour de l’Arbre and Trouée d’Arenberg. More than 20 sections of up to 3700 meters of distance are overtaken by the peloton over the approximately 250km that the race takes to complete, making the Paris-Roubaix one of the most prized possessions on the resume of any cyclist.

The peloton going through the Arenberg Forest pave sector in another Paris-Roubaix edition

So, with two major landmarks on the cycling season right here, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines heading into the peak of the spring classics season.

Peter Sagan and the pressure to deliver

Since his 4th place at the Milan-San Remo in 2012, a glorious future as King of the classics seems destined for the Slovak. However, as so many times happens in sports, predictions go out in the wind more than not, and Sagan is, three years and eight monuments later, still looking for his maiden triumph on one of cycling’s premier events.

He has won important one day races since then, namely the Gent-Wevelgen in 2013, his first great result on the Belgium cobbled classics settled with a decisive solo attack with four kilometres to go, and the E3 Harelbeke last year, after a four-man sprint, but on the most stressful, longer events, the Trencin-native has emptied the tank before the final decisions.

The 25-year-old rider extenuated all his excuses last season and the likelihood that another unsuccessful campaign goes undeterred is minimal now that he’s carrying the hopes and dreams of a man who wants everything. Oleg Tinkoff has opened his wallet to acquire the most sough-after cyclist available on the market and those 4M won’t pay themselves with wins on off-scale competitions on the USA or green jerseys in stage races. Sagan is under pressure to win now, to lead an experienced, savvy bunch of greybeards towards new heights and deliver the final blow.

Peter Sagan on the Paterberg in 2013

The problem is that he seems to have lost his magic as his aura and reputation augmented. Gone is the natural meticulousness to perfectly time his attacks, the smarts to coolly follow the right wheel, the sense of being in control. When the stakes are high, those traits make the difference and the confidence to trust instincts and act on them separates winners and losers. Well, that and a pair of strong legs, saved through the day with the right teammates answering threatening moves, deflecting the wind and keeping the rivals at bay.

To be a leader on the competitions coming, the outgoing Slovak will have to rely on his teammates and hope they can control the pack before the race goes wild and he can pounce. The Tinkoff-Saxo line-up to help Sagan should include Daniele Bennatti and Matteo Tosatto, a pair who provides loads of experience, Maciej Bodnar and Mikael Morkov, two powerful pace setters, and Matti Breschel, the closest resemblance of a Sagan’s running mate and his very own Luca Paolini. Nevertheless, it will come down to Sagan’s will to outsmart the competition and some luck to land the chips on his side.
The Slovak probably has more opportunities to shine on the Flanders than in Roubaix, where the brutality of the terrain tends to leave only the best standing, and his best chance has to be on the instance that a group sprints for the win. Can he hang until then?

His performance at the E3, where he flamed out on the last kilometres after hanging with Stybar and Thomas on the deciding run, and in the perilous Ghent-Wevelgen weren’t encouraging, but his rivals won’t underestimate him. He seems nowhere close to the best on the small climbs of the Flanders territory and his capabilities don’t match perfectly with the sheer strength needed to make a move at the Roubaix cobbles, but he’ll have to be dropped somewhere before the end and Tinkoff-Saxo would be wise to send men to early breaks in order to provide assistance should he need it later.

The Slovak prevailed on the 2014 E3 Harelbeke

The Slovak is far from the level of favouritism achieved in previous editions and he’ll be under a lot of pressure to perform, so expect him to be one of the most active forces out there.

The bourgeoning Sky leader

For years, Etiix-Quick Step and his previous iterations have dominated the major classics landscape, successively hoarding the most promising young specialists and entering the competitions with a stack full of aces ready to be unleashed at will. On the other hand, Team Sky can match the Belgian’s budget and appeal but their recruitment strategy has always leaned on consistent riders capable of supporting their leaders on the biggest stage races. However, over the last few years, they have slowly built the machine and the experience to fight with the best on the cobbles and their quest for a sure-fire leader has ended. With Edvald Boasson Hagen gone after seasons of underachieving results, Geraint Thomas finally assumed a more prominent role and is ready to consummate on his undeniable promise.

The 28-year-old has been a key cog for Sky’s aspirations over the last few years but the shine, the blitz and the cacophony surrounding his more famous colleagues constantly clouded most observers. Beyond the stubbornness and indecisiveness of Bradley Wiggins, the will of Christopher Froome, and the courage of Richie Porte, like a loyal squire, the Welshman has been there all along, whether leading out a sprint or in front of the pack on the highest mountains, working tirelessly for others to collect the spotlight.

Geraint Thomas (front) during last year’s Tour of Flanders

His only period of freedom has been the March-April somersault, the one-day races that allow going as far as your legs will take you. And Geraint Thomas’ legs have been gradually getting stronger, he has learned what to do, when to make a move, how to escape the dangers, who to follow…

His 10th position on the Tour of Flanders in 2011, while backing up Juan Antonio Flecha, may have been unexpected for those who missed his junior title at the Paris –Roubaix, and missing the action in 2012 made it forgettable to almost everyone, but his return to the cobbles in 2013, with a fourth place at both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke, confirmed his potential. He would be 8th at last year’s Flanders and 7th at Roubaix to announce his rise to the top tier of classic’s contenders, before this year’s explosion with the win on the E3 Harelbeke, the podium on the Ghent -Wevelgen after recovering from a spectacular crash, and an impressive escape at the Milan-San Remo that opened up the festivities.

Thomas has showed talent in various terrains over the years, having also attained great performances on the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice in 2015, and is one of the few contenders for the cobble monuments equipped to handle a possible attack from a long-distance, always a possibility. The Welsh may well be the single strongest rider on the peloton right now and these races require a kind of killer-instinct, tactical awareness and energy-saving posture that he has shown multiple times, but he will be a marked man and no one will let him run away if they can. Nonetheless, Thomas will be able to count on a powerful squad surrounding him, not only quality domestiques like Luke Rowe, Andrew Fenn, Christian Knees and Salvatore Puccio, capable of pushing the pace at the right time, but also with the likes of Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins available to counter the numbers thrown at the table by Etixx on the final moments.

Bradley Wiggins (R) will team up with Geraint Thomas (L) on the cobbles monuments

The 27-year-old Stannard won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad early this spring, outmanoeuvring three rivals from the Belgian formation on the final, but has since lost some of the jump he displayed. Maybe still recovering from a crash at Milan-San Remo, his massive frame is also not exactly suited for the climbs of Flanders. Additionally, he is yet to challenge the best at the Paris-Roubaix, a flatter race with the kind of tough conditions he should thrive on, therefore Stannard may well function as a Wild Card to be released in the right conditions, perhaps inserted on a break in French roads as part of the strategy to keep Etixx on the edge and leading the pursuit.

For Wiggins, the expectations are a bit foggier, with the 2012 French Tour winner saying goodbye to the British outfit after the Paris-Roubaix to focus on the track preparation ahead of the 2016 Olympics. He has expressed his desire to win the “Hell of the North” but his form is still uncertain based on his few appearances at the start of 2015. He will ride with the confidence of a triumph on the closing time-trial of the Three Days of de Panne but Sir Bradley is an unknown commodity on Flandres and, if he fails, Thomas may find himself alone against a bunch of rivals looking to expose his fragilities on a possible sprint, an endgame that definitely won’t fall for him with Sagan, Kristoff, Degenkolb or Van Avermaet on the mix.

Still, based on everything he’s already shown this season, Geraint Thomas is a front-runner for either event, and failing to amass, at least, a podium position would be a huge disappointment.

The Etixx-Quick Step two-pronged attack

The Belgian powerhouse routinely piles up wins over the year on different latitudes and conditions, from the time-trial achievements of Tony Martin to the sprint prowess of Cavendish, the all-around class of World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski and the high-rising ambitions of Rigoberto Uran. However, for Etixx-Quick Step no possessions have proven more valuable than the classics triumphs of the spring and 2015 is no exception, with a superb and eclectic ensemble propelled to enrich the team’s awards cabinet and surpass the series of failures and frustrations already accumulated since the start of the season.

Etixx-Quick Step’s Zdenek Stybar defeated BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet on the Strade Bianchi

Their roster suffered a big loss with the injury to team captain and Classics legend Tom Boonen, but the 34-year-old contributions on the road have been declining since 2012, when he swept all major races (Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgen, Flanders and Roubaix), and this could function as a blessing in disguise to the co-leaders of the team, running absent of a large shadow that would probably only slow them down.

While true that Etixx loses an important piece should one of the races come down to a sprint, their best weapons remaining are nowadays more potent contenders than the Belgian, and the team’s chances of coming out on top haven’t decreased significantly with Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra ready for the fight and to assume the team leadership going forward.

The Czech Champion had his coming out party at the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, where an unfortunate incident close to the finish line took him out of the fight for the win with Cancellara and Vanmarcke, and kept improving since then, collecting two more top 10 finishes on monuments in 2014. This season he’s been even stronger, taking a superb victory on the Strade Bianchi and coming close to a win on the E3 Harelbeke. However, he has also been prone to errors, with disappointing results at the Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgen and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad being attributed to a lack of luck and attention. If he can keep his concentration up, Stybar can clinch his first monument over the next two weekends because he can make a difference both on a solo move and on a finish against a limited range of adversaries, a dual proposition outside of the reach of most of his rivals.

Niki Terpstra won the Paris-Roubaix in 2014

One of those is Niki Tepstra, the defending Paris-Roubaix champion who claimed his victory last year due to the apathy of the rest of the bunch after an attack with 5 km to go. The 30-year-old, though, was one of the favourites going in with the win at the Dwars door Vlaanderen and a second place on the E3 Harelbeke, and this year he has already shone at the Omloop Het Niewsblad and the Ghent-Wevelgen, finishing behind winners Ian Stannard and Luca Paolini. The Dutch lacks the speed of his teammate, which limits his chances on some outings, but it’s not out of question that he can make a crucial difference on the climbs of Flandres or the toughest cobbles of Roubaix.

However, beyond their two best men, the strength of Etixx-Quick Step is also on the numbers, with an amount of other options available. Stijn Vandenbergh was able to stay on the front of last year’s Tour de Flanders to take a fourth place and he’s the team’s wild card once again, disposing of the freedom to get on the attack early on and the faculties to get it through if he is undervalued by their rivals. The slender 30-year-old can also play a major role in controlling dangerous moves and seems better built for the roads of the Paris-Roubaix even if his best results have come on the Belgium monument. Guillaume van Keirsbulck, winner of the Three Days of de Panne in 2014 and 5th on this year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, is, at the age of 24, a major part of the next generation of classics hopefuls secured early by the team, along with Yves Lampaert (23) and Italian fast-man Matteo Trentin (25), and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or more of them sent to an early break on either competition.

The Vanmarcke breakthrough

With Tom Boonen and his amazing 7 victories combined out of the contest, Belgium’s best hopes of securing a win rest on the shoulders of the 26-year-old Vanmarcke, a top four finalist on both races in 2014. The LottoNL-Jumbo cyclist rose to prominence with a triumph at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2012 and confirmed his prowess on the classics landscape one year later with a second place to Fabian Cancellara at the Paris Roubaix, immediately starting a descending clock to a major win.

Sep Vanmarcke (Green) was the only one to follow Fabian Cancellara in the 2014 Tour of Flanders

The Dutch team’s leader is incredibly regular, as shown by the top 5 finishes in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgen, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2014, and a classification equal or better than 6th this year in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianchi, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgen.

However, Vanmarcke hasn’t yet been able to secure his maiden win on the post-Milan-San Remo events and something is definitely missing. Luck? It has definitely played its part but the 26-year-old has also spent too much energy early on and has lacked power to respond on the crucial moments, a problem accentuated even more when the mileage goes up like in the main Flanders Classic and Roubaix.

A better supporting cast would help his cause but with Lars Boom’s escape to Astana, the talented rider now carries alone the hopes of his team and the men by his side form what can probably be designated as an underwhelming group. In fact, 37-year old Maarten Wynants and 32-year-old Maarten Tjallingii are his main lieutenants, and the only sign of hope comes from 24-year-old Tom Van Asbroeck, who’s still learning the ropes of this type of races. Although Tjallingii was third at the Paris-Roubaix in 2011, he’s definitely not at that level today, so Vanmarcke will probably have to handle several Etixx, BMC and Sky’s on his path to victory or, in alternative, attack furiously on one of the main hills in Flanders to leave alone or narrow the field substantially.

Can the LottoNL-Jumbo (front) rider clinch his first major classics triumph?

Certainly knocking on the door is nice, but someday you have to be able to blow away the gate and the talented Belgian is equipped with some of the finest skills to do it both on a solo effort or on a limited sprint contest. Coming up short time and time again undoubtedly begins to weight on both the rider and his team, so let’s hope he can reach the end game here.

The sprinters evolution

The two major one-day cobble races are usually reserved for the kind of riders that can muster good speed on small groups, roll well on flat terrain and are capable of explosive changes of speed on steep, short climbs. The denominated punchers dominated the history of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but the sprinters have been able to elevate themselves from time to time and the gradual evolution of the sport has enabled the emergence of a new type of fast-man. The recent breed is still strongly build to develop spectacular accelerations in flat finishes, but has managed to improve on his climbing skills and can now challenge the classic one day-racers to the win on most monuments.

In today’s cycling World Tour, Peter Sagan is the most important example of this type of rider, but two men are quickly catching up and the two cobble landmarks of this season represent another opportunity to show their improvement.

John Degenkolb triumphed on last month’s Milan-San Remo

Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb got his first Monument win at the end of March on the Milan San-Remo, his confidence rose dramatically heading into the cobblestone classics but the first races in Belgium weren’t kind for him. The 26-year-old was involved in the crash that victimized Fabian Cancellara on the E3 Harelbeke and then could not finish the wind-battered Ghent-Wevelgen, leaving some question marks on the approach to the main events.

One year after finishing 2nd at Roubaix, he will battle to improve on his best result on the Tour de Flanders, the 9th position of 2013, and showcase once again his impressive climbing ability. The German will be pushed to the edge on the short hills by all his rivals, eager to leave well behind one of the best sprinters in the world, and the lack of team backing could prove vital for his prospects since only Bert de Backer, 11th last year in Roubaix, might hang on the front far enough.
Always a great competitor, Degenkolb is a contender for the Ronde but his main chances probably lie one week later on the north of France, where his sheer power can be a difference maker along with his combative spirit. Should he add another win to his 2015 spring campaign, the early season would be a resounding success for the German.

Not unlike Degenkolb, Norwegian star Alexander Kristoff is another potent rider that would function as a real conundrum for the traditional one-day specialists should he pass the climbs with the best. The Katusha sprinter preceded Degenkolb on the Milan-San Remo list of winners, and this year was really close to a repeat shortly after showing signs of weakness on the penultimate climb. The 27-year-old looks comfortable on long races and last year put on a great fight on the last kilometres of the Tour of Flanders, pulling off an impressive comeback that almost led him to the final sprint discussion. However, Kristoff still suffers greatly on the explosive short climbs and can’t respond immediately to the attacks of his opponents, which limits his opportunities to make a difference with his superb final speed change.

Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff may struggle on the toughest climbs of Flanders

The Norwegian was 4th in the E3 Harelbeke and 9th at the Ghent-Wevelgen, both times terminating well after the final decisions were made, but almost swept the triumphs on the Three Days of de Panne, displaying impressive form, and he seems ready to improve on the 4th and 5th placements recorded on the most recent editions of the major Flanders race.

In the Paris-Roubaix, his best outcome was the 9th position in 2013 but if he can replicate the recent performances, he may well stand on the podium on the vélodrome. Wherever Kirstoff goes, the resolute support of wing mate Luca Paolini follows and this is essential to his success, with the veteran Italian playing a role that some of the other contenders surely envy.

More on the mould of Sagan that the two men just mentioned, BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet is another important speedster to take into account. The 29-year-old had a great start of the season with a 2nd place in the Strade Bianchi and a big win on a tough finish at Arezzo on the Tirreno Adriatico, but the races on his country didn’t went well, with an ugly crash ruining his chances on the E3 Harelbeke and the sequels impairing his Ghent-Wevelgen. Van Avermaet was 2nd last year on the Ronde after being beaten by Cancellara on the sprint, and his physical and technical conditions seem better suited for the Flanders race, but don’t discount his hypotheses on the “Hell of the North”, as he proved in 2013 when he was 4th.

Italian Daniel Oss will be the main assistance for Van Avermaet and if the leader slips, he should be ready to step up and make some noise. The 28-year-old is a perennial 2nd option for his team behind either Van Avermaet or Philippe Gilbert, but he has shown some cobbles promise before and, in 2015, has already top ten finishes on Harelbeke and Wevelgen. An aggressive rider, Oss can surprise with an early attack or getting on a break, and his sprint skills can come in handy should he survive the hilly complications.

Lotto-Soudal’s Jurgen Roelandts attacks during the 2015 Ghent-Wevelgen

Riding for a Lotto-Soudal team that always hopes to leave a mark on home soil, Belgian Champion Jens Debusschere is yet to manage a top 20 finish on the main cobbles classics, but his talent was in display on this year’s Gent-Wevelgen, when he made the final group that fought for the win. In 2014, his presence in Flanders and Roubaix was discreet but since then his career has evolved immensely, and observers will keep an eye on his performances with a look on the future.

However, for the present, 29-year-old Jurgen Roelandts is a surer bet, with his podium finish in Flanders in 2013 looming large and three top ten classifications on the Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgen fuelling his expectations. As another one of those riders with the mind-set necessary to move early and take risks, Roelandts could be one of the main animators of the cobble races along with Lars Boom, now riding for Astana.

The long-time Rabobank/Belkin cyclist moved to the Kazak team after years of failing to deliver on the potential displayed on this kind of racing conditions, but his notable victory on the cobble’s stage of the 2014 Tour de France is still fresh on everyone’s memory. He can’t follow the strongest on the hills of Flanders but in the Paris-Roubaix he’s bound to surprise someday and he may improve on his 6th place of 2012.

(Ok, fair enough, Roelandts and Boom are no sprinters, but I had to fit them somewhere before the end of this article)

This thing went way further than I expected, so it’s time to watch the festivities and let’s hope the weather does not ruin the fun.

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