Fabian Cancellara's Classics Column: Sizing up the Big Three for Tour of Flanders
The Tour of Flanders is just around the corner and we have not one, not two, but three big favourites. That's something special already, and I'm super excited for Sunday - I think it's going to be a fantastic moment for our sport.
It is rare to have three guys, three superstars, all on such a high level for the Classics. You often have one guy who is looking stronger than the rest, or perhaps a rivalry between two - I would know something about that - but to have three guys like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tadej Pogačar doing battle will bring a whole new dimension to the race.
The three of them are all very different riders, and It will be fascinating to see how they all use their respective strengths, and how they all play off one another. Mathieu is explosive and likes a slow sprint, Van Aert is strong all-round and likes a fast sprint, Tadej is best on the longer climbs but has the weaker sprint.
Their strengths don't match up, but they do even out, and that's what makes this Tour of Flanders so hard to predict.
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Let's start with Wout, given we're in Belgium and everyone wants him to win his first Tour of Flanders. This comes with a lot of pressure, and it's up to him to block out all the stress from the outside. Just treat it like any other bike race - easier said than done.
There's a lot of talk that time is running out for Wout to win his first Ronde, but that's nonsense. I was 29 when I won it for the first time - that's a year older than Wout is now. It's never too late.
Wout has not raced since Gent-Wevelgem so we have no further updates on his form but I believe he's coming with his 100% top condition right now. He showed some weakness on the Oude Kwaremont at E3 Saxo Classic on Friday, but it wasn't really weakness; it was just that last little ingredient and I suspect he got it at Gent-Wevelgem.
That will have given him the intensity and depth of hard racing to make up for what he was lacking, not to mention the confidence that comes with winning E3 and gifting Gent-Wevelgem away. I wrote last time that he showed humanity there, and maybe this has given him some sort of freedom or peace for Flanders.
As for Mathieu, he has no pressure to block out. He has won Flanders twice, and that gives him a certain psychological advantage.
I don't think he was really wounded by losing the sprint to Wout at E3. I wrote last week that it was still 3-1 to Van der Poel in terms of major recent battles but it's also 3-1 in Monuments. If he wins on Sunday he joins me as a joint record holder for Flanders, so basically he has a lot to gain but much much less to lose.
He can play with Wout, who wants badly to win and feels he could and perhaps should win. He raced with freedom at E3 and I think we'll see the same sort of Mathieu again.
What will be really interesting is how much he plays with Wout. He has the luxury of saying 'no' sometimes, and if Tadej goes and Mathieu tries to put pressure on Wout then then we could have some great drama.
Tadej could ride away
So where does Tadej fit into all this? I dare say he could ride away from both of them. That would really be something big.
He has far less experience, and we saw some positioning and technical errors last Friday, which might not make so much of a difference at E3, but will count for double at Flanders. This is a 270km race, not a 200km race. The final time up Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg will only start after 250km. Every kilometre after 200 makes a difference.
I would warn against underestimating Tadej's sprint but, even if it's a long and hard race, I don't see a scenario where he realistically beats Van der Poel and Van Aert at the line. And then you have to consider that UAE have no second option, whereas Jumbo-Visma and Alpecin-Deceuninck both do.
For all those reasons, he needs to take the race in his hands, like he did last year. His team need to protect him as much as possible to begin with, and then he needs to attack like hell. That way, only the two best guys can stay with him and then they race as three. Ok, that's an oversimplification, but Tadej needs to simplify this race in order to win.
The joker he has is to open the race early, and I expect an early move already on the Koppenberg - I sense that'll be an important point. It's not just Kwaremont-Paterberg that defines Flanders anymore - something big can happen anywhere in the last 40, 50, 60km.
Still, Tadej will have to drop Wout and Mathieu on the last time up the Kwaremont. It's the longest climb and the one that suits him best. He dropped everyone but Mathieu there last year and again at E3 last week. I dare say it can be done.
A fourth joker?
We have this saying in Switzerland, which roughly translates to: 'When three are fighting, the fourth is laughing.' Could we see a surprise winner?
When there is so much focus on one certain battle, that can feed into the mentality of the riders themselves, and they can end up looking at each other and marking each other. In that situation a fourth guy can profit off the rivalry. That could happen here.
You can never forget that it's a bike race, it doesn't always follow a script. It depends how the teams act and react.
The problem is, we have not seen enough from other teams. QuickStep are winning everything with Remco but they don't have the fire on for the Classics. Groupama-FDJ have a strong team but Stefan Küng has made a couple of mistakes in the past races. The other teams are a bit left, a bit right, a bit here, a bit there. So then it's normal that you just look to three riders.
Realistically, that fourth guy would be a Jumbo-Visma guy. They are like the golden QuickStep of old and they're making a true mark in cycling history - they really are on that level. The news about their sponsorship this week will have been an unwelcome distraction - it even ended up making the news in Switzerland, so then you know it's something big. I don't know why things like this come out now, just before such an important race.
But in the end the riders are professional enough and Jumbo are the only team with the numbers to really rip up the script. If the other two look at Wout, someone else could slip away. I was in this situation with Stuart O'Grady at Paris-Roubaix in 2007 - everyone looked at me, we switched, and suddenly he brought the victory home.
Christophe Laporte is the obvious candidate for this scenario, although I sooner see him sacrificing himself for Wout as this becomes the three-way battle we're all anticipating and secretly hoping for. I keep my word from my last column, Christophe Laporte will be ready to die for Wout van Aert on Sunday.
Fabian's Flanders Favourites
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck)
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma)
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ)
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious)
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)
Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep)
Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost)
Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma)
Kasper Asgreen (Soudal-QuickStep)
Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech)
Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar)
Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ)