In what had been billed as one of the most open races in recent years it was, almost predictably, an outsider who took the line honours.
Six hours 18 minutes and 49 seconds after setting off from Antwerp and with 270.1 kilometres of racing in his legs, Alberto Bettiol coasted across the line in Oudenaarde arms aloft on Sunday having won not only the first race of his professional career, but also one of the grandest of all of the one-day classics: the Tour of Flanders.
“I still don’t believe what I did,” an emotional Bettiol said immediately afterwards. "My first win. I don’t believe it".
Indeed, Bettiol was not the only one left in disbelief. Minutes after the Italian crossed the line his general manager Jonathan Vaughters summed up the reaction to the EF Education First riders' maiden win succinctly in three characters. "OMG," Vaughters tweeted.
After an early breakaway had formed, it was Magnus Cort of the Astana squad that lit up the race on the ascent of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, just under 100km from the finishing line.
What followed was a series of attacks and counter-attacks before the leading group was, finally, whittled down to just under 20 riders.
Around 20km from Oudenaarde and with leaders Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) having been reined in by a select group of riders on the third and final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, Bettiol launched what turned out to be his race-winning move 17km from the finish. It was devastating.
Out of his saddle and on the drops, Bettiol ghosted off the front leaving many of the pre-race favourites looking pedestrian. The 25-year-old who had started this race only three times, finishing just once – 24th place in 2017 – appeared in control, masterful even.
With just one brutal drag up the gnarly Paterberg to follow – one of the many cobbled climbs that characterise the race – Bettiol was forced to dig deep into his reserves. As was world cyclo-cross champion Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) who had earlier crashed before chasing back on. Van der Poel, whose father won here in 1996, may have won the hearts of the Flandrian fans with his dogged ride, but it was Bettiol who took the honours.
As the chasing group that featured a number of in-form sprinters – including Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) who won last week's Ghent-Wevelgem – gave pursuit, few appeared prepared to work knowing, almost certainly, they would without fail be setting up the fast-men. For Bettiol, it was the perfect scenario who had to simply dig in and produce the time trial of his life.
“After the Paterberg I was still in the lead. It was the longest 14km in my life," Bettiol said. "But I knew that I had Sebastian Langeveld behind me working hard. We are a really good team and from now on you should look more on the front for the pink."
After becoming the first Italian to win here since Alessandro Ballan in 2007 and the second to prevail in Oudenaarde on the same day following compatriot Marta Bastianelli's victory in the women's race, one imagines it will not be too long before Bettiol is 'on the front for the pink' once Monday's La Gazzetta dello Sport is published.
— LaGazzettadelloSport (@Gazzetta_it) April 8, 2019
Bettiol wins the Tour of Flanders
Six hours 18 minutes and 49 seconds after setting off from Antwerp and EF Education First–Drapac rider Alberto Bettiol has upset the favourites and won the 103rd edition of the Tour of Flanders.
Incidentally, Bettiol's compatriot Marta Bastianelli won the women's edition of the race a couple of hours ago, that should make for a decent front page on La Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday morning. Forza Italia!
"I still can't believe it," are the first words heard from Bettiol. “I still don’t believe what I did. My first win. I don’t believe it". General manager Jonathan Vaughters is pretty chuffed, too . . .
— Jonathan Vaughters (@Vaughters) 7 April 2019
Deceuninck-Quick Step rider Kasper Asgreen took second spot while Alexander Kristoff won the sprint for third spot and there was a much-deserved fourth place for Mathieu van der Poel.
Thrilling final couple of hours of racing today, let's hope for the same again seven days from now when we will, once again, be providing live commentary from Paris-Roubaix.
Under 1km to go
Alberto Bettiolis going to win today.
2km to go
Alberto Bettiol is under 2,000 metres from becoming the first Italian since Alessandro Ballan in 2007 to win the Tour of Flanders.
4.5km to go
There's a slight tailwind heading towards the finish line in Oudenaarde. Alberto Bettiol's advantage is holding at around 20secs, Peter Sagan is trying to organise the chase, but nobody appears to want to help. Playing perfectly into the hands of the EF Education First rider who will surely be claiming an incredible maiden win here today.
6km to go
Alberto Bettiol has increased his advantage to 24secs. With a number of strong in-form sprinters – such as Michael Matthews (Sunweb) or Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) – in this group, nobody appears to want to take control of the chase knowing that they would, probably, be outsprinted if it comes down to a bunch sprint finish. Looking good for the young Italian now.
8.1km to go
Greg Van Avermaet is closed down.
8.5km to go
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) is giving chase to Alberto Bettiol.
10km to go
Alberto Bettiol is holding on to his lead by around 17secs.
12km to go
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First–Drapac) is out in front, adopting the time trial position. Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) is in pursuit while another cyclo-cross star, Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) is on front of the chasing group.
14km to go
Mathieu van der Poelleads the chasing group over the Paterberg. He made it look as if Greg Van Avermaet was riding in treacle.
15km to go
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First–Drapac) is tearing it up and has hit the Paterberg. But the chase is on. Team-mate Sebastian Langeveld, rather cleverly, is making a nuisance of himself.
16km to go
Alberto Bettiolwho is leading the race has never won a race in his professional career. What a win this would be, one of the biggest one-day races in the entire calendar. Can he hold on to his 18sec lead? The Paterberg will follow shortly.
17km to go
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First–Drapac) has gone off the front of the leading group and he's absolutely flying up Oude Kwaremont. Out of his saddle and on the drops the Italian made that look way, way too easy. Bettiol is now the lone leader.
21km to go
With 250km in the legs now the leading protagonists are approaching the Oude Kwaremont, the third and final ascent up the 2.2km climb which is partly cobbled, partly paved. Following that in very quick succession will be the final climb of the day, the Paterberg, before the 14km run-in towards the finish line in Oudenaarde. The final 6km is along a long straight and smooth road. Ideal for a strong time trial rider.
22km to go
Kasper Asgreenand Dylan van Baarle are working well together on the front, the pair have 21secs on the chasing group which now contains around 15 riders, including a former winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
26km to go
Sep Vanmarcke is hurting and he's been dropped on a slight incline. Further back, a split has been created in the chasing group following an injection in pace from Bob Jungels. Jungels, remember, lost out to Mathieu van der Poel midweek at Dwars with the cyclo-cross world champion having the stronger sprint at the end. If Jungels want to win today one imagines he will need to, somehow, go solo. Still an awful lot of racing to go though.
28km to go
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) had to pick up a new wheel and the Belgian may have lost some ground there. Back on the front of the chasing group, we have Mathieu van der Poel, Bob Jungels, Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan, Alejandro Valverde, Yves Lampaert and Wout Van Aert.
Upcoming attractions . . .
By the way, it has been confirmed that Niki Terpstra will miss next weekend's Paris-Roubaix. The Dutchman, apparently, lost consciousness earlier fllowing that horrible looking crash.
The leading trio, meanwhile, has increased its lead to 27sec with 30km to go.
#RVV19 Notre médecin confirme que @NikiTerpstra va bien. Cependant, victime d'un traumatisme crânien avec perte de connaissance, il ne pourra pas reprendre la compétition sur @Paris_Roubaix ! #AllezDirectEnergiepic.twitter.com/ozucaHyeTx
— Team Direct Energie (@TeamDEN_fr) 7 April 2019
35km to go
Dylan van Baarleet al have around 20 seconds on the chasing group which is now being led by Tim Wellens. Again. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) is in there, but it looks like the group behind is closing in on them.
37km to go
Stijn Vandenberghwas dropped on the gnarly looking cobbled Taaienberg climb. Kasper Asgreen, Sep Vanmarcke and Dylan van Baarle pushed on. Dutch national champion Mathieu van der Poel is back near the front of the chasing group, as is Belgian national champion Yves Lampaert, Luxembourg national champion Bob Jungels, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, Slovakia national champion Peter Sagan and world champion Alejandro Valverde. That's some group.
40km to go
All over for Tim Wellens and he's back in the bunch. Just behind Alejandro Valverde wo is riding a mightily impressive race here today.
Tim Wellens, one of those 36 Tour of Flanders debutants I mentioned earlier, is the next to attack off the front of the leading group. Can the Lotto-Soudal rider emulate Dylan van Baarle and bridge the gap to the leading quartet?
The gang of four
Dylan van Baarlehas, somehow, bridged over to the leading trio. The quartet now lead the main bunch by 23secs. That could, potentially, be good news for Welshman Luke Rowe. It may make not a jot of difference, only time will tell. Stay tuned to discover what it all means.
Van der Poel riding his way into the hearts of the Flandrians
The leading trio have 20secs on the leading group.
Mathieu van der Poel has got on to the main group. What an incredible talent this 24-year-old is.
Time for the Koppenberg . . .
Kasper Asgreen, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh are on the Koppenberg. This one reaches 22% in gradient and is so hard that Eddy Merckx has previously said was the only climb in world cycling that he ever walked up during his illustrious career.
50km to go
Luke Rowe appeared to want to chase before Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) took over. Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) now leads on the front. Team Sky have three riders and are not hiding.
51km to go
Kasper Asgreen, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh have joined forces and are leading the race. There's an awful long way to go yet though. This is good for Deceuninck-Quick Step who will be able to play the numbers game. Any chasing will have to be done by rival squads.
52km to go
Kasper Asgreen is doing a brilliant ride here today and the Danish Deceuninck-Quick Step rider caught Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh just below the summit. Not too far behind was his team-mate Yves Lampaert. Team Sky's Luke Rowe was hanging in there.
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First–Drapac) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r-La Mondiale) are on the Paterberg, the sttemp short climb that tops out at 20.3% in gradient. The pair lead by around 10secs.
Van der Poel is back!
Mathieu van der Poel has clawed his way back into the leading group. I actually though he had broken his collarbone, but the young Dutchman is made of stern stuff and he's back in the race. Incredible stuff.
Further up the road, the nearly-man of the classics Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First–Drapac) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r-La Mondiale) had pulled out some space on the leading group.
Mathieu van der Poel crashes!
The reigning world cyclo-cross champion has hit the deck. The Dutchman appeared to be slowing up for a new wheel after, probably, puncturing. However, as he took his hand off his bars he lost control of his bike and went flying over his handlebars.
60km to go
Apologies, in all the chaos of trying to work out who's where on the road, I appear to have overlooked the fact that the breakaway has been caught: the breakaway has been caught.
CCC Team have big numbers on the front now. Will today be the day Greg van Avermaet finally wins at the Tour of Flanders? Deceuninck-Quick Step are tucked in behind the team in orange, Jumbo-Visma are there too, as are a couple of Dimension Data riders. Everything to play for here, Clive.
What's on the menu?
70km to go
Tim Wellens and Anthony Turgis have rejoined the leading group who now trail Matej Mohoric by 12secs. Just over 200km in the legs now, time for the roadmen to come to the fore.
Luke Rowe puts in an effort
The Team Sky rider shuffled his way up towards the front of the group before rising out of his saddle and putting down the power as he neared the summit of the Kanarieberg. Tim Wellens Lotto-Soudal) and Anthony Turgis (Direct Énergie) were smartest to the move and, in fact, passed the Welshman and are pushing on, chasing Matej Mohoric.
Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) has escaped off the front of the leading group and he's slouched over his handlebars as if riding a time trial. The 24-year-old is another debutant here today.
75km to go
Flanders debutant Alejandro Valverde is looking relaxed and was just spotted smiling. Child's play this for the veteran Spanish puncheur.
76km to go
There are around 35 riders in what I'm calling the leading group now. The breakaway is 45secs further up the road, but I'm guessing today's winner will come from this 35-man bunch.
78km to go
Magnus Cort, who set up all this chaos with his attack on the Muur, has popped.
80km to go
There are splits all over the road right now and it's a little confusing.
Matti Breschel (EF Education First), Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), Yves Lampaert(Deceuninck-Quick Step) and Nelson Oliveira (Movistar) are about to be caught by Danny van Poppel (Jumbo-Visma).
There's a group featuring Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Dries De Bondt (Corendon-Circus), Luke Rowe (Team Sky) in pursuit and just behind the is anther bunch, featuring Peter Sagan.
85km to go
Matti Breschel(EF Education First), Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and Nelson Oliveira (Movistar) have chipped off the front of the main chasing group. The breakaway, which also features four riders, is around a minute further up the road.
Katusha-Alpecin are controlling the chase in the third group on the road, the team have no riders in either the breakaway or the other two groups up the road. Dimension Data, too, missed the split.
90km to go
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) are also in this leading group which now trails the breakaway by around a minute. Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) and Luke Rowe (Team Sky) are also in there. This is a very, very strong group. This race is very much on now.
A gap has been created following that climb over the Muur van Geraardsbergen. The gap is closable, but there are some strong riders in the leading group.
Silvan Dillier (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), there are three Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mates –Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar in there. World champion Alejandro Valverde is also in there.
98km to go
Magnus Cort (Astana) put in an attack just beneath the summit of this vicious climb, but he was unable to put any serious space between himself and the main protagonists. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) was up near the front, as was Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott).
100km to go
The bunch is riding full gas, flying towards the Muur van Geraardsbergen – or wall of Geraardsbergen. This one reaches 20% in gradient at its steepest past and CCC are near the front, getting their main man Greg Van Avermaet positioned.
103km to go
Trek-Segafredo have numbers near the front and are working hard, keeping the pace high with five riders – Koen de Kort, John Degenkolb, Mads Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns – drilling it.
Further back there was a crash a few minutes ago, but luckily it was a soft landing for the unidentified Vital Concept-B&B Hotels and Movistar riders.
As you were
Gianni Moscon's group has been caught. The breakaway's advantage has dropped to below three minutes. Plenty of jostling for position in the bunch in the run-in to the Muur van Geraardsbergen, nobody will want to be caught out on this steep, steep drag where the cobbles are rough and the terrain unforgiving.
110km to go
Olivier Le Gac (Groupama-FDJ) attacked off the front of the peloton a few minutes ago. At first it didn't look like much to write home about, but in fact it sparked a bit of movement. Around a dozen or so riders, including Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) and Damian Gaudin (Direct Énergie) chipped off the front.
The break is nearing the Tenbosse, the seventh climb of the day. Shortly afterwards will be the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen – the climb with the church at the top, the one where Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) did way too much work earlier this season during Omloop.
Absolute scenes . . .
. . . on the Berendries.
118km to go
Another danger in bike races, of course, are idiots who step into the road when the bunch is heading their way, a bit like this young lad did a few moments ago as he took a photo on his not-so-smartphone. Kids today, eh?!
Kasseien, narrow lanes, wind and hellingen
A mentioned earlier, it's the varied terrains and road surfaces that can make this race so, so hard.
Look at those cobbles . . .
. . . and the narrow road.
Then later there will be the Paterberg where some riders, as we can see Philippe Gilbert doing here (in 2017), opt to ride down a single strip of cobbles in an attempt to make the stretch of road that tops out at 20% in gradient, slightly easier.
The lip between that strip of cobble and the road itself is yet another danger that the riders need to watch out for. Gilbert, here, gives his front wheel some air to ensure his bike stayed upright on his way to winning the 101st edition of the Ronde.
The breakaway, meanwhile, has seen its lead to drop to below five minutes and Deceuninck-Quick Step are yet again on the front with Tim Declercq, Iljo Keisse and Kasper Asgreen controlling things.
128km to go: On the Wolvenberg
The peloton is inching its way up the 640-metre long Wolvenberg. So slow are the backmarkers riding that some of them are able to almost ride to a halt and chat with the spectators.
The breakaway's lead has grown to 6min 20sec.
131km to go
The pace eased up a little following that injection in pace. Lotto-Soudal has now taken over on the front. One of the favourites for today's race, Zdenek Stybar of Belgian super-team Deceuninck-Quick Step is chasing back on following a mechanical.
135km to go
Team Sky and Bora-Hansgrohe put the hammer down causing a split in the bunch as the peloton sped its way along a wide road. There appears to be some crosswinds.
140km to go
Team -mates Ian Stannard, Owain Doull and Filippo Ganna are sat near the front of the peloton which is now weaving its way through Flanders along these very narrow lanes. They are looking very relaxed at the moment. The three Team Sky riders appear to be doing their best to fill the width of the road in an attempt to slow the race up a little. Bora-Hansgrohe and CCC Team are tucked just behind and the four-man breakaway has increased its lead to almost six minutes following that apparent tactic from Team Sky. The pace was slow there on the Kortekeer climb that Yevgeniy Gidich (Astana) was able to entertain the roadside spectators with a track stand.
148km to go
Hugo Houle trousered himself that €5,000 prize pot and the peloton now, which still has a posse of Deceuninck-Quick Step positioned near the front, is churning its was up the climb, past one of the many VIP tents lining this famous climb where three-time winner Tom Boonen was just spotted watching the action.
Whether or not Tommeke is enjoying one of these I cannot confirm, but I have a sneaky suspicion a few punters out on Flanders today will be getting stuck into a few bottles of the stuff this afternoon.
By the way, Luke Rowe, Peter Sagan and Yves Lampaert were smart enough to shuffle their way up to near the front of the group, keeping out of danger's way on these tight, narrow climbs where the slightest touch of wheel can see a rider lose their momentum and in turn position.
First climb up the Oude Kwaremont!
The four-man breakaway in now on the Oude Kwaremont. Canadian rider Hugo Houle (Astana) put some space between himself and the other three and appears on course to win the €5,000 prize on offer here.
Here's some more on that prize (Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V from a press release):
Extending an existing partnership, Flanders Classics and the Belgian National Lottery have today announced a new initiative to take place during the men’s Tour of Flanders. On Sunday 7 April, the racers will be competing in a race-within-a-race during the “Grote Prijs Stig Broeckx”. The Belgian National Lottery is providing prize money of €5,000, which the winner may donate to a charity of his choice.
The Lottery will also provide €5,000 to Stig Broeckx for a charity of his choice. Almost three years have passed since Stig Broeckx was involved in a serious crash and ended up in a coma whilst riding for Lotto Soudal. His long and courageous journey on the road to recovery inspired the Belgian National Lottery to crown the bravest Flandrien during the Tour of Flanders and thereby also pay Stig Broeckx a tribute. Flanders Classics is happy to lend its support to this initiative.
Defending champion Niki Terpstra (Direct Énergie) has crashed and it does not look good. The Dutchman is lying motionless on the road and is being attended to by medics. I'd say that's his race over. This could be absolutely devastating news for the French Pro-Continental team who have built their whole classics campaign around Terpstra who joined in the close season from Deceuninck-Quick Step.
— Ronde Van Vlaanderen (@RondeVlaanderen) 7 April 2019
Over to you Damien Gaudin, Adrien Petit, Alexandre Pichot and Anthony Turgis. The latter, of course, produced a strong ride midweek at Dwars door Vlaanderen where he lost out to Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), another of the favourites for today's race, in a two-up sprint.
165km to go
The peloton has just passed through the feedzone where the team soigneurs were stood roadside with their musettes – the cotton bags – stuffed full of food and drinks to help fuel their riders as they edge towards the hellingen.
The feedzone can be a dangerous place with the bags swinging around and riders tossing aside unwanted items or empty bidons, but everybody appeared to navigate their way through safely.
He's as broad as a barge and as strong as strong as an ox. His name is Tim Declercq and he's back on the front of the peloton. The 30-year-old put out an average of 281 watts for the opening two hours of today's race, by contrast Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) did 'just' 198.
The four-man breakaway's lead has dropped to below six minutes. Presumably that will drop further once the riders hit the next key point, the Oude Kwaremont which is not too far away now.
Crash in the bunch
A handful of riders hit the deck after somebody's front wheel appeared to get wedged into one of the gaps down the middle of the road that are so common in this part of the world. While much of the focus and attention on these races are on the cobbles and bergs, the roads in Belgium can be energy sapping. With tight narrow roads that are filled with road furniture and dangers riders need to be alert at all time, which in itself can be draining especilly in a 270km race.
In the above screen grab I've highlighted just two dangers that are very common on the roads here today. Right down the centre of the road there's a gap between the concrete blocks that the road is made of, it's roughly the same width as a bike wheel and so when drifting across it if the rider does not lift their front wheel or give a sudden jolt to 'attack' it head on, then there's a danger their wheel can get lodged in there – as happened a few minutes ago and did for Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First–Drapac) at the 2017 edition.
Down the right hand side in the gulley, where riders will often prefer especially on rougher roads, there's a drain.
This man, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is making his debut at the Tour of Flanders today. The world champion had planned to do this 12 months ago, but was unable to following a crash or illness – apologies I can't remember which one caused him to withdraw in 2018. Anyway, he's here today along with another 35 debutants.
The biggest names in that long list of debutants, other than the Spaniard, is Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates).
The breakaway, meanwhile, has seen its advantage drop to below seven minutes and they are onto the first section of cobbles on Lippenhovestraat.
As it stands
With a smidge under 200 kilometres of this race to go, there's a four-man breakaway – Jesper Asselman (Roompot-Charles), Hugo Houle (Astana), Damien Touze (Cofidis, Solutions Crédits) and Kenneth Van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) – around eight minutes up the road.
Tim Declercq is doing what Tim Declercq does and is sat on the front of the peloton, where he has pretty much been since the race started. In fact, the 30-year-old was actually positioned near the front even before the race had started as the Deceuninck-Quick Step domestique monitored proceedings throughout the neutralised zone.
Deceuninck-Quick Step, as I'm sure you are aware, are one of the favourites today to take the win and so we can expect to see them control the race as much as is possible.
Following a phenomenal run of results throughout the spring classics campaign, it is difficult seeing beyond any team other than Deceuninck-Quick Step to win today's race. Indeed, the Belgian super-team has won the last two editions through Philippe Gilbert and Niki Terpstra who are both here today, though the latter is now competing for his new employers Direct Énergie.
I'd probably say today's race is one of the most open for years and I could probably list up to 30 riders who could win in around five hours, but I'm limiting myself here to just 10 possible winners . . .
Peter Sagan: The 2016 winner may not have enjoyed the best start to the season, but a strong ride at Ghent-Wevelgem will have given the Bora-Hansgrohe rider an opportunity to blow away a few of the cobwebs following a brief spell of illness.
Oliver Naesen: Second at Milan-Sanremo and a third place at Ghent-Wevelgem would suggest the former Belgian national champion is in the form of his life right now and may never again stand a better chance of winning the Ronde.
Tiesj Benoot: The 25-year-old may have just one race on his palmarès, but has looked strong throughout the spring classics and again looked decent at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Probably not an out-and-out favourite, but certainly a dark horse.
Wout Van Aert: The 24-year-old former cyclo-cross star was hugely impressive at Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo where he was third and sixth respectively. Again impressed at last week's E3 where he was runner-up to Zdenek Stybar.
Bob Jungels:Such is the strength in depth of the Deceuninck-Quick Step team that any one of four riders – the others being Philippe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert or Zdenek Stybar – could conceivably win, depending on how the race plays out. The Luxembourger may have laid relatively low since his Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne victory in early March, but looked lively at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Will be fascinating to see how Patrick Lefevere's squad decide to play their cards on what is, arguably, the biggest day of their season.
Niki Terpstra: The defending champion may not have the support he enjoyed at Quick Step in years gone by, but the Dutchman has proved time and again that on his day he can win the big races. Expect to see Damien Gaudin helping out.
Mathieu van der Poel: Fresh from winning his maiden WorldTour race at Dwars door Vlaanderen, the cyclo-cross world champion will arrive a marked man, but his debut outing at what will be the longest one-day race of his career will be a different ball game to Wednesday's race. Two-time winner Stijn Devolder, however, will be on hand to guide the 24-year-old who is hoping to emulate his father Adri who won the race in 1986.
Matteo Trentin: The Italian has enjoyed a strong spring classics campaign during which he claimed three top 10 finishes – including two in the last week – and will lead Mitchelton-Scott's challenge. Another dark horse; another potential winner.
Greg Van Avermaet: May not have the support he enjoyed while at BMC, but the Belgian must not be discounted. Showed a little too much of himself at Omloop and will need to ride a more mature race if he is to end his wait for a win at the Ronde.
Luke Rowe: The Welshman is just one of two Team Sky riders that has ever finished in the top 10 – the other being Geraint Thomas – and will arrive in Antwerp in the form of his life. May have the legs, but does the 29-year-old have the local knowledge so crucial to winning in Flanders?
Big crowds at the start in Antwerp . . .
. . . obviously.
Luke Rowe, incidentally, spoke to colleague Tom Cary on the eve of the race when the in-form Welshman said his “legs are good”.
The Team Sky rider who finished fifth here in 2016, added he was "confident", but would need Lady Luck on his side if he was going to win the British squad's first ever cobbled monument.
“Touch wood, everything has gone pretty smoothly. No crashes, no mechanicals. And that can be said for the entire team really. But yeah, I am feeling strong and I am feeling confident. But it's all about the day. We'll just do our best.” You can read the full interview right here.
— Sophie Hurcom (@sophiehurcom) 7 April 2019
Hello everybody and welcome to our live blog from the 103rd edition of the Tour of Flanders, the third monument of the cycling season.
Today's a bit of a long one – 270.1 kilometres to be precise – and the race is already under way having set off beneath the Flandrian sun at around 9.30am (BST). Before we get stuck into the race, here's a bit of background information for those new to the sport . . .
Set up in 1913 by journalist Karel Van Wijnendaele, the Tour of Flanders – or De Ronde van Vlaanderen as the locals say – is the biggest day in the Belgian sporting calendar and has been described as being like the Boat Race, Royal Ascot and the FA Cup final. All rolled into one.
The race originally departed from Ghent, the spiritual home of Belgian cycling, though over the years its route has changed. This year's race starts in Antwerp and concludes in Oudenaarde. Despite the various changes to the route over the years, one crucial characteristic of the Ronde remains: the hellingen, or hills which are often cobbled.
This year's edition features 17 recognised climbs, including three ascents of Oude Kwaremont – the penultimate climb of the day – and twice up the final climb of the race, the Paterberg which tops out at an eye-watering 18.2 per cent in gradient: one-in-five in old money.
Though short in distance – the Paterberg is just 360 metres long – these brutal climbs are where, ordinarily, the decisive moves are made and if not, are where the field is whittled down further leaving the final selection of riders who will contest the race. In addition to the numerous hellingen, there are also five sections of kasseien, or cobblestones, the first of which comes 87km into the race, the fifth at 228km.
As with all WorldTour races, each of the 18 teams that make up the top-flight of professional cycling receive an invite and in the case of the Ronde all teams are contracted to race.
In addition to the WorldTour teams, race organisers Flanders Classics handed wildcard spots to seven Pro-Continental teams – Cofidis, Corendon-Circus, Direct Énergie, Roompot-Charles, Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise, Vital Concept-B&B Hotels and Wanty-Groupe Gobert.
While we are waiting for the real racing to get under way, have a listen to the latest episode of The Cycling Podcast in which the team discuss today's race . . .
Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe produce these rather excellent podcasts throughout the season covering the one-day races, stage races and grand tours and get this: they're free. Obviously, it would be better if you gave them some money so to do that, make sure you sign up – for just £15– and become a Friend of the Podcast.