The Ronde market can be divided into the shiny exciting prospects (Wout van Aert, Matthieu van der Poel, Mads Pedersen, Tom Pidcock) and the hardened faces of many a spring classic (Peter Sagan, Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert, Greg van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen). You can add to the mix two superstars who haven’t traditionally marked Flanders as one their own (Julian Alaphilippe, Michael Matthews).
The bookmakers have been hesitant to look past last year’s 1-2; that’s Van der Poel and Van Aert. There’s no need to explain why that is the case. Not only are the two comfortable on brutal cobblestones, but they actually look quite happy. The many hellingen of Flanders also suit their ability to launch attacks at a moments notice. The real debate surrounds whether there are enough reasons to oppose them for Ronde and, on this occasion, there just might be.
Finishing positions of third and fifth at Sanremo should not worry Van Aert and Van der Poel. They seemed to lose the race tactically rather than through a lack of strength. Of more concern is how neither were able to dominate E3 last weekend. Although the winner of E3 has not won Flanders since 2013, both would have been surprised by the strength of Deceuninck. After disappointing at E3, Van Aert delivered a win from a small bunch in Gent-Wevelgem, but Van der Poel blew up completely in his next outing – Wendesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen.
The two cannot perform at their recent level for the rest of the season. They were stunning when duelling at last month’s Tirreno-Adriatico and have been exchanging wins since a brutal cross season started in December. The question of whether their form has already begun to dip is yet to be definitively answered. But the punting value is elsewhere.
Alaphilippe has raced just once on cobbles this season but is the type of rider who will have targeted Ronde and nothing else. Alaphilippe is not Deceuninck’s most reliable option but the team will be ready to support cycling’s charismatic darling if a chance to add Flanders to his palmares looks possible. There’s no doubt in my mind that Alaphilippe will one day at least podium at this race… but is this really the year? I’m leaning towards some more familiar faces of early April.
And my winner is… Greg Van Avermaet (40/1)
Every time I’ve tweeted my support for old Greg (now 35) over the last year it’s been met with a collective grumble of “he’s good but how can he win this?”. I’m under no illusions that to win Ronde on Sunday Greg Van Avermaet will need luck. He’ll need Van der Poel to blow. He’ll need some punctures to Deceuninck. He’ll need the sprinters to fail in their attempts to follow his wheel. He’ll need all the experience he’s collected in his fifteen-year pro career. But is the perfect storm really that hard to imagine? Van Avermaet has podiumed at a major cobbled classic in each of the last seven seasons. He was unable to snap the wolfpack’s resolve in E3, but he was there. He’s always there. I can’t ignore Van Avermaet at 40/1.
Look out for… Florian Senechal (25/1) & Stefan Kung (80/1)
Two completely different riders finish my picks for Ronde. One will be in the cosy surroundings of the strongest team in the race, and the other may be all alone by the first ascent of the Paterberg. Frenchman Florian Senechal is an increasingly visible and important cog in the Deceuninck machine. He’s almost double the price of teammate and E3 winner Kasper Asgreen, but Deceuninck are more than capable of sharing the major prizes. There’s always a chance he’ll be given the unfortunate task of shutting down late attacks (a.k.a the fun-killer) but he’s had a brilliant spring so far. Stefan Kung is a late replacement for Soren Kragh Andersen as my wildcard pick. We know just how much the favourites like to look at each other and nobody will have their sun-shaded eyes on Groupama’s European TT champion. He’s a strong rider who won’t need a super team to implement his game plan. I expect to see his face at the front when the race begins to break up.
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