It’s 2022, so we know better than to try and predict the spring weather or put our faith in the early official startlists. At the time of writing, we know Flanders is going to be cold. Possibly not as cold as earlier in the week – but still pretty chilly. The wind should be moderate on Sunday afternoon, but the lingering snow threat is likely to stay away. We also know that Wout van Aert is sick and won’t start the men’s race (or at least shouldn’t start, but he is mental). This makes long-time super-nemesis Mathieu van der Poel a big race favourite.
The Winner – Mathieu van der Poel @ 2/1
Boring, right? But his current price is bordering on value! Instead of telling you why Mathieu van der Poel is fully equipped to win his second Ronde (but a first in April), I’ll go through some of his major rivals to highlight how difficult their job is.
Tadej Pogacar is the best cyclist in the world, but I’d struggle to tell you how he wins on Sunday, and why he would hold any advantage over Van der Poel in a slugfest on the final 30km of this route. Some say he’s been training for this race and will be tuned to perfection. I simply can’t believe that he’s approached the early season with a flat, classics, focus. I think Pogacar is doing as well as he has in recent races because his default level is just magnificent. But, for now, he remains a Grand Tour rider in my eyes.
Secondly, there’s Tom Pidcock, who looked very tidy at Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen. He’d need to reverse the form with Van der Poel and I just don’t know why that would happen. Pidcock’s sprint is probably weaker, and the Brit will need to utilise a few new tricks if he’s to succeed in a one-on-one. Finally, there’s Quick-Step but the Belgian powerhouse are half-a-beat behind where there would want to be in early April. They’d need to swarm Van der Poel and try to pressure him into cracking under an immense early workload. I can’t see that happening.
*New Category* The Guys Who Need a Miracle but I’m going to Bet on Anyway – Jan Tratnik (100/1), Ivan Cortina (250/1), Alberto Bettiol (150/1)
To beat Mathieu van der Poel (and to a lesser extent Pidcock) you need to be nothing like him. You don’t want to leave things to the last 10km, and you definitely don’t want to be anywhere near them when they attack. My picks will hopefully fall into two categories: the early break, or the mid-range sneak.
Jan Tratnik is blessed with a combination of brilliant form and a relative invisibility among the favourites. Hopefully they’ve all missed his top 10s at Dwars & Sanremo. I’m urging “The World’s Strongest Jan” to go early on Sunday. Unfortunately, he’ll probably be working for Matej Mohoric. But with Sanremo already with Bahrain-Victorious, maybe they’ll dabble with some daring tactics. It’s a similar story for Ivan Garcia Cortina. More recently a sprinter and stage-hunter, I know somewhere deep in the Cortina legs is a Belgian classics rider; 250/1 is big fun! Lastly, there’s Alberto Bettiol. The 2019 race-winner is, admittedly, carrying no real form into April. Nevertheless, he remains the man – or one of the men – of whom EF Education will have hope and expectation. That’s good enough for me, but he’ll obviously have to go early.
The Women’s Race is Far More Open…
Is it really as simple as Annemiek van Vleuten (Omloop winner & Strade runner-up) vs. Demi Vollering (Omloop runner-up) vs. Lotte Kopecky (Strade winner)? I’d argue that none of the trio are truly performing at their best level. Or, perhaps more accurately, that the chasing pack of young pretenders has successfully closed the previously large gap to the elite selection at the top of women’s cycling. In this period of change, it no longer seems impossible that we could crown a surprising new Ronde champion in the form of a Lorena Wiebes, Emma Norsgaard or even Maria Confalonieri! However, the standout name, if you’re looking to go against Van Vleuten and the superstars of SD Worx, would currently be our dazzling World Champion Elisa Balsamo.