Tour of Flanders 2018 preview: seven riders to watch on Easter Sunday

Peter Sagan rolls out as favourite for Sunday's race, but it's a stellar start list set for the 102nd Ronde van Vlaanderen

World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) rolls out as favourite for the 2018 Tour of Flanders, which takes place on Easter Sunday (April 1), as he looks to reclaim his crown from last year’s winner Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors).

Sagan, in the rainbow jersey, and Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing) headline a star-studded line-up for the second Monument of the year.

Philippe Gilbert soloed to victory at last year’s Tour of Flanders (Pic: BrakeThrough Media/QuickStep)

The Classics hard men will be joined in Antwerp, where the race gets underway, by Milan-San Remo winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), meanwhile, with the Shark of Messina looking for a second consecutive surprise Monument win.

 – Where will the race be won? The 18 cobbled climbs of the 2018 Tour of Flanders –

Having had the likes of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke to hone their form, all attention now turns to the big one – 18 cobbled climbs, mostly packed into the latter half of the 267km route.

But who will emerge victorious on Sunday, and add their name to the illustrious roll of honour?

The defending champion – Phillipe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors)

Philippe Gilbert will roll out as defending champion, wearing dossard number one, after a stunning solo victory 12 months ago.

Gilbert bolted clear on the second climb of Oude Kwaremont and was never brought back, doing the Belgian champion’s jersey proud as he added a third different Monument – after Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia – to his palmares.

Philippe Gilbert digs deep on his way to victory in 2017 (Pic: Sirotti)

And his form this year has been good on the cobbles too, finishing fifth at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and second behind team-mate Niki Tersptra at both Le Samyn and E3 Harelbeke.

His move to QuickStep Floors has elevated him as a serious contender for the cobbled Classics – having already been revered for his ability and success in the hilly Ardennes Classics.

His characteristics perfectly suit the Tour of Flanders as he proved so emphatically last year. And given the strength of QuickStep Floors’ Classics line-up, it would not be a surprise to see him in podium contention again.

Tour of Flanders 2017: winner
Best result: winner (2017)
Notable classics results 2018: Le Samyn – second; E3 Harelbeke – second; Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – fifth

The world champion – Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe)

While Gilbert is defending champion, it is the 2016 winner, world champion Peter Sagan, who rolls out as bookmakers favourite.

The 28-year-old, now in his third consecutive year in the rainbow stripes, has only won one Monument in his career – that aforementioned 2016 victory – and yet has been earmarked as the man most likely to replace Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen as the king of the cobbles.

Peter Sagan won the Tour of Flanders in 2016 (Pic: Sirotti)

He bagged his second victory of the season at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend to prove his form ahead of the weekend – and bounce back from a crash-hit E3 Harelbeke where he finished 26th.

Gent-Wevelgem is a flatter race than the Tour of Flanders, of course, but the short, punchy climbs have never stopped Sagan before, where he has four top-tens in all.

He opted not to chase down Vincenzo Nibali at Milan-San Remo, a decision which cost him on the day but could pay dividends down the line too.

So often critical of rivals for getting a free tow off him, Sagan will hope the message has been sent out and if he gets his tactics spot on in Sunday’s race, he can live up to his ‘favourite’ tag.

Tour of Flanders 2017: 27th
Best result: winner (2016)
Notable classics results 2018: Strade Bianche – eighth, Milan-San Remo – sixth, Gent-Wevelgem – winner

The Olympic champion – Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing)

Where once it was Cancellara vs Boonen, Sagan vs Greg van Avermaet could be the rivalry which characterises the cobbled Classics for the next few years.

While the world champion has won this race before, the Olympic champion has not despite three podium finishes.

Second last year, and also in 2014, as well as finishing third in 2015, Van Avermaet has earmarked the Ronde as his big career target.

Greg van Avermaet dominated the cobbled Classics last year, but an elusive victory at the Tour of Flanders remains top of his priority list (Pic: Sirotti)

He grabbed his first Monument win last year, at Paris-Roubaix, as well as winning Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but it is the Tour of Flanders he really wants.

Form-wise, he has one individual win this season – claimed at the Tour of Oman – and was third at E3 Harelbeke to prove his form over the Flandrien bergs.

It may not be the same all-conquering form he showcased 12 months ago, but it is enough to prove he is in good shape ahead of Sunday’s race.

He has podiumed three times in the last four editions now, and it is hard to imagine he will be far away again this year.

Tour of Flanders 2017: second
Best result: second (2014, 2017)
Notable classics results 2018: E3 Harelbeke – third, Dwars door Vlaanderen – eighth

The Belgian champion – Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale)

Last year’s race was a famous one in the annals of Tour of Flanders history, as it was won by the man in the black, yellow and red national champions jersey.

And this year, Philippe Gilbert’s successor as Belgian champion, Oliver Naesen, will hope history can repeat itself in Flanders.

Naesen has proved himself on the cobbles before, finishing third at last year’s E3 Harelbeke to mark himself as a contender.

Oliver Naesen will bid to become the second consecutive Belgian champion to win the Tour of Flanders (Pic: Sirotti)

Indeed, he was the other member of the chase group, with Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet, who crashed on Oude Kwaremont 12 months ago just as they were rapidly closing the gap to Gilbert.

And after claiming the national champion’s jersey last year, he has proved his form over the past week with strong showings at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, finishing fourth and sixth respectively.

With a bit more luck he might have been on the Flanders podium 12 months ago, and he is certainly capable of reaching such heights on Sunday.

Tour of Flanders 2017: 23rd
Best result: 22nd (2016)
Notable classics results 2018: E3 Harelbeke – fourth; Gent-Wevelgem – sixth

The European champion – Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates)

Could this be the year Alexander Kristoff roars back into contention as a serious cobbled Classics contender, backed by his new team?

Since winning the Tour of Flanders in 2015 – one year after his Milan-San Remo victory – Kristoff has not been back on the podium of either race, though he was a top-five finisher in each of the last two Tours of Flanders.

Having switched from Katusha-Alpecin in the winter, Kristoff returns this year with his new UAE Team Emirates team-mates, however, including Britain’s Ben Swift.

European champion Alexander Kristoff, the 2015 Tour of Flanders winner, digs deep at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend (Pic: Sirotti)

Fourth at Milan-San Remo after a productive start to the season – and two stage wins – in February’s desert races, the European road race champion is certainly in decent shape.

He was 40th at E3 Harelbeke and 25th at Gent-Wevelgem last week, but he was off the pace in those races in each of the last two years too, and it didn’t stop him charging to a top-five place at Flanders.

His all-conquering 2015 season does seem a long time ago – the Ronde was his tenth victory, and 22nd top-ten place, of the season already, and he went on to claim 20 wins in all.

But he should never be discounted, and his European champion’s jersey should definitely be in the mix in the pointy end of the race.

Tour of Flanders 2017: fifth
Best result: winner (2015)
Notable classics results 2018: Milan-San Remo – fourth

The E3 Harelbeke champion – Niki Terpstra (QuickStep Floors)

If E3 Harelbeke is the form finder for the Tour of Flanders, then Niki Terpstra is the man to watch on Sunday.

In truth, while the race takes in many of the same cobbled climbs and does at least show who is in good shape, the last time a rider won both E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders in the same year was Fabian Cancellara in 2013. The last time somebody not called Cancellara or Boonen did it was back in 1999 – Peter van Petegem, for the record.

Nevertheless, Terpstra has two cobbled victories to his name already this season – soloing to victory at Le Samyn before he repeated the trick at last week’s E3.

Niki Terpstra has won E3 Harelbeke and Le Samyn already this year (Pic: Sirotti)

He also has a good record in the Tour of Flanders – last year’s third place was his second podium place and fifth top-ten finish of his career.

A former Paris-Roubaix winner, it was Terpstra who emerged as one of the most likely to fill the Tom Boonen-shaped void in QuickStep Floors’ Classics line-up.

The team has incredible strength in depth, however, and alongside Terpstra they have Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert and Czech hardman Zdenek Stybar among their potential contenders.

Terpstra has the form, however, and he will not be a rider you want to let off the leash when the race reaches its business end on Sunday.

Tour of Flanders 2017: third
Best result: second (2015)
Notable classics results 2018: Le Samyn – winner; E3 Harelbeke – winner; Dwars door Vlaanderen – ninth

The Grand Tour champion – Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)

The wildcard of the bunch, and perhaps the most intriguing name on the startlist, Vincenzo Nibali starts the Tour of Flanders for the first time, but does so having won both of the last two Monument races.

Nibali closed out 2017 by claiming his second Giro di Lombardia win in three years, and kick-started his 2018 season with his solo win at Milan-San Remo.

While Grand Tours may be his forte, he has made the Classics specialists sit up and take notice at the very least.

Vincenzo Nibali makes his Tour of Flanders debut on the back of back-to-back Monument wins at Lombardia and Milan-San Remo (Pic: Sirotti)

The Tour of Flanders is a very different beast, of course, but Nibali has proved himself over the cobbles before – consolidating his 2014 Tour de France lead with a stunning display on the muddy pave.

Still, history is not on his side – the last Grand Tour winner to even feature in the top ten at the Tour of Flanders was Gianni Bugno, when he won in 1994.

Nevertheless, his history at Lombardia and Milan-San Remo even before his victories was to attack and make a nuisance of himself – he’s very much an outsider for Sunday, but it will be interesting to see if he can shake things up a bit.

Tour of Flanders 2017: N/A
Best result: N/A
Notable classics results 2018: Milan-San Remo – winner

Other riders to watch

Other riders to have impressed on the cobbles already this season include Michael Valgren (Astana), who won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February.

He was 12 seconds clear of the peloton, with Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac-Cannondale) sprinting onto the podium in third – the Dutchman is a perennial Classics contender, and claimed third place at the Dwars door Vlaanderen to prove that point ahead of the Tour of Flanders.

Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) ensured his first pro win was a big one, meanwhile – the young Belgian has the expectations of a nation on his shoulders, but claimed victory at this year’s Strade Bianche to prove his billing as a future star.

Benoot was also a top-ten finisher at E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the only Tour of Flanders he has finished, he finished in fifth place in 2015.

Mud-splattered Tiesj Benoot celebrates his first pro victory… the small matter of Strade Bianche 2018 (Pic: Sirotti)

Also flying the flag for Belgium’s future stars is Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), whose tenth place at Dwars door Vlaanderen was his fourth consecutive top-ten result – following tenth at Milan-San Remo, sixth at E3 Harelbeke and ninth at Gent-Wevelgem.

Stuyven was also fourth at the Omloop, and the 25-year-old will be keen to record his first notable Tour of Flanders result this weekend.

Team Sky’s hopes, meanwhile, will be led by Michal Kwiatkowski, with the Pole having already claimed four wins this season – including overall victories at the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico.

Kwiatkowski won E3 Harelbeke in 2016, and while he is yet to show similar form at the Tour of Flanders, his 2017 Milan-San Remo proved what he is capable of in the Monument races.

Scott Thwaites was 16th at last year’s Tour of Flanders, and is one of five Brits on the startline this year (Pic: Sirotti)

His team-mates include British trio Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard and Owain Doull, with the former – fit again after breaking his leg at a stag do last year – a former fifth-place finisher in Flanders.

Stannard has won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice, meanwhile, but is yet to replicate that form at the Tour of Flanders.

The final Brit on the startline will be Scott Thwaites (Dimension Data), meanwhile, who finished 16th at the 2017 Tour of Flanders – his best result so far, in four starts in the race.


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