by Barnaby CHESTERMAN
PARIS, April 04, 2014 (AFP) – Some of the greatest cyclists in the world
will begin the battle for the main Spring Classics when the Tour of Flanders
gets underway on Sunday.
The likes of Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan will be among
the favourites in some of the oldest and most prestigious races on the
professional cycling calendar.
While the Spring Classics cannot match the prestige of the Tour de France,
they can surpass it in terms of excitement.
And they do so with a largely different cast.
Tour champion Chris Froome as well as Grand Tour specialists such as
Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali or Nairo Quintana won’t be there challenging
for victory but the fields are no less impressive for their absence.
Swiss Cancellara and Boonen, of Belgium, as always, will start as two of the
main favourites having claimed between them 12 of the last 18 editions of
Flanders and Paris-Roubaix since 2005.
Of the six occasions when it wasn’t either who won, three times it was one
or the other’s team-mate who did so.
Their main competition this time around should come from Slovak Peter
Sagan, a hugely talented cyclist who has already won the Tour de France green
jersey twice and is tipped to one day take an overall triumph at a Grand Tour.
But first he must prove himself on the gruelling Spring Classics, starting
with the two Northern Classics on the cobbles: Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
In reality, the Spring Classics began with Milan San-Remo a few weeks ago
and last weekend’s Gent-Wevelgem but it is only with the advent of the
Flanders-Roubaix double on successive weekends that these historic races
really kick into gear.
Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan come into these two races having already
stretched their legs and showed their form at San-Remo, where Cancellara was
second, and Gent-Wevelgem, where Sagan was third and Boonen fifth.
Sagan also won E3 Harelbeke and that makes him the favourite in terms of
current form, although his two main rivals have the experience and history to
ensure they can never be overlooked.
But it won’t just be about those three as several other riders have showed
German sprinter John Degenkolb won Gent-Wevelgem and will be confident if
he can last the pace over the 260km of either De Ronde or the Hell of the
North to be still in with a chance when the line approaches.
Alexander Kristoff won a sprint finish at San Remo where British sprint
king Mark Cavendish went too soon and could finish only fifth, while Sagan was
down in 10th.
One Briton who had been expected to challenge at the Spring Classics was
Team Sky’s Ian Stannard, someone thought capable of making a breakaway stick.
But a fractured vertebra in a fall at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday means he
Instead, though, 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins has been
drafted in and has the ability, if not the previous success, to be a dark
Perhaps more realistically would be a tilt by the in-form Geraint Thomas,
who was third at E3 Harelbeke last Friday and was leading Paris-Nice a month
ago until a crash robbed him of his chances.
Other contenders, although not at Flanders, will be Belgian Philippe
Gilbert, a twice former winner of the Amstel Gold race.
He incredibly won all three Ardennes Classics in 2011 and will be amongst
the favourites for those this time around too.
He is skipping the cobbles this year but his Belgian team-mate Greg Van
Avermaet, fourth in 2012 and seventh last year in Flanders, could be ready to
step up to the plate.
Another Belgian, Stijn Devolders, now Cancellara’s Trek team-mate, won
back-to-back Flanders titles in 2008 and 2009 as Boonen’s main foil at Quick
Step, and could again benefit from an illustrious marked team-mate.
Also to watch out for are Belgian Belkin rider Sep Vanmarcke, second in
last year’s Paris-Roubaix, and Niki Terpstra, the highly-touted Dutch rider.
But as ever with the Spring Classics, adverse weather, brutal short climbs
and the sheer length of these races ensure that on the day, anything could