Tour of Flanders favourites - The big three and the best of the rest
Three favourites stand above all others ahead of the Tour of Flanders. Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel looked several rungs ahead of the rest at last week’s E3 Saxo Classic, the quintessential Ronde dress rehearsal, and it will class as a major surprise if the spoils don’t fall to one of that trio in Oudenaarde on Sunday afternoon.
The Tour of Flanders, however, is a race apart and, as last year’s tumultuous finale showed, one that is always capable of throwing up late twists. There are three outstanding contenders – and one dominant team in Jumbo-Visma – but there are plenty of riders who will line up with ambition in Bruges on Sunday morning.
Indeed, the role of outsider may well suit riders like Matej Mohorič and Stefan Küng. It might even be to the liking of Julian Alaphilippe, who leads a Soudal-QuickStep team that has been suffering something of existential crisis through this Classic campaign. For better or for worse, the first Sunday in April tends to overshadow everything that comes before it.
Ahead of the big day, Cyclingnews looks at the three favourites for the Tour of Flanders and the men most likely to challenge them.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Wout van Aert is the leading light for both Jumbo-Visma and the whole of Belgium at the Tour of Flanders. He won E3, gave Gent-Wevelgem to his teammate, and now looks very much like the rider to beat on Sunday.
There's a particular kind of expectation surrounding Van Aert, who seems perfectly poised on that fine line between home hope and home pressure. At 28, it's considered time he started building his Monuments tally, with 'only' Milan-San Remo to his name so far, and two Flanders titles already to the name of his arch-rival, Van der Poel. Van Aert done very little wrong recently, but one more missed opportunity and it will start to become an itch ahead of his sixth appearance next spring.
The only obstacle last year was COVID-19 and, despite six hours in the cold and rain at Gent-Wevelgem, he appears to have avoided illness and comes into the race with a similar level of form. It might not be quite the same, however. Van Aert beat Van der Poel and Pogačar to win E3 but one lingering concern will be the fact he was temporarily distanced by the Slovenian's onslaught on the Oude Kwaremont.
Van Aert retaliated by blowing the doors off Gent-Wevelgem, but neither of his chief rivals were there, so it was hard to precisely place his performance in the pre-race power ladder.
In any case, Van Aert is clearly one of the three strongest riders in the race and, crucially, has a far stronger team than his two main rivals (a point we'll come onto later). He also has the confidence of his own and Jumbo-Visma's remarkable run of results, not to mention the huge boost that came with beating Van der Poel in the sprint at E3 – something he'd not done in a while.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck)
No rider in the current peloton has a Tour of Flanders record like Mathieu van der Poel, whose sequence of results in his four appearances to date is imposing: fourth, first, second, and first. A third Ronde victory on Sunday would see the Dutchman join Buysse, Magni, Museeuw, Boonen and Cancellara atop the roll of honour at the age of just 28.
His maturation can be measured in his Ronde history. On his debut in 2019, Van der Poel was perhaps the day’s outstanding performer, making a dramatic recovery from a late crash, but he spent his energy too freely and positioned himself poorly on the Kwaremont. In 2022, by contrast, Van der Poel was a touch short of his best, but he had the nous to do just enough to parry Pogačar’s attacks before outfoxing him in the sprint.
Van der Poel arrives at this Tour of Flanders with the considerable freedom of knowing that his Spring can already be classed as a success. At Milan-San Remo, he delivered a towering acceleration atop the Poggio to solo clear of Pogačar, Van Aert and Filippo Ganna and bring his running tally of Monuments to three. It’s striking, too, that after a slow start to 2023, his Alpecin-Deceuninck squad have suddenly hit form en masse, with Søren Kragh Andersen likely to play a key supporting role.
Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)
On his Tour of Flanders debut a year ago, Tadej Pogačar somehow contrived to finish fourth in a two-man sprint, but he still came away with his reputation firmly enhanced. By dictating the terms of engagement throughout the finale, the Slovenian made a mockery of the received wisdom that riders with designs on the Tour de France couldn’t compete with the heavyweights on the cobbles.
Only Van der Poel could resist Pogačar’s onslaught and even he was clinging on by his fingertips come the top of the Paterberg. Pogačar’s ultimate defeat felt almost like a mere detail. He had shown that Ronde victory, like just about everything else, lay firmly within his range.
Pogačar has made a fast start to 2023, clocking up nine wins between Jaén Paraiso Interior, the Ruta del Sol and Paris-Nice. More relevant to his prospects here was his third place at the E3 Saxo Classic, where he looked to have a distinct edge on both Van der Poel and Van Aert on the Kwaremont. It's certain he will attack on Sunday. It’s unclear if anybody will be able to follow.
Looking beyond the 'big three', there's only one clear favourite: Jumbo-Visma. The Dutch team have won all five major cobbled Classics so far this Spring and, in addition to Van Aert, possess no fewer than two bona fide contenders for Flanders, plus a possible outsider.
Christophe Laporte is the obvious one, going into the Ronde on the back of victories at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen. The Frenchman was already flying last year but has found another level in his second season with Jumbo-Visma. Once said to lack confidence, he seems to be gaining it by the day, aided no doubt by that controversial gift from Van Aert. He was the subject of some slightly patronising rhetoric after that win in Wevelgem but he proceeded to win Dwars in the calmest and most clinical of manners.
But while Laporte may be Van Aert's number two on paper, there's an argument to be made that Tiesj Benoot is actually Jumbo-Visma's second-strongest rider. The Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne winner suffered a mechanical as Van der Poel opened up E3 on the Taainberg, and he then missed Gent-Wevelgem.
But he came roaring back at Dwars, cracking the race open twice on the Kanarieberg and Knokteberg to force the race-winning selection. Only three riders could follow the first attack and none could follow the second at first. Laporte ultimately won the race by virtue of timing and luck, but it could just as easily have been Benoot, who made the strongest impression on the climbs.
Finally, don't discount Nathan van Hooydonck, who stepped up to take the shadow role at E3 after Bent's and Dylan van Baarle's misfortunes, the later who looked at being a contender in Flanders but ruled out. The big Belgian, former henchman of Greg Van Avermaet, was signed as a domestique but has improved to the extent that he can now make selections and enter finales, as he proved at Kuurne, where once again it could just as easily have been him instead of Benoot.
And that's Jumbo-Visma's trump card over Pogačar and – to a lesser extent – over Van der Poel. If they play the numbers game and pack riders into the finale, any one of them could win it.
Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious)
Matej Mohorič is the only rider, to our knowledge, to have described the gap to the 'big three' as anything other than a chasm. "It looks a lot but it's actually very little", the Slovenian said after E3, in which he rued a few minor energy-costing errors that prevented him from following on the Oude Kwaremont. You could see the logic but it seemed like he was slightly clutching at straws.
Still, Mohorič has a decent claim to being best of the rest. That was certainly the case at E3 and he was aggressive from range at Gent-Wevelgem but was ultimately stuck in the bunch of also-rans. Mohorič, who won Milan-San Remo with a dropper post, is an exciting racer who'll show no fear on the descents and won't be afraid to grab the race by the horns.
At Flanders a few years ago he confessed to racing "like a headless chicken" but he has reined in his excitable instincts and added more considered race-reading qualities to his game in recent years.
It's a big ask, but Mohorič won't be fazed by it.
Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost)
Versatility is increasingly common in the contemporary peloton, but few riders are quite as dextrous as Powless, a man capable of shining on just about every terrain. The opening months of his 2023 season illustrate the point. As well as winning the GP La Marseillaise and Étoile de Bessèges, he has placed third overall at Tour des Alpes-Maritimes et du Var, sixth overall at Paris-Nice and seventh at Milan-San Remo.
Inspired by a fine display on the pavé at Arenberg at last year’s Tour de France, Powless has opted to sample the cobbled Classics in 2023, and third place on his debut at Dwars door Vlaanderen augurs well for his prospects at the Ronde on Sunday.
Dwars is the shortest and most explosive of the Flemish races, and thus the one least suited to Powless’ qualities of endurance. The distance – and succession of climbs – in the main event on Sunday will be more to his liking.
“I think I have a pretty big tank,” Powless said on Wednesday. “I don’t think I have the strongest punch in the world, but I know that if the whole day has been hard, I tend to find my way to the front a little easier.” He might be among the last men standing on Sunday.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
Tom Pidcock, along with Julian Alaphilippe, is one of the precious few riders who, on their day, could genuinely be considered in the same league as Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pogačar. The key caveat there, though, is 'on their day'.
Pidcock is still developing as a rider and, although he has hit several high notes already in his career, he doesn't yet hit them with the regularity of his cyclocross contemporaries or the two-time Tour de France champion. On top of that, there are some small doubts about his form given the concussion he suffered at Tirreno-Adriatico that forced him to miss Milan-San Remo and a few days of training.
Pidcock eased concerns by saying it was only a 'minor' concussion and suggesting it may even have been a blessing in disguise. His ride at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday confirmed he's in solid shape, but he rode a relatively quiet race that perhaps didn't reveal the full picture of his form.
The more attritional Monument distance should play more into his hands on Sunday and, as a natural-born racer, he'll thrive in the playground of the Flemish Ardennes, even if he'd prefer the climbs to be a little longer.
Pidcock beat Van Aert to win Brabantse Pijl on his debut Classics campaign in 2021, and has gone on to win a stage of the Tour de France in 2022 and Strade Bianche earlier this month. At his best, he belongs in the very top category, but will we see that best come out on Sunday?
Stefan Küng and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ)
After making a breakthrough on the cobbles a year ago, Groupama-FDJ’s Classics unit is in the process of confirming its credentials in 2023. Valentin Madouas and Stefan Küng formed a fine tandem at last year’s Tour of Flanders, placing third and fifth, respectively, and both men have raced with assurance so far this season.
Madouas rode to second at Strade Bianche, while Küng was arguably the most impressive of the chasers behind the Big Three at the E3 Saxo Classic on Friday, even if he had to settle for 6th place at day’s end.
Küng’s big objective of the Spring comes at Paris-Roubaix, but he warmed up for the Ronde with 53km on the attack at Dwars door Vlaanderen only to get swept up by the chasing bunch in the final kilometre. His disappointment in the mixed zone afterwards told its own story.
Küng and Madouas know they will need to anticipate the inevitable skirmishes between Pogačar, Van der Poel and Van Aert in the finale on Sunday, and the Groupama-FDJ pairing will surely be primed to track any early movement from Jumbo-Visma’s second line.
Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep)
A year ago, Patrick Lefevere’s Soudal-QuickStep squad had their worst-ever Tour of Flanders, with Kasper Asgreen their best finisher in 23rd. At the time, their troubled cobbled Classics campaign seemed an aberration brought about by an unfortunate spate of illness in the camp, but at this point, it’s beginning to look more like a trend. Yves Lampaert’s third place at the Classic Brugge-De Panne and Tim Merlier's Nokere Koerse victory are the only (relative) high points on home roads so far in 2023.
For years, their collective strength felt as much a fixture in the Flemish Ardennes as the Kwaremont itself. In 2023, Jumbo-Visma are the peloton’s dominant force, while the Belgian squad are struggling to make any impression at all. At the Tour of Flanders, they line up more in hope than expectation, and with that hope resting on the shoulders of one man, Julian Alaphilippe.
The Frenchman crashed out of the winning break on his debut in 2020, but his form has been mixed this season. After abandoning the E3 Saxo Classic through illness, Alaphilippe returned to the fray at Dwars door Vlaanderen, where he unleashed an acceleration on Berg Ten Houte but then missed the winning move. As his world titles show, Alaphilippe is capable of suddenly hitting the highest notes, but there has been no indication yet that he can carry that kind of tune on Sunday.
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)
Trek-Segafredo are one of the teams who have taken a hammering from Jumbo-Visma far this spring, with two decorated Classics stars in Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven currently licking their wounds. They searched for inspiration at Dwars door Vlaanderen, attempting to rip the race apart from range, but ultimately missed the ship when it actually sailed. Still, the spirit in the camp is very much one of unity and defiance.
In any case, there's no reason to give up on all hope. Pedersen and Stuyven have never been the most consistent of Classics partnerships, but each have stepped up in important moments – Pedersen a winner of Gent-Wevelgem and Kuurne, and Stuyven of Milan-San Remo, Omloop, and Kuurne. It's not beyond the realms of possibility, then, that one of them could pull a big performance out of the bag on Sunday.
Pedersen looks the likelier of the two, having placed runner-up on his Flanders debut in 2018 and going into his sixth Ronde on the back of fifth place at both Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars.