De Ronde Abhors a Vacuum

It was getting a little fuzzy there for awhile as to who, exactly, was going to mount any sort of challenge to the Boonen-Devolder-Chavanel Quick.Step combination for this Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). With Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) slipping into a domestique role after an early season plagued by injury and illness, and world champion and 2007 winner Allessandro Ballan (Lampre) out altogether, it was starting to look like serious challengers to that cabal could be few and far between.

But someone has to fill that void, and it turns out that’s Filippo Pozzato (Katusha). The fashion-sideways Italian tends to bag a decent win or two every early season, make a lot of promises, then go cold come Flanders-Roubaix week. This year, though, it looks like he may have timed things a little better, staying pretty quiet until this last week, then nailing the E3 Harelbeke semi-classic in a surprising sprint over Boonen on Saturday and winning the first stage of the Dreidaagse De Panne on Tuesday.

Assuming he’s not burning too many matches screwing around at De Panne, the world’s best classics stage race, Pozzato’s chief problem come Sunday would look to be support. The woefully out-of-date start list at the RVV web site sheds some light on the issue. Considering Gert Steegmans is now out with some sort of leg/nerve issue, Pozzato could have a lonely day at the front on his hands. Mikhail Ignatiev is certainly good for some grunt work, and Serguei Ivanov can have the staying power to be there at the end, but the roster is no who’s who of classics racing. He does have Andre Tchmil in the car directing, so that has to be good for something.

That’s not quite fair, of course – Katusha has a roster better than two-thirds of the teams in the race. It’s just that there are four squads between Quick.Step and Katusha that really stand out. First comes the mostly hapless Silence-Lotto squad. Sure, their early season has been crap, with just one win by Cadel Evans in Coppi e Bartali last week to its credit, but if things start going their way, there are some hard hitters on their list. There’s Leif Hoste, who’s been second three times at the Ronde and very motivated to win, if only to avoid having “second three times at the Ronde” carved on his tombstone. He’s likely to share protected status with Philippe Gilbert, who’s been flirting with greatness for several seasons, racking up some Omloops Het Volk, a Paris-Tours, and a bunch of stages in the process. Greg Van Avermaet gets a lot of hype too, though I don’t quite understand why, so I guess they have that going for them. Those three are backed up by Vansummeren, Cretskens, Scheirlinckx, Delage, and Lang, a group I’d put up against any classics supporting cast.

So if Lotto comes around, they’re as good a bet as any. Van Avermaet, putting out some hype of his own, thinks that the team has lifted its game and turned a corner, telling of the first day of De Panne “We made the race today; that was the first time that I see that and I think this is a change for us." Sure, they helped force the split that shed Boonen 70k from the finish, but if Van Avermaet defines “making the race” as “leading the second group in a minute behind the guy who won, and missing what was likely the defining break of the race,” I may have to rethink my assessment.

Who’s there besides the home teams? Rabobank, always teetering at the edge of classics greatness without quite managing to fall in, has high hopes for Juan Antonio Flecha, who will hope to shake his reputation for getting the best view in the house of other guys winning bike races. Belgian import Nick Nuyens has been quiet this season, but seems to be coming around OK, if not in a headline sort of way, and relative youngin’ Sebastian Langeveld could be a viable option as well. Backed up by the cobble-friendly De Maar, Hayman, Posthuma, Tankink, and Tjallingi, they should be capable of having decent representation when the race hits the Muur and the Bosberg.

Cervelo Test Team and Columbia should factor in the finale as well, and are both split about half and half between grizzled veterans and talented newcomers. On the Columbia side, there’s Hincapie, always Hincapie, supported by an international smorgasbord of pretty talented folks, including Bernhard Eisel, Marcus Burghardt, and Bert Grabsch. Cervelo has this spring’s nearly man, Heinrich Haussler, along with 2009 Het Volk and 2006 Gent-Wevelgem winner Thor Hushovd, Belgophile Briton Roger Hammond, and 2003 Gent-Wevelgem winner and Belgian resident Andreas Klier. Those four are backed up by a sturdy group of rouleurs, including Canadian Dominique Rollin, who everyone believes fits the profile for these sorts of races.

So that’s a quick rundown of what the favorites, Pozzato now included, will have to deal with, but that’s the breaks when you’re trying to win a classic. If you look at the draft roster for Ballan’s Lampre squad, you’ll see he would have been in a similar situation, with the squad now looking a little headless without him. And just as guys like Pozzato and Ballan can be considered favorites despite a lack of lauded support, there are guys scattered throughout the start list with the potential, on a good day, to upset the whole apple cart for the stacked squads – guys like Frederic Guesdon (Francaise des Jeux), who sneaks away to win another classic just when everyone’s forgotten about him again, or a Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) who could finally manage to slip his domestique label once and for all.

In light of all this, I’m sure not making any predictions as to who the winner will be. I will go out on a limb and bet that the early break will include at least one rider whose surname begins with “Van,” and that the winner will not come from Euskaltel-Euskadi. Mr. Bookmaker, here I come.