10 riders to watch at the Tour of Flanders

Mathieu van der Poel and Lotte Kopecky are the two outstanding favourites, but there are a whole host of riders knocking on the door of a big victory

Clock04:06, Saturday 30th March 2024
Lotte Kopecky and Mathieu van der Poel have stood on the podium at the Tour of Flanders before

© Getty Images

Lotte Kopecky and Mathieu van der Poel have stood on the podium at the Tour of Flanders before

Almost all of the Belgian cobbled Classics are done, and the big day, the culmination of it all, is nearly here. Sunday brings us the second Monument of the season in the form of the Tour of Flanders, one of the biggest races of the year, both in terms of attention and anticipation, and in prestige, legend and importance.

The Tour of Flanders is the jewel in the crown of the Belgian Classics, and all talk this week is about De Ronde. What will happen, who will be there, who will win? Thanks to some untimely crashes, we have an idea of who won’t be there – most crucially Belgian favourite Wout van Aert, whose whole race plan is up in the air after breaking several bones in Dwars door Vlaanderen – but who will be there in the key moments is harder to say.

In both the men’s and women’s races, there are key favourites, and they both happen to be reigning world champions: Mathieu van der Poel and Lotte Kopecky. But in Flanders, even when there are favourites and predictions, nothing ever goes quite as expected. Lots of riders are going to start on Sunday thinking they could win, and many of them will be in the action and get close, but only two riders will win. Here are 10 names we think you should look out for as the battle on the Belgian ‘bergs unfolds.

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Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck)

The two-time Flanders winner hasn’t been off the podium this decade and has the chance of becoming just the seventh rider to ever win three editions of the race. Already the out-and-out favourite a week ago, the 29-year-old’s stock has only risen having seen several of his rivals head to hospital or limp towards Sunday after that crash in Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.

Read more: The Van der Poel rules: How to beat cycling's best Classics rider

Some will point to the manner of his defeat in Gent-Wevelgem as proof of his vulnerability when stretched to the limit, but it’s worth remembering that the performance came just a couple of days after his incredible exploits in E3 Saxo Classic. Those rides catch up with you, even if you’re Van der Poel, but come Sunday he’ll be rested and recovered. He’ll only have half of the Lidl-Trek team to deal with that caused him problems in E3, Visma-Lease a Bike’s busted Classics team, and a handful of fringe riders who weren’t even close to him at the Flanders dress rehearsal at E3.

This is Van der Poel’s race to lose but with that comes an increased sense of pressure and responsibility. As Dwars door Vlaanderen illustrated, almost anything can happen in high-pressure situations, and while Van der Poel is well-equipped for such scenarios, no race is over before the start flag has even been raised.

Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx-Protime)

Much like Mathieu van der Poel, Lotte Kopecky is likely the outright favourite for the women’s Tour of Flanders, even if she herself would rather win next week’s Paris-Roubaix.

Read more: Lotte Kopecky: I’d rather win Paris-Roubaix than a third Tour of Flanders

The fact is, she’s the two-time winner, and last year looked near unbeatable in this race. Her Spring so far would suggest she’s in even better form than she was then, so it’s hard to imagine who could beat her if the race is hard. Her SD Worx-Protime squad was a little off the boil in Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, but that wasn’t their A-team, and they’re bringing in more experienced riders in Marlen Reusser and Lorena Wiebes on Sunday, so it’s unlikely they’ll loosen their grip as they did earlier this week.

The only thing that takes away from Kopecky’s status as the favourite is that she and her team are adamant that she is not the only leader, but rather Reusser, Wiebes and Vollering will also be given their chances, depending on how the situation plays out. The problem is, though, that SD Worx often dictate the situation, so if they don’t set a hard pace and keep their rivals at bay, they could be taken advantage of, and then be put in a situation where the ‘safe’ scenario – make it hard and attack with Kopecky – is out of reach, and they have to react in a bigger group.

Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine that, despite all the talk, they may just do what they know, and what works: make it as hard as possible and their strongest rider, which should undoubtedly be Kopecky, will win.

Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek)

On Wednesday morning, Mads Pedersen lined up for Dwars door Vlaanderen with his confidence sky-high and his status as a Tour of Flanders favourite firmly secured. He wasn’t a five-star rider in the same vein as Mathieu van der Poel but he was certainly the next best thing, having pulled the Dutch rider apart to win Gent-Wevelgem a few days previously.

That sumptuous Lidl-Trek performance had commentators and fans purring ahead of the much anticipated Flanders clash but in the blink of an eye, Pedersen’s hopes came crashing down after he was involved in a fall that took down a host of Flanders contenders with 67km to go in Dwars. As he sat on the tarmac, confused, lost, and desolate, it didn’t take long to realise that even if no bones were broken, the Gent-Wevelgem winner’s Flanders hopes hung by a thread.

That he remounted and even managed to soft pedal back to the Lidl bus was a triumph in itself given the loss of Jasper Stuyven and Alex Kirsch in the same crash but 48 hours on from that seismic event the Dane has yet to train, with only a light ride completed on Friday.

Read more: Mads Pedersen: 'Pain in the ass that we lost Jasper Stuyven for Tour of Flanders'

He’ll ramp up the effort again on Saturday, all being well, but no one, not even the man himself, knows how his body will stand up to the rigours of Flanders on Sunday. When on form, the rider is electric to watch, but the loss of his teammates, coupled with the bumps and bruises from Wednesday, is sure to have some effect come race day. It’s brutal and cruel but the inevitability within cycling is that everything can flip in the briefest of moments.

Marianne Vos (Visma-Lease a Bike)

Rewind a few years, and Marianne Vos would have been a serious contender for any race she started, such is the Dutchwoman’s ability and palmarès. In recent seasons, though, that ever-present status has slightly waned, both due to a couple of health setbacks for Vos, and the increased level in the women’s peloton.

This year, though, the 36-year-old seems close to being back to her very best, recording her 250th career win on Wednesday, and beating SD Worx on their Classics turf not once, but twice so far in 2024. Flanders is a race she has only won once, back in 2013, as its volume of climbing is slightly outside of Vos’ usual comfort zone, but in the form she’s in now, it’s hard to see the short, sharp bergs troubling her too much.

Read more: Marianne Vos: I expect SD Worx-Protime to be extra sharp at Tour of Flanders

Knowing her sprint as they do, other teams will be keen to try and drop Vos on the climbs and make it hard for her, but it’s not a simple task to distance the multiple-time world champion. If Vos can make it to the finish in the lead group, you’d bet on her beating any riders bar Lorena Wiebes and Elisa Balsamo in a sprint, and her chances of being in a selective move are arguably higher than theirs.

Eleven years after her first and only win here, could Vos add a second Ronde to her already astonishing list of achievements? We think so.

Matteo Jorgenson (Visma-Lease a Bike)

Since their Opening Weekend, nothing has gone right for the Dutch squad in the Spring Classics, other than Matteo Jorgenson’s performances of course. Wout van Aert has crashed out of contention and will be on the sidelines for weeks, if not months, with his Giro d’Italia participation in the balance, while bad luck has befallen Dylan Van Baarle, Jan Tratnik, Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte at various points this spring.

Read more: Post finish line crash adds 'insult to injury' for Jorgenson and Visma at E3

Over the winter, team boss Richard Plugge implied that punctures could be avoided in the cobbled Classics and that they are to blame for not winning a Monument in 2023, but such ambitions look quixotic when you’re struggling to even make an eight-rider roster.

Luckily for Plugge and his impregnable tyres, the team has arguably the deepest roster in the world and in Jorgenson they have one of the fastest developing Classics riders in the sport. His win in Dwars door Vlaanderen provided the best possible tonic after Van Aert’s fall, and the American finds himself in the role of team leader on one of the best all-around Classics teams in the world.

Even in his wildest dreams, Jorgenson couldn’t have imagined that when he started this spring Odyssey, he would find himself in such a marque position.

In a straight-up fight against Van der Poel, he would probably lose nine out of ten close encounters, but Flanders has a way of providing plot twists and new dynamics each year, and while it’s often won by the strongest rider, the loss of so many key rivals certainly puts the anvil of pressure even more firmly on Van der Poel’s broad shoulders. Jorgenson has already had a hugely successful spring, he can race Flanders with a free-hit in mind and point towards Alpecin when it comes to making the race.

Read more: Dwars door Vlaanderen: Matteo Jorgenson victorious with late solo attack

Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek)

It may seem surprising to pick out the most sprint-focused rider from Lidl-Trek’s stacked line-up for Flanders, but Elisa Balsamo is looking on better form than some of her teammates, and she’s never been a rider who is ‘just’ a sprinter. Spurred on by two wins and several strong rides in the Classics so far, Balsamo should go into Sunday with bags of confidence, knowing she can get over pretty tough climbs, and can only really be beaten by Lorena Wiebes in any given sprint.

Lidl-Trek’s strategy around Balsamo will likely be a need to make things hard enough to put Wiebes in trouble, but not so hard that Balsamo can’t hold on. Following attacks from the likes of Lotte Kopecky or Marianne Vos will be the big ask, but that’s why the American team have riders like Elisa Longo Borghini and Shirin van Anrooij in their number, who can follow the moves when Balsamo can’t.

Read more: Lidl-Trek shine in the Classics - GCN Racing News Show

If she is in the group in Oudenaarde, it’s hard to see her losing the sprint, and even if Wiebes is there, the Italian at her very best is capable of beating the Dutchwoman.

Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ)

The Swiss rider is finding form just at the right time with third in Dwars door Vlaanderen coming on the back of a run of consistent yet not spectacular results this spring. He’s finished in the top thirty of every one-day race he’s started this year and in Laurence Pithie he has a perfect collaborator and teammate. Both riders can either anticipate Van der Poel’s expected attacks or wait for the Dutch rider and attempt to cling onto his coattails for as long as possible.

Read more: A beginner's guide to the Tour of Flanders

The French squad probably don’t get the overall credit they deserve in the Classics but they’re a well-drilled outfit with genuine class throughout their numbers, and although they lack a clear favourite, Küng and Pithie are respectable podium candidates. For Küng, it’s probably his best-ever chance of winning a Monument due to the nature of the start list following Dwars door Vlaanderen’s events, and he will be in the mix for at least a top-five if he can avoid bad luck.

Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)

Kasia Niewiadoma may be an interesting inclusion here, given her absence in the Belgian Classics so far, but that’s because she followed Demi Vollering and Marianne Vos’ lead and spent the last few weeks training at altitude. If it works for those riders, it can work for Niewiadoma, and therefore her lack of warm-up races shouldn’t be a problem.

Though Niewiadoma is often a rider we think of more for races like the Ardennes, Strade Bianche and stage races, Flanders is a really climb-heavy race, and if it’s raced hard on the ascents, it quite quickly turns into a race that suits the climbing-aligned Classics riders well, and that’s Niewiadoma down to a tee. She also has a good record here: eight participations and six top-10s, so she’s always close to the front and the action even if she hasn’t quite made it onto the podium yet.

Read more: The top 10 cycling climbs in Flanders

Her rides in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche point to a rider who is well-versed in racing these hard, chaotic races, and so the only question is where her form is. Without having ridden Dwars door Vlaanderen to get a result on the board, it’s hard to say where exactly she is, but Niewiadoma is never a rider who is totally off the mark, and she knows how to pull it out for these big occasions.

Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost)

The former Tour of Flanders winner was in scintillating form earlier this year, winning Milano-Torino via a long-distance break and then following that with fifth in Milan-San Remo. A crash at E3 Saxo Classic ended with a DNF and a DNS at Gent-Wevelgem, but the Italian returned to training two days before Dwars door Vlaanderen with a five-hour ride through the Belgian countryside.

At Dwars door Vlaanderen he played a major part before cramps scuppered his hopes in the final stages of the race. That in itself isn’t the best sign ahead of Flanders but assuming the 30-year-old can maintain his current trajectory he should be in line for a result in Flanders. He’ll be well assisted by a robust EF Education-EasyPost squad that doesn’t have to control the race, and with Andreas Klier in the team car, the American squad have one of the best sports directors for the situation.

Read more: EF Pro Cycling reveal special switch-out kit for the Tour of Flanders

Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck)

Off-road sensation Puck Pieterse has probably featured among the riders to watch for every Classic she’s done this season, and for good reason. Though only squeezing in a small block of road racing between her cyclo-cross and mountain bike campaigns, Pieterse has thrown everything at her short Classics season and has been active and aggressive in every race she’s started. Her best result has been third – at both the Ronde van Drenthe and Trofeo Alfredo Binda – and she’s yet to finish lower than 13th. Flanders will definitely be the end of her roadblock, which she extended due to feeling so good, and it’s likely her biggest goal.

Read more: Puck Pieterse continues to make waves as she sails towards Tour of Flanders debut

Despite her relative lack of experience on the road, Pieterse has a good tactical head in these races and is often following the right moves, as she proved once again in Dwars door Vlaanderen. Flanders will be a big step up, and she’ll have to be in a small group if she wants to achieve her stated aim for a top-five finish, but with her strength and ability, that’s not hard to imagine.

For the latest news, interviews and analysis from the world of professional cycling, be sure to check out the Racing tab on the GCN website and visit our essential guide to The Spring Classics to stay up to date with all of the action from cycling's most exciting season.

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