The setting for one of the sport’s most famous races - the Tour of Flanders - the Belgian fans will be pushing for homegrown success as they prepare to turn out in their droves for the road races this weekend.
We have already seen a couple of superb rides from Ellen van Dijk and Filippo Ganna as they claimed the women’s and men’s world time trial titles.
In among those time trials was some heartbreak for the watching spectators as Belgian Wout van Aert missed out on the men’s rainbow jersey by just five seconds. Can he go one step further on Sunday?
Meanwhile, reigning women’s road race champion Anna van der Breggen - who is retiring at the end of the season - will be pumped up to end on a high in the road race on Saturday.
Here is all you need to know about the races this weekend.
Women’s road race: What is the course and who are the favourites?
- Women’s road race: 13.20pm - 17.45pm BST (rough timings)
- Course length: 157.7 kilometres
The women’s route is certainly one for the very strongest riders in the world. Any sprinter who is susceptible to being dropped on undulating courses will not be involved in the final stages of this year’s race.
There will certainly be a selection made when they reach the Flanders circuit - which runs from around kilometre 75 to 120. At 18 per cent, the Moskesstraat will punish those who do not have the legs to go with the leaders. That’s followed just a few kilometres later by the punishing Bekastraat.
Inside the final 30 kilometres the riders will have to complete two and a half laps of the Leuven circuit, by which point the front group should already have been whittled down. Then it will simply come down to tactical awareness and strength.
As far as the main contenders go, the Dutch team continue to lead the way with a star-studded team including reigning rainbow jersey Van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten, Marianne Vos, Demi Vollering and time trial world champion Van Dijk.
Vos could well be the best option as she is the fastest sprinter and has the ability to get over the tough climbs. But Van der Breggen will want to go out on a high in her final world championships, while Van Vleuten and Vollering have shown superb form of late.
Outside of the Dutch set-up, Italian Elisa Longo Borghini is a potential winner if she can time an attack just right. The Belgian fans will be pinning their hopes on Lotte Kopecky, who already has 11 wins in 2021. And the USA also have a dynamic duo in Ruth Winder and Coryn Rivera.
Great Britain’s team will once again be led by Lizzie Deignan as she looks to replicate her rainbow jersey-winning exploits from 2015. The 32-year-old Brit is always there or thereabouts at the front of the race when the winning moves begin to unfold.
Prediction: Rolling back the years? You can’t take Marianne Vos anywhere close to the finish - you have to rider her off your wheel before then. But I think she may have enough to make it there. And when she does - like in 2006, 2012 and 2013 - she very rarely makes a mistake.
Men’s road race: What is the course and who are the favourites?
- Men’s road race: 11.25am - 18.00pm BST (rough timings)
- Course length: 268.3 kilometres
It goes without saying that any race over 250 kilometres promises to be one that only the very toughest, tactically astute riders can come out on top in. Mathieu van der Poel found that out two years ago when he thought he could blow everyone off his wheel and instead blew himself up.
After an initial 70 kilometres, one Flanders circuit is followed by four Leuven circuits. They then return to the Flanders loop before finishing in the same way as the women with two and a half laps of the Leuven circuit.
The first person to mention is reigning champion Julian Alaphilippe who you can never write off in the very biggest of races. The Frenchman would become just the seventh male rider in history to retain the rainbow jersey if he was to do so in Flanders on Sunday.
But he faces a plethora of hungry talent, namely Van Aert, who is the overwhelming favourite to take the jersey for the first time in his career. The Belgian sensationally won a mountain stage, time trial and bunch sprint at the Tour de France. He then followed that up with silver in both the Olympic time trial and Olympic road race. Four victories then followed at the Tour of Britain as he claimed the overall victory.
However, Van Aert will want to shake the second place syndrome he seems to be suffering from at the world championships. He claimed silver in the road race and time trial last year and then also took silver behind Ganna in this year’s race against the clock.
Three successive second places have left WVA feeling incredibly frustrated and he will undoubtedly be eager to finally get his hands on a rainbow jersey on the road. He has to be the favourite but is often marked out of these sorts of races - he is almost too strong for his own good.
Van Aert will need compatriot Remco Evenepoel to help him if Belgium are to claim a home victory and the 21-year-old prodigy could be another major contender for the victory if other nations are transfixed on his team leader.
Then there is the returning Van der Poel who only confirmed he was riding the race earlier this week as he continues his recovery from injury. Unfortunately, it is probably a little too early for him.
Other major contenders include three-time world champion Peter Sagan, Kasper Asgreen, Sonny Colbrelli and Magnus Cort Nielsen. Let’s also not forget the extremely dangerous Slovenian trio of Primoz Roglic, Tadej Pogacar and Matej Mohoric.
On the British front, there is a seriously dangerous duo in Ethan Hayter and Tim Pidcock who on their day are capable of taking the win here. It’s 10 years since Mark Cavendish won the rainbow jersey - an oman, perhaps? Hayter in particular looked superb at the Tour of Britain and could be right up there.
Prediction: Everyone in the race will be looking for the wheel of Van Aert and that does not bode well for the Belgian’s chances. But it may play into the hands of his compatriot Remco Evenepoel. He is my pick to claim the famous rainbow jersey at just 21 years of age.
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