Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel will saddle up for his first Tour of Flanders one-day classic on Sunday and find himself in the unexpected position of being a potential race winner.
Alongside two-time winner Tom Boonen, Swiss hard man Fabian Cancellara, and three-time runner-up Leif Hoste, Chavanel – on paper – looks to have little chance of winning Belgium’s biggest one-day classic.
However two victories in the space of 10 days on the muddy, cobbled roads of northern Belgium have hoisted the 28-year-old Cofidis rider in with the big favourites.
Chavanel’s lack of experience on the race which leads the peloton from Bruges over a tight, winding 264km, that is littered with 17 treacherous climbs, towards Meerbeke west of Brussels is likely to be his biggest handicap.
Yet no lesser than the legendary Eddy Merckx, the winner in 1969 and 1975, believes Chavanel could spring a surprise to become the first Frenchman since Jacky Durand in 1992 to win the race.
“The past few days of racing in Flanders he’s given me the impression that he’s on a new level altogether, athletically speaking,” Merckx said in L’Equipe newspaper on Saturday. “So we have to put him in with the favourites. And I don’t think the fact that he is not used to races bordering on 270km will be a big problem for him.”
Two-time winner Peter Van Petegem believes Chavanel, who caused a minor sensation becoming the first Frenchman to win the A Travers les Flandres one-dayer last week and followed up with victory in the Fleche-Brabanconne in midweek, can also cause an upset.
“On paper, you automatically think of Boonen, Cancellara, Ballan and Hoste, but I would put Chavanel in with that lot too,” said the retired Quick Step rider, also a former winner of the tough Paris-Roubaix one-day classic.
“Not knowing the race course or having raced it before won’t be too big a handicap for him.”
Boonen, of Quick Step, will start as the locals’ favourite although the Belgian will meet some stiff competition.
CSC’s Cancellara showed his early season form by soloing to victory in Milan-San Remo two weeks ago, days after he had secured victory at the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race in Italy.
One-day specialist Hoste will be determined to finally get the ‘Ronde’ monkey off his back.
And there will be a few Italians, including Filippo Pozzato of Liquigas, mindful of Alessandro Ballan’s feat last year when he escaped late in the race to hand Italy their first win on the ‘Ronde’ in five years.
It remains to be seen how Lampre rider Ballan – who excels in dry conditions – copes with the rain, wind and hail that have been predicted by the local weather men.
Boonen would be forgiven for hoping the weather men get it right.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the weather is like, but if it’s bad it could be good for the Belgians,” said Boonen, the winner in 2005 and 2006.
As for Chavanel, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, according to his Cofidis team-mate Nick Nuyens, to explain the Frenchman’s recent success.
“Sylvain totally reviewed his training methods this winter. He did a lot of mountain biking and worked a lot on his speed and his strengh,” said the Belgian. “Now he’s as strong as an ox.”
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008