Welshman Geraint Thomas will line up as an unlikely favourite when the usually Belgian-dominated Tour de Flanders begins on Sunday.

Of the 98 editions of the second of five ‘Monument’ races, 68 have been won by Belgians.

The first ever winner was Belgian Paul Deman in 1913 and four of the six riders to have won it a record three times are also from the host country.

Yet this year, a plucky Welshman, a Slovak, a Czech, a German and a Norwegian will be among the front-runners trying to succeed Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara as champion.

And one of the reasons they will be feeling confident is that Cancellara — one of the riders on three wins — is injured, along with Tom Boonen, another of the most successful Flanders competitors.

Between them, that pair have won this race in six of the last 10 years but with Cancellara nursing two broken vertebrae in his back and Boonen recovering from a dislocated shoulder, the race is wide open.

The only former winner in the field will be Belgian Stijn Devolder, who earnt back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009.

But Devolder’s greatest successes have been as a foil for a team leader, exploiting the attention on that rider to escape to victory.

He was Boonen’s teammate when he won his two Flanders titles and was gearing up to help Cancellara this year now that he rides for Trek.

As the new team leader, he won’t be able to fly under the radar as in the past.

However, the Belgian showed good form at Three Days of De Panne earlier in the week, finishing second overall, and he will surely be one of the contenders.

But it is Thomas who will likely be the most marked rider following his strong showing last week at E3 Harelbeke, which he won, and Gent-Wevelgem, where he was third.

He proved in those two cobbled classics that he is continuing to develop as a top Spring Classic specialist having spent much of his career until now as a jack of all trades.

Last year he finished eighth at Flanders and seventh at Paris-Roubaix a week later, but he will be eying nothing less than victory on the cobbles and brutal short climbs around West Flanders this time around.

– Fierce Competition –

Competition will be fierce, not least from Czech Zdenek Stybar, who was second to Thomas at E3 and won Strade Bianche last month.

He might be more suited to Paris-Roubaix, though, where he finished sixth and fifth in the last two years.

The cycling world is also waiting for Slovak Peter Sagan to finally deliver on his great potential by winning one of the Monuments.

He won E3 12 months ago and Gent-Wevelgem the year before, and has finished in the top 10 numerous times at Spring Classics, but the closest he’s come to winning one of the big ones were second place finishes at both Flanders and Milan-San Remo last year.

Dutchman Niki Terpstra, the Roubaix champion, will be another face to look out for and has the advantage of a strong team around him.

Like Stybar and Belgian Stijn Vandenbergh, he rides for Etixx-Quick Step.

But without Boonen in their ranks this time, there may not be a clear leader and already Terpstra and Vandenbergh failed to make their numbers count in the final at Gent-Wevelgem last week, finishing second and fourth respectively.

And they won’t be the only strong team as Thomas can bank on support from Ian Stannard and world and Olympic time-trial champion Bradley Wiggins at Team Sky.

Belgium’s hopes will rest on many shoulders: Vendenbergh, fourth last year, Sep Vanmarcke, third last year, Jurgen Roelandts, Jens Debusschere, Greg Van Avermaet, second last year, and Bjorn Leukemans — the list is almost endless.

But while Flanders suits a specialist puncher, there are also a couple of sprinters who could be in the mix. Norway’s Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb of Germany — the last two Milan-San Remo winners — both have the ability to keep in contact on the short climbs and the kick finish to leave everyone in their wake. – Agence France-Presse

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