With the second Monument of the season, Tour of Flanders, on the horizon, we caught up with the 2007 winner and previous World Champ Alessandro Ballan, to preview what the Belgium Super Week looks like and of course put our predictions on the line.
Q: Ale! Thanks for your time on this, let’s get stuck in. In the buildup to Flanders, which races do you think are the important ones to ride in (Opening Weekend, De Panne, E3, Gent-Wevelgem) and why?
‘All the races that precede Giro delle Flanders (Tour of Flanders) are important, especially those that use the most important bergs. It is here that the riders begin to memorize the route. E3 is particularly important, it is almost a mini-Flanders race day. It’s worth remembering that Milano-San Remo is often key, as it gives you the distance; 300km! ’
Q: Which were the ones you’d always race?
‘The ones I always raced as preparation were Wareghem, E3, and DePanne. They gave me exactly what I needed.’
Q: Do you think most of the favorites race Dwaars Door between Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders? Or is that week purely about recovery?
‘Most of them should be in all the Belgian races, they’re ideal for preparation. It is only really Dwars door Vlaanderen that should be raced without pressure and risk, in my opinion. It’s so close to Flanders, just three days before the most important Sunday.’
Q: So, before race day on Sunday, how many times have most the favorites ridden those key Belgian bergs?
‘Many times! The crucial points like the Old Kwaremont or Koppenberg, more times than you could probably keep count of - between races and reconnaissance in training.’
Q: Ok, let’s talk equipment. The exact same question we asked Fabian; if you were racing this weekend, what would your choice of equipment be? Aero frame or all-rounder? Deep section wheels or something in between? Tyre width and pressure? What gearing would you be using?
‘My choice for the cobblestones goes with an all-rounder like the SLR01, carbon wheels with average depth, but for sure a 28mm tubular tire, running a front pressure of 5.8bar and rear 6.3bar, an electronic groupset, and it would definitely better if it’s 12 speed!’
Q: Were you the type of rider who would make any additional ‘changes’ to your equipment?
‘I would just put some gel under the tape to relieve handlebar vibration. That’s it for me.’
Q: So, we know Flanders doesn’t follow the same general pattern as Milan-San Remo does. Tell us, how does Tour of Flanders usually unfold and what should the riders be concentrating on?
‘For the first 100km, the riders aiming to win need to remain in the center of the group, eat, drink and use as little energy as possible. The fight begins in the first stretches of cobblestones and as they get closer to the ‘Muure’ (climbs) it is always necessary to remain in the first positions of the group with the help of teammates. The full-on racing begins around 80/90km from the finish line.’
Q: That raises a good question. How important is the team, especially in the fight for positioning?
‘The team is so important, to keep you near the front of the group at all times of the race. If you hit a ‘Muur’ in like thirtieth position, that means you are out of the game for victory. Also in case of punctures or mechanical problems when your team car cannot be present, that’s when you’ll need teammates!’
Q: It’s Belgium. It’s Spring. What happens, if it turns wet? Does that make the racing even harder, or are all the riders a lot more cautious?
‘If it rains… Everything becomes more complicated, the tension rises even more and the risks that you need to take are almost endless.’
Q: One for the number obsessed riders. Can you remember your best, or your average power numbers when you won?
‘I didn't even have a power meter in 2007, when I won! I only really used the power meter in the final days of my career. For my last Ronde, I think the average wattage was a bit higher than 265w. Very high, considering more than 6 hours of racing.’ (Editors note: Alessandro still finished 3rd in his final Tour of Flanders)
Q: Ok. The time has come. Predictions! Who are your favorites for Sunday? ?
‘My favorites for the win, the three strongest; Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe. But I really hope for an Italian victory that could be Trentin or even Bettiol.’
Although it is hard to look past the big three, we still think Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet can’t be written off. Especially after their impressive performances last week. Our dark horse is of course Giacomo Nizzolo!