(Reuters) - Britain's Tom Pidcock could gatecrash what is expected to be a battle between cycling's so-called Three Kings and snatch victory in the Tour of Flanders this weekend, according to former winner Philippe Gilbert.
Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel will be favourite to win the iconic Belgian classic for a third time in four years if he finishes in front of Belgium's Wout van Aert and Slovenian Tadej Pogacar over the 273km route.
The odds are short on the winner coming from that illustrious trio who have already gone toe-to-toe in thrilling fashion at Milan-San Remo and the E3 Saxo Classic so far this year.
But the 23-year-old Pidcock, the Olympic mountain bike champion, claimed his biggest road victory this month with a superb 50km solo attack to become the first British rider to win the prestigious Strade Bianche on the gravel roads of Tuscany.
The cobbles and 19 punchy climbs of Flanders offers a completely different challenge, but Gilbert believes that the Ineos Grenadiers rider has the weapons to pull off a shock win.
"I would add Pidcock alongside those three as a contender because he's able to ride fast alone, is quite fast in a sprint even despite being really lightweight," Gilbert, speaking at Warner Bros. Discovery's start of cycling season launch event, told Reuters on Tuesday.
"We still don't know if he won the Amstel (in 2021) against Van Aert because the photo finish was not clear.
"But that showed he's able to beat Van Aert in the sprint so this has to give him confidence."
Pidcock showed why he is being tipped as a future Tour de France winner and emulate fellow Britons Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas when he won the mountain stage to Alpe d'Huez on his debut in the race last year.
His all-round ability also makes him a contender in the one-day classics such as the Tour of Flanders.
Asked how he could upset the three favourites on Sunday, Gilbert, who will analyse the race for Eurosport, said: "If I was him I would just have always eyes on the three of them and react to them and not go first.
"Let them work, they are the favourites, they are the three big names and they have to make the race and they know that so he can take advantage of that. I think he's smart enough."
Gilbert said he has closely followed Pidcock's progress and says he 'likes the guy behind the athlete'.
"He's very passionate about cycling, he loves cycling, respects the history and he's not one of these young guys coming in without any knowledge," he said.
Gilbert still expects Van der Poel to prevail, but expects a classic edition of a race considered one of the most brutal classics and is watched by thousands of frenzied fans.
"You have to be really explosive after every corner, after every climb and you need a lot of resistance because those efforts are really painful," the 40-year-old said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)