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Studying Flanders 1985: Mother Nature’s last laugh

With Ronde van Vlaanderen only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of the Tour of Flanders. The race usually favors the strongest riders, but tactics are critical at the end of an epic day of cobbled Belgian climbs. What can we learn from the history of this beloved monument classic?

The Koppenberg is slick on the best of days, even the dry days, when thin dust covers stones laid at 22 percent. Then it rains, and slick turns to impossible.

Oh, did it rain in 1985. It started as a drizzle, normal Belgian weather, then morphed into a downpour. Then it went biblical. Two hundred kilometers into the race, there were 50 riders left in the field. Only 24 finished, the smallest number in cycling’s modern era.

What happened? Eric Vanderaerden, 23 years old in April of 1985, suffered a broken wheel early and was chasing as the Koppenberg approached and the rain began to come down. He was near the back of the thinned-out peloton when he hit the berg’s stone slopes. As the grade rose, rear wheels began to spin. Riders on the front lost grip and tipped over, some still stuck in their pedals. Thus began a game of human dominos.

Vanderaerden, through luck or skill or some combination of the two, weaved his way through the toppling field and was one of just a few riders to stay on his bike to the top. By the time he crested, he was 15th.

The storm pummeled harder and whittled the front group down to just six, including pre-race favorites Nico Verhoeven, Greg LeMond, Adrie van der Poel, and Phil Anderson, Vanderaerden’s teammate. Vanderaerden chased the leaders, along with Henni Kuiper, and the two made the junction just before the Eikenberg.

The weather continued to deteriorate. High winds whipped the group, temperatures just above freezing stiffened hands and stung faces, and driving rain blurred vision. Kuiper attacked and got a gap, but he was brought back by Vanderaerden and Anderson. Then the group hit the Muur, and Vanderaerden’s Koppenberg magic returned. He was solo, 20km from the finish.

The young Belgian held on over the Bosberg, and Flanders was his.

What we learned: For all our love of prognostication, Belgium’s unpredictable weather can have a more dramatic impact on the Ronde than any early spring result or apparent pre-race form. Vanderaerden was considered a sprinter at the time, already the winner of two Tour de France stages, and few knew of his uncanny skill on wet stones. The pre-race favorites succeeded in separating themselves, but the storm had other ideas. Vanderaerden would go on to win Paris-Roubaix in 1987, so his Flanders win was no true fluke, but it was proof, as if we needed any, that Mother Nature always has the last laugh.

Could it play out this way again? Of course it could. The storm that day was unusually severe, but bad weather is always possible in northern Europe in April. And if such weather did hit the race this year, we might once again see one of the vast crop of secondary Flanders favorites move to the front. All it takes is a bit of luck and singular skill on cobblestones turned slick as ice.