Last year’s return of the Muur to the Ronde van Vlaanderen proved more decisive than anyone expected. Despite being nearly 100km from the finish, last year’s race blew up on the most famous climb of Flanders and served as a springboard for Philippe Gilbert’s dramatic solo victory.
The Muur is a new tilting point in the race, marking a before and after in the Flanders battle of attrition. It means that the action is pressed forward much earlier on the day for those cooling their jets for the final passages over the Oude Kwaremont.
“The Muur changed the race last year a lot,” said Gilbert, who profited most from its reintroduction. “Every edition is different. A lot will depend on the weather Sunday. Maybe it will be too far to attack again on the Muur. It was clear that is where the first selection is made.”
Will the race begin for real on the Muur van Geraardsbergen again this year? BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet is convinced that Quick-Step will press its numerical advantage perhaps as soon as the Muur.
“Quick-Step will try something. Maybe not at the Muur, but there will come a point when they will,” Van Avermaet said. “People always look to the previous edition. The Muur is now key. It’s single-file and can break up.”
Van Avermaet agreed that the Muur is a new reference point in the race when the real heavy part of the race begins. The bunch will likely split there and anyone getting seriously gapped will need an entire team pulling to chase back.
“I think a lot of people will be focused on the Muur now,” Van Avermaet said. “The second time up the Kwaremont is when the race will start up. But the Muur is key now. It will be a big fight to be in position.”
This year’s distance of 266.5km makes Flanders the second longest race of the WorldTour calendar. Only Milano-Sanremo is longer, but Flanders with 18 climbs and cobblestones is much harder. Trying to attack on such a key climb so far from the finish line requires a big engine. Few will dare to follow Gilbert’s script from 2017, when he spring-boarded off the Muur to make a solo attack on the Kwaremont with 55km to go.
“It would surprise me if the race would explode on the Muur like it did last year,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot, fifth in debut effort in 2015. “It’s a moment when all the teams need to be alert. I expect the race will really explode later.”
Another wrinkle in this year’s Muur plotline is that teams will be racing with seven instead of eight riders per team. So far, the jury seems split about how much impact that’s having in the classics. Gilbert said he’s seen top favorites move earlier in the races because they fear of getting gapped. There will be a lot of nervous riders chasing from behind if a few big names move early after the Muur.
“It’s more difficult to control the start and you see that teammates are even more important,” Gilbert said of smaller teams. “You can see that the tactic has changed a little bit. At a certain moment, we will have to ride.”
The return of the Muur marks the continued evolution of one of cycling’s most iconic races. The route of the Flemish monument has changed over the years, and the Muur played a good role for decades.
Most were happy to see Flanders most famous climb back in the Ronde parcours last year. From the 1980s until 2011, the Kapelmuur was often the scene of the decisive attacks to crown the winner when the finale came into Meerbeke. The Muur-Bosberg double was such a part of Flanders lore that traditionalists cried heresy when race organizers altered the route and eliminated the climb entirely in 2012.
With the race now finishing on closing circuits around Oudenaarde, the Muur was deemed too far away from the natural flow of the race when it started in Bruges and traced into West Flanders before turning into the hill country. Last year, with Antwerp slated as the new starting point, organizers could steer the course straight south and onto the Muur.
Expectations were muted, however, because the Muur was two hours of racing from the finale. No one expected the fireworks when the group exploded on the ramps.
“Last year, everybody was surprised that it started already at the Muur,” said Trek-Segafredo’s John Degenkolb. “This year, I think everybody will be super-concentrated on the Muur. It’s cycling. Everything can happen, especially in these races.”
All eyes will be on the Muur, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have an impact. With gradients as steep as 20 percent and an average of nearly 9 percent, the Muur created last year’s first real selection. That’s likely to happen again. What might change is what happens after and rivals will be faster to shut it down.
“It’s difficult to predict what will happen in the race,” Gilbert said. “I can imagine things will be different this year. The Muur is sure to be important. The only thing I would like to see if the same ending.”