Analysis: The Winners and Losers of the 99th Ronde van Vlaanderen
The Tour de France may be the most important race in pro cycling, but in cycling-obsessed Belgium there’s only one race referred to as “The Tour,” and it doesn’t take place in July.
For the nation that borders France to the north, “De Ronde,” short for De Ronde van Vlaanderen — the Tour of Flanders — is the biggest day of cycling on the calendar. (The Tour de France is known in Belgium as the Ronde van Frankrijk. It’s also important, just … less so.)
The Tour of Flanders is, as the name implies, a tour of the Flemish region of Western Belgium. But it is also much, much more. With its many bergs (hills) and hellingen (cobbled climbs), its difficulty, and its rabid fan base, the Tour of Flanders is a national event, drawing out an estimated 1 million spectators.
The 264km (164-mile) race is one of pro cycling’s five one-day monuments, and is the only race to have spawned its own weekly fictional TV series, based around the 2010 edition of the race.
On Sunday, the 99th edition of De Ronde was held under sunny skies, starting in the medieval city of Brugge and ending six hours and 26 minutes later in the town of Oudenaarde, home to a museum solely dedicated to the storied history of the race.
Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff won in Oudenaarde, easily outsprinting Dutch rider Niki Terpstra. Though Terpstra rides for a Belgian team, Etixx-Quick-Step, the top Belgian rider was BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, who rounded out the podium.
A women’s edition of the Tour of Flanders has been held since 2004. Italian Elisa Longo Borghini won this year’s edition, ahead of her Wiggle-Honda teammate Jolien D’Hoore, with Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) in third.
At a race as demanding and important as De Ronde, there’s always a long list of winners and losers — those who surpassed expectations and those who did not. Here’s that list.
Coming off three consecutive sprint victories and the overall win at Dreidaagse De Panne-Koksijde, Kristoff was clearly on top form.
De Panne showed that Kristoff was, indeed, peaking for the race he most wanted to win — but had he done too much in the week before the big show?
As it turns out, he hadn’t. The Norwegian followed Terpstra’s attack on the Kruisberg with 28km to go, and matched him on the pivotal, final cobbled climbs of the Kwaremont and Paterberg. Those were the Dutch rider’s final opportunities to dispatch the faster Kristoff, and when that didn’t happen, Terpstra was forced to choose between riding with Kristoff to an almost-certain second-place finish, or sit on and be caught by Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), where he may well have gambled his way into fourth. It was an easy decision, and, ulimatelty, a predictable result. At the finish line in Oudenaarde, everyone agreed that the strongest man had won.
“It was a little bit early I thought, but I didn’t want to let [Terpstra] go away because he was going to close it and he was really strong,” Kristoff said. “In the start he worked a lot and we got a gap. And after a while I managed to find a rhythm, and I could contribute and we were working really well and kept the distance quite good.
“I was pretty confident I would still beat him. I tried not to go really full gas the last few kilometers, to save a little bit so I had something left for the sprint. And it was enough. That was a great feeling when I saw that he couldn’t pass me.”
Elisa Longo Borghini
Like Kristoff, the 23-year-old Longo Borghini proved that, on the cobblestones, the strongest rider usually crosses the finish line first. The Wiggle-Honda rider stuck an audacious solo attack from 30km out, finishing almost a minute ahead of the first chase group. It was a triumphant victory for the talented Italian who spent the 2014 season battling back from a broken pelvis sustained in a 2013 racing incident.
Longo Borghini broke clear just after the Kanarieberg, responding to an attack by Trixi Worrack of Velocio-SRAM. The German was unable to match the Italian’s counterattack and was soon back in the peloton, but Longo Borghini went on to build what would become a winning lead. She finished 43 seconds ahead of the sprint for second place, won by her teammate, Belgian champion D’hoore, ahead of van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv).
“I don’t know why, but I was certain that we would win the race. I was confident; I was just sure that we would win,” Longo Borghini said.
While some may have questioned Etixx’s team tactics, Terpstra didn’t lose Flanders — he won second place. Kristoff was the strongest rider, able to follow moves when they mattered, able to finish off the job at the line.
Terpstra put in a crafty attack on the Kruisberg, earlier than some expected, catching out a few favorites, such as Sagan and Thomas. Kristoff followed, and from there to the top of the Paterberg, the race was in flux. Could Terpstra drop the Norwegian on either of the last two climbs? (No.) Would Terpstra’s teammate, Zdenek Stybar, bridge the 30-second gap and stack the front group with Etixx jerseys? (Also no; the Czech rider only marked Geraint Thomas (Sky) across the Kwaremont.)
From the moment Terpstra and Kristoff crested the final climb, the Paterberg, the Dutch rider knew he was likely racing for second place. He was better off riding with Kristoff than sitting on and allowing Van Avermaet and Sagan, two faster finishers, to catch on. Short of a puncture or a slipped gear, Kristoff was going to win the sprint in Oudenaarde. Without a teammate, and lacking a finishing sprint, Terpstra did the only thing he could — he worked with Kristoff until the closing kilometers, to solidify their gap, and he then sat on, hoping to come around in the final meters.
“I thought [Kristoff] was a good breakaway partner,” Terpstra said. “He’s a fast rider for sure, but when we went away we still had three climbs to do. So I thought it was possible for me. I hoped to attack there and do something. But on the climbs he was super strong. On the Paterberg he set such a good pace that I could hardly even pass him. He showed his strength in the last weeks, and it was true again today.”
Belgian Sep Vanmarcke, 26, hasn’t yet won a monument, but his compatriots already have their next classics star: Tiesj Benoot. The 21-year-old Lotto-Soudal neo-pro outsprinted Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo) for fifth, 20 seconds behind Sagan. In fact it was Benoot’s acceleration on the Kruisberg that prompted Terpstra’s decisive counterattack. Later, Benoot jumped away from the second chase group, pipping Boom at the line for fifth.
“I’m really happy with this result,” Benoot said. “It’s a surprise.”
Earlier this year he placed sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen and 18th at Harelbeke, but no one had expected to see him place fifth at the 264km Ronde.
“At the end I jumped away, and only Lars Boom joined me. He took over and together we rode to the finish where I beat him for the fifth place. This race is a monument and close to my home; of course I dream about it. That I am fifth at my debut is really special.”
As one of the sport’s fastest sprinters, Andre Greipel doesn’t often put his nose into the wind until the final 250 meters of a race. But the German national champion’s jersey was on display at the front of De Ronde late in the race as Greipel went on the attack, first on the Molenberg, and again before the Koppenberg, following the second of three ascents of the Kwaremont.
Once caught, the muscle-bound German hung tough in the front group, driving the chase for Lotto-Soudal teammates Jürgen Roelandts and Benoot.
In the end, Benoot finished fifth, with Roelandts in eighth.
“It was not about me, it was about the team today,” Greipel said. “I just did what I had to do. It’s nice to give something back to the team. I can do more than just sprinting. I knew it before, and I had not the best legs at the start of the race today, but somehow I could motivate myself to do the best I could.”
Shimano Neutral Support
Crashes are part of racing. Broken collarbones, while no small matter, are seemingly ubiquitous in pro bike racing. But no rider should ever crash and break a collarbone — or any bone — because of a support vehicle, and that’s what happened to Trek Factory Racing’s Jesse Sergent, who was sideswiped by a Shimano Neutral Support car that was trying to overtake the front group.
Sergent did nothing unusual or erratic — he was simply swinging off after his pull at the front of the breakaway. As he rounded a left-hand corner, the Shimano car attempted to squeeze through a narrow gap on his left side, but instead bounced off a curb and into Sergent’s hip. His bike disappeared from beneath him, and his race was instantly over.
The scene was eerily reminiscent of an incident at the 2011 Tour de France, when a French TV car, filled with VIPs, sideswiped Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha, sending Hoogerland into a barbed-wire fence.
As if that was not enough, a Shimano support vehicle struck the FDJ team car later in Flanders. The FDJ car was pushed into Sebastien Chavanel, sending him sprawling to the sidewalk. According to team manager Marc Madiot, the neutral support car pushed the FDJ car “15 meters” down the road. Though he abandoned the race, Chavanel was not seriously hurt.
The pair of incidents highlight the importance of rider safety — something that is not up for debate, and something the UCI must address before a tragedy occurs. Whether it’s neutral support, team cars, VIP cars, or TV motos, caravan vehicles must all yield to racers at all times. The moment rider safety becomes secondary, all is lost.
The fact that Flanders Classics, owners and organizers of De Ronde (and several other classics), also puts on a women’s race is commendable.
However, the fact the race organization — which uses the Belgian broadcast team at Sporza — did not make an effort to provide live coverage of the women’s race is regrettable.
Post-race highlights of the women’s event demonstrated that production resources, such as dedicated TV motos, were employed to capture the footage. Somewhere, a decision was made — either at Flanders Classics or Sporza — that women’s race coverage would not be shown during the men’s race. (The women’s race ended with approximately two hours remaining in the men’s race.)
Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby alluded, on air, to the fact that the decision not to run screen-on-screen footage of the final kilometers of the women’s race was made so as “not to confuse” viewers — a tough pill to swallow. In an era when discussion of biometric data telemetry and live on-bike footage of major men’s races is being bandied about, the cycling audience is clearly capable of understanding screen-within-screen coverage of a concurrent women’s race.
Race commentator Michael Tomalaris, of Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), wrote on Twitter that coverage of the women’s race was “out of the control” of SBS, which had rights only to the men’s race, adding that coverage of the women’s race was provided by a different production company than that of the men’s. “If we could, we would (show it),” Tomalaris wrote. “Direct questions to @RondeVlaanderen.”
Inquiries posed on Twitter to the race (@RondeVlaanderen) and its owners (@FlandersCLnews) weren’t immediately answered.
A few years back, Belgian commentator Karl Vannieuwkerke engaged in a lengthy Facebook debate over the complexities surrounding a live broadcast that involves multiple race motorcycles, helicopters, and production teams for simultaneous events. It’s a complex puzzle, no doubt, but in the end, the significance of the women’s race was diminished by a total lack of live coverage. If nothing else, the broadcast team should show the finish, followed by a quick post-race interview. That doesn’t seem to be asking a lot.
(Thanks to Jens Hagström for some context on this issue.)
Heading into De Ronde, Team Sky was, to many, the big favorite, but several factors fell into place that showed how difficult it is to win a monument, even with on-form riders and strong team support.
The team rode at the front for much of the race, with Christian Knees, Bernie Eisel, Salvatore Puccio, Elia Viviani, Ian Stannard, Wiggins, and Luke Rowe controlling the peloton and breakaway for much of the first 200km.
But Wiggins crashed on the first of three approaches to the Oude Kwaremont, necessitating a bike change. Then, one by one, Sky’s riders showed signs of fatigue from their efforts at the front.
The peloton stretched thin on the second ascent of the Kwaremont, and only Thomas and Rowe remained from the British squad. And when Terpstra and Kristoff disappeared up the road, Thomas wasn’t able to follow. He tried to distance himself on the third and final climb of the Kwaremont, but he didn’t have the legs, and had a passenger in the form of Stybar. In the end, Thomas was left to battle for seventh, finishing 14th.
“It’s Flanders and it’s obviously a hard race. I just lacked that punch which I had last week on the Kwaremont,” Thomas said. “I had to have a go as the boys rode so well all day for me. I just didn’t quite have the legs at the end. When you’re feeling a bit average it feels like everyone is following you. Once I was in that group behind, nobody would work together.”
For most 25-year olds, a fourth-place finish at the Tour of Flanders would be a stellar result — a sign of things to come.
But Peter Sagan is no normal 25-year old. A former winner at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, and a runner-up at De Ronde (as well as Milano-Sanremo), Sagan is one of the highest-paid riders in the sport, under immense pressure to live up to the lofty expectations that began to pile up before his 21st birthday.
At De Ronde, for the second time in nine days, Sagan was unable to respond to a late-race attack with a podium spot on the line.
Sagan went with Van Avermaet on the Paterberg, and the two pursued the leading pair as the time gap went down to 15 seconds with 12km to go, but it shot up to 26 seconds with 5km left. Van Avermaet then attacked inside the final kilometer, and Sagan couldn’t respond, even with a podium finish on the line inside the final kilometer.
Sagan managed to hold on to his fourth-place finish, matching his result at Milano-Sanremo two weeks earlier, but the fact that a three-time green jersey winner could not contest a sprint for the podium was yet another sign that all is not right with the Tinkoff-Saxo rider.
Zdenek Stybar’s dental bridge
How jarring is racing across the cobblestones of Western Flanders? Zdenek Stybar didn’t just miss out on the podium — he also lost his teeth.
The Czech national champion has had a dental bridge since a bad crash at the Eneco Tour last August resulted in several missing teeth.
At De Ronde, Stybar’s bridge came loose due to the rattling of the cobblestones, and he was forced to remove the bridge just before the second of three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont, resulting in some startling imagery as he rode at the front of the chase group late in the race.
“It’s difficult to say how the loss of my teeth affected my performance, but it’s really not nice to deal with it in such a big race,” Stybar said. “I was distracted by it and didn’t know what to do. Because it’s a bridge, it was moving, so I took it out. It’s not the best feeling to ride without teeth.”
Stybar went on to finish ninth, 49 seconds behind Kristoff.