Preview: Flanders is bike racing at its finest
De Ronde. Its mere mention sends a chill down the spine of an avid cycling fan, conjuring images of steep, cobbled climbs, wet stones, Flandrien flags waving over grimacing faces. The Tour of Flanders is the greatest one-day race on the pro calendar, requiring a combination of strength and acumen found nowhere else. It opens cycling’s holy week, the first of two monuments in seven days.
De Ronde van Vlaanderen is bike racing at is finest. He’s what to expect in Sunday’s 100th edition of Belgium’s biggest race.
The race sets off from the Grote Markt in Brugge, a massive square in the middle of this World Heritage Site city, and heads southeast toward Oudenaarde, where it will finish 255km later. The first hours are mostly flat, but are anything but easy as riders battle to make the day’s breakaway and major teams seek to control the front. The route then passes through Oudenaarde before completing a series of laps, taking in most of the race’s steep, frequently cobbled hellingen.
Flanders is about 50km longer than earlier races like Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke, and it is this extra distance, and the extra hour of racing, that give the race its monument status. Where large groups are common at the finish of the shorter races, Flanders rarely sees more than 10 riders come to the finish together.
Koppenberg (600m, 11.6% average grade, 22% max grade)
Topping out 46km from the finish line, the Koppenberg is one of the nastiest, steepest, most difficult sections of the race. When wet, cars can barely get up the narrow road. It’s not uncommon for riders at the back of the field to be forced off their bikes to run.
The Koppenberg, which is tightly bunched with the Ronde’s first pass over the Kwaremont and Paterberg, is likely to be the scene of the first major selection on Sunday.
Oude Kwaremont (2,200m, 4% average grade, 11.6% max grade)
The race hits the Oude Kwaremont three times, first at 151km to go, then again with 54.6km left, but most importantly as part of the finale at 16.7km to go. Combined with the Paterberg, the deceptive climb is designed to provide the final selection. It starts off paved and gradual, but quickly turns to stones as the gradient rises. Even after racers reach what seems to be the top of the climb, they are faced with another 300 meters of cobbled false flat. It is this section, and the pavement right after it, that often pare the front group down to its final occupants.
Paterberg (360m, 12.9% average grade, 20% max grade)
The Paterberg is the final climb of the race, topping out just 13.2km from the finish. The route also goes over it at 51.2km to go.
Just a few minutes after cresting the Kwaremont, the race drops down off a hill on a narrow, lumpy road before making an abrupt right turn onto the Paterberg, one of the steepest hellingen of the day. The loss of speed at the bottom makes positioning crucial. Organizers fill the concrete gutters on either side of the Paterberg with fencing, so riders must ride the cobbles.
Thirteen kilometers of pavement follow the Paterberg, and it’s usually ridden into a headwind. The final eight kilometers are almost dead straight and set up a tension-filled chase between the leading riders and those chasing just behind. The finish line sits just outside Oudenaarde’s main square along a wide, straight boulevard.
Defending champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) insists that he’s not on top form, largely due to a cold he has only just recovered from. A win in the first stage of Dreidaasge de Panne suggests his fitness isn’t all that bad, though.
Nonetheless, Trek – Segafredo’s Fabian Cancellara and Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan are the heavy favorites. The reigning world champion just won Gent-Wevelgem and was second at Harelbeke, while Cancellara won Strade Bianche and raced well in all the Flanders tune-up races. The Swiss is in his final year of racing, and is on the cusp of breaking the tie for most Flanders victories he currently has with Tom Boonen (both have three). He’s hungry, and a hungry Cancellara is tough to beat.
Boonen will have the full support of his Etixx – Quick-Step squad if he can make it near the finale, but his form has been off all spring. The Belgian super team is more likely to look to Zdenek Stybar, Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, or the dependable Matteo Trentin on Sunday.
Michal Kwiatkowski has also shown excellent form in recent weeks, winning Harelbeke over Sagan, and will lead his strong Sky team. BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet appears to be on the form of his life this spring. (He also seems to have sorted his sprint out.)
Watch for young gun Tiesj Benoot (Lotto – Soudal), who was fifth last year at just 21 years old.
Sky and Etixx are, on paper at least, the two strongest teams in the race, putting pressure on both to help control. Sky probably won’t do as much work early on as Etixx, which needs to show its face as much as possible in this home race. Cancellara’s Trek team will also help control early on.
Of course, there are many more names that could take Flanders. Check out 10 of them here >>.
The forecast is good, with a high near 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Scattered showers overnight on Saturday should clear up by the time the race gets going. But this is Belgium in April, so you never know.