The Tour of Flanders is my favorite bike race to watch.
Every year on Flanders day I wake up early, brew an enormous pot of coffee, and then settle in for hours of unadulterated bicycle race viewing. Then, after the race has concluded, I often fire up the replay and rewatch the race’s key sections to see if I’ve missed any specific moments of intrigue. I repeat this selfish and admittedly ridiculous ordeal again and again, for days, after the race has concluded.
Because I’m an obsessive Tour of Flanders fan. And, frankly, because Flanders rules, and every edition produces an infinite number of compelling moments, most of which are not evident upon the first viewing. Sure, we all fell off our sofas last year when Julian Alaphilippe smashed into a motorcycle.
But did anybody notice that when Alaphilippe attacked over the Koppenberg, Wout van Aert was nearly steered into the grass near John Degenkolb, and the momentary slowdown forced van Aert to burn perhaps half a match to catch back up to the wheel of Mathieu van der Poel? Did you gasp when Alaphilippe rode so close to the barriers on the Taaienberg that his tires scraped the metal feet?
— daniel (@cyclingreporter) October 18, 2020
We all know what happened later — Alaphilippe crashed and van Aert lost the sprint by the width of a carrot. Did either of these previously mentioned moments contribute to that outcome? Perhaps — but of course we’ll never know. These are burning questions that only the most neurotic and deranged Flanders fans like myself are left to contemplate.
There are oh so many moments like this to watch for during a typical Tour of Flanders, and this coming Sunday will be no exception. The race broadcast is being carried by Flobikes.com, and the broadcast runs 3:55 a.m. EST to 10:55 a.m. EST.
Early setbacks for star riders
Like all bike races, the Tour of Flanders will see early moments of panic for riders and teams in the form of mechanical problems or crashes. Every year a pre-race favorite must recover from some early calamity and burn valuable effort before the race has truly begun. As a human being, my initial response after a major crash is to of course hope that all riders involved in the pileup are OK, and to send some positive vibes into the universe for their recovery. Then, I look at the TV screen and see exactly which riders — and which teams — are impacted. Are any pre-race favorites in the crash? Are any of their teammates in there?
There are the very obvious setbacks —think Greg van Avermaet’s disastrous tumble with 103km remaining in 2016.
And then there are some not-so-obvious early setbacks that have played into the outcome.
During the 2016 Tour of Flanders there was one of these bad early crashes that happened with like 130k to go, and it brought down a dozen or so riders. While none of the five-star favorites crashed, TV cameras caught sight of Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven chasing like a madman afterward to get back onto the group. Stuyven was one of Fabian Cancellara’s top teammates for the race, and he had to burn a ton of energy to get back, and it happened right before the dreaded Molenberg, which is one of those narrow pinch points that can doom a rider who is at the back of the pack.
How did that impact the race? Well, 100 kilometers later, Peter Sagan attacked with Michał Kwiatkowski, and Cancellara missed the move. By that point, Stuyven was long gone, and Cancellara had just one teammate, the exhausted Stijn Devolder, to drive the chase. Cancellara eventually attacked and tried to bridge to Sagan, and he came within nine seconds on the Paterberg. But he never got there and missed out on a record-tying fourth Flanders win. How would things have played out differently had Stuyven not crashed and burned all of that energy early? Could he have motored Cancellara up to Sagan? That crash was an early calamity that undoubtedly played into the final.
Stars of the future
Be honest: Had any of you heard of Sylvan Dillier before he rode shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Sagan during the final kilometers of 2018 Paris-Roubaix? Were you familiar with the work of Nils Politt before he rode into the Roubaix velodrome to contest the sprint with Philippe Gilbert? If your answer is ‘no,’ well, you’re not alone. Us Flanders-heads, however, knew both of them well, because both of these guys were regular members of early and mid-race attacks and breakaways at the Tour of Flanders. Every year at Flanders, I keep an eye out for riders who either survive from the early breakaway or who attack inside 100km to go and get a gap.
Oftentimes, these types of moves are indicative of big engines, cobbles skills, and future success. In recent years these mid-race moves have introduced us to Mads Pedersen, Iván García Cortina, and others. Filippo Ganna was in the early breakaway in 2018.
So, on Sunday, keep an eye on the mid-race attackers and remember those names, because they could be battling it out at the front of the race in the coming years.
Positioning on the climbs
If you haven’t already, watch the below video from Kiel Reijnen, which we posted on our Instagram account this week.
In the video, Kiel explains some of the basic tactics employed by classics teams during Flanders and the other hilly classics. When the race approaches back-to-back-to-back climbs, the smart teams will amass on the front and then slow things down on the climbs. This slowdown will force riders at the back of the group to bunch up, and often times stop entirely and unclip.
Then, the riders up front will accelerate up and over the top of the climb to string the peloton out before the descent. This constant acceleration and deceleration creates the accordion effect that, over time, shatters the peloton, creating front, middle, and rear groups.
Every year, multiple top- or second-tier contenders get lost in this washing machine because they came into the climbs too far back in the group. These riders are either dropped, or they must burn valuable energy to catch back on. When I watch Flanders, I keep a careful eye on the peloton to see if any star riders or their lieutenants get lost in the accordion created by the succession of climbs.
After the first ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, from kilometers 130 to 175, the peloton hits seven steep climbs, with the Eikenberg, Wolvenberg, Leberg, and the awful, terrible, no-good Berendries falling in quick succession, before the always painful Kanarieberg. This is a punishing section of racing, and every year you see pre-race favorites suffer the consequences of bad positioning here.
Keep your eyes on the front of the peloton during this section of the road and ask yourself who isn’t on screen? If you cannot see the rider, chances are he is fighting through the flotsam and jetsam of the peloton to get back to the front.
I get it, we don’t all have five hours to sit around on a Sunday and stare at our computer. If you only have a few hours, then I recommend watching the race from the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont until the finish. This is approximately from kms 180-250. This is where the peloton takes in the Kwaremont-Paterberg duo, before hitting the Koppenberg and the underrated Steenbeekdries, before the Taaienberg, and then the long and enticing flat run-in to the town of Ronse, which is at the base of the Kruisberg.
This is the section of the race where you see the favorites take big swings and gamble on long-range attacks. Remember, not every Flanders comes down to a slugfest on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. In 2016 Kwiatkowski attacked on flat road between the Taaienberg and the Kruisberg, and his move drew out Sagan, who eventually won. This is where you’re most likely to see a Dylan van Baarle move go up the road. Last year, Alaphilippe’s aggression came even earlier, over the Steenbeekdries, and by the time the group hit the Taainberg. Of course, this section has also seen plenty of moves that went nowhere. My advice is to take stock of who is attacking on these stretches of road before the group gets to the Oude Kwaremont for the last time.
Anything done by Deceuninck-Quick-Step
My money is on Wout van Aert to win on Sunday, and I’m also expecting Mathieu van der Poel and Peter Sagan to be in the mix as well. Yet I will keep my eyes on all seven Deceuninck-Quick-Step riders throughout the race, because no team knows Flanders better than DQS, and every year, the men in blue dictate the tactics. Do they always win? No — but even in years that Deceuninck-Quick-Step loses, the team seems to steer the race’s ebb and flow. So, seeing where DQS riders position themselves on the road will show you which direction the wind is blowing from. When you see Tim Declercq and Dries Devenyns ramp up the pack, you can assume that the group is approaching an important section of road.
Since Alaphilippe may be a few watts shy of Wout van Aert over the cobbles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see DQS play multiple cards on Sunday. Watch to see if Kasper Asgreen, Florian Sénéchal, or Yves Lampaert attack into one of the early or mid-race attacks. Flanders carries more importance to DQS than the Super Bowl does to any NFL team, so I plan to watch their every move on the cobbles on Sunday.