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Opinion: New Flanders route is blasphemous

There is no place in cycling more sacred than the Muur de Geraardsbergen

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen will no doubt be an exciting battle, contested in front of hundreds of thousands of rabid Belgian fans, which will most likely be won by the strongest man in the race.

It won’t, however, be contested over its traditional route, nor will it include several iconic climbs that have shaped the race over the past century.

Under the direction of Wouter Vandenhaute, head of the Flanders Classics race organization, the course has dramatically changed to now finish with three circuits, each smaller in size, rather than its previous serpentine, point-to-point route from Bruges to Meerbeke. The new route includes three trips over the cobblestone Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs, with a new finish in Oudenaarde, home to the Tour of Flanders museum.

Gone is the Muur van Geraardsbergen, or Wall of Geraardsbergen (also known as the Kapelmuur, for the chapel situated at the summit), perhaps the most iconic of all Tour of Flanders climbs, which, in its former placement 15km from the finish line, proved decisive in countless editions of the race.

Also gone is the previous final climb, the Bosberg, a less iconic but important enough climb that two-time winner Edwig Van Hooydonck earned the nickname “Eddy Bosberg” for securing both wins with attacks on the short, half-paved, half-cobbled climb just 8km from the line.

The reasons behind the route change are many, says Vandenhaute, a former sports journalist and TV talk show host who formed Flanders Classics in 2010, bringing the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl under one umbrella organization.

Vandenhaute has said that in order for the sport to progress, changes need to be made. He ‘s made it clear that he wants to make cycling more attractive to sponsors — primarily to sponsors that will populate the expansive VIP tents he’s erected along the Ronde course. Vandenhaute believes it’s important to give sponsors something back, not just in terms of exposure, but also in terms of service, in terms of a “special experience.”

There was a storm of reaction in Belgium when the course change was announced in September 2011. Several hundred protestors staged a symbolic funeral procession on the Kapelmuur, complete with coffins. Detractors quickly launched a Facebook page, “We hate Wouter Vandenhaute,” and a blog titled, “Keep the Muur and Bosberg.” An online poll on the Het Niewsblad website showed that the Belgian populace was against the change by a 3-to-1 margin.

The chorus of opposition quieted some over the last six months; however, as the race date approaches, the most fanatical opponents have resurfaced.

Last week Marnic De Meulemeester, the mayor of Oudenaarde, received an anonymous, typewritten letter threatening to sabotage the race by littering tacks on the course in protest of the course change. Belgian national police are taking the threat seriously, with 700 police officers and 1500 race marshals adding supplementary patrols from Saturday morning through Sunday evening.

The mayor of Geraardsbergen, while distancing himself from any acts of sabotage, has called for his staff to boycott this year’s race. Protestors, whether in the form of signs or other acts of disobedience, are expected at Sunday’s race.

At a press conference in February, Vandenhaute was asked why he’d waited nearly five months to speak publicly about course change, saying, “We knew that it would be emotional, that it would be controversial, and I wanted to give time for emotions to settle.”

He also admitted emotions were greater than he expected. “It was a difficult choice,” he said. “The Ronde and the Muur, that’s tradition, you have to be careful. But the moment was right, the contract with Meerbeke was at its end, and in the beginning of 2010 we started asking ourselves ‘What do we think of the final, and is there an alternative?’ And we went for the alternative.”

The agreement with Oudenaarde as the new finishing city is valid for six years, with a review slated after two years. If it turns out that he dropped the ball, Vandenhaute said, “Everything is negotiable.”

“But if this Oude Kwaremont to Paterberg to Oudenaarde finale works well, then it will remain, at least for the next six years,” he added. “And Oude Kwaremont may assume the role of the Muur.”

Riders’ reactions have been mixed.

Swiss national champion Fabian Cancellara, winner of the Tour of Flanders in 2010 and third-place finisher last year, told that with the change, particularly with three trips over the Kwaremont and Paterberg, “it’s like a totally different race.”

Two-time winner Tom Boonen has played it tactfully, saying that until the new route has been raced, it’s too soon to judge. “To me it makes little difference where I win,” Boonen told Het Nieuwsblad. “I have no real preference and so I’m going to leave it alone and not interfere.”

Aussie Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda), who finished second in 2009, was less diplomatic, telling VeloNews, “Why did they have to change it? The prestige of the race has changed. It’s just really hard. I don’t like it. Why do they have to change a race like Flanders? It’s like not having Roubaix finish in the velodrome — it’s just stupid.”

Retired three-time Ronde champion Johan Museeuw was initially skeptical of the course change, but has since given the route change his blessing. (It’s worth noting that Museeuw is a paid spokesperson for Flanders Classics.)

Vandenhaute, who considers himself a passionate cycling fan, has pleaded with the angry Belgian populace to be open to progress, suggesting that the change was made to bring the race to a “higher sporting level.”

However, his true agenda is far from hidden. The VIP tents erected this week on the Oude Kwarement are the size of arenas, with capacity for over 6,000 paying spectators — those given special access based on sponsorships, or through purchasing special VIP packages, ranging from $200 for a spot in the VIP tent on the Kwaremont, to $6000 for a six-person, on-course VIP car.

After the September announcement, race director Wim Van Herreweghe told Het Nieuwsblad that money was not the deciding factor, adding that Meerbeke had paid more for the right to host the race finish than Oudenaarde will pay moving forward.

“Had we only wanted money, we would have left the course as it was,” Van Herreweghe said. “But we felt it was time for change. We wanted a new tour through the heart of the Flemish Ardennes. ”

Van Herreweghe put the price tag of the race at over US$2 million, adding that not all that money comes from municipalities and sponsors.

“I can only ask for a chance,” Van Herreweghe added. “Make your opinion after the Tour, not before.”

One thorn in Vandenhaute’s side with the old course was Vieux Mont, a private operator that erected its own VIP tents on its own property on the Kapelmuur, for which the race organization received only 5,000 euros. When Flanders Classics raised the permit fee substantially, Vieux Mont refused to pay, and the matter ended up in court.

The solution, it seems, was to simply relocate the pinnacle of the action and then commercialize the viewing opportunity.

Losing the Muur, however, was not the answer.

Think back to the two previous editions of the Tour of Flanders. The most dramatic moment of both events came on the Muur — in 2010, Cancellara rode away from Boonen on the Muur and increased his advantage to the finish line; in 2011, a cramping Cancellara was reeled in by Boonen and Philippe Gilbert, setting up one of the most dramatic finales in modern cycling.

Think also of Paris-Roubaix, or Milan-San Remo, the monuments of the sport. Imagine their courses altered to appease VIPs, with finishing circuits around the Poggio, or, as Haussler suggested, a Roubaix finish other than in the velodrome. The Muur van Geraardsbergen has been part of De Ronde since 1950, consistently since 1970, with the top section, the Kapelmuur, added in 1981.

If there is no race more sacred to racing fans than De Ronde, how much more sacred can you get than a chapel at the top of the race’s most decisive climb?

In a sport that has long been touted as the sport of the people, Vandenhaute is effectively taking the race away from the fans, removing one of its most hallowed features in the process.

Perhaps Cancellara best put it into perspective speaking with, when he said, “The traditions of the sport are counting for less and now they have changed something crucial. So there is a big question: Is it just to make it harder? Is it just to make money? Is it because of politics and business? Or is it just to see more spectacular things in the race? These are the questions, but I am not the organizer, so I don’t know the answers.”

Sunday’s race will be a spectacle, perhaps even more so than in years past. However, the decision to change the historic Flanders route is nothing short of blasphemous, and it was made for all the wrong reasons.