KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — Before the fight to the finish at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday, there will have been hundreds of fights. Not for the win, but for the right to be in the position to win.
The sharp end. It’s where the race happens, where the winning moves are made. The place where those who hope to win a classic must be, at the right time and with the right legs and the right chance.
Winning a classic takes an algorithm of luck, strength, and fortitude. But being in the right place when the peloton begins to stretch and snap is as important as legs are to winning because without the right position, a rider as gifted as Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) or Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will be relegated to the back of the field — doomed to wait for riders to walk up the Koppenberg after a crash, or stuck behind the peloton on a cobbled section after a bottleneck.
“Square peg, round hole. I always say that. There’s 200 guys in the race, and 200 people want to be in the front 20. So it’s just a fight for five, six hours,” said American Ted King, who’s charged with shepherding his teammate Sagan through Flanders.
Positioning isn’t stressed, at least to the Cannondale riders, because it’s as inherent as pedaling at the Belgian races. “It’s the biggest part of it. It’s just inherent,” King said. “They don’t say ‘do it,’ because it’s kind of like saying pedal your bike. Position is 80 percent of this race. And by this race, I mean any of the races in Belgium.”
In classics such as the Ronde, the parcours is littered with sections that can easily split the peloton into small groups should something go haywire. On Sunday, there are seven sections of cobbles and 17 hellingen, or short, steep climbs. This race lacks a true race-shaping climb, but stressful technical sections of cobbles or remarkably steep ramps sprinkled throughout mean racers must be at full attention for the entire effort. To be at the back when the race squeezes to three feet wide — or less — could mean missing the move that goes away for good. It would be hard to hold Fabian Cancellara’s (RadioShack-Leopard) wheel for Sagan if he weren’t within spitting distance when it begins to drift away. To know the course becomes as important as riding it. Someone like Boonen knows it as well as anyone.
“Tom, he knows it. He’s Belgian,” Omega Pharma director Brian Holm told VeloNews. “They’ve got like a brick — a cobblestone in the stomach. The Belgians.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing, because of course … You have your legs, but if you get the wrong placement — It’s very important to know the roads. You have to know where you can rest, where you can eat. Because sometimes it’s just a matter of one position on the cobblestone. You can get dropped and you won’t come back. It’s just a matter of if it comes together again. It’s hard. Like I said before — we just know when the race is over, don’t we?”
No, we don’t. But we do know that experience matters, as in all races. “It’s very important,” Omega Pharma manager Patrick Lefevere told VeloNews. “If you are a beginner and you come for the first two times at Flanders, you need a couple of years to have the aptitude to be in the front. If you don’t know the roads — Those guys like Tom and others are riding on these parcours since they are juniors.”
For his money, Holm thinks the Kwaremont may shape the race. It will have plenty of opportunity; it’s featured three times and it’s also where Cancellara rode away from the field in E3 Harelbeke last week.
“Certain moments. You go to the Kwaremont a few times. There will be certain selections. There’s probably going to be a group out there,” Holm said. “And then you’re going to see which star is going to be isolated. It’s hard to tell. That’s the big thing. Somebody is a favorite, and then with 40 kilometers to go they’re riding alone. You say, ‘poor him, and somebody else jumps.’”
King said “stressful” was one way of putting it. Another? “Belgian,” he said, before pedaling off.