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‘New’ Flanders route is actually kind of awesome

Don't mourn the Muur. Tour of Flanders made a big route change five years ago, but rumors of De Ronde’s death were greatly exaggerated.

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On a grey September day four years ago, a mass of Belgian cycling fans, dressed in black, marched up the Muur van Geraardsbergen shouldering fake coffins. They stopped, grim faced, at the iconic hilltop chapel upon which so many prayers for victory had been laid. They mourned and protested the decapitation of their beloved Ronde van Vlaanderen, the race that has defined what it is to be a Belgian bike racer and cycling fan for a century.

It was an antagonistic display aimed at the decision, made just weeks prior, to dramatically alter the finish of the Tour of Flanders. Organizers sliced off the historic finale, a circuitous route across the Muur and Bosberg, and replaced it with finishing loops that take in the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg in quick succession, with a new finish in Oudenaarde. It changed the ending of a well-worn film, and the Flandrians were angry.

“People are scared,” Fabian Cancellara said in 2012, ahead of the first edition of the race on the new course. Spartacus afraid? Two years prior, he used the Muur to drop rival Tom Boonen, riding into the old finish town of Meerbeke alone. But the new course was harder. Much harder. The long Oude Kwaremont and steep Paterberg would be attacked three times, with the frightful Koppenberg and Taaienberg between them, at the very end of the 260km race. That would change the effort in ways unknown. So, yes, afraid.

“Why have they changed the history of this race?” Cancellara asked. “The traditions of the sport are counting for less, and now they have changed something crucial. So there is a big ‘why.’ 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?”

Were the fears warranted? Would Flanders lose its luster without the Muur and Bosberg? Four years later, we have some pleasing answers.

When the changes were first announced, De Ronde director Wouter Vandenhaute made little effort to hide the fact that they were in response to commercial concerns. The new finishing loops offered better TV viewing and multiple VIP areas that created a new revenue stream in the form of expensive tickets and sponsorship opportunities. That the new course was also — most people agree — more daunting than the old one was a consequence of those moves.

Most races make little, if any, profit. So increased revenue for a race organizer can only be considered a good thing — as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of quality racing. That’s what fans feared with the removal of the Muur.

Ahead of the fourth running on the new route, it’s clear that rumors of De Ronde’s death were greatly exaggerated. In fact, television viewership is up, with the race having overtaken Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2014 as the world’s third most-watched day of bike racing, behind the Tour de France’s average stage viewership and Paris-Roubaix. The new course allows organizer Flanders Classics to collect ticket revenue, ranging from 200 euros for seats in the massive white tents set up in prime viewing areas to more than 6,000 euros for VIP car rides on course. More importantly, the racing retained its thrill; though the challenge put before riders morphed, a worthy challenge it remains.

The Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg offer thrilling moments in the final kilometers. But there are other sections, too, which make the new course excellent. As riders crest the 2.2-kilometer Oude Kwaremont cobbles, legs and lungs on fire, they hit a long, paved false flat that, for the connoisseur, is the most delicious bit of racing. It’s a beautiful moment on the new course, one where split-second decisions and mid-race tactics subsume brute force. Chase or don’t. Bridge or don’t. Attack or don’t. There can be no error of judgment.

“That’s my favorite piece,” says former Danish pro Brian Holm, who is now director of the world’s greatest classics squad, Etixx – Quick-Step. “You’re so dead, and there’s always a group ahead. You’re always chasing like mad dogs until the Paterberg, where you really have to hit it in first position. That paved section, the downhill, going at the limit — I just love it. It’s an underestimated piece.”

Concerns that the new route would be too difficult haven’t played out. Flanders has always been won out of a small group or by a solo escapee. Rarely have more than 10 riders crossed the finish line together. That hasn’t changed.

Based on the four-race sample, the point of the defining attack remains the same — around 16 to 18 kilometers from the finish. That’s where the Muur came on the old course, and it’s where the Oude Kwaremont sits in the new one. In 2010, Cancellara made his winning move on the Muur. His next victory, in 2013, came out of a selection made on the Oude Kwaremont, the second-to-last climb. When he repeated the following year, it was again following aggression on the Oude Kwaremont.

The real change lies in the prior bergs. By the time Cancellara attacked Boonen in 2010, the two had already shed every other competitor. In 2013, a group of more than 30 fell off Cancellara’s wheel on the Oude Kwaremont. Large groups are staying together farther into the race.

“Everybody waits a little bit more, until the last time up the Oude Kwaremont, because it’s harder,” says Astana’s Lars Boom, the former cyclocross world champion who raced to sixth in Flanders last year. “And then you still have the Paterberg. Ooof, that hurts. You are thinking about it the whole day.”

The late-race bergs are more difficult in the new route. The Bosberg was tough, but it’s nothing like the Paterberg, which forces riders to a near standstill at its base before kicking up to more than 20 percent on rough stones. Its peak sits just 13 kilometers from the finish line. But whether the decrease in early attacks is due to the course or something else entirely is debatable.

“We don’t know how they did some of those things back then,” Holm says with a small wink. “I think the new race is more or less the same. For the public, it’s maybe even better. I think it’s a good thing they did.”

In the years since the new course was announced, opinions have mostly come around to line up with Holm’s view, or at least to a begrudging acceptance that the racing is still beautiful. But there’s no denying that a bit of romance was lost.

The excitement and splendor of the Muur — its chapel and its curving final stretch — are gone, as are the brutality and speed of the Bosberg. History matters. Nobody calls Cancellara “Fabian Kwaremont,” despite his success there, but Edwig Van Hooydonck will forever be “Eddy Bosberg.”

“As an old cyclist, I really miss Muur,” Holm says. “For me, going up to Kapelmuur, that’s really something. Those courses, how much pain you have in your legs those days, and then Bosberg after, not the hardest climb but it was just killing you, Van Hooydonck was attacking. I’m a bit old-fashioned. If I could choose, I would probably choose the old one. But pure business-wise, on TV with the laps up the Kwaremont, I think it’s not stupid what they did.”

The fragmented opinions are mere proof that the Flanders course was, and remains, pulled in opposite directions by cycling’s inalienable sense of romantic narrative and its attempts to modernize. The new route and the reactions to it are, respectively, real-world examples of the sort of innovation the sport needs and of the forces acting against such change. Cycling fans protest the sport’s inability to get out of its own way and complain about how it makes financial decisions based on romance instead of logic. Yet when Flanders took steps to make itself more profitable, they lined up on the Muur with coffins on their shoulders.

But Flanders is still beautiful. We remember the Muur and look back fondly on the Bosberg. But cycling will write new tales of feats no less legendary. Perhaps in 20 years, when the course is changed again and “Peter Paterberg” exists as fondly in the memory as “Eddy Bosberg,” we’ll be marching with coffins atop the Kwaremont.