By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse
The possibility of chaos on the ‘Koppenberg’ and mayhem on the ‘Muur’ lies in store for the more ambitious hard men of the peloton during the Tour of Flanders here on Sunday.
If, as predicted, the rain, wind and hail hit the race it could, according to local media, lead to “apocalyptic” scenes not witnessed on the race since 1985.
Belgium’s biggest one-day bike race is considered one of the toughest classics in the world because the latter part of the 264 km which leads the peloton from Bruges to Meerbeke is littered with 17 steep climbs.
Some of them are cobbled, most of them are steep and narrow, and just about all of them will be thronged with beer-swilling, flag-waving Belgian cycling fans.
This year organisers have opted to add spice to the usual drama by including the Koppenberg, a climb whose maximum gradient is a whopping 22 percent — just one of the reasons it has regularly been on and off the race menu.
At the 195km mark, the peloton will hit the bottom and those caught in the mayhem behind the leaders will likely be forced off their bikes and left to run up to the Koppenberg summit.
Even in perfect conditions, the race’s big contenders — like Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Leif Hoste and Alessandro Ballan — have to make sure they, or their teammates, are up at the front to react to opportunist attacks or accidents involving rivals.
In perfect conditions last year Ballan attacked on the Grammont, the day’s last climb, to leave his rivals, except for Hoste, in his wake before securing victory.
In 2006 it took only one rider to fall on the Koppenberg to help shape the outcome. As mayhem unfolded in their wake, Boonen and most of his Quick Step lieutenants escaped the carnage to go on and secure victory.
Throw in the inclement weather expected on Sunday, and the race takes on a whole new dimension.
The Tour of Flanders in 1985 is regarded as an epic edition. With wind, rain and even snow on the menu the race witnessed its worst weather in 25 years.
Belgium’s Eric Vanderaerden rode home to victory drenched and battle-weary ahead of Australian Phil Anderson. The scenes of chaos on the slippery cobblestones of the Koppenberg played a major part in the final outcome, as only 24 riders made it across the line.
Before then, inclement weather played a major role when Belgian legend Eddy Merckx rode off to secure the first of his two victories, ahead of Italian great Felice Gimondi in 1969.
More recently, the 2003 edition of the popular, but much flatter Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne one-dayer, saw only 26 riders finish due to the weather — one of whom was Hoste.
It might not reach the proportions of 1985 on Sunday, but adverse conditions — along with the demands of the Koppenberg — are likely to prove decisive in creaming off more than a few race favorites.
Ultimately, it could be the race’s penultimate climb, the Muur-Kapelmuur at the 249 km mark, that has the final say. Along with the Koppenberg, it is the only one awarded a five-star difficulty rating by organizers.