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Specialists wrangle over shortened classics

Boonen, Naesen react to 26-kilometer reduction and loss of the Muur from 2020 Tour of Flanders.

The reduction in length of a host of Belgian classics this fall has drawn mixed reactions from cobbles specialists past and present.

Flanders Classics, organizer of a series of one-day races, confirmed its race routes for this October this week, with marquee events the Tour of Flanders reduced from 267 kilometers to 241km and Gent-Wevelgem shortened by 12km to 238km. De Brabantse Pijl and Scheleprijs were also shorn of kilometers. The 26km reduction of De Ronde equates to around 40 minutes of racing, last year won by Alberto Bettiol in 6:18:49.

“Too bad,” Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) told Sporza. “In a course of 260km, you have to do your best just to be able to finish at the front. Those long races are really the only thing I can do well.”

Naesen has been putting big training miles in through the coronavirus racing stop, and is as Flandrien as they come, preferring longer more attritional races. For him, the reduction of a route by even a few kilometers can make all the difference.

“A rider who is the best over 200km will not just win a race of 260km. Because that limit of 200km exists,” he said. “Sometimes after 198km, I see riders next to me on a climb and 4km later they stop.”

Although the classics, and particularly the five monuments, make distance and difficulty a part of their raison d’etre, the changes implemented by Flanders Classics for 2020 were made in light of a fall schedule that sees a swathe of key one-dayers packed into a condensed time schedule.

“The quick succession of races on the newly proposed calendar will require quite a bit of organization on the part of the teams,” read Flanders Classics’ statement Friday. “To provide the teams and riders with enough opportunity to rest between the races that will follow each other in rapid succession in October, Flanders Classics has decided, in consultation with various teams, to slightly shorten the distance of its races.”

One notable consequence of the amended routes is that the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen has been removed from the Tour of Flanders parcours.

“The lack of “the wall” is a pity, because it has turned out in recent years that there is always something possible,” said retired “king of the cobbles” Tom Boonen. “The basis of Philippe Gilbert’s victory [in 2017] was laid there. It is always an interesting moment in the race.”

However, Boonen feels that the loss of the iconic climb and 26km of distance won’t mean the Tour of Flanders becomes easy.

“In slightly shorter classics, such as the E3 [BinckBank Classic], for example, there is often more intense racing”, he told Het Laatste Nieuws. “I know from experience that a shorter course can sometimes be more difficult than one of 260 kilometers, in which the riders save themselves longer.

“Of course, I’d rather that all races kept their usual distance,” Boonen continued. “We’re going to get a race with a new narrative. In the Tour of Flanders and other classics, there are riders who can make a difference in that last hour. But now, in races of about 220km, there will be maybe 10 percent more riders with a chance of victory.”

While the reduction in length of Flanders Classics’ races this year comes as a result of the exceptional season in which they will be held, heads of the organization had recently called for a shake-up of television broadcast models so as to make the sport more accessible and entertaining. Boonen, winner of De Ronde three times and Paris-Roubaix four times, suggests that a successfully-shortened Flanders could be a learning point.

“This is a special year. If there is a time to try something like that, it is now,” he said. “If De Ronde is more attractive this year, it could well be made shorter in the future.”