VeloNews takes a look back at some of the most memorable editions of the Tour of Flanders. The race usually favors the strongest riders, but tactics are critical at the end of an epic day of cobbled Belgian climbs. What can we learn from the history of this beloved monument classic?
Let’s step into our time machines and zip back a few years. We find the peaceful Flemish region of Belgium overcome by chaos. Pitchfork-toting cycling fans surround the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum in Oudenaarde, demanding that the race’s new owners, Flanders Classics, return the decisive Kapelmuur and Bosberg climbs to the course (OK, I made that up). Goofballs stage a mock funeral for the departed climbs (that actually happened). Pundits question whether this new Flanders route — which includes three trips up the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont — is blasphemous. Former champions chide the new course, saying Flanders has lost its luster. Everyone wonders whether the Tour of Flanders has jumped the shark.
What nobody knows is that the new Flanders route will be rad.
What happened: Yes, removing the Kapelmuur and Bosberg eliminated Flanders’s two traditional launchpads for victory and disrupted what had become a somewhat predictable race. The new 256.9km course, with its three laps of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, effectively tripled the number of attacking points during the race’s critical kilometers. This led to more attacks, more action, and plenty of drama.
Nobody burned down the Flanders cycling museum. Instead, Flemish cycling fans put away their pitchforks and embraced the new route. Belgium returned to relative normalcy.
The much-hyped battle between Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara bit the dust when Cancellara crashed and abandoned with a broken collarbone with 60km to go. The first big move came with 35km to go when Juan Antonio Flecha jumped clear at the base of the Paterberg, drawing out a small group containing Omega teammates Boonen, Nicki Terpstra, and Sylvain Chavanel. The three took turns attacking the group, until a big effort by Team Sky brought the group together.
Former winner Alessandro Ballan then put in a dig on the final climb of the Oude Kwaremont, drawing out Boonen and pre-Instagram Filippo Pozzato. The three worked together well and opened a sizable gap on the field at the base of the Paterberg, where Pozzato put in an effort that nearly shed Boonen. The Belgian hung with the two Italians and helped shut down attacks by Ballan on the trip back to Oudenaarde, where he dusted his breakaway companions with relative ease.
What did we learn from the race: Fears of a lesser Flanders route were silenced the moment big Tommeke thumped his way across the line to win his third Ronde. Yep, new route, same winner.
The first lesson fans learned in 2012 was that the new Flanders route was fit for a tactical battle that rewarded teamwork, guts, and brawn. The painful final circuit reduced the field to the strongest riders. The rapid succession of climbs enticed strongmen to attack, forcing the other teams to bring back the moves on the flat connecting roads. While the circuit felt somewhat repetitive, the changing dynamic of the race made each ascent of the Kwaremont and Paterberg feel new.
We also learned that the final climb of the Paterberg was the last opportunity to create a gap. If a group survived that climb intact, it was bound to roll into Oudenaarde together.
Could it play out this way again? Yes. Since the new course was introduced in 2012, Flanders has followed two scripts: A small group gets away on the circuit, survives the final ascent of the Paterberg, and dukes it out in the sprint. Or, a powerful rider (Cancellara, Peter Sagan) drops everyone on the Paterberg and solos in. In 2014 Cancellara out-sprinted Greg Van Avermaet, Stijn Vanderbergh, and Sep Vanmarcke. The following year, Alexander Kristoff easily ditched Terpstra to win.
While the Bosberg and Kapelmuur are gone from the Flanders finale, the excitement remains, and for 2017, the Kapelmuur will be part of the course earlier in the race.