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Muur doesn’t matter to top pros racing Flanders

The peloton's top riders, like Tom Boonen and Greg Van Avermaet, aren't impressed by the Muur's return to Tour of Flanders route.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — The emblematic climb of the Ronde van Vlaanderen returns Sunday following a five-year absence, but how much will the mythic “Muur” impact Sunday’s big battle?

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At nearly 100km still to go in the men’s race, probably not very much, at least not tactically.

Among pundits and fans, there’s universal acclaim that one of cycling’s most iconic climbs is back where it belongs, but somewhat surprisingly, many pros are giving the Muur’s return a chilly and indifferent reception.

“It’s nice that people can stand on the Muur again and take nice pictures, but other than that, it doesn’t matter,” said three-time winner Tom Boonen (Quick-Step). “Muur or no Muur, with 100km to go, it will not change the result one bit.”

That sentiment echoed across the peloton ahead of the 101st running of Flanders. Everyone loves the Muur — with the possible exception of the riders trundling up it — but with its placement so far from the final flourish, its return is largely ornamental. With the meat of the race still lying ahead on the chopping block, Flanders’s most famous climb will act as little more than a softener. And a crowd-pleaser.

Pre-race favorite Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) even suggested the long detour the route must take to trace over the Muur and circle back toward Oudenaarde, where the final decisive climbs are stacked up, will suck the life out of the race at that moment.

“It takes us out of the way,” Van Avermaet told the media Friday. “The course from the Muur to Oudenaarde is not very attractive. It’s too early to go, that is for sure. Where are you going to go? I don’t think it will be a decisive factor.”

That icy indifference is in sharp contrast to the indignation and calls of heresy five years ago when race organizers radically altered the course after the 2011 edition. The famous Kapelmuur (aka Mur de Grammont and Muur van Geraardsbergen) was out, and instead, organizers were looping the peloton around the hills near Oudenaarde, including the double-ascent of the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combo.

At the time, there was general derision of money-grubbing race organizers tinkering with sacred racing history. After all, a good chunk of what makes a monument is that the course is largely static, and the riders of today can compare themselves to performances of the champions of history. Yet for a race that’s more than a century old, the Muur was a relatively late addition, first appearing in the 1950s. It was only from the late 1980s until 2011 that it was the penultimate climb of the race, growing into its mythic status where nearly every winning move was launched.

Going into 2012, the general opinion was that race organizers were putting moneyed interests ahead of tradition, but now everyone generally agrees that the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combo, raced twice in the final 70km, has more than delivered the goods.

So when organizers announced last year that the Muur was coming back — made possible by moving the start from Bruges to Antwerp (another heresy!) and allowing the course to loop around the Muur — it was somewhat surprising when the peloton largely shrugged their shoulders with a big “meh.”

Many, however, are more than happy to see the Muur return to its rightful place. VeloNews’s Caley Fretz visited the Muur on Friday, and found the place packed with fans and cyclists. Riding the Muur a day or two ahead of the Ronde is like hitting the practice green at Augusta before The Masters rolls into town.

“It’s mythic, it’s history, all the big champions are winning here,” said three-time Flanders winner Johan Museeuw, who was leading a tour group over the climb Friday. “It is necessary the Muur is back. Sure, it’s 90km from the finish, but it’s still a good moment for the big riders to make their presence known.”

Despite more than two hours from the finale, the Muur will make its presence known. It’s clearly too far to make a move from there, but the major teams will be ready to flex their muscles. A kilometer of cobblestones with pitches of 19 percent are going to pinch, at the very least.

The Muur could act as a springboard for the real battle that looms, much like La Maniè did during its brief presence in Milano-Sanremo. That climb wasn’t decisive, but it also impacted the race by signaling who had the legs, and who was struggling to hang on.

And more than anything, the Muur gives the updated and modern Flanders course an anchor with its unique and fascinating history.

“The Muur is like the Poggio at Sanremo, or the Arenberg at Roubaix.,” said Quick-Step’s Matteo Trentin. “It needs to be in the race. It’s too far away to be decisive, but I think it’s great that it’s back in the race. That’s one of the beautiful moments of the race.”

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