Your new favorite race: Tour of Flanders, a.k.a. ‘De Ronde’
Tour of Flanders is Belgium's Super Bowl. For most fans, it isn't "new," but this storied race deserves a close analysis ahead of Sunday.
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Your new favorite race: Ronde van Vlaanderen, Tour of Flanders, April 2.
… OK, I know what you’re thinking. This shouldn’t be anyone’s new favorite race, but hear me out. I can remember a time when the Tour de France was the only European race I knew about — can’t you? So here’s a primer on Tour of Flanders, whether you’re a wizened fan who knows the difference between Van Hooydonck and Vanderaerden or a newcomer who just realized De Ronde is the same race as Tour of Flanders.
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Why should you care about this race? Flanders is not the oldest classic, running its 101st race this Sunday, nor is it the longest at 260 kilometers, but it is the most beloved by the rabid Belgian fans and their home riders. This is Belgium’s Super Bowl, but instead of a crappy stadium in the middle of a desert, Flanders is contested on 18 nasty, steep, and often cobbled climbs in northern Belgium. The strongest rider wins, and most likely, they won’t have to buy their own beer at any bar in Flanders for the rest of their life.
Most dramatic edition in recent memory? How often did Fabian Cancellara win sprints? And how good is Greg Van Avermaet’s kick after a long, hard race? As the group of four rolled into the final kilometer of the 2014 Tour of Flanders, it felt like a foregone conclusion, with those two joined by Stijn Vandenbergh and Sep Vanmarcke, not too shabby in the sprints himself. Vandenbergh was cooked after attacking early over the Koppenberg and then making the winning move on the Taaienberg with Van Avermaet, 30km from the line. They were joined by the other two and powered over the Paterberg to the finish. Van Avermaet led into the final 500 meters with Vanmarcke on his left shoulder and Cancellara sitting in the latter’s draft as a brisk crosswind pushed the riders’ right shoulders. With that ounce of shelter, Cancellara burned his last match, jumped the Belgian favorite, and won his third and final Ronde.
Your race’s defining feature: With oodles of bergs and hellingen and cobbles, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Does the race hinge on the Paterberg, where Peter Sagan won in 2016? Or should we focus on the Oude Kwaremont, 2.2km at 4 percent, ridden three times Sunday, where Cancellara launched his winning move in 2013? But don’t forget the fearsome Koppenberg, 600 meters at 11.6 percent, with horribly rough cobbles that has forced some of the world’s best riders to walk their bikes — or worse.
Nope, none of those are the race’s defining feature. All due respect to each of De Ronde’s devilish hills, but the Muur van Geraardsbergen (Muur-Kapelmuur) is the race’s defining feature, and after five years, this one-kilometer climb, with a max gradient of 20 percent, is back. This is the climb where Tom Boonen softened up the lead group before launching a winning attack to claim his first Ronde in 2005. It’s also where Fabian Cancellara laid waste to Boonen five years later to win the 2010 race. Though the Muur comes early this year, 95km from the finish, it is not to be missed.
But the thing is … Race organizer Flanders Classics has an annoying tendency to fuss with the race route. That’s why the Muur was absent since 2011, and why this year they will start in Antwerp, not the scenic city of Bruges, Belgium. On one hand, racing action has remained exciting throughout this meddling. But on the other, regularly tweaking the route is like changing the track length at the Indianapolis 500 speedway — traditionalists hate it and it makes comparisons to past editions less reliable.
Ladies first? The biggest one-day Women’s WorldTour race of the year is set for Sunday morning, 153km of racing on these same cobblestone climbs. Better still, Ronde organizers will broadcast the action live, an unfortunate rarity in women’s racing. The world’s best female cyclists will race over 12 major hills, including the Muur, 59.3km from the finish, and the nasty Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg one-two punch that drops off the riders only 13km from the Oudenaarde finish. Lizzie Deignan is expected to return to defend her 2016 title, but so far, her Boels-Dolmans team hasn’t dominated the peloton like it did last spring.
Who are you betting your beer money on this year? The smart money is on Van Avermaet, but as you may know, I don’t like chalk picks (and I probably don’t use my head as much as I should), so Philippe Gilbert seems like a good bet. Perhaps the Belgian champion is a bit of a darkhorse, but he’s on form right now, and the Quick-Step Floors squad rides well when he has the reins (consider Dwars door Vlaanderen). For the women’s race, WWT leader Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) seems poised to continue her reign this spring, and having won De Ronde in 2015, she knows her way around a cobbled berg.