Tour of Flanders Preview

Friday, 30 March 2012

What’s the biggest one day race of the year? The World Championships? The Olympic road race? There’s plenty to say this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders is the biggest and the best. A combination of the route, the prestige, the history and the roadside crowds make this race unmissable.

The Route | The Contenders | The Weather | TV Viewing | Startlist | History



The Route
All change for 2012. The route has moved over the decades but this year’s edition is a big shift. The finish moves from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde but crucially the race will include three finishing circuits. These are not three laps of the same circuit, rather the race heads for Oudenaarde and then loops out in a different direction on three occasions and during one of these loops there is a section that will be repeated again. Confused? You’re not alone, several riders have got lost trying to follow the route in the past few weeks and months. But each of the three loops contains the climbs of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg.

The consensus says this is a hard route that will wear down the riders and force a selection. There’s a business justification too, looping round allows the race to pass beer tents and VIP grandstands several times but that debate’s for another day.

Tour of Flanders map

The first cobbles don’t come until 91km into the race and the first climb, the Taaienberg does not appear until 109km have been covered. The race will be on but if Taaienberg is often Tom Boonen’s launch ramp in other races, this is too early. A collection of cobbled streets and climbs appear until the 155km mark. Shown in green above I suspect the pace will be fast here but the aim for the favourites will be a balance of energy saving and positioning near the front to avoid troubles. Things pick up for the last 100km, the race heads to Oudenaarde and the first ascension of the Oude Kwaremont climb.

The approach: before mentioning the climbs, a word about the approach to the climbs. The climbs are short and whilst some are steep, everyone in the race can get up them with a clear run. However they are narrow, sometimes wide enough for just one car. So when 200 riders are in a race there’s a huge premium on being at the front. As a result the pace is frantic before the climb and often the approach to the climb is worse than the ascent itself. The pace reaches 60km/h as riders try to squeeze into impossible gaps… all whilst cornering, dodging bad road surfaces, spectators and street furniture. Make a mistake and you lose 20 places. Riders rub shoulders and elbows are used to defend your space. This is cycling as a contact sport.

The Oude Kwaremont: it’s a climb but different from your usual Flemish berg at 2.2km long and a meagre 4.2% gradient. It starts with asphalt for 600m then you have 1600m of cobbles. Above all, instead of a steep ramp, the “Old Quarter Hill” is longer and steadier. It rises early to 11% and then levels out. The cobbles are better maintained too, plus there’s a gutter to aim for on the left. It is tackled three times, after 177km, 218km and 238km.

The Paterberg: less than four kilometres from the Kwaremont, the Paterberg is another awkward climb. At just 400m, averaging 12% and maxing at 20%, it is short, steep and cobbled. It is also exposed with almost no cover from hedges, embankments or trees. Instead the sides of the road are lined with barriers and the surrounding fields have large beer tents. The photo above shows the inert scene, imagine it with tens of thousands of fans beer-saturated fans roaring the riders on.

Next it’s on to the legendary Koppenberg climb (for more on the history, see last year’s “The Koppenberg” piece). It’s too early in the race to determine the winner but make a mistake here and you can lose the race. The cobbles are still rough and it maxxes at 22%, meaning momentum is vital. In other words you need to be at the front of the bunch.

Then the race goes to the Steenbeekdries (800m long, 12.8% max, 7.6% average) and the Kruisberg (1.8km long, 4.8% average, 9% max) before looping back to Oudenaarde. The Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are repeated again and then comes the Hoogberg (2.9 long, 3.5% average, 8% max) which is topped by a defunct white windmill and marks 26km to go.

Soon there is the final circuit and 1-2 punch of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg before the race heads for the finish. With 13km from the top of the Paterberg to the finish line there is both time to regroup… and time for the race to fragment as the distance and climbs takes it toll.

The Finish: the last section from Kerkhove to the Minderbroedersstraat in Oudenaarde is over eight kilometres long in one straight wide line all the way to the finish bordered by cycle paths. There are no sharp corners, roundabouts or hills and it is totally flat. The featureless nature is still highly strategic. Any rider up the road will a small gap will be visible to chasers and the even nature of the road suits a group in pursuit. It is also the chance for dropped riders to come back to a peloton. The final kilometre is flat and straight with the tiniest of rises to the finish line.

Course summary: 255km on familiar roads but the format is different with the finishing circuits. The distance and climbs make this hard and the riders will make it even harder. It’ll be interesting to see how the riders approach the race in its new format. I can’t help wonder if the course is more predictable with the “rinse n’ repeat” format of using the same climbs again and again in a strength-sapping finale rather than the coup de grace delivered by the Kapelmuur we had in the past. Then again the Oude Kwaremont is a formidable climb given its length and followed closely by the Paterberg to double up the damage. Over to the riders.

The name: it might have “Tour” in the name but don’t confuse this with stage races, this is a one day race. It is often known by its Dutch title, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

Ronde Vlaanderen map

It doesn’t really tour of Flanders either. The map above shows Flanders from Oostende and the coast across to Genk and Hasselt in Limburg to the East. There are five provinces, Antwerp, Limburg, Flemish Brabant, East Flanders and West Flanders. The race sticks to the last two.


The Contenders

Tornado Tom Frit

Many say Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara are joint favourites but I’d put Boonen ahead. Why? The Belgian has a very strong team and in the last few days we’ve seen Sylvain Chavanel winning in De Panne and constantly near the front of other races. Niki Terpstra won the Dwars Door Vlaanderen and there are other Boonen can count on. Even better, Boonen sprints faster than Cancellara should a group arrive.

However Cancellara is only just behind. In supreme form, we saw him get a small gap in the Strade Bianche race and the riders didn’t see him again until he climbed onto the podium. He’s been painted as a pedalling ox in recent weeks, powerfully dragging riders around but in reality he’s a clever rider who will have a course that could allow him to put on a tour de force. Plus his team is strong with Bennati and the promising Gallopin.

Betonweg

Peter Sagan is another obvious choice. The nonchalant Slovak has been collecting strong placings this season as well as sprint wins. He won the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne, taking the bunch sprint… after he’d spent plenty of energy trying a breakaway. Sagan plays a 1-2 with his bodyguard Daniel Oss. We could see Omega Pharma – Quickstep do the same with Sylvain Chavanel, I think he might prefer Paris-Roubaix but with Boonen being marked by many, the French champion could slip away.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Sep Vanmarcke should win the Tour of Flanders one day. Whether it’s this year or another, we’ll see. But he’s proving physically capable and above all, mentally strong whether in assuming team leadership or a cool head during a race, like when he won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month.

Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen is a random pick as his performances vary, strong one day but with many off days. He is incredibly versatile through, able to climb and sprint. On a team packed with ambition for the whole year, this is his chance.

Going through the others, BMC come with Alessandro Ballan and Greg Van Avermaet: the former is strong but lacks a finishing sprint whilst the latter seems to race nervously, attacking early when he could save his energy better for later moments. Rabobank’s Matti Breschel is back in form and will aim to “save” a lacklustre season so far for the Dutch squad. Pippo Pozzato is back to full strength. Who’d rule out Oscar Freire? Whilst the route might offer some climbing the riders might not blow the race apart and the Spaniard has come close in recent weeks, this time let’s hope he’s checked out the new finishing straight as not knowing the finish of the E3 apparently cost him the win. And watch Sebastian Langeveld, Bjorn Leukemans, Stijn Devolder, Luca Paolini and Daniele Bennati.


Weather
The sunny spring weather is going. There’s talk of a shower on Saturday but Sunday will be mostly cloudy with a high of 12°C (53°F). There will be a light wind from the north/north-east at 10-20km/h.

In practical terms this means the cobbles are baked dry and a light crosswind for much of the circuits and a headwind on the finishing straight.


TV Coverage
It’ll be shown live on Eurosport across Europe with Flemish broadcast Sporza starting at 9.00am Euro time with pre-race chat. The actual race coverage will start soon after midday with live video at 12.45.

In the US it is live on NBC Sports Network from 8.30am Eastern Time in High Definition with commentary from the tandem pairing of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.

There will be internet video feeds for viewers around the world, be sure to see cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv.


Startlist
The full list is available as a PDF and this is now confirmed as the final version.


Race History
First run in 1913 by Carolus Ludovicus Steyaert, a journalist who used the nom de plume Karel Van Wijnendaele. This Sunday’s event is the 96th edition since the First World War stopped the race.

Ronde Vlaanderen

It was run during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, making it one of the few races to continue during this period and it is said German soldiers help control the route. This apparent collaboration saw race organiser Van Wijnendaele banned from journalism following the end of the war but it turned out he had given shelter to fallen British aircraft crews and was subsequently cleared.

Alberic “Briek” Schotte started the race no less than 20 times, finished 16 and won twice. He died on the day of the 2004 race. Belgians Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Italian and Fiorenzo Magni each won the race three times. Two riders competing on Sunday have won the race twice, Stijn Devolder and Tom Boonen.

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{ 29 comments }

Laurence Guttmann March 30, 2012 at 9:24 am

I agree; Flanders is right up there as one of the best races. I was just looking back on last year’s race which was outstanding. Nuyens raced the smartest and had a bit of luck. Chavanel raced the most beautifully and courageously and displayed panache and gusto. Fabian was great, but as people keep commenting, he is human.
If this Sunday is half as exciting, I’ll be a happy man…

beev March 30, 2012 at 9:49 am

Flanders is definitely up there for me, along with L-B-L and a good (ie lumpy) Worlds. However, i am forgoing watching the event this year as i’ve just been invited to join the Vanilla Bikes team for the other Great race on Sunday – the “Hell of the East” or Dengie Marshes Tour here in good ol’ Essex. Just looking at the start list makes you realise the depth of home grown talent that we have….

Paul Gorman March 30, 2012 at 9:53 am

Greatest one-day race of them all, for my money. Can’t wait until Sunday. Good preview.

Patrick March 30, 2012 at 10:10 am

Wow, thanks Inrng! This post is both highly informative and has only made me more excited for Sunday. Do you know if there will be in-car cameras again? It’s a shame Nick Nuyens is injured as I would have liked to have seen him defend his title. I wonder if Stijn Devolder can make it three wins? I’d love to see another ding-dong battle between Spartacus and Tommeke, whatever happens it’s going to be fantastic!

MrTapir March 30, 2012 at 10:32 am

Noob question alert: Are there only 8 riders per team in one day races? Its 9 in TdF isnt it…is it different for different races even in the world tour? Or is that what you mean about it being incomplete? All this is getting me really excited!!!!! Not good at work.

The Inner Ring March 30, 2012 at 11:03 am

MrTapir: it depends. 8 is normal for a one day race, 9 for a stage race where you might lose a rider or two over time. As for being incomplete it is not updated, just the latest version available. I will of course update with a new link once the definitive startlist and numbers are known.

James March 30, 2012 at 11:24 am

UCI regs:
“In the UCI WorldTour events, the number of riders per team is 9 for major tours. For the other UCI
WorldTour races, the number of riders per team is 8. However, subject to prior permission by the
Professional Cycling Council, the organiser may fix the number of riders per team at 7.”

I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Inrng meant in saying that it was incomplete.

In any case, this is probably my favorite race of the year. Should be good racing with Boonen, Cancellara and (close second to them) Sagan in such good form. Shame Gilbert doesn’t seem to be doing so well; the circuit finish is probably better for him than the usual course.

El Gato de La Cala March 30, 2012 at 11:25 am

@ beev – totally have to agree! Period. Raced both RVV sportife and Tilff-Bastogne-Tilff several times after retiring from competitive racing, and both are raced and parcours that get you on the edge, so to speak. They are races for Pure Spring Classic riders and this time I will avoid any name mentioning of overrated sprinter profiles who will NEVER win la Doyenne or De Ronde, instead I will share my admiration for Danish Rolf Sorensen, who actually won both races: 93´ L-B-L and 97´ RVV. Undoubtedly an unconvicted cheater – but still an amazing performance the period of time in mind.

As for this years route – the big battle is set to begin first time climbing Paterberg!

David B March 30, 2012 at 11:36 am

Wow – brilliant preview!! Many thanks (again).

MrTapir March 30, 2012 at 12:33 pm

James, I think he just means that it is provisional and hasn’t yet been confirmed as the list of riders who will actually start.

Bosko March 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Apparently no on board cameras anymore, too expensive (last year it was part of a television serie and apparently they paid for it), shame as it resulted in great television. Great preview, personllay think that Cancellara is the big favorite. Dont think that anyone is gonna be able to follow him on the Kwaremont, but well lets wait and see!

Chris March 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Anyone know what’s going on with Eurosport’s coverage? It seems to be interrupted halfway through with motorsport! Say it ain’t so!

rode_ridder_ March 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm

@patrick
no in-car cameras this year, not done as too costly.

The Inner Ring March 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm

The link to the startlist has been updated, it should be the final version now.

Greeny March 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Hell’s Bells – that beer tent looks like it starts in Flanders and ends in Wallonia!!!

MrTapir March 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm

I thought it was a warehouse!

The Inner Ring March 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Reading L’Equipe estimates say 700,000 to one million people could come out to watch the race. That’s 10% of the country’s population by the way.

ave March 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Regarding the huge size of the beer tent.
I was in Zolder with my wife, with a few months old TdF watching experience.
We watched the time trial on Thursday. It was easy to park close to where we wanted, it was easy to move around too.
Then come the road roce on Sunday, and I was certainly not expecting that.
Some 400 buses transferred the people from the parking lots far from the race route.
I was amazed. I expected crowds, but not that big.

Tristan Wootton March 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Excellent preview. I’ve had a look at the odds here, and think that the favourites are slightly short given the new route and also the chance of a few showers. John Degenkolb will carry my each-way money, but I’ll be supporting Cancellara and Gilbert.

http://www.liveoddsandscores.com/cycling/496615/2012-tour-of-flanders-odds-and-betting-preview-bookies-predict-epic-duel-between-boonen-and-cancella

Robbo March 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm

What kind of gearing is run on a bike for Flanders? Do guys run a 27- or 28-tooth cog in order to deal with the 20%+ pitches?

Lukas K March 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm

The finish, isnt it on Kortrijkstraat (N453) instead of Berchemweg (N8)?

The Inner Ring March 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Lukas: you’re quite right, the Minderbroedersstraat in fact. I must have zoomed in/out on the course too quickly and have updated the text above.

Lukas K March 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Okey. Btw I have to say, your blog is the best cycling site all over the world. You are so deep inside cycling and you knowledge is great.

Larry T. March 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Excellent write-up, thanks. We’ll be there in2013 for sure. Came close to going for the Ronde and staying for Le Enfer du Nord but couldn’t do it, so only P-R this year. Really starting to get irritated that RAI Sport channels have yet to make it to Sicily, they’ve shunted the Ronde coverage over there so it’ll be watching via the ‘net for us on Sunday. The upside is I can tune the TV into the World SBK race at Imola at the same time and keep an eye on both. Life is good!

Steve March 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Lukas,
You are so on the mark. My blood pressure goes up at least by 20 when I emerge myself in Inrng’s posts in anticipation of the next race.

I will have to think of quite an excuse to sneak a beer in @ 7:00AM PST.

Gavin March 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Been waiting for this preview, you havn’t dissapointed. Sunday will be one of the highlights of my year. The anticipation is killing me.

Twiggy March 31, 2012 at 2:53 am

SBS (Australia) are streaming Flanders live. http://www.sbs.com.au/cyclingcentral/news/35195/spring-classics-live-on-sbs I don’t know if its geo-restricted but its probably worth trying if you can’t find a live feed elsewhere.

Dennis Fernandez March 31, 2012 at 9:40 am

I’ve been following professional cycling closely for only about ten years, but I must say that this year (so far) has been the most exciting ever, sparked mostly by the resurgence of Tom Boonen and Quickstep (Levi, Sylvain, et al): I am soo fired up for the Ronde, that I am unable to coherently select my fantasy team for the race!

Larry T. March 31, 2012 at 9:17 pm

On the subject of cobbled classics, did anyone note this quote “… there’s no damping in a carbon frame, there’s no dissipation of energy – it just snaps back.” from the marketing BS on Trek’s new bike?
Here’s the link for the whole thing http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/trek-domane-a-new-bike-for-the-cobbled-classics
Aren’t these the same folks who’ve been telling us for years that carbon-fiber has some miracle damping properties when it comes to road shock?

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