It’s Deceuninck-Quickstep versus the rest again this Sunday as the home team take on all comers, including Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Wout van Aert and Oliver Naesen. It’s live on TV from start to finish and takes plance in front of an estimated million of roadside fans, an event of national importance to the Belgians.
The Route: 270km and not quite full tour of Flanders, the race starts in Antwerp and then heads south-west to reach the finish town of Oudenaarde before 100km are covered. From here the race starts looping around the the hills of the Flemish Ardennes. Viewed on a map the route resembles a ball of wool and includes a large finishing circuit.
The Cobbles and the Climbs: one reason why the race cirles around a small area is so that can take in as many of the hellingen as possible, the short climbs that make the race; the second constraint is laps to pass the copious VIP tents. The climbs are technical and tactical both the ascent and the approach and it’s all about positioning where everyone wants to be at the front because if a rider ahead has a mechanical, crash or merely slows it takes a lot of effort to overtake as accelerating on cobbles or uphill uses so much more energy. Watch for the density of riders at key points in race, the racing is fierce just to reach the start of these strategic sections with riders fighting for place, almost a combat sport. The Kapelmuur comes with 95km to go and the race tends to heat up from here on.
The Koppenberg (45km to go): “discovered” in 1976 when a local informed race organisers about a narrow cobbled climb with a 22% gradient and rough cobbles. It’s often damp on a dry day. Dropped for being too dangerous in 1987 race it’s made a comeback and features late in the race. It’s probably the hardest climb of the day and if it doesn’t pick the winner it thins the field. Look to see who emerges over the top and how smooth they look on the way up while behind many will wear down the infamous stones with their cleats, countless images from the past show riders running up because they could not ride.
Oude Kwaremont (150km, 56km and 17km to go): the odd one out as it’s not short, it’s not steep and it’s not all cobbled. Instead it’s 2.2km long and a meagre 4.2% average; it touches 11% midway. If 2.2km doesn’t sound like much, it’s an effort of more than five minutes of which four are spent on the pavé making it a tiring boneshaker.
Paterberg (52km to go, 13km to go): the Kwaremont is chased by the Paterberg, it’s only 400m long but is short, steep and very cobbled. It’s not a normal road, it was inspired by a local farmer who suggested laying cobbles on what was a farm track in a bid to lure the race. It works and is VIP central today, it’s lined by fans who enjoy a giant screen TV and beers – this is the final climb of the race. The 20% slope has broken many a rider with 240km in their legs.
The Finish: the last section from Kerkhove to Oudenaarde is eight kilometres long on a flat wide road all the way to the line. The most unremarkable of roads, there are no sharp corners, roundabouts or hills. The featureless nature matters as it’s long enough to allow riders to regroup and offers no ambush opportunities for a late attack. The final kilometre has the tiniest of rises to the line.
Deceuninck-Quickstep have had a great spring campaign and will deploy the same tactic of “optionality”, firing riders into the lead so they can profit from any scenario that develops and if the move fails, then another rider goes up the road to see what happens. They have four leaders with Zdeněk Štybar , Yves Lampaert, Philippe Gilbert and Bob Jungels. Strong but none of these names looks like a certainty if a group larger than three or four riders arrives for the finish. Jungels is likely to try and go solo, Yves Lampaert too as he is strong but how to win, he doesn’t seem explosive enough? Gilbert has been ill in recent days but insists he’s fine now but it’s not reassuring which leaves Štybar as the most versatile pick as he’s in form, victorious and handy in a small sprint but it’ll depend on the scenario.
It’s 2043 and Greg Van Avermaet is in his late 50s with a dense thatch of grey hair. He walks into a bar in West Flanders and an elderly patron sat at the bar spins around, spots him and says “Jonge, you’re the guy who won Paris-Roubaix, wore the yellow jersey, won the Olympics, the Omloop, the E3 and stage races like Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Belgium”. “Ja” says Van Avermaet, smiling with his chest swelling ever so slightly with pride. The elderly drinker turns to the barman, shakes his head and mutters “but he never won De Ronde” before returning to his pintje. Three times on the podium already and more top-10s too but no win and these days GVA is 33 years old and his CCC team isn’t so strong as the BMC days. Often generous in a breakaway rather than crafty, like we saw in the Omloop this year, he’s still a strong pick and a chance of never having to buy a beer again in Flanders awaits if he can seize it.
Talking of nearly men, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has won so much but he’s also lost plenty too and as L’Equipe’s Philippe Brunel likes to write, the Slovak belongs to the cast of riders like Eddy Merckx who make the headlines for winning and losing alike, see Sanremo where Sagan’s clumsy sprint was part of the day’s story. Bora-Hansgrohe are strong but Sagan doesn’t look so sharp, he said to be aiming for upcoming classics but if so then each day brings him close and if he’s a couple of kilos lighter all the better for the bergs.
It’s said cycling is becoming increasingly specialised and that teams are forced to choose their goals. But Jumbo-Visma compete on all fronts whether grand tours, short stage races, bunch sprints and the classics too. New signing Wout van Aert gives them a strong chance. Ninth last year in his first attempt, he’s powerful for these climbs and has a good sprint.
Oliver Naesen is out to prove you can have too much champagne, saying he caught a cold after being doused in wine during the E3 podium celebrations last Friday. He’s still a contender but loses a chainring because of the uncertainty but has been having a strong classics campaign, his best so far.
2015 winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates) popped up to win Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday, his first win in a spring classic… since 2015. But look at the photo above and he was a leaner build then and the Ronde’s course is likely to be too much for him, especially the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo.
Last year’s winner Niki Terpstra took an impressive solo win but in part because of Quickstep’s tactics so it won’t be so easy this time. Still his team should be satisfied so far thanks to two podiums already by the Dutchman and he seems to have helped raise the level with Anthony Turgis taking another podium in Dwars door Vlaanderen and Adrien “the Bison” Petit riding like he used to. Terpstra’s still in with a shot and his ability over the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo gives him a chance if the move hasn’t gone by then.
Sep Vanmarcke starts for EF Education First and this is news after a sore knee put this in doubt. He hasn’t finished a race since Tirreno-Adriatico which could mean he’s as fresh as waffle off the press but equally short of depth. Alberto Bettiol is a strong rider with power and endurance but one problem, he’s never won a race as a pro. Veteran Sebastian Langeveld could feature too.
Lotto-Soudal bring the tandem of Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot but the risk for them is they come up a bit short here and again in the Ardennes. For neutrals there’s a good chance of action as they’re frequent attackers who enliven a race. Neither are sprinters but after 260km could still have a chance.
Team Sky have a strong team on paper. Luke Rowe has been featuring in the classics but converting this into a result is his challenge meanwhile Dylan van Baarle and Gianni Moscon look like prototype riders for de Ronde only they’ve only returned racing recently after crash injuries. They’ll probably aim for a strategy à la Quickstep of putting riders up front and seeing what happens.
Trek-Segafredo have a good team on paper too, hopefully they stop experimenting with touring drivetrains because time is running out for a squad with strong classics ambitions but little to show. John Degenkolb looks better and better this spring and Jasper Stuyven needs to catch a break, literally as he could go in a move 50-30km from the finish. Mads Pedersen (pictured) had been on the radar for some time but went prime time last spring and if the results have been discreet this year, he’s looked strong, take his breakaway in Tirreno-Adriatico where he showed the kind of staying power that got him into second place in the Ronde last year.
Mitchelton-Scott are a man down without Luke Durbridge but Matteo Trentin is having a good season but scoring many top-10 places but neither a win nor a podium finish so far, he could be on of only ten Italian
Mathieu van der Poel is a hot pick thanks to his Dwars Door Vlaanderen win on Wednesday but note that’s a race often accessible to younger riders, as the big riders back off ahead of this Sunday. But the case for him would argue he’s winning despite a light Correndon-Circus team and he’s got a very fast sprint which he can deploy even after he’s towed a breakaway to the finish. He showed in Gent-Wevelgem he can handle the distance too.
Team Sunweb bring Michael Matthews who’s bounced back from injury to score two stage wins in last week’s Volta a Catalunya and is the dark horse pick for Sunday. On paper he’s made for the sharp bergs and obviously has a good sprint. But is he a Flandrien? Many of his wins come from warmer climes and smoother roads and when he’s won in Geraardsbergen… it’s been on a summer’s day in the Eneco Tour. Søren Kragh Andersen is an outsider too.
Alejandro Valverde hasn’t come to Flanders for a cone of frieten and mayo days a few days short of his 39th birthday but as we saw with Vincenzo Nibali last year, he might feature but it’s hard to see him winning especially as he’s never ridden this race before although the finishing circuits make the race more predictable for him and, whisper it, he hasn’t looked quite like el Imbatible of old. Movistar’s new signing Jürgen Roelandts has been ill and so not the force Movistar hoped for while strongmen Imanol Erviti and Jasha Sütterlin offer support.
Among other teams Astana don’t look very imposing for once with Magnus Cort probably their best chance. Several teams have been out of the picture this spring, starting with Katusha-Alpecin and Nils Politt could feature but victory sounds hard; Groupama-FDJ’s Arnaud Démare fell ill in March and has been playing catch-up ever since with Stefan Küng a better pick for Paris-Roubaix; Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Merida) is versatile and maybe their best pick. Dimension Data’s Michael Valgren and even Edvald Boasson Hagen could score but the team hasn’t featured much this year.
|Zdeněk Štybar, Greg Van Avermaet|
Bob Jungels, Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert
|Oliver Naesen, Yves Lampaert, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel|
|Sep Vanmarcke, Niki Terpstra, Tiesj Benoot, Luke Rowe|
|Trentin, Kristoff, Matthews, Degenkolb, Moscon, Pedersen, Mohorič|
Weather: mild with the chance of a rain. A top temperature of 18°C and a 10-15km/h breeze from the north means it should be a calm day weather-wise.
TV: the whole race will be live from start to finish. The start is at 10.30am CEST and the finish is forecast for 5.10pm. Local host broadcaster Sporza/Een offers the best coverage with moto reporter Renaat Schotte’s observations, otherwise it’s on Eurosport across most of Europe, Fubo in the US and DAZN in Japan. Cyclingfans and steephill have links to schedules and streams too.
Women’s Race: The final hour is live on Belgian TV (Canvas) and if readers share a good preview it can be added here.