The finish of the 2012 Tour of Flanders will change from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde. If you’re not familiar with these places, Meerbeke isn’t famous for much whilst Oudenaarde is more at the heart of Flanders and is home the museum of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen too.
The race itself is arguably the king of one day races thanks to a combination of distance, the climbing and emotional and knowledgeable roadside crowds. For many years the epicentre of action has been the Kapelmuur. It’s so good they named it twice as others call it the Muur van Geraardsbergen. The locals say “the Muur choses the winner” and like many sayings, this isn’t always the case but it makes sense.
But the story of the 2012 race isn’t so much the change of the finish town but the new route. Next year the race will not visit the Muur and nor the Bosberg too.
Instead the race will loop three times over the Oude-Kwaremont, the Patersberg, the Koppenberg and the Kruisberg. Now that’s very hard.
But what to make of it? Thinking aloud, I can see arguments for and against.
Fans will probably debate the change. Losing the Muur is a bit like doing the Pyrenees without the Tourmalet or visiting Belgium and not tasting a beer. But the race itself will be harder. The Muur was partly so special because of the sound of thousands of fans clinging to the slopes and screaming their heads off when the race went by. This will continue, just elsewhere.
Also cycling is relentlessly commercial. You probably know the Tour de France was created to sell newspapers and it’s one of the few sports where teams bear the name of their sponsors.
But there was something special about the Muur because it could hold so many fans on top. The way it climbed up to the church often gave the media a quasi-spiritual narrative to exploit. It remains to be seen if the race is as noisy on the Koppenberg.
If the sport is commercial, sometimes it goes beyond business. Races like De Ronde have become socio-cultural objects where families unite to watch the race. The modest geography of Belgium is turned into a gladiatorial arena for a day.
There’s nothing wrong with change. The Tour of Flanders has constantly sought out new routes and towns bid to host the start and finish; the start has changed many times. But missing the Muur is something worth noting.
But for me the biggest change is the “circuit” finish at the end of the race. Repeating the same climb again and again is something you see in the Amstel and that’s because the Dutch don’t have too many climbs so they need to reuse them. Doing this in Flanders somehow reduces the romance of the race. It won’t become a kermesse overnight but I rather liked the unique parcours that said out loud the race was so big it would criss-cross the whole region without having to re-use sections of road. The fear is that organisers try to charge entry to the finishing circuit.