Tour of Flanders Preview

The greatest one day race in the world takes place this Sunday. Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen look to make history with Peter Sagan wanting to join them as a winner of De Ronde. But it’s far more than a triangular contest. There’s a revised route that’s harder than and giant crowds help make this race one of the highlights of the year.

Here’s the preview for De Ronde with the route, contenders, pretenders, weather, TV and more.

The Route
Bruges and Oudenaarde are only 60km apart but the race resembles a ball of wool, first a long strand south to Kortrijk then on to Waregem and then the final 150km is a full of knots and loops as the race is contained in a narrow area to maximise the cobbled climbs.

The route gets tweaked every year but this year’s revisions matter. Look at the first feedzone on the profile hereafter the profile looks like an electrocardiogram from a trauma ward. The highlight of the changes is the Koppenberg which has been drag n’ dropped 25km later into the race meaning this fierce climb becomes even more important. Note the longest flat section is at the end, from the Paterberg to the finish line.

The Cobbles and the Climbs: the difficulty of each section of cobbles and every climb varies and the harder they are, the harder the racing. It’s all about positioning and everyone wants to be at the front because if a rider ahead has a mechanical, crash or just slows it takes a lot of effort to overtake, accelerating on cobbles or uphill means using a lot of energy. The racing is fierce just to reach the start of these strategic sections yet alone the top. It can be similar to a bunch sprint bearing down on a sharp bend with a kilometre to go only it’s all on narrow and irregular farm tracks. You will see riders rubbing shoulders and taking great risks. The approach is just as hard as the difficulty itself.

The Koppenberg (45km to go): celebrated and feared this climb was only “discovered” in 1976 when local resident Hubert Hoffman informed race organisers about a narrow cobbled climb with a 22% gradient. It was used every year until 1987 when Jesper Skibby crashed and the race car had to drive over his bike with the Dane’s feet still locked into the pedals. It was dropped until repairs were done and its now a regular and decisive feature in the race. It’s the steepest climb of the day.

Oude Kwaremont (109km, 54km and 16km to go): the odd berg out because it’s not short and steep. Instead it’s 2.2km long and a meagre 4.2% although it touches 11% midway. It drags up before it starts and if 2.2km doesn’t sound like much, it’s an effort of more than five minutes of pounding cobbles for the pros.

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. The cobbles are better maintained too. Normally there’s a gutter to aim for on the left but last year they put barriers in the way and they’re back again. It’s not for the mountain goats but it can allow lighter riders to make a sustained push.

Paterberg (51km to go, 13km to go): less than four kilometres after the Kwaremont, the Paterberg is an awkward climb. At just 400m, averaging 12% and maxing at 20% it is short, steep and very cobbled. It is also exposed with almost no cover from hedges, embankments or trees. Instead barriers and fans provide the only shelter. The final climb of the race, it was where Fabian Cancellara dropped Peter Sagan last year to go solo for the win.

The Finish
The last section from Kerkhove to the Minderbroedersstraat in Oudenaarde is over eight kilometres long, a wide straight line all the way to the finish. It is the most unremarkable of roads, there are no sharp corners, roundabouts or hills. The featureless nature matters, any rider up the road with a small gap will be visible to chasers. It is also the chance for dropped riders to come back to what’s left of the peloton. The final kilometre is flat and straight with the tiniest of rises to the finish line.

The Contenders

Peter Sagan is the prime pick. Doubts about his form have been dispelled by recent rides. Even when he tried to lose a race this week he ended up winning. Second last year he’s back to make amends and won’t rely on his sprint, he’s willing to attack and shape the race. Again his team is the weakness but Oscar Gatto has suddenly picked up in form and is invaluable.

Fabian Cancellara comes a close second. He’s followed the usual pattern of racing and then returning home, everything is as he likes it. His condition seems excellent but note the conditional, as strong as he looked in the E3 Harelbeke his efforts didn’t achieve much except warning other riders to mark him. This time no towing the bunch, he’ll need to make an incisive attack. But what if Trek Factory Racing teammate Stijn Devolder has already gone up the road? The Belgian champion is back in business and should be a useful decoy.

It wasn’t long ago that Tom Boonen was the top pick for this race but personal life plus a thumb injury means he’s lacking momentum. The team say he’s ready and the crowds will roar him on but there’s still a doubt. He’s got a strong team, OPQS have more options than the Brussels stock exchange but Patrick Lefevere and Wilfried Peeters are worried about riders going rogue and putting personal ambitions ahead of the team. Niki Terpstra is their second man and ideal to fire up the road with 20km to go. It puts him in front, an option on the podium and forces others to chase. Meanwhile the team has other giants in Stijn Vandenbergh, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Zdeněk Štybar who could all be team leaders elsewhere. GVK’s just won the Three Days of De Panne, Štybar’s been quieter results-wise but seventh in Milan-Sanremo shows this crossman’s happy to handle such a long race but Vandenbergh’s been on antibiotics.

Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke has looked great this season with probing attacks and a strong team in support. But to borrow from Inspector Colombo, just one more question: what’s he won this season? Nothing and it’s time to deliver. He’s a good all-rounder and has a fast sprint and a sharp brain and would make a worthy winner. I can’t see him going solo but he could well outfox a small group.

Team Sky lost Ian Stannard but gained Bradley Wiggins a surprise late entrant to the race. But really, was he hoping to ride Paris-Roubaix without doing a big cobbled race before? The mystery goes on but Wiggins brings extra interest to the race, the only grand tour winner in Flanders. But Sky’s got more certain values with Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen. Thomas is looking sharp and his relative light build could be a real advantage on the hellingen, especially the Oude Kwaremont. But on a normal day he can’t outsprint the likes of Sagan and Boonen nor can he ride Fabian Cancellara or Niki Terpstra off his wheel so finding a way to win outright is hard.

Alexander Kristoff is a good pick too. He’s more than a sprinter and thrives when the going gets tough. He’ll likely play the waiting game with Katusha team mate Luca Paolini as a foil. Maybe not a win for him but if Cancellara goes solo he could clean up the bunch sprint.

What of the others? Third last year Jurgen Roelandts is Lotto-Belisol’s leader while much of the team has taken its lottery sponsorship with riders resembling human scratchcards this year. Last year’s result was based on going up the road early and he might have to risk this again; this year Tony Gallopin‘s been sixth in E3 Harelbeke, he could make the top-10 again. BMC come with another strong team with Greg Van Avermaet as their best hope, rarely a winner but why not this time if it’s a sprint from a group?

John Degenkolb is in confident mood and ready to prove he’s more than “just” a sprinter, he’s excited by the classics; a similar story with FDJ’s Arnaud Démare who is backed by a willing team although one prone to wasting energy at the wrong moment; note Démare missed Sagan’s attack in the opening stage of De Panne and tried to bridge across, taking Luke Durbridge and seemingly outriding the Aussie. Filippo Pozzato can’t be ignored, there’s no time for joking and he’s been a feature in this race for years, a podium outsider with Sacha Modolo as back-up, arguably the better pick going on form.

Some other actors. Ag2r have Séb Turgot and Damien Gaudin, they might feature in the last hour but yet to show form to be a factor in the final 20 minutes. Movistar’s Costa Rican Andrey Amador is often visible. Sylvain Chavanel loves this race and has come close to winning before but he’s 34 and the clock is ticking, still his IAM Cycling team have a strong selection. Garmin-Sharp’s Sebastian Langeveld is their best bet. Meanwhile Orica-Greenedge try the Pirandello playbook with five protected riders in search of a leader.

The Scenario
An early break goes and then as the race hits the cobbled climbs a selection begins in the bunch which gets whittled down to a small galaxy of star names. From this attacks fly and the last time up the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo the winning move goes clear. That’s probable but it’ll be tense watching this happen.

However the tactics are complicated. Peter Sagan’s too fast in the sprint. Fabian Cancellara’s itching to go solo. These two riders alone condition the tactical response for many others in the race. How do you avoid these two? Well you have to pre-empt their moves, to go early up the road. This doesn’t mean the morning breakaway, more say an attack between 50-25km to go, a point when the big names are still sitting tight. Ideally this long range bid needs an OPQS rider or two plus Stijn Devolder. This means no chase from the Belgian superteam plus Cancellara is forced to sit tight.

It’s not a question of whether Devolder attacks but how far from the finish he will go

Another factor is the weather. It’ll be overcast and cool and the forecast says a shower is possible. The recent warm weather’s gone and this means a reduced chance of a bunch sprint. The wind will reach 25km/h, just enough for some teams to exploit the crosswinds to their advantages and a tailwind for the long finishing straight.

Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara
Tom Boonen
Sep Vanmarcke, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Devolder, Alexander Kristoff
Geraint Thomas, John Degenkolb, Greg Van Avermaet
Démare, Boasson Hagen, Paolini, Štybar

TV: Belgium’s Sporza will be covering almost all of the race with the signing-on and live start included. There’s a small break but most of the race is live. The Oude Kwaremont will be climbed for the first time at 1.00pm CET and the finish is expected around for 4.40pm CET.

It’s on local TV, Eurosport and BeIn depending where you live. You’ll find schedules and pirate feeds at and Note the team cars will be equipped with cameras to add to the TV coverage.

First run in 1913 by Carolus Ludovicus Steyaert, a journalist who used the nom de plume Karel Van Wijnendaele. 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 helped control the route. This apparent collaboration saw race organiser Van Wijnendaele banned from journalism following the end of the war but 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, Tom Boonen and Italian Fiorenzo Magni have each won the race three times and Boonen is aware of what he can achieve. Two others in the race can join the club of triple winners, Stijn Devolder and Fabian Cancellara.

The Greatest Race in the World?
I started with this claim and want to explain why. Milan-Sanremo is tense, Paris-Roubaix is crazier, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a greater athletic test and Il Lombardia is heart-achingly beautiful but the Ronde van Vlaanderen tops the lot with a course that’s tough, selective just the right side of madness. Best of all no other race is celebrated to the same extent by the locals, whether the build-up by the media in Belgium now or the huge crowds who’ll stand by the road. This doesn’t mean we ignore other races, we should celebrate them all but this is just the greatest one day race of the year.

49 thoughts on “Tour of Flanders Preview”

  1. Sitting in Dublin airport waiting for a flight to Brussels for a Flanders weekend .. Excellent preview as ever Inner Ring- shaping up to be a classic Ronde..

  2. Cannot wait!

    I think Wiggo will go on a heroic solo breakaway out of Brugge only to be foiled at the 30km-to-go mark when Geraint Thomas bridges across and immediately crashes taking them both out of the race. Sagan to win from a select group in the sprint.

  3. The Greatest Race in the World? Controversial, but for what it’s worth, I agree.

    Can’t wait. Great preview, I’m picking Terpstra for the win – going solo in the run-in from a small group whilst the favourites watch each other. Bring it on!

    • Controversial? Maybe but the good thing is we don’t have to choose between this and Roubaix, it’s possible to enjoy both. I’ll still sing the praises of Paris-Roubaix next weekend but it’s a different concept, “the last folly” of pro cycling.

  4. I agree – the highlight of my cycling season (actually from Sunday til the end of the Giro). I would love Sagan to win it – but I don’t think he can.

    My money is on Fabian. I think Terpstra will come second, Sagan win will the very select bunch sprint for 3rd.

    Bring it on.

    • +1 regarding the best segment of the pro cycling season. From the classics’ classic to the end of the most exciting Grand Tour. Well, as a number of posters already said, bring it on!

  5. Good preview. And I tend to agree with the “greatness” judgment. But perhaps only when it rains. I wonder if the different DS are talking to one another about possible alliances on Sunday. Trek could team up with OPQS to ruin isolated Sagan, or with Cannondale to control the race, and not let OPQS operations go anywhere.

  6. I’d have Sagan down a notch, because Canc is the sole favourite imho. I also think Stybar will have a greater chance to win than Terpstra.

  7. The Demare-Durbridge action took place at the first stage of De Panne, not Harelbeke (which isn’t a stage race, as you of course know).

    I’m very excited for Sunday. Most of the contenders seem to be in top shape, except maybe Boonen, and the parcours is a bit better than last year. It might even rain. Can’t wait. I think Cancellara will get his solo win yet again, but i’m hoping for Sagan (who has a good team, by the way).

  8. Here here! Agreed, the atmostphere is always electric. It really does feel like a gladitorial arena…..cue Spartacus to join the list of 3x winners.

  9. Cancellara is at 95% of his top form but he can still win with some luck. Boonen is not a force to reckon with this year, unfortunately. Sagan is riding circles around everyone at the moment but I think he needs a bit of good luck and dryish weather conditions. Devolder is absolutely flying and he has a LOT of experience which could be decisive. He can make the race really difficult for Sagan. Last but not least, I’m rooting for Vanmarcke myself. He is extremely powerful and is equipped with a good tactical eye.

    • The weather is a good point. Sagan had problems in Sanremo and explained them with too cold steady rain. Now the forecast is “showers”, we will see the influence. Bad weather could help Kristoff again, but as it is 3* seem OK. If Cancellara has 5*, Sagan should have 4.5*, Tommeke 3.5* and I would also promote Štybar at leats to 2*.
      Concerning the greates one day race, many people say it’s Roubaix. Because it is so difficult and unpredictable. We have a proverb: “As many people, as many tastes.”

  10. Agreed! This is the greatest one day race on the calendar. THE hardmen’s race. Paris Roubaix is equally tough but having the right “luck” plays a bigger role there, so Flanders is purer. Always reminded of Museeuw showing up at the start line like it was some training ride and then overpowering everyone up the bergs. For this ronde, probably Cancellera will win, but would like to see Luca Paolini do it. Is it just me, but doesn’t it seem like he’s riding stronger with that silly beard of his? Maybe it’s the Samson Effect?!

  11. “…when Jesper Skibby crashed…” – wasn’t he knocked off by the same car, then driven over?

    [thanks for the great preview!]

  12. Fantastic preview, well done!

    I’ll be following the race with a VIP arrangement. Will be fun to watch. Hoping to see Boonen take the record.

  13. Vanmarcke/Thomas/Paolini slip away while everyone is sitting on the wheels of the big 3…SVM wins… you heard it here…
    going to be very interesting to see what kind of a fist Wiggo makes of it tho… almost don’t want to watch, but hope he does himself some sort of justice…

    • This is kind of how I see it.

      Unless disaster strikes, OPQS will have the numbers to beat up anyone left in the group. If they make it to the final 10K OPQS has to make sure it doesn’t finish like MSR did this year!!

      It would be great for Chavanel to finally podium. He’s been at the sharp end of these classics but never as a leader at OPQS.

  14. Great preview (as ever)
    FWIW, I see a group going after the first OK/Paterberg double, with Devolder, Terpstra/Stybar as decoys, plus Thomas (assuming he stays upright!), a Belkin plus 1-2 others. Liquigas miss the move, and have to chase, but lack the horsepower.
    The group stays away as neither OPQS nor Trek chase, and Tomeke and Cancellara sit looking at each other in frustration.
    Develoder, Terpstra or Thomas then jump clear in the finale 3-4k and hold on by a couple of seconds.

    Or perhaps Spartacus solos from 30K out, and wins by minutes.

    Can’t wait!!!

  15. Can I get a shout-out for my boy, Dayer Uberney Quintana? 😉

    The man feels a taaaaaad out of place in a cobbled race, but that just goes to show you that, beyond Amador and maybe Lobato, Movistar is not really built for a race like Flanders. However, to Quintana Jr’s credit, he did finish MSR a couple of weeks ago, so it will be mildly interesting (for me, anyway) to see how he does here

      • I would expect Colombia to have some poorly surfaced roads here and there, no? Flecha once said in an interview he liked the cobbles because they were just like his home town roads. Argentina is not Colombia but I’d be surprised if it would have much worse roads. I haven’t seen Dayer Quintana but if his physique is anything like his brother’s I can imagine shoulder-to-shoulder wrestling for position might be a bit difficult.

        • Yes, many roads, especially in the mountains, tend to be dirt roads. But that’s different from cobbled roads. Besides, I bet many of the Colombian pros tend to avoid these dirt roads anyway.

          Still, Colombians on cobbles is not unheard of. In fact, the very first Colombian pro in Europe, Giovanni Jiménez, used to race on the Belgian cobbles and I think he still lives in Flanders.

          • It will be interesting to see what comes of Quintana’s “cobbles baptism ”
            Although he is tough and powerful, in Columbia he raced against lighter climbers as I would suspect the average columbian road racer is a bit more diminutive compared to the average Euro road racer. Tomorrow he will be handlebar to angry handlebar against big anglo brutes.

  16. Hi all, first-time commenter but long-time follower who owes basically all of my enthusiasm for the sport to INRNGs coverage.

    I’m an American based in Oxford (UK) and am going over to Brussels tomorrow specifically for the Ronde. Extremely excited as it’s my first live race, and just curious if any of you knowledgable folks on here had any tips for live viewing.

    I was planning on getting to Oudenaarde in the morning, and finding a spot on the Koppenberg. I’d considered going to the Paterberg as it’s covered twice and probably more decisive on the second pass, but this seemed a bit easier to get to from the center of town? Very naive about the whole thing and if anybody feels generous enough to share some experience/recommendations I’d be quite grateful.

    Thanks! (And thanks to INRNG for making me so stoked to go!)

    • The Paterberg has a big screen TV – or it least it usually does – so it’ll let you see the action if you get in the right spot. A smartphone is good for updates or if the roaming charges are bad, a small radio is good. Even if you don’t speak a word of Flemish you’ll hear the names etc. Note the locals enjoy a beer or seven, it’s not rowdy but it does get lively

      • Thanks INRNG, you’re the coolest.

        De Ronde’s website and app have been very useful, so I’m definitely making use of that. Figuring I could get updates from the crowd, but I think they said it’s built in to the app as well.

        And the ‘lively’ crowd is the main reason I picked this race to visit – really looking forward to it!

  17. people are making it a Fab vs. Sagan head-2-head… but i wouldn’t write off Boonen just yet. The Taaienberg’s new position could make a perfect launch pad, to create a final selection. His “distractions” could actually be his greatest strength – riding on courage/the pain of it all.

  18. Cannot wait for this race so many possible outcomes, but I cannot see Sagan winning . Trek and OPQS have foils to send up the road does Sagan stay or go ? Either way he has to do the work . I’m thinking maybe hoping for an emotionally charged Boonen with a supporting team and home crowd cheering him to victory

  19. Without the slightest doubt the greatest one day race of the year for me also because it is immensely difficult to win even if you are the strongest rider. You need strength, extremly good bike handling, tatical finesse, a strong team (at least if you are considered a favorite pre-race) and luck. And tons of it.

    I see OPQS animate the race and try to send at least two of their strong men up the road the first time up the Kwaremont/Paterberg duo because they have the numbers and Boonen “only” needs to follow Cancellara or Sagan because he will beat them both in the sprint.

    Last year it was a very different situation because OPQS lacked the strength and it all came down to Fabian’s boys to make the race. Which those old boys did in an impressive way. It will be very interesting to see if they can do that again. Then we will see a big battle between these two teams.

    If Trek doesn’t have the strength in numbers this year it might become very difficult for Fabian depending on who else will make it into the group that goes with the OPQS lieutenants with around 45 km to go.

    Of course other teams like Lotto, Sky, BMC and Belkin will feature in this race. But as most of us agree: This is the greatest race of the year and it is for a reason. Barring a catastrophic crash that takes out the real contenders they simple don’t have the firepower as a team and individual strength of their respective teams to really win this one when Boonen, Spartakus and Sagan feature in the final.

    Enjoy the biggest holiday in cycling (and Belgium)!

  20. Might be unlikely but i would love to see Stybar win, attacking from the break. What race could be better for the Cyclocross world champ?

  21. I’m hoping that this race lives up to the expectations. If so, it will be a cracker.
    Crashes will happen but lets hope there’s no major injuries. Of the youngsters, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sylvian Dillier goes well. Enjoy all!

  22. Inrng: the go-to blog for unbiased, intelligent, assessment of the wonderful world of cycling. Thank you! However, although his race-guides are legendary for their clinical dissection of the possibilities, crashes, punctures and the other vicissitudes of Lady Luck can upset even the most stringent review. Personally, I can’t see beyond Devolder – his form, his strength and his knowledge of the parcours are, at the moment, a level above all the other main contenders. I’d love to see him ride clear and win the Ronde outright, solo: the classic way. I’d guess that Spartacus and Steen have a pact in place to not detract from each other’s chances of making that killer break…it might simply be a case of who attacks first…or it could down to luck. Either way I love this race and would agree with Inrng that it is the greatest one day race currently held. It’s also the only monument that my all-time hero, Sean Kelly, failed to win.

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