Ronde Van Vlaanderen Preview

The 100th edition of the greatest one day classic takes place this Sunday. Huge crowds, narrow lanes, rough cobbles, steep hills and more await along the 255km obstacle course. Here’s a preview of the race with the route, riders, TV and more.

Tour of Flanders profile

The Route: it’s no longer a tour of Flanders as the race starts in Brugge and then heads south-west before looping over the hills of the Flemish Ardennes. Viewed on a map the route resembles a ball of string with one end that’s been pulled out by a cat. The loose strand is the start before the race heads to the twisting ball section where the route criss-crosses itself and takes in several circuits. Zoom in on the map and, like some Mandelbrotian fractal, you’d find the race twists and turns even more as it takes in variety of small lanes and farm tracks. This demands concentration but also stretches out the bunch and means the wind direction is ever-changing and it adds to the fatigue.

Ronde Hellingen

The Cobbles and the Climbs: Jacques Brel was wrong, his song about “that flat country that is mine”, Mijn Vlakke Land is right about the grey skies and crackling winds but skips the steep ridges to be found in the Flemish Ardennes. When the race arrives it’s all about positioning and 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. Here are the chief climbs:


The Koppenberg (45km to go): “discovered” in 1976 when a local informed race organisers about a narrow cobbled climb with a 22% gradient. It was used every year until Jesper Skibby crashed in the 1987 race and a race car, with the peloton closing in behind, had to drive over his bike with the Dane’s feet still into the pedals. 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 now smooth they seem.

Oude Kwaremont

Oude Kwaremont (152km, 55km 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 spend on the pavé making it a tiring boneshaker.

Paterberg (51km to go, 13km to go): the Kwaremont is chased by the Paterberg, it’s only 400m long but is short, steep and very cobbled. Built by a farmer for the fun of it and lined by fans who enjoy a giant screen TV and beers – this is the final climb of the race. It has broken many a rider with 240km in their legs.


The Finish: the last section from Kerkhove to Oudenaarde is 8km 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 cues for a late attack. The final kilometre has the tiniest of rises to the line.

The Contenders

Fabian Cancellara is the prime pick. Whether he can pull off the win is thankfully unknown but there are a lot of supportive arguments. For starters Trek-Segafredo bring strong riders with Jasper Stuyven a capable understudy although everything is built around Cancellara. The most convincing argument is Cancellara’s form, he’s looked excellent recently whether into Sanremo, making his way back after a mechanical in the E3 Harelbeke or making the move in Gent-Wevelgem. On top of this he’s got the experience and confidence to pull a fourth win, a feat nobody else has achieved. Against all this there are two doubts: first he cramped up in Gent-Wevelgem and if this was because he was working hard, this Sunday’s race is longer and harder and he could be struck again; second is the manner of his win, Cancellara will have to attack and aim to go solo to the line, he cannot afford to take Peter Sagan or another fast finisher like Alexander Kristoff or Greg Van Avermaet with him so this means a rather obvious tactic. It’s worked before.

Peter Sagan

Peter Sagan is the second pick. He’s more versatile than Cancellara as we saw over the Easter weekend. He attacked up the Karnemelkbeekstraat in the E3 and on the Kemmelberg in Gent-Wevelgem too, but he can still sprint better than the rest as we saw in Wevelgem. But the Paterberg is a problem for him, it’s steep that his unusual position on the bike isn’t suited to it and Cancellara has cracked him here before. Against him is his ability to lose a race, he may have won last weekend but that’s his only victory this year plus his team is never around when it matters late in the race, having someone to take a pull, fetch a drink or sacrifice a wheel isn’t essential but it certainly helps. If Oscar Gatto and Maciej Bodnar are ready, Tinkoff look set to bring a mix of neo-pros and riders who have a string of DNFs in this race.

Greg Van Avermaet has been close and he’s better than ever this season. Such logic implies he can now win this race but easier said than done. BMC Racing back him with a strong team where Daniel Oss is an invaluable presence. He was ill last weekend which means he missed some racing but if he’s recovered he’ll be a presence but close your eyes and he’s there on the podium but not the top stop. How does he win? But beating Sagan and Cancellara would be hard, let alone everyone else.

If Sep Vanmarcke rubbed a drinkbus on Sunday morning coach ride to start and a genie popped out offering him a podium finish but not the win would he take it? He’s a contender for the win and made the podium 2014 but that’s his only top-10 ride in this race so far. Last year he was struggling with misfortune but now he’s looking better and cracked the top-10 in both of last weekend’s races. Lotto-Jumbo struggle to support him in the final moments of the race but the crowds will roar him on. As Sartre and Vanmarke have one thing in common because “hell is other people”: he can’t solo away like Cancellara, he can’t sprint as fast as Sagan. Expect him to feature heavily.

Alexander Kristoff had been looking off the pace recently but enjoyed his 3 days in the seaside resort of De Panne, even if it was out of season for the beach. He took a stage win and challenged for the overall win. His performance was reassuring but nothing like last year’s conquering display. This suggests he’ll play it safer on Sunday, no going on the rampage with 30km to go but this time sitting tight rather and hoping he can survive the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo in order to deliver his sprint, something he came close to doing in 2014.

Michał Kwiatkowski

Team Sky come with a range of options and a plan. Usually they try to have strength in numbers at the finish and then fire riders up the road. Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe are the two classics specialists who can go in the moves and both have a better sprint that some may think. They’re joined by in-form Michał Kwiatkowski who is floating up the cobbles and and the Oude Kwaremont looks ideal for him to try a move. Geraint Thomas rides too, almost for sentimental reasons given his love of this race but that almost sounds too unlike Team Sky so presumably the form is there although the Paris-Nice winner had to quit the Volta a Catalunya because he was ill and he can enjoy an outsider status, with all this strength in numbers there’s plenty to finally land the Monument win the team crave. U23 Ronde winner Salvatore Puccio is looking strong at the moment but will surely play a supporting role.

Lotto-Soudal have Jürgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot who both deserve to win something but how they achieve this is the hard part. Together perhaps, Roelandts is versatile and can go in those dangerous moves that happen in the last hour and thus giving Benoot, often too visible on the front during this period, a perfect excuse to sit tight. It’d be a surprise if either won but the team is improving and have taken the first cobbled classic win in a decade thanks to Jens Debusschere’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen but he’ll be missed after his heavy crash last weekend.

Can Etixx-Quickstep deliver the win they need? They need to get a rider up the road and force others to respond rather than playing catch-up. Zdeněk Štybar is their best bet, the strongest combination of form, experience and suitability for the route but he’ll find plenty of rivals in his way, he’d be a safer pick for Roubaix. Tom Boonen‘s in a race against time, he’s starting to look sharper but this Sunday looks too tall an order for him, he was grimacing as he tried to chase in last Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem and has yet to look in command. Last year’s second place finisher Niki Terpstra has been thereabouts all spring and their most consistent performer. Look to him to solo away when nobody else is looking. Matteo Trentin has been riding well and packs a good sprint, the Paris-Tours winner could surprise too while Stijn Vandenbergh and Tony Martin will surely be pressed in to service rather than take solo flyers.

Astana have Lars Boom for leader and he’s been looking better and better this spring. Still questions remain over his endurance, his explosive power suits the shorter races rather the 250km all day efforts. Alexey Lutsenko can try a long range move and they’ve also got Lieuwe Westra, the De Panne winner and a Dutch version of Geraint Thomas who can win mountain stages and cobbled festivals alike.

Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen was looking great but has been struck by the ‘flu and so “only” finished 18th in Gent-Wevelgem after skipping the E3. On paper the race suits but his results of late are not reassuring.

Arnaud Démare Jürgen Roelandts

FDJ are led by Arnaud Démare but he will surely find the repeated efforts not to his liking today, as much as he and his team love the classics he’s still a sprinter and this course is too hard. Close in Gent-Wevelgem he could be a real contender for Paris-Roubaix but le Tour des Flandres is too much. Johan Le Bon is another card to play.

IAM Cycling have Heinrich Haussler and Dries Devenyns who must take risks in the final hour by going in speculative moves with others and hoping the tactical cards fall their way, hitching a ride in a break manned with Etixx and BMC riders for example or, for the want of a better illustration, “doing a Kuznetsov” and going up the road ahead of others to buy themselves an option on the finish.

Finally some more names who might be around the final hour for the action. Sylvain Chavanel will show off the Poweo jersey, the Belgian brand of Direct Energie. Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise haven’t broken through as much this year but this is their Tour de France and World Championships combined so look to see who goes in the early break. Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Marco Marcato has quietly got in the top-20 in several classics and could be spotted again. Filippo Pozzato is looking better than expected but a win seems like a fantasy.

Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan
Michał Kwiatkowski, Sep Vanmarcke
Greg Van Avermaet, Tiesj Benoot, Zdeněk Štybar, Alexander Kristoff, Jürgen Roelandts, Niki Teprstra
Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe
Stuyven, Oss, Boasson Hagen, Boom, Trentin, Thomas, Boonen, Westra

Comment: it’s hard to see past the lead two riders. Among all the others, each time you picture them in the finish Sagan could outsprint them or Cancellara dropped them on the Paterberg. However Kwiatkowski is the kind of rider who might not wait around for the final two climbs. If riders do sit tight the sprinters will get their chance as the eight kilometre road between the Paterberg and the finish can allow the race to regroup, especially given the benign weather forecast which will make the race less attritional.

Weather: (updated Sunday at 9am) a pleasant day for spectators with sunshine and only the outside chance of a shower, a top temperature of 20°C, a light 15-18km/h breeze from the south. In short calm conditions that will have little tactical impact on the race although on such exposed terrain sometimes the windspeed of 15km/h can make a difference.

TV: the finish is forecast for 4.35pm Euro time. The race starts at 10.15am and there’s pre-race coverage starting at 9.30am with footage of the roll out on Belgian TV and then various look-ins. Live coverage will resume at 1.30pm and the crucial Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg-Koppenberg trippel is forecast to start around 3.15pm.

The Women’s Race will be on TV too as a split screen and in full as a non geo-restricted internet stream, a great example to set for other races. The coverage will show the race over Kanarieberg, Kruisberg and Hotond, then the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg before the run to Oudenaarde live between 2.00-3.00pm. Enjoy the preview over at cyclingtips.

78 thoughts on “Ronde Van Vlaanderen Preview”

  1. Great stuff as usual. I could be wrong, but it seems as though more of the favoured riders this year are the type who will need to attack on the Koppenberg/Paterberg (Canc, Kwiat, Thomas, Vanmarcke), rather than sprinters type classics riders. This could work well for Sagan – strong enough to go with them on the bergs, but faster in the sprint. Also, are you putting Kwiat as a 3 or 4 star pick? Currently he’s both!

    • Maybe they fix things. For what it’s worth the picks are in order, ie if the chainring rating is equal then the first rider named is rated ahead of the next and so on. Subjective of course but just in case anyone wondered about it.

  2. First I found it hard to believe that Lotto did not win a cobbled classic in a decade.
    Looked it up and indeed, last wins was Peter van Petegem’s double in 2003.

    except for Le Samyn 2004 and Nokere-Koerse ’14 and ’15. but those are not victories anybody will remember.

  3. I’m torn. Sagan is the obvious pick as he can win the sprint and is strong enough to take off with Cancellara on the last couple of climbs. But if Sagan won every time he was the obvious pick very few other riders would ever win. So I’m slightly favouring Cancellara. I think he needs to go earlier, i.e. before Oude Kwaremont, and wear Sagan out to either drop him on the Paterberg or the run in to the line. I think it should be an exciting race as so many riders now they can’t just try and go with Cancellara and Sagan so have to try things. Obviously easier said than done over 260km of the hardest racing all year. Surely Etixx will recognise they don’t hold the aces so will try and mix it up, and you can always rely on Lotto to be creative. Slightly controversial that you have Kwiatkowski ahead of van Avarmaet..?!

  4. I’m backing Kwiatkowski to give Sky their first monument. He’s good enough to go with a break, tactically astute enough to go for it and fast enough in a finish to beat anyone after 250kms. But, like many, I’m sure he’ll be hoping Fabs has the worst of luck on Sunday. Sagan, I’m sure, will find a way to beat himself again. Given that he never has any team mates in the last 100kms of these races I’m amazed he ever wins at all.

    • Kwiat won’t go in a break – between himself, Thomas, Stannard and Rowe… i think Stannard and Thomas will be given free reign to try long-shots.. Kwiat has demonstrated at E3 that he has the power/explosiveness to follow Cancellara or Sagan on the climbs. He’s a better bet to sit in the wheels, and see if he can make the final selection.

      Sagan to beat himself again – he has been very active in all of the 1-day races so far this year. A bit more patience would help him, but in this one, it’s those type of instincts when to stick or twist that I believe he’ll come good and win his first monument.

      Cancellara will get revenge next week at the velodrome.

  5. Beautifully put together, as always. Thanks.

    In the para on GVA, the last sentence has “yet alone” for “let alone” – “never mind” is synonymous and swerves the typo.

  6. Geez, I hope you’re wrong about Boonen. I really, really want to see Tommeke and Spartacus duke it out one final time with Sagan as a spoiler. Maybe at Paris-Roubaix?

  7. Sagan says he prefers the Paterberg vs. the Kwaremont. But you suggest he has problems with it. Is that your analysis from past races or has he said so in the past . Maybe he likes the Paterberg like I like climbing a 20km climb – I like it but am too big to go fast.

  8. I’m sure Stannard and Rowe will work for G and Kwiat so I can’t see them being anywhere near in the final reckoning. The fact Geraint’s coming in under the radar plus his previous experience of the race makes him the “relative” dark horse here. If he gets his positioning right from the Kruisberg to the Kwaremont and follows the moves (gets into a break with Terpstra and Benoot for example), he could have a great chance.
    In reality though I’m torn between wanting Sagan to take a long overdue monument or for Cancellara to break the win record. So, maybe they’ll each other out as they did two years ago and let Van Avermaet take the win instead!

    • Would be very unusual for a rider to come straight in with no other cobbled races this year and win it. Plus, his form in Catalunya wasn’t good (Sky don’t seem to have mentioned an illness).
      Sky would seem to have better options.

  9. Styven, Benoot, Rowe and Kung go up the road in the last 50k as a foil for more fancied teammates, and never get brought back as all the favorites stare at each other… you heard it here first…. dunno who wins tho. Come on the young guns!

    • I was thinking that also, GVA does seem stronger this year so for mine it’s plausible he can win from a select group that contains Sagan. Either way I can’t wait for this race, needless to say the highlight of the season thus far.

  10. Split screen coverage of two completely different competitions at the same time at the “greatest classic of the year”! Who says cycling isn’t advanced and progressive! Just you watch. More and more world class sporting events will follow suit, because it’s such an obvious winner.

  11. Kwiato is rated so highly when he is over 10kg lighter than Sagan/Cancellara/Kristoff/ Boonen/Stannard etc? E3 was 60km shorter and the wind was OK. I think his best prospects are in the Ardennes.

    • +1 I was thinking is it just me? This fellow doesn’t strike me as any sort of “king of the cobbles” despite his good form so far this season. I couldn’t understand why so many favor him on Sunday…until I realized that he’s now part of a certain team this year.

      • His big wins have been as a result of clever tactics and timing at the end of hard, long races – he out-sprinted from an elite group at Amstel last year, his WC victory in ’14 wasn’t a hard course, but everyone who was important was there and present. His climbing style can certainly get him over the hills as he proved at E3 (and he can sprint up them if necessary: see Strade Bianchi). Yes, he’s giving away a bit in power/weight, but, as Sagan has proved if you don’t know how or when to use it to best effect, you won’t get very far.

        • “Yes, he’s giving away a bit in power/weight, but, as Sagan has proved if you don’t know how or when to use it to best effect, you won’t get very far.”

          What? Sagan, the current world champion with 6 podiums (and a points jersey)this year is ‘not getting very far’??

          For Sagan to achieve what he has in the classics is amazing! Give him a van den Bergh and a Stannard as super domestiques and what do you think would happen? Have you watched enough of a race to see how many Tinkoff jerseys are with Sagan when the attacks and selections start?

          Quite honestly, I thought giving Kwiatowski prime 4 rings yesterday because he won E3 in pleasant conditions was an April fool’s joke.

          • Sagan would have won monuments by now IF he had learned how to measure his efforts and been able to recover properly from them. The teammates thing for me is a bit of a red herring. Are you suggesting that if he went to someone like Etixx he would be any better? My instinct is he simply wouldn’t unless they got an armchair out and dropped him off at 200m to go all the time, which simply isn’t going to happen. But yes, “Not getting very far” was the wrong term to use in hindsight. He’s a brilliant talent, but hasn’t quite found the combination of factors to take him up to the level of Boonen/Cancellara at the moment. But I think it will happen, and when it does …. look out.

          • You make a reasoned argument and it would be churlish of me to debate you further about what is actually a small area we respectfully disagree on. Especially as I’m frantically trying to ensure I have enough couch time available for the best part of one of the best days of the year!

            Getting back to Kwiatowski, I certainly like him as a rider, he rides with style and has the balls to attack when everyone else is sitting in. I do hope he does well at the Ardennes and that Sky let him off their tight leash to go for at least one stage win at the tour. I also hope he improves his career best of 40th at the Ronde today, I think top 10 would be a great result for him.

            Mostly I wish Dege was there today, that would’ve maxed out the anticipation meter!!

            Right, now I really really have to go get some chores done! ?

          • Good points palladium15: I’m always bemused by people thinking it’s unfairly harsh to criticise Sagan’s tactics when it’s been evident in many races that it is these – and not his riding ability – that have resulted in him not claiming victory.

          • Len, you are aware that I’m not the only person to have ever said this about Sagan, aren’t you?
            And that others have said it on this very page (unlike me)?
            (I even tipped him to win.)
            But then you didn’t come here to make a point about Sagan’s tactical skills, did you?

  12. I wonder what’s going on over at Cannondale. Van Baarle, Breschel, Langeveld, Bauer and newbie Bevin – that gang has a lot of potential in paper. Looking at complete outsiders to make a bit of a breakthrough, I’m keen to see how Thwaites goes in the big one. He’s getting better and better but perhaps next week suits him more for a top 10.

    I’d be delighted if the Thomas experiment pays off but I think he needs to be solo and I can’t see many scenarios where Sagan isn’t brought to the finish unless Cancellara is alone… so, great analysis as ever from the master. Thanks @inrng.

    For “final hour” names to pop up, I hope Haussler is one of them. It would be lovely to see him back in the thick of it.

  13. Not expecting anyone to get the better of Sagan on the Paterberg this year. Sep should say no thanks to the genie, since no one should doubt his ability to get on the podium if the race is hard.

  14. Extremely mild weather, not a lot of wind and plenty of strong teams willing to pull for their ‘sprinter’. Could very well be a (small) bunch sprint in Oudenaarde if the race stays closed long enough. We’ve been close to that scenario twice on the new course, wouldn’t rule it out. In which case my money would be on Kristoff.

    • Bianchi is running a print ad right now of Sep leading Wiggins through a corner in P-R. For a front wheel Sep has a 32 hole aluminum job…black sidewalls on the tubular though

  15. ‘The Women’s Race will be on TV too as a split screen’ – does this mean that it’ll be on a split screen with the men’s race?
    I hope not: I want to focus on the race I choose to watch – not have another race stuck on top of this.
    This is nothing against the women’s race: I wouldn’t want any race stuck on top of the Ronde. Especially as this is a race where a lot can happen early on.
    Having the women’s race on the internet is a big step forward – that way, people who want to watch that race can do so. Undoubtedly, this should happen with more women’s races, which are massively ‘under-shown’.
    Forcing people who are not interested to watch it – although favoured by some – is not the way to go.
    Carlton Kirby often says that they should show the end of the women’s race during the men’s race (in this race and others), which only shows how clueless he is. The end of a race like the Ronde is often the least interesting part – and whilst being forced to watch this, you could be missing a crucial part of the race you actually tuned in to watch.

    Sagan for me: I think this year he has the form to stay with Cancellara over the last two hills.

    • As a pre-emptive strike against any facile claims of chauvinism, it’s nothing to do with gender: it’s wanting to see what you tuned in to see.
      It’s not even to do with personal interest in whichever race. If I was watching the Amstel, I wouldn’t want Tro Bro Leon stuck on the screen – even though I find that the more interesting race. I want to focus on one race: if I want to see TBL, I’ll watch that.
      Sticking the women’s race onto the men’s race is actually demeaning it: show it properly on a proper channel, rather than this attempt to prevent criticism. It’s also not the way to promote women’s racing – it’s more likely to cause resentment, I’d have thought. (Rather than split-screen, post the URL for the women’s race at the bottom of the screen: promote it properly and give people the choice.)
      Reverse the situation: say you’ve decided to watch the women’s race. How would you feel if the men’s race was plonked on the screen whether you liked it or not?

      • Suggestion – take some paper and sellotape and cover up the part of the TV screen which is offending you. Meanwhile many of us will be delighted to be able to see both races at the same time.

        • And squint at the tiny picture I have.
          Kudos to you for having a big TV, though.
          And it’s not ‘offending’ me – it’s just a stupid idea.
          And unless your eyes can function independently you literally cannot watch two races at the same time.

        • “Suggestion – take some paper and sellotape and cover up the part of the TV screen which is offending you”

          Or just blink.

          The stream without commentary that went down was great too…

    • Thank gawd that (for now at least) doesn’t matter. If/when it does pro cycling will join F1 and MOTOGP as sports I used to care about….but only watch now if a) They’re on free over-the-air TV and b) I have nothing better to do.

  16. Talking of split screen, pity you couldn’t have a slider facility like some online newspapers versions do with still photos’s.

  17. After spending 4 hours building a dividing wall in my living room out of two by four and sheets of 8 ft chip board so that half the tv screen could effectively be in the “other” room, i felt somewhat silly after 3 mins of full screen women action!!

  18. I’ll say it right now, Sagan’s the greatest rider of his generation (the generation just behind Boonen/Cancellara)!

    I think someone mentioned in here a week or so ago that Sagan doesn’t have a killer instinct… well, ahem, today was something else! What a win!

  19. Incredible way to win it.
    Cancellara should never have let Sagan and Kwiat go – Devolder just couldn’t chase and Cancellara decided not to. Once Vanmarcke went after Sagan and Kwiat, Cancellara had to go: not going meant he had to put in too much on the Kwaremont.
    Mind you, Sagan looked immense on the Paterberg and after.
    And what a ride by Erviti.

    • I suspect you’ve identified the right Moment, and your conclusion is unassailable in retrospect, but that does not mean a bad decision was made.

      • I’d say three riders that strong, you go with them – even just Sagan and Kwi, who had done something very similar in the E3.

          • ‘the name is Sep Vanmarcke ffs’ – no idea what you mean by this; you seem to be telling me what his name is, which confuses me because I name him in my original comment.
            My point was that Sagan and Kwiatkowski going away was so dangerous a duo (as they showed last Friday in E3) that Cancellara should have chased.
            Once Vanmarcke went with them it is was even more imperative that Cancellara should have joined this group.
            I also thought this was obvious at the time, not just in hindsight.
            Judging by his interviews, Cancellara seems to think he perhaps should have as well, but decided not to at the time.

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