Facts and figures can’t convey what Flanders is like on the Sunday of the Ronde – if you’re a serious fan then you must go, one day.
A shade under 260km, 18 bergs, and enough cobbles to rattle your teeth.
Starting in the beautiful medieval city of Brugge the parcours heads south to the Flemish Ardennes and the extended ridge above Oudenaarde where some of the most famous climbs in cycle sport are located – the Kruisberg, the Koppenberg, the Eikenberg and the Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen.
In all, there are 18 of them, most are cobbled, badly cambered and each has its own characteristics which can only be learned by climbing them at high speed in race situations, many times.
The start in Brugge has become as famous as another race’s finish in Roubaix. It wouldn’t be de Ronde without it.
Also within the 258.3 kilometre parcours are sectors of cobbles and small roads more suited to tractors than the lightest of racing bicycles.
The Ronde was first held in 1913 when Paul Deman won for the home nation, this will be edition 95; whilst the race continued through World War II, competition was impossible during the Great War due to the fact that much of the parcours was the tableau on which that awful conflict took place.
Belgium has won 66 editions of the race with the most recent home wins being Stijn Devolder in 2008 and 2009.
Italy is a distant second on 10 wins; Alessandro Ballan, who took his De Panne winning form down from the coast in 2007 being the most recent.
Those other ‘flatlanders.’ the Dutch, have won nine times, but you have to go back to 1986 and Adri Van Der Poel for that.
The French have won three with Jacky Durand in 1993 as most recent, whilst Germany and Switzerland have won two each.
The last win for the Fatherland was Steffen Wesemann in 2004 – and for the Suisse?
Adri van der Poel was the last Dutch winner back in ’86.
You don’t have to be a man whose natural habitat is among piles of fraying, musty cycling magazines, glossy Flemish reference books and obscure websites to know that in 2010 Fabian Cancellara became the second Swiss rider – after Henri Suter in 1923 – to win the race; Suter was actually the first non Belgian winner.
And again, you don’t have to be an expert to know that there is only one question which is central to any Ronde preview for 2011; ‘who can beat Leopard TREK’s Fabian Cancellara?’
Cancellara’s form is red hot and right now.
Rolf Sorensen of Denmark rode the Ronde ’10 or 11 times’ before he added his name to the roll of honour in 1997 – experience is everything in this race.
On that basis it’s best to start any review by looking at who has been on the podium in recent editions.
It’s no surprise then when Tom Boonen’s (QuickStep & Belgium) name appears as runner up in 2010.
Boonen is back in top form, there’s no doubt about that – underlined by an emphatic win in Gent-Wevelgem, last Sunday.
And so is Tom Boonen’s. The stage is set for a dynamic duel.
The record shows that Boonen has won this race twice, in 2005 and 2006; his big frame and ability to put down repeated bursts of sustained power to drive over the ‘bergs’ coupled with a winner’s spirit and big sprint finish mean he was born to ride and win this race.
But one of the beauties of professional cycle sport is how tactical it is; Boonen’s aptitude for the Ronde means that like Cancellara he always bears the heavy tag of ‘favourite’.
However, what really counts in pro cycling is that the team wins and the sponsor is happy; in 2008 and 2009 as the ‘heads’ watched Boonen, his QuickStep team mate Stijn Devolder (Belgium) disappeared up the road to glory and even higher ‘awareness levels’ for the laminated flooring company.
QuickStep’s Svengali manager, Patrick Lefevre is perhaps the finest tactician in the sport; he’s not liable to allow any ‘Groundhog Day’ situations where Cancellara rides Boonen off his wheel on the Kapelmuur and solos to victory.
He’s guaranteed to turn over his Chavanel (France) and Steegmans (Belgium) tarot cards well before Geraardsbergen.
The Kapelmuur should again set the stage for the final act.
Gert Steegmans has come home as the prodigal son to QuickStep after wandering in the deserts of the USA and Russia with The Shack and Katusha – his win in Nokere Koerse says more than any words.
And Sylvain Chavanel’s form is building very nicely – endorsed by a strong ride at Wevelgem – with no less of an authority than Johan Museeuw regarding him as favourite.
But what of double winner Devolder; the reigning Belgian elite road race and time trial champion?
Devolder is a quietly spoken and humble man who doesn’t enjoy the glare of the spotlight which the Belgian media remorselessly shines upon him.
Stijn Devolder owns the Beglian Champ’s jersey, and has won twice in ’08 & ’09.
He doesn’t like or understand their games; ‘I win Flanders and they say, “ah! but he didn’t win Roubaix!” I win two Belgian titles and they say, “ah! but he didn’t win Flanders!”
A change of teams, over to ‘never say die’ Dutch squad Vacansoleil has seen his red, yellow and black champion’s jersey quietly in the mix across the cobbles at the start of season 2011.
A master of peaking for the big objective he won’t be far away on Sunday, well placed to profit from the Boonen/Cancellara conflict.
Vacansoleil may not have the tactical finesse of QuickStep but they have riders with ability and big hearts in support of Devolder; Bjorn Leukemans was fourth across the line last year and Thomas De Gendt was ‘man of the match’ in Paris-Nice.
If the QuickStep/Leopard tea party is to be rained upon, look to the Dutchmen.
Occupying the last step on the 2010 Ronde podium was Philippe Gilbert (Lotto & Belgium) – for the last two seasons the Wallonne has dominated the late season and this year has carried that form through the winter and into the spring.
Juan Antonio Flecha & Philippe Gilbert are both on form and dangerous.
His riding in the finale of Milan-Sanremo was of the highest order and he has to be considered one of the major favourites for Sunday.
His French team mate David Boucher has made a science of early breaks and it will be a surprise if his name isn’t one that crops up when the shadow boxing begins.
Sticking with the ‘previous winners’ theme, BMC’s Alessandro Ballan who gave Italia her last triumph here in 2007 is back to form with an excellent ride in the Primavera and recent strong showings.
It’s perhaps too much to expect to see George Hincapie on the podium – he was sixth here last year – but the American and big German Magnus Burghardt will give Ballan all the support he needs.
Who else can win?
Not Pippo Pozzato (Katusha & Italy) despite his class he doesn’t have the ‘grinta’ to win here.
His team mate, resurgent Leif Hoste is a local who has been three times second at Flanders and we thought perhaps a podium for him – but that was before he had that bad crash at De Panne on Tuesday.
Milan-Sanremo looked like theirs for the taking, but ran through their fingers like sand.
Tyler Farrar (USA) was on the podium in Gent-Wevelgem last weekend and was fifth in the Ronde last year; Heinrich Haussler (Australia) was second to Devolder in Flanders in 2009 and Thor Hushovd (Norway) whilst more suited to next Sunday and Roubaix, has the power to get the job done.
Surely this will be the Sunday to see JV’s mood lighten.
A win in Dwars Door Vlaanderen announced the return of a Belgian who showed great promise in this type of race several years ago but then had to endure a few ‘wilderness years’ – Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens; he’ll be in the mix on Sunday.
Wily foxes Baden Cooke (Australia) and Matteo Tosatto (Italy) will provide strong support for a man who has already stood on the podium of the junior and U23 Tours of Flanders.
Sky and Juan Antonio Flecha – we have to name him.
The Spaniard rides with his heart, he never quits and has strong support from young British bucks Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard; plus warhorses Jez Hunt (GB) and Matt Hayman (Australia).
Boasson Hagen? I don’t see it.
Liquigas are strong, motivated and could spring a surprise – Daniel Oss (Italy), Peter Sagan (Slovakia) and Jacopo Guarnieri (Italy) – especially after his De Panne stage win – are all on form and classy.
No win, but honourable mentions for the Italian squadra.
Jered will be roadside; Gordan will be glued to the monitor to bring you the report and The Boss will have on his best visor, his tie loosened, his shirt sleeves rolled up as far as they’ll go and the phone pop riveted to his ear.
The Ronde and PEZ – you know it makes sense!