By Matt Conn and Jered Gruber
– See Flanders Live on Cycling.TV –
Forget whether the UCI calls it the Pro Tour or the World Cup, these races will always be The Classics and with the combination of sharp climbs, long stretches of cobblestones, narrow roads and cutting wind, they don’t get much tougher than the Tour of Flanders.
Known in the local language as De Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the course criss-crosses the Flemish speaking provinces of Belgium, detouring specifically to take in as many of the small, yet brutally steep, cobbled climbs as possible over its 259km length.
The winners list and even the podium places, provides an honour role to strong, hard, resilient bike riders. Belgian riders have dominated the Tour of Flanders, taking no less than 63 of the 89 editions run since 1913 and in recent times, it has more often than not been one of the key favourites on the start line who was victorious at the finish. [Read the PEZ-Interview with 2004 winner Steffen Wesemann here.]
The Rare Triple
Over the history of the race there have been four men who have become three time winners. Three of them, Achiel Buysse (1941, 41 and 43), Eric Leman (1970, 72 and 73) and Johan Museeuw (1993, 85 and 98), are Belgians, with the fourth, Fiorenzo Magni (1949, 50 and 51) from Italy.
In 2007, Both Peter Van Petergem (1999, 2003) and Tom Boonen (2005,06) have the chance to join the three time winners list, with Boonen having the possibility to become the first rider in the history of the event (after that pesky Italian, Fiorenzo Magni) to win three in a row.
Know Your Bergs
As well known as the riders who take the victories in the race, are the brutally steep and cobbled climbs they have to conquer to get there – 18 in the 2007 edition. These are what define the Tour of Flanders and always provide the stage for the winning attacks. The Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 1.6km of cobbles, average of 4%, Max of 11.6%), which has been a feature of the race since 1974, is where the real race begins.
It is one of the longer, tougher climbs due to the narrow run in to the bottom, poor cobbled surface and steep 11% section in the middle. As it is only the 5th climb, it’s usually all together here, but it’s around this time where the cream starts to rise and the muscle flexing begins. If you come over the top a bit adrift, there’s still the chance to get back on, but it’s only a matter of time before the proverbial ticket is punched.
The Molenberg gets things started.
Perhaps the most famous of these climbs is to be found above the town of Geraadsbergen, in the Flemish Ardennes. The Muur (or wall) van Geraadsbergen (475m long, 475m of cobbles, 9.3% average gradient, 19.8% max gradient) is the 17th of the 18 climbs contested in the race and also one of the most important. While the Muur itself is “only” 475m long, there is a long cobbled drag up through the town centre that is not even classified as part of the climb, so when the riders hit the hill-proper it isn’t from a flat run in and they already have 243km in the legs.
Regrouping after the Muur is never easy. With large groups rarely present to chase and the fast descent down from the chapel followed by the downhill run across to the foot of the Bosberg, (980m, 400m cobbles, average gradient 5.8%, max 11%) anyone not in the front group on the Muur, can forget winning the Tour of Flanders.
Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s some cobbled sections of the route were in almost as bad a state as the worst sections of Paris Roubaix. In 2003/04 the whole of the top section of the Muur was dug up and the cobbles re-laid, giving a smoother run up to the chapel, but taking away only a small part of the challenge of riding the killer climb.
Count em: 18.
The ancient Roman road in Velzeke, near Zottegem (made up of the Paddestraat and Lippenhovestraat, totalling some 3.9km of stones) was also re-laid. Such was the state of the road that the hump that had formed in the middle of the ancient way had a habit of smashing the transmissions of team cars as well as the more fragile wheels of the bicycles racing across it.
This year, the infamous Koppenberg is again out of De Ronde. Dropped from the race in 1987 when Danish rider Jesper Skibby was run down by the car of a course official, desperately trying to get away from the advancing peloton, the climb, which was more often than not conquered on foot, was deemed an unnecessary part of a “modern” bike race.
After major works and a completely new cobbled surface laid, the hill returned for the 2002 edition, but after a five year run, it is again on the outer. With little or no use for 50 weeks a year, the road surface has developed a layer of moss that makes the cobbles virtually unrideable in all but the most perfect conditions: Not something that can be banked on in April in Belgium. The riders in the second group last year who watched Tom Boonen sail up the hill on the top of the bars, while they had to get off and walk, will probably not be sad to see it go.
A new addition to the race this year is the climb of the Eikenmolen in Sint-Maria-Lierde. A 600m asphalt climb with a maximum gradient of 12.5%, the riders will hit this hill after 230km and as well as tired legs, there will be more than a few riders looking to take advantage of a place to attack before the Muur.
The business end of the race is clustered in one very small area – perfect for multiple viewing!
The Tour of Flanders rolls out of the market square in historic Brugge at 9.45am this Sunday and after 259km, including 18 tough Flemish climbs and nearly 20km of cobblestones, the winner will arrive in Meerbeke near Ninove at around 4.00pm in the afternoon.
Now we know what the riders are up against, let’s take a look at your possible winners in Meerbeke on Sunday afternoon…
First and foremost, above all others, the King: Tom Boonen.
It’s almost like we’re being deadened to the dominance of Tommeke – when he wants to win, he wins. Look at his record in the Classics already this season!
3rd Het Volk
1st Dwars Door Vlaanderen
1st E3 Prijs-Harelbeke
Holy crap. If you don’t want to bet on Boonen winning, you’d probably be advised on assuming he’ll be top 3. Boonen will be going for a nearly unprecedented third win in a row, the pressure will be immense, bla bla bla – there’s a reason why he’s got 3.50 odds – he’s a damn good shot of winning, and he’s the PEZ pick. I know, how original. It’s kind of like taking Lance Armstrong to win the Tour, not exactly unique, but not exactly a tough call either.
For a different perspective on Boonen’s cobbled dominance, this article is well worth the READ.
After that, there are many, many possibilities, and from what this humble reporter can determine, this might be one of the more talent laden Rondes in quite some time.
First though, it makes sense to start with the Tornado’s team: Quick.Step. They’re strong. There, I said it. You know things are getting a bit out of hand when Peter Van Petegem starts De Ronde in a support role.
Even battered, bruised, and halfway broken, Paolo Bettini is still in fighting shape. He caused the final selection at the E3 last week, and then snapped his rear derailleur.
Then there’s Gert Steegmans, who appears to be very good at the moment (what gave you that impression? the win yesterday? genius!), and given the right circumstances, could factor highly.
But seriously, just like what seems to be the case with many Lefevere teams, Quick.Step could have many multiples of riders in the lead group going into the waning kilometers of the race (and hopefully it’s because of great strength and strategy and not drugs, but I ain’t holdin my breath). It would seem very likely that they’d have at least Boonen, PVP, Bettini, Steegmans, and maybe another rider or two, when the field dwindles.
The winning moment in 2005: Boonen attacks and who’s that on the front: that’s Boonen’s teammate now! Peter Van Petegem. Methinks De Peet will play a very important role on Sunday when it counts.
ANY of these riders can win. Boonen’s dominance so far this year could really help another QuickStepper to the win – because last time I checked Tom Boonen can sprint fairly quickly – he doesn’t need to attack and win solo as he did in his first win. He can go to the line with a group and be fairly confident in the outcome, leaving the rest of his team with carte blanche to attack the living hell out of the rest of the field – AND know that Boonen can get into any important move that he needs to! What else do you want?
Well, first, we want to see Fabian Cancellara take Boonen all the way to the line in a sprint, like he did at the E3 last week. What would have seemed to be a straight-forward Boonen win was anything but, as Cancellara got the jump and nearly stuck it to the line. Cancellara looks fantastic at the moment, and he’s going up the bergs plenty quickly. He’s got a solid teammate in Stuart O’Grady as well – Stuey has been all over the results this spring, but keeps narrowly missing the big win.
Of all of the races this Spring, it seems like the E3 Prijs could well have been the best preview of what is to come on Sunday. Of course, it’s impossible to know until Sunday, but the way the race was ridden and the shake-down that occurred, it looks likely that the players at the E3 will be the players at de Ronde.
The E3 podium was a tough’n: Boonen, Cancellara, and the surprising Burghardt.
Just look at a selection of names from the top 30(ish):
Boonen, Cancellara, Burghardt, Quinziato (??), Johansen, Sentjens, Gilbert, Cooke, O’Grady, Ballan, Ivanov, Freire, Devolder, Boogerd, Fischer, Scheirlinckx, PVP, Petito, Bettini, Hammond, Zabel, Vaitkus. Nuff said.
The front selection at the E3 saw nearly all of the heavy hitters present – including Discovery’s Stijn Devolder, who, if he can tether his energy till the finale, will factor in the race heavily. If his ride at the E3 wasn’t convincing, his win in TT yesterday at DePanne was.
There are of course many more possibilities for Sunday, chief among them Oscar Freire. Freire has never really been competitive at Flanders, but Freire is on the form of his life, and he rode very well at the E3. He wasn’t a dominant player by any means, but he held on for the most part, and if he rides out of his mind and gets some support from his strong Rabobank team, he could find himself in with a shot at the podium, and maybe the win.
Looking back at DePanne, two Italians impressed: Alessandro Ballan and Luca Paolini. Ballan was always going to be a favorite at Flanders, but his Spring has been a bit so-so due to some problems outside of his control, but he righted the ship apparently just in time, as his overall win at DePanne was impressive.
Luca Paolini won the tough first stage and looks strong. In fact, the Liquigas team seems quite strong after Quinziato made the final move at the E3, and then big ol Magnus is coming around too…oh, and then there’s that Pozzato guy. Seems a lot of people think he’ll win this weekend. He’s pretty fast – more importantly, he’s opportunistically (is that even a word?) fast.
Since when did Liquigas become a team for the Northern Classics?
He’ll most likely be in the front heading into the business end of the race, he’ll follow, follow, follow, and then when the opportunity presents itself and the Belgians look at each other: bam, he’ll be gone. If they let him this time…it will be interesting to see if Pozzato could dupe the Belgians for a second time after swiping their first of the year World Championship: Het Volk.
Speaking of Het Volk…another ex-QuickStepper, ex-winner of Het Volk will be vying for the win on Sunday for his new Cofidis team: Nick Nuyens. Don’t count him out.
Enough of the predictions, we could go on all day. If you’re looking for some more discussion on the prospects in Meerbeke and want to weigh in with your own predictions, look no FURTHER.
Most importantly, keep it posted to PEZ for all the latest this weekend!!
Wait, is it legal to mention the name? I just want to make sure, because it would be a shame to break the law in France, what with the mention of Unibet.com and, yeah, the Unibet ‘situation’ needs to be mentioned as much as possible – but hey, at least they’re at De Ronde. Anyhow: the odds.
Boonen: 3.50 (whoda thunk it)
Recent Winners of the Ronde van Vlaanderen
2006 1. T. Boonen (Bel) 2. L. Hoste (Bel) 3. G. Hincapie (USA)
2005 1. T. Boonen (Bel) 2. A. Klier (Ger) 3. P. Van Petegem (Bel)
2004 1. S. Wesemann (Ger) 2. L. Hoste (Bel) 3. D. Bruylandts (Bel)
2003 1. P. Van Petegem (Bel) 2. F. Vandenbroucke (Bel) 3. S. O’Grady (Aus)
2002 1. A. Tafi (Ita) 2. J. Museeuw (Bel) 3. P. Van Petegem (Bel)
2001 1. G. Bortolami (Ita) 2. E. Dekker (Ned) 3. D. Zanette (Ita)
2000 1. A. Tchmil (Bel) 2. D. Pieri (Ita) 3. R. Vainsteins (Lat)
1999 1. P. Van Petegem (Bel) 2. F. Vandenbroucke (Bel) 3. J. Museeuw (Bel)
1998 1. J. Museeuw (Bel) 2. S. Zanini (Ita) 3. A. Tchmil (Bel)
1997 1. R. Sorensen (Den) 2. F. Moncassin (Fra) 3. F. Ballerini (Ita)
1996 1. M. Bartoli (Ita) 2. F. Baldato (Ita) 3. J. Museeuw (Bel)
1995 1. J. Museeuw (Bel) 2. F. Baldato (Ita) 3. A. Tchmil (Rus)
The official website: RVV.be
The hills of the Tour 2007
5 Oude Kwaremont
17 Muur – Kapelmuur