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Flanders’16: The PEZ Preview!
The Tour of Flanders or De Ronde van Vlaanderen, if you prefer, is the real road World championships, if you are Flemish that is. Next to Paris-Roubaix, it is the biggest cobbled race on the calendar and unlike 'The Hell of the North' it has hills. Those bergs might be short, but they are murderous. Ed Hood takes us back to 2008 and looks forward to this Sunday in Flanders.



‘Where is Cancellara ?’

‘Where is Cancellara ?’

The Stijn Devolder fan with the NYPD style bullhorn is marching down the main street in Ninove assaulting the post-Ronde Sunday afternoon calm.

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The 2008 race had been billed as a Boonen v. Cancellara heavyweight bout but Boonen’s team mate, Devolder took advantage of everyone marking the rivals, slipped the group and finished alone in solitary splendor – with the Belgian Champion’s jersey on his back.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2008 last

It doesn’t get much better if you’re Belgian, or in the company of Belgians. The media have always given Stijn a hard time as an ‘under achiever’ but he’s well liked and respected by the fans, quiet and not one for ‘sound bites’ he lets those power lifter thighs do the talking. And he’d win de Ronde again in 2009.

But the thing about the guy with the bullhorn was that no one batted an eyelid at his deranged antics – Flanders and it’s eccentric, cycling crazy, friendly folks, I love it.

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Unless you’ve been to Flanders on the weekend of the Ronde it’s difficult to describe how big it is. Every paper has a Ronde pull out supplement with endless analysis of the favorites, the parcours, the weather and interviews with wives/girlfriends, parents, directors, past winners – I’ve not seen one involving family pets but it’ll have been thought about.

It’s the number one topic on TV and the air of expectation is palpable.

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The 2007 edition was won by big, smiling but now tarnished Italian, Alessandro Ballan who followed the classic path of winning the Three Days of De Panne then the Ronde – his image was used to promote the 2008 race. Ballan beat ‘eternal bridesmaid’ Leif Hoste and Luca Paolini – Hoste was runner-up in the race on three occasions.

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The bus park in lovely Brugge is jam packed with fans from practically first light and the bikes are even shinier than usual – there can be no ‘mechanicals’ in the Ronde and it’s one of the biggest shop windows of the year for teams.

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Over at the sign-on the band plays on despite it not being the warmest of mornings – ‘Wooly Bully’ is one of the numbers I remember, it is Belgium, after all. . .

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Boonen is most people’s number one favorite – but as it turned out, Stijn was a popular winner on the day. Stijn is softly spoken, strong and determined, a true Son of Flanders if not as charismatic as ‘The Tornado.’

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Ballan was where he should be throughout the day but could only manage fourth on the day behind Stijn, Nuyens and Flecha – all quality names. Nuyens would win the race in 2011 but never really realized his true potential whilst Flecha was ‘always there’ over the cobbles – unusual for a man born in Buenos Aires.

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The cobbled sectors are really are savage and it wouldn’t do to study them too closely before you rode them; ‘how the hell can I ride a seven kilo bike over that on sprint rims and tubulars?’

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My chaperone for the day was BIG Bert Roesems, sidelined by a crash and taking PEZ under his wing for the day. Bert was awesome in De Panne the previous year, ripping the race apart over the top of every berg and finishing an eventual third overall. When we’d park up at yet another vantage point you’d see people nudge each other and nod reverentially towards the big chap; ‘Roesems!’

Bert is retired now and works with Shimano, but was a hard big man and well respected with the Belgian Elite Time Trial Championship, Brussel-Imgooigem, GP Denain, Nokere Koerse and Chrono des Herbiers all on his palmarés.

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A young, fresh faced Phil Gil was in there, serving his apprenticeship with F des J, he’d finish 15th on the day but would move up to the podium in 2009; Flecha and Boonen lurk behind him – the Tornado was 17th that day.

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A miserable-looking André Greipel in the jersey of World Tour leader ‘chucked it’ and asked Bert for directions back to civilization and a hot shower.

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Devolder timed his move perfectly and flew the last kilometers into Ninove, so much so that every time we arrived at our next vantage point it was only his back wheel we managed to see.

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We watched the last couple of kilometers at a friend of Bert’s on TV and toasted his win with ‘Witcap Pater.’ That wasn’t a bad old day, when I think about it. . .

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The first winner: Paul Deman

The History
It was 1913 when Paul Deman won the first Ronde for Belgium – a trend which has continued with the home boys winning the race on 68 occasions.

This year will be the 100th edition; only the First World War has prevented it being run since – understandable, since much of the parcours was the field of conflict – but it ran through the Second World War. The Western Civilizations may have been struggling to survive the Nazi threat – but the Ronde went on.

To continue on the ‘stats’ theme - Italy is way back on 10 wins, most recently with the aforementioned Alessandro Ballan in 2007 and The Netherlands eight times, but it’s a long time since 1986 and Adrie van der Poel’s win for The Netherlands, beating the man who was born to win this race but never did – Sean Kelly.

Cor Vos Archives
Adrie van der Poel got the better of Sean Kelly in 1986

There are six joint ‘recordmen’ each on three wins apiece – Achiel Buysse (Belgium), Fiorenzo Magni (Italy), Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen (all Belgium) and a certain Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland).

Cor Vos Archives
Johan Museeuw: Co-record holder

Boonen and Cancellara have dominated the race through the last decade and whilst broken bones denied them last year they’ll both be in Brugge on Sunday; Boonen in particular backed by what can only be described as a ‘super team' but Old Father Time seems to be dulling the force of the Tornado. . .

Cor Vos Archives
A very young Tom Boonen

The Course
This year the race stays with the ‘finishing circuits’ concept with two late ascents of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg so as the paying ViPs in their tented village on the former climb can see the race twice without leaving their canapés and Champagne; but most ‘die hards’ – Tom Boonen and me included - prefer the old finish over the Muur at Geraardsbergen then the Bosberg. But then it’s a business and The Euro rules. . .

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The Oude Kwaremont is actually ascended three times - it’s also the first climb of the day with a total of 18 climbs on the day. The names we know and love, among them the Eikenberg, Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Kanarieberg. . .

And therein lies the savagery of de Ronde, late in the day the climbs just keep coming with a selection on every ‘helling’ and that’s before we discuss the ‘kasseien’ – cobbles, with gnarly old friends like Haaghoek and Paddestraat in there to rattle the strength from legs dulled by the never ending hellingen over 256 usually windblown kilometers.

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The 2016 winner?
Let’s take a wander back through the cobbled races thus far in 2016 and look for clues.

Het Nieuwsblad: went to Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium) from Peter Sagan (Tinkoff & Slovakia) and young Belgian sensation Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal); all three can and will be ‘players’ in the Ronde - Benoot was seventh in de Ronde in 2015 and GVA third.

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GVA took Het Nieuwsblad

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: Another of the ‘New Wave’ of young Belgian stars took this one with a huge effort, Jasper Stuyven (Trek).

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Jasper Stuyven: Trek-Segafredo No.2?

Fabian Cancellara is Trek’s ‘man’ for de Ronde but it won’t do to give the young Stuyven fellow too much rope – albeit 256K isn’t 200K. Last year’s Ronde winner, Alex Kristoff (Katusha & Norway) was second and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis & France) third. Kristoff doesn’t seem to sparkling quite so brightly this season whilst Bouhanni takes a break after Gent-Wevelgem.

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A final win in Flanders for Spartacus?

Le Samyn: Niki Terpstra (Etixx - Quick-Step + The Netherlands) was in stunning form on a horror day of wind and rain to win solo. Second was Englishman Scott Thwaites (Bora-Argon18) and third strong Frenchman, Florian Senechal (Cofidis). Thwaites will get the chance to gain vital experience in de Ronde but not Senechal – no room at the inn for Cofidis.

Cycling: 48th Grand Prix Le Samyn 2016
Can Niki Terpstra give Etixx - Quick-Step the win the team needs

Nokere Koerse: All the podium places went to ‘little guys’ in a mad finale over the cobbles. Timothy Dupont (Verandas Willems) out-dragged Kristoffer Halvorsen (Joker & Norway) and Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo & The Netherlands) – none of these riders get their chance in de Ronde.

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Dupont will not be in the sprint at the end of the Tour of Flanders

Handzame Classic: Another surprise with Tinkoff neo-pro Erik Baska (Slovakia), well clear of Groenewegen and Gianni Meersman (Etixx - Quick-Step & Belgium). Baska is certainly one to watch for the future but de Ronde is too much for a man of his tender years and there’s no Ronde start for Meersman either with Lefevere and Peeters deploying only their heaviest weapons in Brugge.

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Erik Baska: Another unlikely top finisher

Dwars Door: Jens Debusschere (Belgium & Lotto Soudal) snatched this one from the surprising Brian Coquard (Direct Energie & France) with another of Belgium’s ‘coming men’ Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) in third spot. Debusschere will not ride Flanders due to his crash in Gent-Wevelgem, but Jurgen Roelandts and Benoot form the core of a very strong Lotto Soudal team with one of these two not difficult to envisage on the podium. Theuns meanwhile with Stuyven and Cancellara similarly give Trek a very strong line up.

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Jens Debusschere will not start de Ronde

GP E3 Harelbeke: The winner of the Ronde has come from the top 10 of the E3 on all but one of the last dozen years. A strong and clever Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky & Poland) took the win but did show weakness on some of the climbs – the Ronde has 18, remember? Peter Sagan was second, his last four finishes in de Ronde are: 4th – 16th – 2nd – 5th so there’s no questioning his experience or his current form with all those second spots. We were going to question if has that last little sparkle it takes to triumph in Oudenaarede – but he answered us in full in Wevelgem. Ian Stannard (Sky & GB) was third; bestially strong with two wins in Het Nieuwsblad he’ll be in the mix at the death – with Kwiatkowski, Rowe and Thomas ‘dropping in’ for de Ronde Sky have a strong presence. Fourth went to Fabian Cancellara (Trek & Switzerland) despite dropping two minutes when his rear gear hanger sheared almost made the podium – it speaks for itself. Stuyven was fifth with Lars Boom (Astana & The Netherlands) sixth, the same position he enjoyed in last year’s Ronde – he’s big, strong and unafraid of the ‘physical stuff.’ Benoot was seventh and eighth Sep Vanmarcke (Jumbo & The Netherlands) the big man won Het Nieuwsblad in 2012 but since then it’s been podiums – such as third in the 2014 Ronde. He reckons his head is good this year; he’s big and strong and likes to race – all essentials for those bergs and kasseien. Ninth was Jempy Drucker (BMC & Luxembourg) very strong but it’ll almost certainly be ‘all for Greg’ on the day; with the same applying to the another BMC man who was 10th – Italy’s Daniel Oss. But if GVA is marked out and big Oss gets some daylight late in the day. . .

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Daniel Oss: An outside bet for BMC?

The stats say the winner will be one of these 10 men - plus GVA who sat out the E3 and Niki Terpstra who worked like a Trojan for team mate Trentin in the race.

and finally – we witnessed:

Gent – Wevelgem: The prediction from the bones which we tossed and read about the races above were only strengthened by what we witnessed from the Kemmel onward on Sunday: Sagan, Cancellara and a Vanmarcke very much back to his best, under scored why they’re ‘Super Favorites’ with Terpstra again working like a Trojan to no avail. If Gent-Wevelgem is anything to go by it’s going to be a memorable Ronde.

De Panne: Yesterday (Tuesday) Alexander Kristoff (Katusha & Norway) threw his hat back into the ring, after a slow start to the season, with his win in stage 1 of the Driedaagse De Panne.

# PEZ will be there with a full race report on Sunday. Rider quotes and video catch-up in EUROTRASH on Monday and you can follow the live action on Sunday via Steephill TV. #

Gent - Wevelgem 2016
The two strongmen: Sagan and Cancellara

And in closing we must pass our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Antoine Demoitié and Daan Myngheer. Demoitié tragically lost his life in Gent-Wevelgem and Myngheer had a heart attack during the Criterium International. Rest in peace.

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It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he's covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself - many years and kilograms ago - and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

 


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