The uproar when the organizers of the Ronde van Vlaanderen took the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen out of the race in 2012 was vociferous. The death of the Tour of Flanders was nigh, we cried! The race had lost its soul and cashed in the opportunities offered by VIP seating on a regular circuit at the end of the race. Since then, we have been aching, longing for the heralded berg to make its triumphant return after the route designers realized their folly. This year, we get partial satisfaction as the Muur returns to the Omloop Het Niuewsblad in February.
The Ronde never had exclusive license to the Muur. In the tiny patch of land dotted with the short, steep cobbled climbs that make us yearn for April that is Flanders, it is hard for races to not run at least near the Muur. With Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the Ronde all using the same narrow roads in the spring and the Eneco Tour does in the summer, we were virtually assured we would catch a glimpse of the chapel and grassy knoll atop the climb. Over the past two Augusts we have seen hard fought battles over the Muur, first between Alessandro Ballan and Lars Boom and this year between Zdenēk Stybar and Tom Dumoulin, that have enthralled us, but they have also left us wanting for the battles between giants that we are used to seeing on the same slopes in April. The Muur in August just doesn't seem quite right.
Though the route of the Ronde is not bringing the Muur back to its treasured place, this year fans will get a chance to line the curved cobbled ascent to the chapel above Geraardsbergen in the spring. Or, "spring", if you can call February in Belgium that. The classics season opener, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, is bringing the Muur back into its lineup of climbs after route changes took the berg out in 2011 and 2012 and road work prevented it from being used last year.
The Muur won't be in the race-deciding place we love it to be, though. This year it comes a mere 84 kilometers into the race and is only the third of ten climbs in the Omloop. The race retains its final 40 kilometers from recent editions that traverse a final sequence of climbs followed by flat cobbled sections. Though the climbs will wear on the collective of riders on the course, these cobbled sections are what will finally allow riders to force free a final selection. But, the Muur is back, in part, where it belongs - in the dark, cold spring, and enterprising souls might be able to wake up early enough to catch sight of it in the early parts of the race broadcast.
Though Het Nieuwsblad and the Ronde both fall under the umbrella of Flanders Classics, the races have separate organizers and this is not merely a bone thrown to appease the masses while the Ronde continues to defy their wishes for a Muur reinstated in the finale of the race. Is it a tactic to pressure the organizers of the Ronde to bring the Muur back? Is it merely paying homage to an iconic climb in the best way the Omloop can? Who knows, but one thing is for sure - we have plenty of time until February to figure it out. Or, more likely, to dream of a wet, sodden Muur...