Ronde Van Vlaanderen Preview: Cycling's Mooiste!

Fotoreporter Sirotti

I know I go through lots of histrionics around the Tour of Flanders -- Ronde Van Vlaanderen -- every year, and sometimes it's tongue in cheek. In terms of pure competition, the race has been in a bit of a weird place since they changed the course from what was a pretty well-established finale via the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg to the new, more profitable Kwaremont-Paterberg circuit (a term that drips with disrespect). But I still love the hell out of this race, and with some tweaks to the course, I think I'll love it more than I have in a few years on Sunday.

When we talk and write about cycling, we often start at the finish line and work our way backward, often not very far. As regards the Tour of Flanders, such a limited exercise distorts what the race still really is. It's a Tour of Flanders, namely the modern-day West Flanders and East Flanders provinces of Belgium. It's a ride through small villages, through a quiet, tidy region which had been passed over by the sport of Cycling in its entirety before the founding of De Ronde brought it onto the scene. Since then, the marriage of Flanders and Cycling is as good as any marriage gets: not perfect, not out of a fairy tale book, but rock-solid and set to endure for a long, long time. The race reflects the quirky character of the region in subtle ways, and in ways which make it truly unique. Finally, as compared to the race we all compare it to -- Paris-Roubaix -- it's a race for all, or nearly all, calling on such a variety of skills that people who excel in any of several areas, or in being kinda good at everything, can be part of the conversation.

So, welcome to de Ronde van Vlaanderen. Take it in as much as you can. It's one-day cycling at its loveliest.

What's New?

Every year the course gets a pretty significant makeover, as classics parcours go. Generally, there is a long turn through West Flanders, a predominantly board-flat region which, if you believe the worst about global warming and ignore the region's oversupply of hydro-engineers, will no longer exist in 100 years or so. [Mind you, some Belgians would prefer inundation to being saved by Dutch engineers. At least until you start ticking off the names of breweries which would be forced out of business.]

One of the reasons for the constant changes is to be a regional Tour and not just make contact with the same few places every year. The race anoints a "Dorp van de Ronde" each edition, which means a Village of the Race, one which bears singling out thanks to some combination of extra-Flemishness and contribution to cycling. As long as West Flanders remains dry, they will never run out of places to feature.

This year's Dorp van de Ronde is Heule, a sub-municipality of Kortrijk in the heart of Ronde Country (just west of the Vlaamse Ardennen). Founded in the memorable year of 1111, is either named after the word for "stream" or "ditch" (geul) or the word for stream/ditch is named after the village. Anyway, it has a stream, or a ditch, and better still, a two-time Ronde van Vlaanderen winner, Gerard Debaets (1924, 27). I don't know much about Debaets, apart from his palmares, which include a national championship. But I do see that every time he won de Ronde, he got a contract from French mega-squad Alcyon, but still managed to avoid winning anything big in their colors (Paris-Brussels, but that's all). Which is sort of perfect for a Belgian rider, in hindsight. Anyway, because the Dorp van de Ronde is almost in East Flanders, there is no big westerly turn to the coast from the start in Bruges, but rather a beeline to Greater Kortrijk and a bit more messing around in the Leiestreek area of Flanders.

What may be of greater interest to you is what happens after Heule and the early messing around. From there, the race enters the Vlaamse Ardennen (Flemish Ardennes), which are the staple of the modern Flanders course. Since the race unceremoniously relocated its finish to Oudenaarde (yay!) and eliminated the Muur (BOOOOO!!!!!), the finale has featured a double-circuit of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, with the Hotond in between circuits. Circuits are what races use when they can't afford to pay for a longer route, or need help in attracting road-side viewers -- not exactly befitting of a national treasure attended in person by close to a million people. So to duck that criticism, changes were made which break up the repeat climbs. Here's the list, graphically speaking:

Rvv_clijmbs_medium

Now, let me take a moment to eliminate several of these items from further discussion. If you want to know all about the Holleweg, for example, or the Molenberg, trust me, our archives have you covered. Of the flat(ish) cobbled stretches, the fearsome Haaghoek is probably just beyond the portion of the race where the real action can be had, roughly 100km out. That leaves only Mariaborrestraat in play. I've found this lovely image of them, and as you can see they're not terribly disorderly or narrow, so as far as these thoroughbreds are concerned, they won't be a major factor. I'd also eliminate the first nine climbs of the race from any serious discussion; they're lovely, but you won't see any moves on them apart from whatever breakaway is tolerated ahead of the peloton.

Which leads us to the critical point about what's new: the later climbs, and the earlier slightly reduced gap to the finish. As to the former, last year only five climbs happened after the 200km mark: the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Hotond/hoogberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. Now, as you can see, the Hotond has been replaced by the Koppenberg, Steenbekdries, Taaienberg, and Kruisberg. That's all. Nothing to see here.

Oh, and the Paterberg crests at 246km, as opposed to 240. With the course three kilometers longer, it's only 3km closer to the finish. But that's something, I think? If a solo rider wins by ten seconds, the pack will miss those extra 3km very sorely.

What's Interesting?

Well, the late-breaking succession of climbs doesn't delay the action so much as scrambles it. Previously, the Hotond wasn't much of a jumping-off point for any ambitious rider, so it was pretty clear attacks would happen on the Oude Kwaremont or Paterberg. Which is great for the people in the VIP tents having de Ronde served to them like a bento box. Now, though, it's more of a real race. Perhaps even more so than the old course, which quite often came down to the Muur (NTTAWWT). More on this in a moment. Some say it's tilted more toward the climbers than ever, but the people saying that are sprinters who suffer on the famous hellingen. These are power-climbs, not skinny-guy climbs, and if there are more later in the race, it'll come down to who has more power and matches left to burn.

Where Will the Race Be Won?

From our list of the final eight climbs, let's toss aside the first Kwaremont-Paterberg circuit. The former is pretty far away and not that steep; the latter is quite short, and while horribly anaerobic for mere mortals, the brevity of the slope and the immediate descent plays into the hands of people closing up small gaps. The remaining six climbs are all in play, however. Let's run through them. First the Grafix (click to embiggen):

Rvv_profil_medium

Koppenberg

I can barely get through this discussion without lapsing into delirium and profanity. Could the Koppenberg determine something at de Ronde? For decades, since its first inclusion back in 1976, it's been derided by purists as too quirky and limited to an early, minor role. Not for nothing. I've climbed this thing a couple times, and it differs from all other climbs on the route in one respect: pure treachery.

Koppenberg_middle_web_medium

Koppenberg_top_web_medium

I love this picture, which I snapped in 2010. For all you can tell, these cobbles end at a sheer cliff, and anyone continuing on is plunged downward, possibly all the way to hell. Which is not a bad way to describe what descending the Koppenberg must have been like back in the day. [Note: descending the Koppenberg has never happened in a Ronde, and it never will.] Being 2010, this is the kinder, gentler Koppenberg. The old one?

Koppenberg_3_medium

via 2.bp.blogspot.com

Even minus the pronounced crown, river of mud and complete disarray, the Koppenberg still forces numerous riders to dismount and walk -- almost unheard of anywhere else in pro cycling. The culprit is dirt, packed between the stones, which has a tendency to coat your rear wheel with mud under all but the driest conditions. Once the road narrows and your speed slows, that mud prevents you from getting any grip as you try to punch your way up. Even more futile than continuing on without dismounting is remounting on the slope. But the middle gradient of some 23% lasts for 100 meters or so, and the upper slope relaxes to maybe 17%, then 11%, then the final false flat at the top.

This year the Koppenberg occurs far later than any previous year in which it's been included in de Ronde, a mere 43km from the finish. [Usually it was with maybe 100km to go.] On the downside, for us viewers, the field could be pretty well thinned out by then, and if the traffic doesn't cause people to slow down, then you might not see walkers. [I rode up the thing on a dry day, so obviously everyone in the field can get up the Kopp just fine if they aren't blocked or don't slip.] Aaaand, that's about it.

The plus sides are many. First, it's really hard and tricky, which means that it could favor the strongest, or could throw a spanner into their plans. Next, apart from slippage and gaps on the slope, it summits not at a pointy crest, followed by a descent, but in an exposed plateau with a false flat, which means that when you think the party is over, it most definitely is not. Rather than ducking down Koppenbergstraat back to sea level, the effort continues on for more than a kilometer, partly exposed and partly in forest, before letting up briefly. If you were suffering on the Kopp and let out a gap, you will not get it back anytime soon. Eventually the race descends on a small highway where it picks up Mariaborrestraat, the Steenbekdries, and shortly after that the Taaienberg.

Steenbekdries

Probably not decisive; it's 700 meters topping out at 6%. [By the way, you can look up each climb here.] I mention it only because it is the uphill meat in a Mariaborrestraat-Stationsberg descent sandwich. That's some 2km of bouncing over the stones. After the misery of the Koppenberg. No rest for the weary, at all.

Taaienberg

The business end of this climb is the beginning, a 500 meter stretch of cobbles up a slope that is only slightly gentler than the Koppenberg, topping out at 16%. The mud doesn't seem to matter so much here, and in a weird way neither do the stones. What matters, specifically, is the gutter.

Taaie_web_medium

Assuming the gutter is available, and not blocked by fencing, the standard approach to the climb is to get in the gutter and hit the gas. We can all debate the honor of such tactics, but you will never ever find a cyclist who sees things that way. To them, that's how you win.

Because the gutter is so narrow, if you aren't on the front, you're single file behind... or you can jump onto the stones and put out an extra 20% (or whatever) more power to keep pace. My favorite OPQS tactic (and they pretty much own this slope) is where Boonen goes first and someone else goes next, slower, telling all who follow that if they want to close that gap, they can hop onto the cobbles. Postioning battles are everything here. And because it's Flanders and the whole thing is so incredibly delicious, the approach I am most familiar with is alongside the hill, where you can clearly see what's coming.

Kruisberg/Hotond

Another 500 meters of cobbles, averaging a gentle 4%. Typically I write off the importance of this climb, and I guess I'm still there, for one reason: the placement. The Kopp-Steen-Taai stretch happens over 8km, but then it's 11km to the Kruisberg, and then another 10km before the more decisive Oude Kwaremont. Why bother trying to use this not-terribly decisive scene so you can do a 10k time trial to the oude K? Don't see it happening.

Oude Kwaremont

I'll be brief, more because we all know the story. The Paterberg isn't long enough to drop everybody from a large pack, but the Kwaremont is where you set em up, before knocking them down. Whatever number begins the climb, a smaller number will complete it intact.

Paterberg

Set up to decide the race. And not for nothing.

Paterberg_medium

Unlike the Taaienberg, I think we can expect the gutter to be unavailable Sunday. That leaves a bouncy ride up a slope that hits 20% and stays there, averaging 13% for the entire climb. That's all of 361 meters, which isn't much, but at that gradient it doesn't take much.

Who Do I Need to Know?

did this already. And I updated it. No point repeating myself. I will stop and point out that all of the serious contenders enter the race primed and ready, more or less. This is pretty rare. Only Lars Boom doesn't show up at his normal level, but I don't think he's a Flanders guy per se.

Pick to Win:

Peter Sagan. Peaking at the right time.

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