After last year's race, when Tom Boonen covered Leif Hoste's decisive attack on the Valkenberg and rode together to victory, there was some talk that maybe that was the ideal place to attack... at least in 2006, with Tom Boonen's power and speed looming over the contenders. The course changes, but this year the Valkenberg is the fifth-to-last climb, some 39 kilometers from the finish, and at 8% average grade, a formidable enough slope to make noise. And the closer one got to the finish in Ninove with Boonen still around, the less likely you could escape the inevitable.
Of course, part of the strategy in choosing to attack on the Valkenberg is to upset the conventional wisdom of attacking on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, a Ronde fixture at 9% with a 19% max grade up by the race's photo-signature chapel at the climb's summit. Want to risk it all for an attack here? Fine, but apart from the Bosberg it's your last chance, and you can forget about the element of surprise.
Go here for the official statistics on all 19 climbs. So which hill -- or possibly what other point -- is the best place to win de Ronde? Here's a quick rundown of recent races:
- 2006: Valkenberg (above)
- 2005: Boonen ditches five others on the Bosberg, the penultimate climb, 9km from the finish.
- 2004: Steffen Wesemann and two others sneak away from the favorites on the Muur, 16km out, for 3-up sprint. Hoste second.
- 2003: Peter Van Petegem and Franck Vandenbroucke ditch the field on the Muur, with PVP winning the two-up sprint.
- 2002: The winning break departs on the Taaienberg, 65 km from home, and the group more or less hangs together until Andrea Tafi powers off the front with 4km to go.
- 2001: A nine-rider break forms on the classic Oude Kwaremont, 90km from the line, and never really disintegrates.
- 2000: Andrei Tchmil attacks on the Bosberg from a 50-rider scrum... that plus another acceleration after the summit does the trick.
The message is that the course profile tells us little about where the action will come. What makes Flanders great is that it provides so many opportunities to size up people's exhaustion and seize the race (versus, say, Milan-San Remo). This race rewards a combination of power, fitness, closing speed, and most of all initiative in selecting its winner. Doubtful you'll hear many people at the finish of De Ronde ever say "that guy had no business winning."