Once we here, and others, discovered the incredibly unpleasant weather forecast for Flanders Sunday (thunder? snow? rain!) the conversation switched immediately to deciphering what it would mean to the race. CN's Brecht Decaluwé (and presumably others) quickly likened the expected conditions to 1969. Sound familiar? A couple days ago, I wrote a pretty mundane, unresearched* piece on finishing times, and 1969 represented the largest time gaps among podium finishers on record (via internet at least). While details on older editions of de Ronde aren't easy to come by, we now find out that Eddy Merckx won with a 70km solo romp, which undoubtedly did little to deter comparisons at home to members of the Holy Trinity.
[* say it ain't so!]
'Sixty-Nine was long ago (though it seems like just yesterday) and Cycling has changed a fair amount. For one, the peloton is free of guys who can lap the field like Merckx did; instead, the story of this year's Tour of Flanders has been the number of guys loaded for victory. Sure, the cold rain will likely reduce the field soon after the gaps start opening up at the front. And in slippery conditions, the course is bound to reach up and bite a few of the bigger names. But what I'm not buying yet is that cold and wet, on their own, will deter any of the guys on the Official Podium Cafe list of approved favorites.
CW is that the Belgian guys will have an advantage, and guys who excel in the heat won't. But besides Stuart O'Grady who openly pines for the heat, who does that eliminate? Ballan? Pozzato? Klier? Hincapie? Doubtful. It doesn't help them, and in Ballan's case we have evidence as to what conditions suit him best, but if one of these guys is the strongest and avoids misfortune, the outcome shouldn't change. They train and race in just as much slop as Monaco-based Tom Boonen, one of the presumed beneficiaries of the forecast.
I do think the conditions will punish inexperienced riders. The course has enough surprises even before you add in slippery cobbles, and the battles for position before every climb or cobble patch will be freaking immense. As it happens, the favorites with the least experience at de Ronde are probably Gilbert and Chavanel, both of whom spent the last two weeks demonstrating their brilliance on wet cobbles. So really, the only guys I'm counting out are the under-25 studs looking to break out. Not this weekend.
What I'm a little less willing to project (guess at) is how it will affect tactics. Caution is a normal reaction to slippery conditions, but these guys aren't normal, and anyway there will be more chances to shed a rival in the madness. Perhaps teammates become more important than ever... and having sharp instincts (or a sharp DS) may be the difference between exploiting the conditions and falling victim to them.