[OhByTheWay... I created an Official PdC Flanders Guide rounding up all our preview articles. It's in the features box, right sidebar.]
One of the bigger advantages the Cobbled Classics hold over their Ardennes brethren is the element of slightly more suspense. While history may be more convoluted, in recent (Podium Cafe) times a conventional wisdom has formed regarding when to attack in the Ardennes. There may be some suspense about when the race will narrow itself, but in general guys are looking to win Amstel Gold on the Cauberg and Fleche Wallonne on the Mur de Huy. [Liege defies generalization a bit better.]
By some degree of contrast, the cobbled classics are harder to predict where the winning move will come from. The Official Ronde Site has posted brief descriptions (in English) of how the race was won, for each Flanders event beginning in 1986. I have reviewed each description -- on the flip I have included a sentence about each one -- and this has yielded some ideas worth considering. Oh, and for the purposes of this post I am interested in where the key, decisive selection happened. This is distinct from where the ultimate winning move took place, which is often in the last 50 meters. Such designations can be nebulous at times -- reasonable minds may differ on what was the "key move" -- so bear with me. Finally, I have posted the official profile on the flip, so you can follow along.
Marathon Men: The longest winning selection of the last 22 years came a full 217km from the end, when Jacky Durand led a four-man escape, which he alone survived to win the 1992 Ronde.
Old Habits: Not surprisingly, the most frequent scene of decisive maneuvers is the Muur van Geraardsbergen (a/k/a Kappelmuur, a/k/a Mur de Grammont in French), where crucial events occurred in 1988, 89, 96, 99, 2004 and '07... and that's not counting 2003, where Peter Van Petegem forced a split on the Tenbosse, and then polished off the remaining competition on the Muur. Runners-up: the Berendries ('91, 97, 98) and Valkenberg ('95, 05, 06).
Focus, People! For my money, the name to remember is the Berendries, occurring at km 218, or about 42km from the line. Prior to the Berendries, it's possible for the big selections to happen, but in the 22 years in this survey there have only been five races where this has happened: 1992's spectacular marathon, an escape forming on the Oude Kwaremont in 1993, one key move on the Haaghoek in 2001, and two races which took shape on the Taaienberg (1987, 2002).
More Recent Moves: After consecutive editions decided on the Muur (2003-04), the action shifted a bit further out to the Valkenberg, where the next two races were decided. In 2007 it was back to the Muur, with the race coming together after Cancellara's failed escape was caught on the outskirts of Geraardsbergen, while last year the key move was either the initial attack on the Leberg or Devolder's more devastating move on the Eikenmolen. Anyway, by my count 17 of the 22 races have been decided no earlier than the Berendries.
A Wee Bit o' Analysis: Where the riders decide to make the race depends on a number of factors. My reason for looking at trends is that one factor is the element of surprise, so if the last four races were won on the Muur, expect someone to try something different. In 2009, there are no real trends, so strategy could focus on anyplace... or default to the Muur. A second factor is the individual: if Pippo Pozzato thinks his best chance to put Boonen in difficulty is on a really hard climb, that leads him to either the Muur or maybe the Valkenberg. Boonen, meanwhile, might be looking to power away on a lesser climb, when the bunch in general is sagging. The Tenbosse or the Eikenmolen, coming after so many others, might be prime escape points, though the addition of the Eikenberg and Varent climbs around Oudenaard may cause the onset of serious fatigue a little earlier than usual. Finally, a lot of calculating will be based on events as they unfold, the split-second decisionmaking that often separates champions from the pack.
The Bottom Line: I have identified a span of some 42 km in which you can expect the fireworks to go off, for good. Honestly, you can back that out to the Eikenberg, a full 62km from Meerbeke; anything is possible. But I like to stick out my neck, as an example to the mainstream journos who strive so hard to avoid doing just that. I will say that a non-Quick Step team hits it hard on the Berendries to try to thin out Boonen's support. If it works, look for huge attacks quickly, e.g. the Valkenberg; if not, it's the Eikenmolen or the Muur.
Care to make your own prediction on where the deal will go down?
1986: 30km to go, Planckaert makes key move; 7km VanderPoel catches on for sprint win
1987: Taaienberg lead forms; bosberg Criquelion escapes
1988: Key escape forms on the Muur
1989: key escape on the Muur; Van Hooydonck escapes on Bosberg
1991: Escape starts on Berendries; finished off at Bosberg
1992: 217km-long attack succeeds!
1993: break forms 75km out
1994: Break from the Varenberg (not in current route but very close to Meerbeke)
1995: 40km out
2001: Haaghoek (not sure, this appears to be quite far from the line)
2002: Taaienberg lead forms, last attack 4km
2003: Tenbosse lead forms; Muur Van P escapes
2004: Decision at the Muur!
2005: Valkenberg key separation forms; Boonen attacks late
2006: Hoste and Boonen escape at Valkenberg
2007: Ballan attacks on the Muur
2008: Break forms on Leberg; winning move on the Eikenmolen