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"This year the race is obviously harder." Here's Why

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The title is part of a quote by Thor Hushovd in CN. Here's the full thing:

"I think this year the attack will come earlier [than where Devolder attacked last year]," Hushovd told Cyclingnews. "I think it will be a small group because it is so hard, and also with the wind. I can't see it happening that a big group comes to the finish together. Even coming into Geraardsbergen [site of the Muur – ed.], I don't think the [front] group is going to be very big.

"This year the race is obviously harder. It's hard because it's so technical all the time. Whereas before you had a chance to rest, this year it's full-gas, left, right, up, and down on small roads, and it's windy."

Sandbagging, God of Thunder? Er, no. Here's Tom Boonen in VN:

quot;The changes will affect the aspect of the race somewhat," Boonen said. "Now there are new stretches in cobblestone with very narrow streets, after which you face the Molenberg, which has been moved from 1st to 10th challenge of the day to make the race even harder and more selective. It’s going to be a discriminating race where the best are going to have to stay ahead."


Let's find out why this year's edition is thought to be exceptionally hard.

First, look at the profile: De_ronde_profile_2010_medium

Notice that after the first climb, Den Ast sitting all by it's lonesome, the rest of the climbs can be put into three groups. The Daily Pelotondoes a nice job listing the climbs so let's use them. I'll add a note to say if the climb is cobbled or not:

Group one:

2. Kluisberg, after 165kms of riding; 6.8% avg, 14% max. Paved
3. Knokteberg, after 172kms of riding; 8% max. Paved
4. Kwaremont, after 179kms of riding; 4.2% avg, 11% max. Cobbles
5. Paterberg, after 183kms of riding; 12.5 avg, 20% max. Cobbles
6. Koppenberg, after 190kms of riding; 22% max. Cobbles
7. Steenbeckdries, after 195kms of riding; 3% avg, 7% max. Cobbles
8. Taainberg, after 197kms of riding, 9.5% avg, 18% max Cobbles
9. Eikenberg, after 203kms of riding; 5.5% avg, 11% max. Cobbles

Eight climbs, all within seven km of the next. This is gonna shell most any unprepared rider. Realize that the end of the Elkenberg is about as far as most of the riders have ridden competitively this year in any race. They will be tired. But it gets worse.

Group two:

10. Molenberg, after 218kms of riding; 9.8% avg, 17% max.
11. Leberg, after 225kms of riding; 4.6% avg, 16% max.
12. Berendries, after 229kms of riding; 4.7% avg, 14% max.
13. Tenbosse , after 236kms of riding; 11% avg, 14% max.

This group, specifically the Molenberg (profile below) and the lead up to it, is the key to the whole race. 

Molenberg_mediumAfter the Elkenberg come two flat cobbled sections as part of the 15 km stretch the riders have to navigate. They all know what's coming up: a hard left hand turn into the Molenberg and they all know that they HAVE TO GET TO THE FRONT.  Any breakdowns here are fatal to one's chances. But even drifting back in the pack will probably spell doom. Why? Imagine this scenario: After the Elkenberg the lead pack is reduced to 25-40 riders. Together they all make it to the base of the Molenberg where they have to slow way down for the hard turn. Of course there's jossling for position and unsurprisingly Tom Boonen is at the head. As soon as Tornado Tom makes the turn he turns on the jets and just blitzes the hill. The riders right behind him scramble to keep up. The riders in the back at the turn, well, never see him again. Game over. A gap is created that the next three climbs won;t allow any closing.

Riders are gonna be freaking when they approach the Molenberg, so pay as close attention to your video as you can. The riders will know that if they get gapped here the chances of them catching back up are slim at best since the Leberg, Berendries, and Tenbosse are coming right after. Suddenly after 218 kilometers, there's just no time. 

Probably after group two, there will be, oh 5-15 riders left in the lead group, max, possibly less. It's very possible that a winning move happens on the Tenbosse when everyone is exhausted. But it's more likely that the winning move comes in

Group three:

14. Muur-Kapelmuur, after 246kms of riding; 9.3% avg, 20% max.
15. Bosberg, after 250kms of riding; 8.4% avg, 11% max.

Oh. My. God. This is just ridiculous. Stepping back for a sec, we often talk about the iconic climbs in all of pro racing. Often they are anticlimactic, like last year with Mt Ventoux in the Tour. Or, like the Muur here, the other climbs overshadow it. The last two years, Devolder launched his winning moves earlier. But this year everything is pointing to the Muur being the Showdown at the OK Corral. Pure carnage will take place and thanks to the earlier groups of climbs, especially the Molenberg, the riders who are left to fight it out on the Muur will be a select few and all of them will be the stars of the sport. On the Muur we'll either see one rider make the winning move or two-three riders pulling away together to fight it out in a sprint at the finish line. Take your pick. At any rate, there will be some big names left on the Muur like so many spent shotgun shells.

IMO the race organizers outdid themselves this year. The whole race will be interesting, even the first half which will have a chance for echelons to form. But the way they groups the second half and it's climbs: genius. Moving the Molenberg back in the order really sets up the Tenbosse and Muur. Chapeau! (Easy for me to say that as