Every year since 2012 we have reached this point in the season, as surely as the race itself has arrived, and gone: the point where we debate whether the Ronde van Vlaanderen needs to change the course. With some rumors afloat I thought this year it was time for something of a thorough review, followed by you guys weighing in. I'm not going to make my own pronouncements. It's time for the people to speak.
For 37 years the Tour of Flanders finished with some combination of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg as the final two climbs, followed by a dash to Meerbeke or Ninove (or both, the former being a subset of the latter). Prior to 1975, when the Muur arrived (or 1973, when Meerbeke claimed the finish), the race often finished in Gent, or sometimes Gentbrugge (outskirts of town), or nearby places like Wetteren or Mariakerke, and the start town rotated considerably before settling on Bruges in 1998. Since 2012, the race has traveled from Bruges to Oudenaarde, south of Gent, rather than venturing further east to Meerbeke.
The race is intended to be a tour of Flanders, and could theoretically go anywhere in the East and West Flanders provinces, or even beyond, but the course start and end are settled by contract with the race's owner, Flanders Classics. The contracts with both Oudenaarde and Bruges have two more years on them, so we cannot expect any radical changes before 2018.
However, the pressure on at least some change remains considerable. While both Belgian and international reaction was not unanimous, let's just say there was some intense opposition, in particular to the removal of the Muur. Here is how the citizens of Geraardsbergen greeted the news:
Bruno Fahy, AFP/Getty
This was one of the calmer responses, actually. Objection came in various packaging types (including threats) and substantive forms -- missing the Muur, not liking the repeats over the Kwaremont/Paterberg, etc. Some appreciated change, others insisted on tradition. The experience for fans became monetized, with VIP sections at the race's key spots, available for purchase and offering amenities. That too was controversial, and remains so.
So what now? Let's round up the various major points and put things up for debate.
It's bad for competition
Point: The new course has turned into a circuit race, with everyone waiting for the last two climbs, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg.
Counterpoint: It's been all of 24 hours since the Ronde van Vlaanderen was won in an attack on the Hotondberg.
Analysis: First, I think in the minds of a lot of fans, this is the number one point (though for some it's the next point). All agree, we really just want a great race, and for many a repetitive one doesn't fit the bill. Riders themselves have made this point, though since 2012 the organizers have tinkered enough to make it just plain hard, and the riders haven't been heard pining for the old course, at least as a competitive matter. I suppose there are two issues here, predictability and difficulty.
On the latter point, no matter what course you choose it's going to be a difficult day. The new course snuffed out the dreams of winning for guys like Tyler Farrar, who came in fifth in 2010 as the race came back together after the Muur minus the four escapees, and who was placed on domestique duty once the new course was announced. It's pretty clear the succession of hard climbs and shorter distance from the last one to the finish conspire against the race coming together for a sprint. The organizers can keep the same finishing town and dial the tension up or down, but it's pretty clear they prefer up. This flexibility didn't exist with the old course, but as they say, only the guys in top shape thought it was easy. For the rest, it was the Way of the Cross.
As far as predictability, we have seen minimal aggressiveness on the new course, and even yesterday's race, which featured one surprising (and winning) attack, was still largely a march to the final ascents which even the late-occurring Koppenberg could do little about. In three previous editions the race was decided twice on the Paterberg and once on the Oude Kwaremont.
The old course was a bit less predictable, though everybody knew that the Muur would dramatically shape the finale. Sometimes the winning break happened on it, sometimes beforehand, occasionally a bit later. The ride from the Bosberg to Meerbeke tended to benefit from tailwinds, encouraging solo finishers. Again, had it become too predictable I'm not sure what could have been done about it, but the reality was that the Muur was the elephant in the room, and yet it was far enough from the line such that its impact could encourage a few different scenarios.
It's all about the Muur
Point: The Muur was special, both in people's hearts and riders' legs.
Counterpoint: Other climbs in the Flemish Ardennes are special too.
Analysis: Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but there is certainly something unique about the Muur. It is a mix of urbanity, forest-scapes, and the Kappelmuur, with its chapel and cross that bring cycling together with a religious holiday season rather perfectly, for a largely Catholic nation. Add in the people -- along city streets, packed between the trees, surging from the 't Hemelrick pub and massing on the grassy mound -- and you have a truly incomparable scene. Can another place earn its way into people's hearts? It's a challenge, and one taken up by the Oude Kwaremont. As a road, it is comparable to the Muur aesthetically, long and occurring in distinct phases, with a pub and other iconic images. Whether the beholders will ever accept this beauty as a suitable substitute for the Muur is up to them. I strongly doubt it, myself.
As far as the riders are concerned, I've discussed a bit about the Muur as a competitive obstacle but let's go a little deeper. The Muur had three distinct phases, as I said, and they added up to just over 1km of climbing, averaging 9.3%, topping out at over 19%. The Oude Kwaremont is less steep on average, with long stretches of false flat, but 2200 meters in length and with ramps of 11%. Both slopes feature the famous kinderkopje, baby head cobbles, as the most difficult, meatiest stones are known. We can marvel at the Paterberg or Taaienberg, but it's these long, hard climbs that really take the starch out of your legs. The Oude Kwaremont and Muur are different enough to be a help or hindrance to different types of riders, but it's mostly about picking your poison.
It's just about the money
Point: Those cheating bastards at Flanders Classics just want to profit off the race more.
Counterpoint: Motives aside, is this so bad?
Analysis: Nobody gets too excited about someone else making a profit, given our cultural distaste for being too enamored of money, but we all acknowledge it's a necessity, and to some degree a surrogate for what each person contributes to the world. Monetizing de Ronde is certainly fair up to a point -- the race can't run without it, and if selling TV rights and finish lines and VIP placements help stabilize the race, then so be it.
The more difficult part to sort out is how money works against the race, from our perspective. Did the organizers cut out the Muur because they wanted to set up paid access and were thwarted by 't Hemelrick? Or were they simply jealous of the pub and lashing out at their business? Was the plan to just make all the best parts VIP areas and charge €25 per person? Then either the vast majority of people are paying the organization directly or by watching on TV. Is this bad? In my opinion there is a line somewhere between necessary cost-sharing and gratuitous profiteering, and in this case it's extremely hard to know where it lies.
I will say this: it's borderline insane that they finish on a highway outside Oudenaarde, because it's easier to set up VIP tents, than in the incredibly lovely and historic downtown. Picture yesterday's sprint ending under the beautiful, venerable Town Hall, as Driedaagse De Panne once did. Sorry, but logistics or no that's a million times better.
It's all about the people
Point: The new course allows fans to stay in one place, see the riders pass a few times, maybe watch on a nearby screen, and celebrate all day.
Counterpoint: The old course reached more communities, and therefore more people.
Analysis: In addition to the cost, there's the fan experience. The defense of the old course is, it wasn't broken, so why fix it? Some places (like downtown Geraardsbergen) had that stadium feel, with a large TV screen imported for people to watch while awaiting their in-person viewing of the race. Even if you only got to see it once, the Tour of Flanders was worth waiting for. Having the women on the course made things better, another important/awesome event to watch. And that's before I bring up the Eddy Merckx impersonator.
But one of the explicit purposes of the new course was to provide people a chance to watch the race more than once, stay still, party all day, and have a ball. I don't know how big an issue this used to be, but the old model of catching the race multiple times by hopping back in your car almost certainly came with some real drunk-driving hazards. Nobody is against convenience and minimizing drunk driving.
But if you are helping people in one place see the race more, does that necessarily mean others are seeing it less? Every time you reroute a kilometer of the race on a road you already used, that's one less km of new road, which could reach different fans than the ones already lining up.
I'm not Belgian and I'll be lucky to see the race in person more than a couple times, so whatever the people of the host country want, I would try to accommodate.
It's all about tradition
Point: The race is too important to monkey with. People see it as Bruges-Meerbeke, and lack of change is what makes it special.
Counterpoint: No, it's really all about the Vlaamse Ardennen.
Analysis: The idea of having a traditional course is powerful. Cycling's greatness is in no way cut off from its history. The most famous and important races almost all date back to the turn of the 20th century. In general racing hasn't been fundamentally altered all that much, and the bicycle looks a lot like the early versions of the pneumatic tire and shifted gear iterations. Dip down below the elite level and the sport becomes even more traditional, in places like Gent or Florence or St. Etienne. Everybody is for maintaining history.
The question, then, is what part of history is at stake in changing the Ronde parcours? This factor, I think, augurs in favor of being open to change. The Tour of Flanders is a tour of the Flemish region, and by necessity, like the Tour de France, you have to mix it up so you bring the experience to all the people, over time. Moreover, the race has done just that -- changing the start and the finish, changing the early portion of the race to visit small towns in West Flanders and changing the Dorp van de Ronde -- the official Village of the Year. I've tried not to give my opinion too much here, but for once I'll say that they should not be shy about moving things around. When a race is a national treasure like this, and isn't actually tied to certain roads, it's the duty of the organizers to bring it to as many Flemish towns as they can.
I would also add, the real tradition is that the race is about the Flemish Ardennes region. So as much as you can vary the first 100km, at some point you need the basic elements of cobbles and climbs, and at the hottest part of the race. Oudenaarde was chosen to maximize this approach -- it is the jewel in the heart of the Vlaamse Ardennen. Kortrijk is not really part of the Ardennes, and Ronse is much less of a jewel, and barely still in Flanders. After that there are a million smaller towns, but only Oudenaarde and Ronse could afford to enter the bidding last time, something I doubt will change.
What Options Are There?
That's easy. Three options.
1. Keep things as they are. This means finishing in Oudenaarde, tinkering with the approach, but getting much of the same final-climb combination.
2. Revert back to the Muur-Bosberg-Meerbeke conclusion.
3. Something else. That's a pretty wide-open category and could include things like a trip to the Muur and a finish in Oudenaarde not too long thereafter, via the Valkenberg Taaienberg and Holleweg, for example. Or the Muur early in the day, and more for show than anything else, plus a finale that includes the Koppenberg, Paterberg and Kwaremont (grouped along the Schelde west of Oudenaarde). Personally I think the Koppenberg could be given last-climb status, now that it's partly cemented in place and isn't really a hazard except in truly wild weather, e.g. snow. [You laugh, but it snowed lightly on us in 2010 the day before, during the sportive.] The Koppenberg is twice as long as the Paterberg, and thus more of a challenge.
I could go on, but I think I'll pass the pen to you guys. What say ye?