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When Flandriens Attack! An Update on the New Course

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Yesterday saw wonderful attacking tactics decide the biggest race of the year, so far. But are they overly familiar?

AFP/Getty

World Champion Peter Sagan made yesterday's 100th Tour of Flanders a memorable one by becoming the second Rainbow Jersey holder on the day -- after Elizabeth Armitstead won the women's race -- to confirm their lofty standing on one of the year's most important surfaces. Sagan won alone, heroically, in a race that will alter his legacy for good and ensure that his "rainbow curse" is dead and gone before it got very far.

So what did Sagan's attack on the Oude Kwaremont, and then the Paterberg, say about the style of racing in today's Tour of Flanders? Besides about him and his strength, are we seeing as exciting a race as we should be seeing? Earlier in the weekend I brought up the point that the record for wins is currently at a mere three, a fact that says something about how hard it is to win the race -- not (paradoxically) because the race itself is hard but because it walks that line between being very hard while still including a variety of riders. Has the new course changed that?

Ah, the new course. I may not be the world's foremost authority on the new Ronde van Vlaanderen course; I may not even be the world leader in ways to complain about the switch from the beautiful Muur to ... whatever you want to call the present day. No doubt there are people in Flanders who do such things for full-time employment. But I do what I can.

And so today, with Jens worn out from travel, I am also worn out motivated to have an honest (cough) discussion of how the new course is encouraging riders to attack. Let's look at some tendencies -- namely, where the winning move was made, if it can be identified at all.

2005: Valkenberg

Six guys get away on the Valkenberg, and neither the Muur nor the Bosberg can properly blow them up, though Boonen departs the group in the final 5km.

2006: Valkenberg

This time, it's just Hoste and Boonen, as the former made his move and the latter followed.

2007: Muur van Geraardsbergen

Hoste again mixing it up, this time with a super-strong Alessandro Ballan, who blasted away over the Muur.

2008: Eikenmolen

Cards played a bit early, but nobody had an answer for Stijn Devolder besides towing his teammate Boonen to the line, so why not?

2009: Muur

Same waiting game, same incredulous answer. Just a tiny bit later.

2010: Muur

Have I mentioned this day? No? Well let me tell you...

2011: Nothing Doing

Such a weird race. It's like a lot of sad endings, where it happens not in a glorious way but in a somewhat distasteful screw-you-all way. Actually the 2011 Ronde was an exciting race, but a dozen guys made it to the line, despite the efforts of Cancellara from 60km out and Gilbert from the Bosberg.

2012:  Oude Kwaremont

On to the new course. The first year was a bit of an outlier, given that people had no past experience to draw on as to how the race would play out. So a reasonably sized group stayed together to the Oude Kwaremont, where Alessandro Ballan went away on his own and, by the top (it's a long climb), had Boonen and Pozzato for company. The trio sprinted it out in Oudenaarde.

2013: Oude Kwaremont + Paterberg

A pattern begins to emerge. Jurgen Roelandts ignites the action on the Oude Kwaremont, only to draw out Sagan and Cancellara, with the latter making the decisive move on the Paterberg.

2014: Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, sprint

This time Cancellara attacked on... you guessed it... the Oude Kwaremont! Sep Vanmarcke was the only rider to hold his wheel, but Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh were still up the road from earlier. They were caught on the Paterberg and it was four men to the line from there.

2015: Kruisberg!!

Hoh-hoooooornnh! [French-sounding noise of intrigue]. Niki Terpstra, ever unconventional, uses the excuse of another rider's gentle probing of the pack as it crests the Kruisberg to make a real move, drawing out one of the world's top sprinters, Kristoff, for tragicompany. Predictability ensues. But the move itself was a rare moment of post-Muur chutzpah.

2016: Oude Kwaremont + Paterberg

Back to the formula, albeit with a reshuffling of the riders in charge. Now it's Sagan's turn to launch, with Vanmarcke, on the Oude K, and then lose Vanmarcke on the Paterberg to win alone, while Cancellara sweeps up the Belgian on the Paterberg to complete the podium. [Update!] But, as Wannabe Scattista reminds me, the separation on the Muur was really a continuation of the move from just after the Taaienberg.

*****

Sagan attacks on the Oude Kwaremont

Bryn Lennon, Getty Images

Conclusions?

Pre-change Ronde: Debatable as to whether race-winning attacks fell into a pattern. Certainly the default activity, if the group were reduced enough was for the Muur --topping out 16km from the end -- to separate things once and for good. With reason, being 1km in length and hard almost the whole way, especially in the upper reaches, the Muur was a place to show no mercy. But riders did take earlier chances, particularly on the Valkenberg, which was known as a possible attacking point and regularly discussed as such back then. It was typically in the 225km range, making it a good 30km from the end. The Eikenmolen, on the other hand, was 10km before the Muur, at the 235 mark. And the Muur around 245, giving riders a choice every 10km. The Bosberg, 4km after the Muur, always loomed as a stomping off point, and in older times with a more aggressive peloton, this was in play, but in the last decade it seemed more like window dressing.

Post-change Ronde: Clearer pattern, albeit with a mere five points of data. But when in four of those entries you have the same thing, well, that's impressive, and not in a good way but in a way that means it made an impression. Some sorting now happens on the Oude Kwaremont, and either a second, conclusive sorting happens on the Paterberg or they go to the line and sprint it out. Nobody in Belgium will admit this but the best thing to happen on the new course was caused by an adventurous Dutchman in 2015.

OK, so what exactly does that mean? There are two possible answers: that the peloton has become predictable, or the course has. Or both.

Has the peloton become more predictable? I'm not much of a judge of this, but riders swear up and down that this is true. Just last week Boonen himself said that everyone races not to lose except for a few guys. You hear this constantly with regard to other races too. So there's that.

Has the course become more predictable? The data so far says yes, but that leads directly back to the chicken and egg issue from two paragraphs ago. So let's look more qualitatively.

One way in which you could argue that the old course offered more ways to win comes from those final 12km. Lots of years there was a tailwind to Meerbeke from the top of the Bosberg, so maybe guys were willing to take chances from further out for that reason. I'm not sure the tailwind effect is as decisive from the Paterberg to Oudenaarde, but then again, I'm not so sure it isn't. Basically in both courses you have something of a northeast drag from the final climb to the line, though with the new course there are a few km toward the west and north before heading home.

Which makes me wonder... are the courses really all that different? Here's how the finale of both looked:

2010

  • 16km out: Muur, 1km, 9% average, brutal stones in places
  • 12km out: Bosberg, 1km, 5.8%, bumpy
  • Remainder: flat run to the line, all NE

2016

  • 16km out: Oude Kwaremont, 2.2km, 4% average, very tough cobbles
  • 13km out: Paterberg, 360 meters, 12.5% average (!), orderly cobbles
  • Remainder: flat run to the line, mostly NE

Had yesterday been run on the old course, is it hard to imagine Sagan and Vanmarcke jumping on the Muur, right as they turn to the Kapelmuur, and getting away, with Sagan dropping Vanmarcke on the Bosberg? Nope.

Nothing is truly decisive about this comparison, but I am going with the following two conclusions.

  1. The peloton has become more predictable, with riders only jumping in places on the course where it's more or less impossible or inexcusable not to make an attack. This would have been just as true using the 2010 version of the parcours.
  2. Edit! -- Thanks to the comment from Wannabe Scattista, who awakened a sleeplessness-deadened memory for me about how the race really played out yesterday, which led me to write this point up incorrectly. For a couple years the new course had locked into two circuits of the Oude K/Paterberg that limited choices. However, from 2014 the insertion of the Koppenberg, Mariaborrestraat, Taaienberg and Steenbekdries has given riders lots of choices about how to force the issue. Sagan and Kwiatkowski really made the race yesterday before the final climbs, showing that a little inventiveness can definitely still shake things up. So while the finale played out on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg to some degree, it would be wrong to dismiss the earlier action which set it up nicely. Conclusion? There has been a pattern of behavior, but maybe this year has shown the peloton one way to break it up. Hopefully it will lead to a few years of cleverness in the final 45km and we will get a course that makes us almost forget the good old days. [Really, if you could just move the Muur to somewhere around Maarkedal, I'd be fine.]

OK, what do y'all think?