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MUUR RETURNS TO FLANDERS IN 2017; START MOVED TO ANTWERP

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Finale remains similar to recent years

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Lars Ronbog, Getty

Flanders Classics announced two major changes to the Ronde van Vlaanderen beginning in 2017, restoring the much-loved and iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen to the race after a five year absence that pained fans of the race in Belgium and well beyond. The race organizers also announced that the start of the race would move from Bruges to Antwerp after eighteen years in the old West Flanders city.

The announcement came early Friday morning (Thursday night in the US) and with little advance warning. The agreement to move the start covers the next five editions of the race, similar to the contract the race made with various localities over the last five years, which radically transformed the race from its somewhat well-worn path from Bruges to Ninove, with the Muur in position to deal the decisive blow to so many hopefuls. That course is not, repeat NOT, being restored, as the Muur will occur some 95km from the finish line, which is described as remaining "the same." In other words, the Muur will fit into the race as the Oude Kwaremont once did, before the course changes of 2012 -- kicking off the final phase of the race.

The storied climb, all 1.075km of it, has featured in de Ronde since 1950, but not regularly until the 1970s, and it didn't take on its iconic stature until it became the penultimate climb in 1981. However, thirty years of that thrilling experience, plus earlier versions of the Muur, gave it an importance in the minds of fans, even as the Muur itself changed from Steenstraat and Abdijstraat to Vesten and eventually the Kapelmuur. It was taken out of the race after 2011, as the organizers evolved the business model to one which would better accommodate VIP areas and which could end in Oudenaarde, more than 30km from the Muur. There was even talk that the owners of t'Hemelrijk, a pub at the top of the Kapelmuur, could not reach agreement with the race on a controlled fan experience. Amidst massive public outcry, the Muur was eliminated from the Ronde.

Muur van Geraardsbergen funeral

Bruno Fahy, AFP

But it never left the hearts of fans. Some staged a mock funeral. Other races, such as Driedaagse de Panne and the ENECO Tour, took advantage of this love to run stages there, and as a course feature it played an enjoyable role. But the Muur has always been about Vlaanderens Mooiste, the Tour of Flanders, and no imitation race could substitute for the real thing.

The move of the start to Antwerp is not only significant in and of itself, but played a key role in restoring the Muur. Antwerp is the largest city in Flanders (Brussels is in its own region), and an ancient cultural and economic hub of Flemish life. While Bruges served as an incredibly quaint locale, Antwerp will lend a bit more bigness to the event, not at all out of character with the country's biggest sporting event. Geographically, it somewhat brings the race back to its roots, as before 1981 the race began in Sint-Niklaas (some 15km from Antwerp) and before that Gent, just a bit further west.

Grote Markt Antwerp Thomas Ino, Getty

The grandeur of Antwerp's Grote Markt, starting point of the 2017 Ronde -- Thomas Ino, Getty

Starting in Antwerp also moves the early phase of the race much further east. Of the years when the race departed from Bruges -- almost 90km west of Antwerp -- it tended to tour West Flanders before making contact with the Flemish Ardennes that define the business end of the race. Doing so made it almost impossible to visit Geraardsbergen in a way that worked for the race, while still ending in Oudenaarde.

However, the initial details of the race are available on the organizers' website, which says the following (translated):

After the start in Antwerp, a flat approach along Herzele and Zottegem follows in the direction of Oudenaarde, for an initial pass over the Oude Kwaremont. Next comes a series of inclines in the approach to the Muur van Geraardsbergen, back after its last sighting in 2011.”

And so it is at the finish in Meerbeke that the former finale of the Tour of Flanders will be brought back from the depths. The racers will pass one by one over the Leberg, the Berendries, and Tenbosse before it’s the Muur Van Geraardsbergen’s turn.

Thus, the shift eastward meant that the race could meander through East Flanders from Antwerp, reach Geraardsbergen after 150km, and kick off the Flemish Ardennes in style, and without having to make haste across the country. The final 75km will not change, and the race will once again end in Oudenaarde.

The last 75 km remain unchanged from the year before. Thus the finale will once again be comprised of Oude Kwaremont (2nd time), Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Kruisberg and for a final trip, the Oude Kwaremont Paterberg duo.

It is hard for me to overhype the significance of these changes. On the negative side, West Flanders might be off the map for a while. The next five years are set at Antwerp -- Oudenaarde, which leaves the race a choice between the Muur or a West Flanders loop, not both. Moreover, Antwerp is said to have outbid Bruges by some 60,000 EUR for the rights, and if cycling's popularity continues to grow, it's hard to picture little Bruges muscling Antwerp out in five years. Still, the one constant of the Ronde van Vlaanderen's 110-plus years is change.

Ronde van Vlaanderen Bruges Depart Dirk Waem Getty

Departing from Bruges in 2015 -- Dirk Waem, Getty

On the positive side, the Muur is simply unlike any other place. As I covered quite a bit in my recently published book on the Classics (sorry), the experience of the Muur for fans was incomparable, and the effect it had on the race as a major obstacle was equally hard to replace. Not impossible, as we have seen, with the race recovering from the shocking changes of 2012 to become just as beloved and exciting as ever. But still, the Muur is a huge asset, and should not go to waste. Leaving it out the last five years felt worse than strange -- more like bizarre, and even a bit sinister. But economic realities could not be ignored, and while it was sad to lose it for a while, I think we can give a lot of credit to Flanders Classics for finding a way to restore the Muur, within the new business model.

More details to come, and reactions are pouring in now as I type. It will be interesting to see what people in West Flanders have to say about the race turning eastward. Perhaps if it's for the Muur, they'll be OK with it. No doubt it's a blow to Bruges, but if we've learned anything in the last 1200 years, it's that Bruges isn't going anywhere.

And so, happy Muur Restoration Day! Suggestions on the proper toasting beverage are welcomed.

pdc muur flanders 2010