De Standaard reports today that the organizers of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad have announced changes to the course that will take the race away from its traditional finish in Gent to a finale taken from the pre-2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen, going over the Muur and Bosberg en route to a finish in Ninove.
The course will be 196km and will feature eight sectors of “flat” cobblestones such as the Huisepontweg, Holleweg and Haaghoek, long the signatures of the season’s opening classic. But instead of a loop in the Flemish Ardennes and a return to the start area in Gent, the race will head east after the Molenberg for the final 50km, taking in the Berendries, Tenbosse and Valkenburg*, then the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg before reaching the finish in Ninove. This was the closing segment of the Ronde van Vlaanderen from 1973-2011, and is regarded by many as the traditional finish of Flanders’ greatest sporting event.
[* It is, of course, Valkenberg, but I am leaving my mistake in for shaming purposes.]
I don’t follow every rumor in Belgium about such things, so it’s not clear to me how long this was in the works. But clearly my prediction that people will never let go of the Muur-Bosberg Ninove iteration of the Ronde van Vlaanderen is proving true. The Muur now features in de Ronde, albeit early on, as well as E3 Prijs, and the Binckbank Tour (formerly ENECO) has also regularly worked it in. But the Bosberg has been run only in the latter event, not in any of the classics, so its return, as well as Ninove’s, is a step beyond what had been happening elsewhere.
Thing is, I don’t see this as a step toward reviving the old Ronde course for the Ronde itself. The Flanders organizers have very successfully created a finishing area that accommodates large crowds, great action, and VIP fees that pay the bills. As painful as the change was, I give them credit for modernizing the event before things got out of hand. I’m sure there is still plenty of debate about whether this was necessary, but I can tell you from fresh experience that there is no comparison between attending the reformed Flanders and the unchanged Paris-Roubaix. Going to the Arenberg Forest felt chaotic and not in a good way. There is no system for parking, no restrooms, just people crowding in and police enforcing basic safety. I didn’t mind it, but these races are growing in popularity and I get why in Flanders they might prefer something less invasive.
Now, could you recreate the Ronde finale in a way that resembles the new finale, with its shuttle service, walkability, screens, facilities, food, etc? Maybe. But you would not have three passages of the race, which is how you get the VIPs in (I think?). The Muur can happen at most twice in the Ronde, and only once in the final three hours, unless you were to make it a mockery of itself, in which case why bother? Still, it’s not hard to picture the race going back to the old course at least once, to sate the nostalgic, but I don’t see that on the horizon. The Oudenaarde finish works better on every level but nostalgia, and if they leave it there long enough people will transfer their course love to the new one. Most people. Who knows?
Anyway, the Ninove Course lives on in other places, which hopefully gives the people what they want without messing up the new Ronde plans. Win-win. Should be interesting to see.