Mid-week report time... a bit of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
By the beard of St. Hermes, there’s a climb nearby that Will reports is actually harder than the Koppenberg! Nobody else knows about it, except of course Broerie, who told Will, and maybe the people who live there, and probably a few local cyclists. And apparently Jered Gruber, but other than that, nobody knows about it. I will write back later with a full report.
Speaking of climbs, today is maybe the day to transition away from speaking of climbs, or of Flanders at all, as Paris-Roubaix draws closer. But first we have the Scheldeprijs to reckon with. There is never very much to say about that race, but there is this:
- It starts in Mol, parading around Tom Boonen’s hometown for a bit, as the race pays tribute to him upon his retirement. His father or maybe grandfather will fire the starting gun.
- Tom Boonen almost certainly will not win the race. His teammate Marcel Kittel is now the all-time wins leader here with four, and Boonen hasn’t won here since 2006. So just cut it out now.
- Tyler Farrar is the only former winner outside of Quick Step to appear. Some others include Dylan Groenewegen, Nacer Bouhanni, Arnaud Demare, Andre Greipel, Niccolo Bonifazio and Erik Baska are among the people to wonder on. Peter Sagan is there but can’t be expected to try for the win in any sort of sane universe. Jens is sitting across from me writing something, and he picked Gilbert for his FSA DS team, so just listen to him.
Going back to last Sunday, my biggest impression of de Ronde was how the climbs play out. Broerie cautions me from getting too excited, but the fact that Boonen, in his final Ronde, forced a change in the race at the Muur was beautiful beyond words. In my opinion it’s not just the climb of the Muur, it’s also the descent, that made it a place to make trouble. It’s a bit like coming off the Poggio — shorter, but still — in that it’s twisty and not easy to make up a gap for anyone but the best descenders. Of course, more often than not whoever makes trouble coming down the Poggio gets caught on the flats after, and in the case of Flanders those flats are extensive and 100km out, but you can see from this year that there is something to try there when conditions are right. It’s nice to be able to write, with recent history supporting me, that the Muur is hardly an irrelevant little piece of precious furniture.
Even better is my renewed sense that the Oude Kwaremont has successfully replaced the Muur in this race. Having ridden it a few times this week (and not having remembered much about it from 2010), I feel like I’ve been locked into some deep meditation on the Oude Kwaremont. It’s a fascinating microcosm of the hellingen:
- For the first 100 meters (actual numbers may vary) it’s the Korte Keer, smooth and starting to go up;
- Then for about 300 meters or so it’s the Taaienberg, not too disorderly or sharp, but starting to hurt a bit;
- Then as you approach the square, it’s Paris-Roubaix for 50 meters, large stones sinking and turning in complete disarray with big gaps in between and a pronounced crown down the center;
- Then you hit the square and it’s flat, like Mariaborrestraat or the Holleweg (I think; we are headed out to a few of the flat sections of cobbles today so I’ll have more to say later);
- Then toward the end of its 2200 meters it pitches back up again, reverting back to its Taaienberg incarnation.
The end result is a beautiful experience, one that doesn’t sap the energy and wind from my tourist legs like some of the more notorious climbs, but for the pros it presents plenty of ways to make hay. A hard climb like the Paterberg or Koppenberg can certainly be a place where a weaker rider sees his or her day end, but in an elite selection sometimes they’re all just in too much pain for things to change. By contrast, on the mellower gradients of the Oude Kwaremont, you can choose from several speeds and levels of effort. You can get riders with different plans -- like Luke Rowe, who accidentally informed Tom Boonen that Sky weren’t up for attacking at that moment, which launched Boonen into cannibalizing the peloton for his teammate Gilbert. Like the Muur, it’s long, it has different phases, and it offers plenty of ways to start a fight that not everyone will be able to finish.
I think it’s time, now that the Muur itself has some semblance of a role again, to declare the new course a success. Reasonable minds will differ on what’s better, but I don’t think there is room to say that the post-2011 Ronde is a poor facsimile of what came before. In my book I discussed each of the big climbs with a “most resembles” and managed to link the Muur and Oude Kwaremont. Now, even more than when I wrote that, I am appreciating that linkage. And am satisfied with what it all means.
A few other bits and pieces... Sad to see Sep Vanmarcke and Taylor Phinney down again, but both riders have rich histories of bad luck. On the other hand, Cannondale’s strength can now be recognized in the depth and quality of its roster. Dylan van Baarle was once again spectacular Sunday, and has to be considered one of the most interesting riders for the classics going forward. I’m not going to reshuffle all the cards and say something stupid about “I guess Tiesj Benoot can be forgotten now;” he flatted in a bad place, he’s still 23, two years younger than van Baarle. The 2018 Ronde should be packed with exciting talent.
One of those will not be Filippo Pozzato, in all probability, but his performance Sunday makes me want to pour one out for our Veneto friend. Pozzato is on year two of what he called originally his last two-year contract, and he won’t be at Paris-Roubaix Sunday because his Wilier Triestina-Southeast team isn’t invited. Pozzato’s best performances have been at Flanders, not Roubaix, though his second place in 2009 was a legendary performance. In 2010 Pozzato got sick and missed Flanders, then returned for Roubaix and got seventh, riding in all black in honor of the recently deceased Franco Ballerini. That was it for top results in Roubaix, but Pozzato was top 20 in Flanders in 2014-15, so his 8th wasn’t a total shock on Sunday. Fine career, fun guy to have around, even if you mostly were screaming at him to attack already.
The bigger news is the not very surprising decision by Quick Step to rest Gilbert Sunday rather than risk his well-being on the stones of France ahead of the Ardennes Classics. If you toss in Brabantse Pijl, Gilbert has had results in the next phase of races almost non-stop, except last year, so the logic of resting him this weekend is clear. If sad.
Coming back, on the good news side, is Jens Keukeleire. The Orica man made the winning selection just two years ago, ending up sixth, so clearly he’s a rider to be watched. After taking second in Gent-Wevelgem with a spectacular, aggressive ride, teaming with Van Avermaet to make the winning break, Keukeleire was one to watch this week, until stomach problems sidelined him Sunday. But he’s fine now and will be on the line.
OK, time to hit publish on this sucker. We have a couple podcasts on the way and a Patrick Verhoest gallery brewing, plus whatever Andrew and Conor have in mind. Ciao for now!