How does this day sneak up on me even though I’ve been waiting for it to come for, oh, about the last nine months? Anyway, the wait is over, the warm-ups have been applied to whatever purpose, and there will never be a better time to tap all those kegs of Kwaremont and Jupiler, for people who actually want to drink it.
The Ronde van Vlaanderen is upon us. But before getting down to business, let me digress a moment...
You already know, probably, that Vlaanderens Mooiste means Flanders’ most beautiful -- the nickname of the Ronde van Vlaanderen that also pretty well captures how a lot of people feel about it. More than a few of us consider it wielrennens mooiste, the most beautiful race in the sport. That’s a subjective opinion and you aren’t required to share it. You probably don’t if high mountain environments are more your cup of tea. I’d be dumbstruck if and when I finally get to ride up the Passo Giau, for one.
But the Tour of Flanders has an undeniable beauty to it that I think comes down to three things. First, the scale of everything, at least in the course-defining Vlaamse Ardennen, is just so small: the roads, the villages, the hills themselves, mere hillocks which might not even merit a name where I live. The closeness of everything to everything else. In the US everything tries to be on as big a scale as possible, spread out over thousands of miles, and to my American eyes the intimacy of the Flemish landscape never fails to amaze me.
Next is the silence. Except on race day, the stillness of the Flemish Ardennes is otherworldly. Those tiny villages might have a small pub in the center, but you may have to poke around to find the proprietor. If you hear something, it’s as likely to be a farm animal as a car. I’ve done several group rides in the area and all of them are lifelong memories, I suspect, just beyond fun and I can relive them in my mind at any time. But the few occasions I got out by myself, alone with the cobbles and the whispering winds, were like visiting Buddhist temples in Japan. Pure zen.
The final piece of the puzzle is where the race comes in. Despite all the intimate beauty and stillness that I have come to love outside of race day, the fact that this same landscape doubles as the stadium for (maybe) the greatest two-wheeled mass-start gladiator contest on Earth just adds an entirely new, awesome layer. I love the non-Ronde climbs we have discovered in my two visits, including Broerie’s secret cobbled monster just across the linguistic border south of Ronse. But there is an extra magic in the roads of the race, from the obvious examples like the Koppenberg, the Muur, the Oude Kwaremont and so on to the stones of Mariaborrestraat or the Haaghoek, to the village squares and even a few of the iconic open spaces.
I’m not too given to mythologizing like “oh man, Eddy rode here!” or “this is where Boonen launched!” They are roads, inanimate objects, not sanctified in any literal way. Cold, hard stones. Sloping Earth. Badly-surfaced ravines. But they are the home to so many battles and struggles, athletic feats of the highest order, and to just hop on a bike and experience those same(ish) sensations, surrounded by beauty and silence and maybe the odd bleating of a sheep, that’s magic.
This is all part of the package. Flanders is about the whole package.
Your 2018 Ronde Van Vlaanderen
OK, let’s turn toward the race.
This year’s course is nearly identical to the last one, with about as few changes from one year to the next as you are likely to see in de Ronde. Some seven kilometers have been added on, in a couple km here and a few more there as opposed to any dramatic change. The Edelareberg replaces the under-construction Eikenberg, and perhaps there are a few other road closures or bad intersections that they wanted to cut out. Or, if I want to put on my hat that makes me think a little more cynically, maybe the race is now supposed to pass by the bar of a friend of the race. Whatever, the point is that the race is not meaningfully changed in any way for 2018.
Which is great news. Last year it finally dawned on me that the Oudenaarde finish works well for the kind of race we want to see. I am no longer a Muur-Bosberg dead-ender, though I also won’t complain if the race goes in that direction for the finish again someday. I think that I’ve been around the sport long enough to maybe lose some of the starry-eyed wonder, in favor of a more weathered connection where I can fondly remember 2010 and the Muur, and believe strongly in the greatness of that place in Ronde history, while being pretty happy about a race that changes into something else, as long as it’s awesome.
The conclusion from the last couple years is just that. The race is not a hail of late climbs that encourages keeping your powder dry til the final ascent. But each of the climbs can be where the race is won, or where a competitor gets ditched. Strong teamwork is a must, as are race instincts, as are pure brute strength, and maybe, after all that, a bit of sprinting ability too. It’s a race as varied and intriguing as the landscape itself.
Here is your official map with the list of climbs and cobbled stretches.
This is the graphic of the final 50km, and really what you need to know most. Not because things won’t happen before, but prior to this I don’t know how much the course details matter. Well, except for the Muur, where you can expect a lot of riders (even some notable ones) to disappear. I dunno, a lot can happen. Anyway...
The Muur comes with just over 100km remaining, and the bills for the first four hours of racing coming due. From there, the race rolls across the linguistic border headed west to the heart of the matter, with a few sporadic but difficult climbs (I see you there, Kanarieberg) to keep riders on their toes. Then the pain begins.
Within a stretch of 18km the race conquers the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbekdries/Mariaborrestraat, and Taaienberg. Let’s do a little show-and-tell on these hills just to get reacquainted.
2200 meters averaging 4% and topping out around 11 in the section of particularly nasty stones shown here. The climb kicks up in two places, not for that long, but in between you have to grind it out seemingly forever on a false flat. It’s the longest four minutes in cycling.
Short, sharp, hitting just over 20% and averaging 12%, just a quick period of total oxygen deprivation.
Still the worst of them all, in my opinion. It’s only 600 meters long but it feels like someone stuck the Paterberg in the middle of the Oude Kwaremont. The 22% slope in that little shimmy deep in the trenches marks the steepest gradient of the entire Ronde van Vlaanderen.
The climbing part is 700 meters at 5%, which would be cool if you hadn’t just knocked out 1.4km over Mariaborrestraat’s punishing stones.
Had enough? No? Well at least you can ride in the gutter and save... oh, never mind. For Sunday, the Taaienberg climb means the stones. No shortcuts. At 530 meters ranging up to 15.8% and carrying on quite a bit after the hard stuff is done, your mind might be wandering back to the Koppenberg and its similar sensations. This is a bit less intense, though at such a late stage of the race, I’m not sure the riders will notice the difference.
The final features are looping back to Ronse, heading up the Oude Kruisberg (hard to us mortals but not so much to them), then another Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg loop, in case anyone enjoyed them the first time. With such an endless saga of suffering for the last two hours, you can imagine the race breaking down at any point discussed above. You can imagine a few super-strongmen making it to the last part and dueling over the final climb. So many possible outcomes, apart from a big field finishing together. I am ready to rule that one out.
I’m going to speed this up a bit because you’ve spent the last week-plus watching most of these guys warm up on the course.
You Might Not Be Able To Stop Me No Matter What
These are your A-list contenders.
Peter Sagan, Bora-Hansgrohe
Sagan is the single most dynamic individual rider on Earth right now, and a former winner to boot, so his chances hardly need describing. The Slovakian’s third rainbow defense isn’t going so great, or wasn’t until he won a major classic four days ago. Now I wouldn’t put anything past him. We have barely seen the best of Sagan so far, with uninspiring chases and lots of complaining about being marked. Deal with it dude.
Philippe Gilbert, Quick Step
Sagan may be the most dynamic individual rider, but Gilbert is the most dynamic rider who doesn’t have to depend solely on his individual skill set. It’s the Wallonian’s team which makes him such a threat to be in position to place his rivals under extreme pressure. And at least on his best days he can still finish off a sprint.
Greg Van Avermaet, BMC
The best rider of 2017 has been searching for his best form the past week or so, and I’m not sure he’s found it, but if he does, Van Avermaet goes right to the top of this category. Well, nearly anyway; Sagan’s sprinting is a bit more dependable.
Don’t Let Me Out Of Your Sight
Tiesj Benoot, Lotto-Soudal
The single strongest rider of the last month, it seems like Benoot has to blast the entire peloton to hell if he’s to win. Or at least it seems like that is what he thinks his chances consist of, and he’s not entirely wrong, heading up a fairly average Lotto squad and flying under nobody’s radar after the Strade Bianche. He could end up going to the line with someone from the next category, with a decent chance in the sprint, but barring that things are going to have to play out perfectly for him.
Michal Kwiatkowski, Sky
Slight dark-horse? I dunno, he has so little experience here, but Kwiato has been sensational this year for the most part, and is capable of so many surprises that they are no longer very surprising. Sprints OK too, at least when it’s really hard.
Half of Quick Step
OK, more specifically the other big winners of late, including Yves Lampaert and Niki Terpstra, as well as a pretty convincing-looking Zdenek Stybar. All are plausible winners by dint of both pure class and the promise of Quick Step’s go-mental approach to the race. Gilbert in the #1 dossard might get marked too stiffly, but Alexander Graham Bell once said “when one door closes, another opens,” which could have been about Quick Step. Except then he continued on and said “but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened,” which is a pretty rad way to throw some shade on humanity, but absolutely does not describe Quick Step. When one door closes and another opens, a Quick Step rider or three just fucking jam their asses through that door (and maybe slam it shut behind them) without hesitation or regret. That’s cycling.
I Will Not Be Silenced
For the riders who we all know are strong enough to do something, and are almost certain to try, even if we all maybe know it won’t work.
Sep Vanmarcke, EF-Education First
I would be jumping up and down if he won. I would laugh, cry, do a cartwheel, maybe sit in silence for a minute, and try to eat something. I’d be so confused that every emotion which lives inside of me would come out in some random-ish order. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I just know that Sep has been fighting so hard, so bravely, for so long that him winning would change how I view our collective human fate.
Alexander Kristoff, UAE
A former winner, three years ago when he beasted the Paterberg and sauntered home with only slow-motion sprinter Niki Terpstra for company. He’s been fourth and fifth since then, which is not a good trend if you’re doing purely statistical analysis. By that method he will either be sixth, or maybe ninth or even 11th if your place is determined by adding up your other recent placings. The indications of his form aren’t good, and he’d have to be tip-top to have a shot at the win. But whatever group he comes in with, he’ll probably take the top spot.
Jasper Stuyven, Trek
You might argue we have a Jasper Stuyven problem, you know, the one where we love him maybe more than we should, since he’s a total stranger as well as a rider who’s never threatened to win at this distance. But he’s also super strong, has looked good of late, and is only 26. Hmmm....
Isn’t It Cool I’m Here?
Vincenzo Nibali, Bahrain-Merida
Yep. Pretty cool. Pretty, pretty, pretty... OK fine. I guess he’s just here to maybe goof around and help out Colbrelli, but if the Milano-Sanremo winner has a strong day here, it could change a few people’s perspective on the race. A skinny Italian winner? With a small motor? [He does not have a small motor.]
Don’t Sleep On Me
Gianni Moscon, Sky
He seems nice.
John Degenkolb, Trek
Degs has a fifth place to his credit here, and certainly could finish off a sprint, as well as the perception that he’s lost now.
Timo Roosen, LottoNL-Jumbo
Just another Dutch kid... who has looked immensely strong in recent days.
Michael Valgren, Astana
Once came in 11th here, He’s of the age now where if you are going to win, just go do it already.
Oliver Naesen, AG2R
Reports of illness have sunk his chances, or so the thinking goes. He might still race, and who knows what can happen from there. Fully fit, he’d be at least one category higher up.
Edvald Boasson Hagen, DDD
Always seems possible. Never happens. At some point, the fault lies not with him, but with us.
Yeah, Maybe, But No
Jurgen Roelands, BMC: Former podium-placer, not to be completely forgotten just yet.
Sacha Modolo, EF Education First: Sixth in his RvV debut last year, and it’s still a bit shocking, but the dude can roll I guess.
Stefan Kung, BMC: Probably doing domestique work, but if he’s up the road, it might not be a decoy.
Sonny Colbrelli, Bah-Meh: Tenth in his debut last year, let’s see what else he can figure out.
Wout Van Aert, Verandas Willems-Crelan: He wouldn’t... would he?
Top Five Strongest Teams
- Quick Step
- Quick Step Again
I am going with Gilbert for the win. Just think the rider plus the team is the winning hand. Now watch, he’ll get lost on the way to the start and be disqualified.
How about you? Take the poll!
Who will win the 2018 Tour of Flanders?
This poll is closed
Greg Van Avermaet
Edvald Boasson Hagen