The dumbest concept in all of sports is that of momentum. The way that sportscasters talk about a team or individual having momentum or the tremendous unstoppable force of momentum shifting or momentum-changing plays, etc., is basically just the bullshit narrative element that humans apply to the observable swings of fortunes in sports performance. There is not some cosmic ether that dictates how lucky bounces go or how the tumblers fall, but merely the writers of history and sports just tend to notice these critical links and try to attribute them to some phenomenological force, and more often than not it is attributed to “momentum.” And of course this is mostly fake.
In professional bike racing, things are maybe a little bit different. There are indeed true and sometimes even measurable physiological correlates that can present themselves outwardly as having momentum across races. When a rider’s internal variables begin to align, his or her performances start to tick up. For the best riders in the world, this means victories. At the very highest level, riders can influence how and when these physiological variables align, and what better time to have them align than the greatest week in all of bike racing/sports. Because in this case, performance is extremely well correlated with these internal metrics, momentum may actually be indicative of something real and tangible. We of course know this concept and call it “form.”
Put plainly, the week before the Tour-of-Flanders-Paris-Roubaix-Monumental-Bike-Racing-Blowout is a very good time for the cosmology of momentum and the physiological underpinnings of form to begin to swing in your favor.
Over the last 10 years, the rider who has won the last race before the Ronde van Vlaanderen (not counting Three-Dogs) has gone on to perform very well over the next week:
The last winner before Flanders
With few exceptions (and we can forgive Lampaert for losing the Wolf Pack lottery over the following week), the winner of this prelude has found tremendous success the following week, highlighted by the masterful double from Tom Boonen in 2012. Though the exact race has changed over the years due to an ever-shuffling schedule, the results seems to be very indicative of who is on form when it matters. This year, that race is Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
Starting in Roselare, the race heads uneventfully east before turning south toward Waregem. Once through, it continues toward the first of 11 named bergs, the New Kwaremont 82 km into the race. Kms 126-131 feature three named hills, finishing with the formidable looking Berg Ten Houte (1.1 km, avg. 6%, max 21%). The 11th berg, the Nokereberg, happens 9 km from the line, followed by a 6th stretch of cobbles, the Herlegemstraat, 800 meters in length a mere 5 km from the line. It’s really just the Ronde van Vlaanderen with a linear compression to 183 km.
As of when I am writing this, they are calling for rain starting Tuesday, and continuing through the night. By race time there is a 60% chance of rain, but no wind forecast to write home about. A full day of rainfall could mean the slicker cobbles may turn muddy and fun, not that this race will need any help being fun.
How Will It Unfold
It’s not that you have to win this race to win on Sunday. In spite of what legendary nincompoop Joe Buck might tell you, big important plays aren’t required to shift momentum, but winning teams tend to be capable of big important plays. Along that vein, whoever expects to win on Sunday, had better well be capable of winning this race. That means, you can look for the big names to play a card or two and you can expect the winner to have significant and deserved confidence headed into a very important week-and-a-half of cycling.
The late bergen probably prohibits a bunch sprint in this race, although as recently as 2016, Jens Debusschere won from a field of 34, and in 2011, Nick Nuyens (who would, true to narrative, go on to win in the Tour of Flanders 10 days later) also took the line in a group of 32. The race is well suited to solos and very selective groups. Further, the peloton this spring just feels a little resistant to big groups, doesn’t it? Excepting Gent-Wevelgem, and honestly they tried their damndest to not let it finish in a bunch, the forces that operate pro cycling in the spring (read: Deceuninck Quick Step) seem to want to blow races apart. So expect a small group to come to the line on this one.
One other curiosity to point out with regards specifically to this race: no one has ever won 3 editions. Thirteen riders have won 2, including two gentleman that will be coming to this round: Yves Lampaert who has won the last two, and Niki Terpstra. By all accounts, these two men must be considered among the favorites to go for a third win. Lampaert probably set aside individual glories for Elia Viviani on Sunday, but he looked very strong in his support role. And importantly, when his job was done he quickly turned to recovery mode. Terpstra also put in a strong attack late and looked very impressive.
Oliver Naesen has also been on incredible form, showing that he can poke his head up in any condition: from a small bunch in Milan San-Remo, to a larger bunch in Gent-Wevelgem. He’s active and he’s ready for a big breakthrough win. As to is Jasper Stuyven, who finally showed signs of life at Gent-Wevelgem in the Trek three-pronged attack. He may finally be ready for his coronation, just in time for Paris-Roubaix. On the very off chance it comes down to a sprint, I don’t hate Jens Debusschere for an outsider as someone who can stay in contact on the last bergs, and he’s won here before against some non-trivial sprinting names, e.g., Bryan Coquard when he was good and the boy-king Fernando Gaviria.
Oh, and also, Alejandro Valvoldemort is going to be here too, isn’t he.