[Programming note: I keep trying to write more about the Giro d’Italia, but as long as it’s hanging by a thread, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen is going forward, well... I’m only human.]
I could insert some flowery prose here about how incredible it is to be talking about the Ronde van Vlaanderen right now, but I sort of already did that, and anyway, it’s time to get past the ZOMG!! it’s all happening!! phase and into the details. Let’s start with the obvious one.
This was the original parcours.
But it’s not the route anymore, and I can’t find any images of it. Seems like nobody has issued a map. Flanders Classics has refused to keep the course info up on its website because they are doing everything they can to discourage people from turning out on the parcours.
Minor tangent: It could be interesting to see how the public accepts this. In both the Tour and the Giro, it’s been a bit crowded at times by the roadside, but the public’s relationship to the RvV is unique and the situation is getting tenuous. I won’t be surprised if there really are no fans around, especially on the climbs and the major cobbles sectors, where the governor of Oostvlaanderen, Carina Van Cauter, is sending clear signals that she expects local municipalities to enforce a ban on spectators in these key areas.
And I’m excited about this. Sure, it’s not the same, but nobody should expect the same as always right now. I’m also a pretty big NBA fan, and we just went through the bubble experience, and you know what? It was very interesting. The sounds of the players themselves chirping and barking was pretty cool. NFL games the same. With cycling, have we heard the sound of the bikes bouncing over the stones much? I guess here and there, and there are always videos on youtube with sound. But the full-on sounds of the race on the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont? That should be pretty cool. Unless it’s just moto engine noise.
Anyway, back to the course. The race has been shortened to 241 km, a 20k reduction, which has been accomplished by cutting out the detour to Geraardsbergen. The Tenbosse and Muur are removed and the Valkenberg is in. Less clear from any description I’ve seen is the fate of the introductory climbs — Kortekeer, Leberg, Ladeuze, Wolvenberg and Berendries — as well as the ascent of the Kanarieberg on the way back from Geraardsbergen as the race approaches Ronse and the primary circuits of the Vlaamse Ardennen. Are all of those out? Seems like a no, in which case the race has removed two climbs and 20km, put back one extra climb, and called it good. That would make for a fine race. If they cut 6 climbs from that and still have 241km... I mean, that doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, stay tuned for an actual map.
Bottom line though, expect it to be an easier route... by a measure of some factor so small that nobody really notices. When the race hits the final, nobody will be fresh as a daisy. There will be the usual sequence of pain, strategy, drama and so on that has defined the race since the finale got sorted. It’s going to be fantastic.
I briefly made mention of how there was no apparent dominant team in the mix this year, no unbeatable Quick Step or other facsimile ready to impose its will on the race. At Gent-Wevelgem, no such team appeared, unless you want to count Jumbo Visma doing some mid-race chasing to set up the final hour. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few teams that you could call tier 1 in terms of strength, and several more teams with multiple cards to play. But I think you can rule out the scenario where someone just forces the peloton to hang together until the last couple climbs.
Some team ranking... with the caveat that I’m not entirely on the “who’s hot or not” thing right now. Feel free to jump in and suggest some alternate outlooks.
EF Education First — Bettiol is the leader but Sep Vanmarcke is forever a threat and riding reasonably well as of last Sunday. Sebastian Langeveld and Jens Keukeleire are veteran strong dudes. Deep team even in a normal year.
Deceuninck Quick Step — I was going to say that they don’t have a headline-grabber, except for the World Champion and last year’s runner-up. And a few other guys who you could see up there. Really, they have one definite domestique. Interestingly, Julian Alaphilippe is making his first appearance — not a shock since he’s been an Ardennes fixture. But... good lord, Asgreen, Jungels, Lampaert, Senechal and Stybar. No absolute aces but pretty much all the rest of the face cards.
Trek Segafredo — Mads Pedersen is the hottest hand in Flanders right now. Unburdened by the rainbow stripes, Pedersen won cannily from a star-studded finale in Gent-Wevelgem, thriving in the cold, wet weather. [Forecast is dry and partly sunny, on the cool side.] Having come second here in 2018 suggests that he’s ready to do this. He’s got Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns behind him as upper-end veteran support.
Best of the Rest
Jumbo Visma — More like a solid squad in support of Wout Van Aert than a team ready to play a bunch of cards. Maybe Mike Teunissen shakes things up after a strong BinckBank performance.
Bahrain-McLaren — Sonny Colbrelli once got tenth here! I still don’t totally believe it. But he’s been heating up recently since returning to the Lowlands. Dylan Teuns is a credible threat to hang around late. Hi Heinrich Haussler!
Ineos — Top rung? Not quite, as Luke Rowe is probably their hottest hand right now. But don’t discount a lineup of Kwiatkowski, Moscon and van Baarle as options.
NTT — Boasson Hagen always gets a mention, and after his fine Tour de France you might not mind, though he’s fallen off a bit of late. Maybe Valgren, fourth two years ago, is the answer.
CCC — Trentin hasn’t done great here, but maybe the 20 fewer km does the trick. He’s riding well. Veteran Belgians galore in support.
AG2R — Naesen with Stijn VDB and a few other notables in support. Should be fun to see what Romain Bardet brings to the table in his first Flanders start.
Israel Startup Nation — Sleeper? Politt was fifth here recently, and has a nice cast of veteran hammerheads led by Greipel and Van Asbroeck.
Contenders On Their Own
I don’t mean to totally disparage the support riders on these teams; I just don’t think they measure up to their rivals.
- Mathieu van der Poel, Alpecin Fenix — Top favorite?
- Tiesj Benoot, Sunweb — I actually don’t dislike his team, but they’re pretty inexperienced in this race.
- Alexander Kristoff — Former winner, still very strong, could easily make it to the finale except that he’s way too fast a sprinter for anyone to let him hang around. Right?
- Niki Terpstra — another former winner, doesn’t appear to be on any special form.
- Stefan Kung — Groupama maybe warranted a spot above but this article has to end someday.
- John Degenkolb — Same as Groupama. I just couldn’t talk myself into Tim Wellens being a factor. Prove me wrong Timmy!
Anyway, it’s just a positively loaded race with potential in every direction, on nearly every team. A wide-open Flanders will wash away all of the weirdness and temptation to call this an aberration of an event. This should be a total slugfest. I can’t wait.
Pick to Win
Here’s where it gets dicey. I wonder if van der Poel is a bit into his own head for him to sort out the madness of this race. Part of me thinks this is his best possible event, where the course will sort out a lot of the tough decisions by pure attrition and just one or two well-timed jumps, as opposed to the six or seven he has to do on a flatter course like Gent-Wevelgem. But I don’t love what I see.
Same for Wout. He looks terrific and his sprints in France have completely upended my opinion of his finishing skills. But somehow expecting him to be on that sort of form now seems absurd.
So I am going with Pedersen. Yes, he will garner more attention, but he’s solved this race before and is even smarter and stronger now. Also he’s been flying in the sprints, so he’d have to get dropped outright to be eliminated. He will have plenty of company in the last 20 minutes and I wouldn’t dare bet actual money on one guy from such a star-studded field. But so often the hot hand does well in Flanders — guys who won or nearly won a week before. That plus Mads’ intelligence and sprint... that’s as close to a good bet as you can make.