So much to say now I don’t know where to begin. I guess I’ll start with my usual holiday pleading — you can't believe how busy my life is in December! What? Everyone’s is? Ok, well can you top Thanksgiving, straight into Hannukah (way too early), straight into two kid birthdays, capped off by a bit of Christmas? I have registered this complaint before, as a way of letting you know why the space has been quiet, but whatever, it’s winding down and I can get away from family and holidays and joy, and back to important things like blogging about cycling.
WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT FLANDERS!
Pop Quiz: who is the last Tour de France winner to get a top ten result in the Ronde van Vlaanderen?
If you can’t think of that one, well, I have good news for you: you will probably be able to pick the next one. Yesterday Tadej Pogacar’s camp announced that the Slovenian double-Tour winner will take the start at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (he said “four monuments” but there’s only one headline to take from that). And I am here to announce that he is going to get a good result.
Obviously this prediction is predicated on the evidence that Pogacar is simply good at everything he tries. His climbing and time trialling need no introduction, but his sprinting is a bit underrated, or was before last fall when he beat Fausto Masnada for the Lombardia crown, and took high placings in such events as Tre Valle Varesine (3rd), the Euro Champs (5th), and the Olympics (3rd). Another curious data point is his 18th place in his lone attempt in Flanders, the U23 race, which he rode as a 19 year old in 2018 and finished in the bunch sprint for second behind the likes of Robert Standard and Marc Hirschi.
So what can’t he do? His LBL win makes a good case for him as a punchy climber who can navigate the twists and turns of Belgium. Flanders is quite different, but how many times has he already ridden there and how much more practice will he need to succeed on the cobbles? My guess is, not very much. If he won, nobody would be terribly shocked, would they? Flanders used to be less of a specialists’ race (compared to Paris-Roubaix anyway) and has its share of former winners who were grand tour stars. And while you never see Tour guys stop by to race Paris-Roubaix, presumably #5 of the four Monuments Pogacar is planning for next year, you see a trickle of them around at Flanders.
The potential problems for Pogs would be a lack of pack positioning skill, something his team can help him with, and maybe a lack of cobbles handling, though in Flanders the stones aren’t of a character where they can just throw you off your bike. The likeliest scenario is that he is beaten in a sprint, or hammered off the wheels by Quick Step in a small group sometime in the last 40 minutes or so. Second likeliest is that he gets stuck on the Koppenberg behind some guys who are walking their bikes.
Update: the women’s Ronde will now include the Koppenberg in 2022!
Believe it or not, this is the first time that the women’s peloton will have raced on the Koppenberg as part of the Tour of Flanders, and if they’ve tossed it in with some other event, that is news to me. Of course anyone who’s migrated over to road from Cyclocross will have raced it as part of the Koppenbergcross, and probably every last women’s professional rider to have spent time in Flanders has gone up it while out on a ride. Hell, I’ve made it up like five times (in somewhat more than five attempts), so this is not that big a deal.
Recall, the women’s Ronde was in effect before the new course existed, and they raced up and over the Muur from 2005-11, with no real trouble. The Koppenberg is in my opinion the hardest climb in use by any version of the race, because it’s like sticking the Paterberg in the middle of the Taaienberg, combining the steep intensity of the former with the length of the latter, adding a couple hundred extra meters of effort before and after the truly steep part. The Muur is the longest of the truly steep climbs, but is broken into maybe four parts with breathers in between. There is no recovering from the Koppenberg until you are up and over, and even when you’ve reached the top you might then get hit with a crosswind and delay your feeling of coming back to life again for even longer. I don’t think it can be topped except maybe by one of the hidden cobbled climbs that the locals will take you to if you ask nicely.
So it will matter, and particularly because it will be placed in the same position as it occupies for the men’s race, in the last 45km. From the Koppenberg they pop down toward Oudenaarde, turn onto Mariaborrestraat, then over the Steenbekdries and Taaienberg before returning to the final circuit up the Hotond, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. However many riders are in contention at the bottom of the Koppenberg, you can expect fewer by the top. This should lessen the chance of a bunch finish, or at least a big bunch starting the final two climbs, which we have seen occasionally on the prior course that approached the finale via Ronse. I could go on, but anyway that’s the gist of things. I am available to continue talking Flanders in comments, today and for pretty much the next five months.
E3 Course Announcement
Our favorite Flanders warmup, the re-renamed E3 Prijs Harelbeke Saxo Classic honoring the E... 17, announced its 2022 parcours yesterday. I don’t see any drastic changes and it’s not worth breaking down a map, since it will be about the same race we saw last year. But this is a great way to present a course that people might otherwise not be ready to pay attention to:
Speaking of Parcours Details
I guess maybe you heard that the Vuelta is Going Big in 2022? Here’s another fun video version rather than the usual data. Oh and the squiggly yellow lines on the top end of the map? That’s the Picos de Europa. That’s the good news.
Go here for the complete stage list.
CX Check-In: Getting Real
One of my convo threads talked about how the kids have had their fun but now the grownups have come home. Sorry if that’s disrespectful to Eli Iserbyt and Quinten Hermans and Lars van der Vaar, but Wout Van Aert’s return has seen the smack laid down so thoroughly that even wizened Cross fans are taken aback. Doesn’t he need to warm up for a race or two? [Nope.] Aren’t the rest of the group at least capable of pressuring him? [Sorry, no.] Can’t Pidcock at least slow him down? [You’d think. And you’d be wrong.]
Van Aert has now won all three of his starts in Cross this season, with the Christmas Period races looming large. Saturday was in Italy at the Val di Sole World Cup, raced on a carpet of snow. It went... pretty well? Looked a lot like a normal race except in certain sections and corners where handling the bike became nearly impossible. Van Aert himself crashed a couple times, as did probably everyone else.
The Kerstperiode is the Cross equivalent of late March-mid April for the cobbles: a non-stop rolling series of races that everyone shows up for. Rucphen (NL) is next this Saturday, and was slated to be where Mathieu van der Poel began his world championship defense, but he banged his knee in training and has pushed his start back by a week. Still, there are plenty of races happening, with Van Aert and Pidcock already going and van der Poel about to join the fun. Van Aert will be at pretty much every race, and the Wout-Matti showdowns are marked below.
- 12/18 Rucphen NL (WC)
- 12/19 Namen BE (WC)
- 12/26 Dendermonde BE (WC) WVA-vdP
- 12/27 Heusden Zolder BE (Sup)
- 12/29 Diegem BE (SUP) WVA-vdP
- 12/30 Loenhout BE (X20) WVA-vdP
- 1/1 Baal BE (X20)
- 1/2 Hulst NL (WC) WVA-vdP
January stays busy and both van der Poel and Pidcock are targeting a visit to the Worlds in Fayetteville, Arkansas (USA), where there will be a not inconsiderable Podium Cafe contingent on hand, including myself. So start gearing up!
Geraint Thomas registered a career-best 8th place (he was previously tenth) at the 2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Thomas would go on to win the Tour de France in 2018.
However! If you want a better analogy, a rider who was already a Tour de France champion when he rolled up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen and got a result, you would have to go all the way back to... take a wild guess... Eddy Merckx, who won de Ronde in 1975, while holding all five of his Tour de France titles.
More recently, 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali rolled up and took 24th at the 2018 Ronde. Greg LeMond missed being the answer to this question by a year-plus, taking seventh in Flanders in 1985, just before his breakthrough 1986 season in France. Also Joop Zoetemelk was 10th in Flanders a year before his Tour win. Maybe the best recent example is 1990 Giro d’Italia winner Gianni Bugno showing up and taking the Flanders victory in 1994. Or that would be a great example if results from the 1990s had any meaning.