In trying to contextualize this year’s Cobbles Season, I’d like to skip over the usual roundup of “OMG 16 climbs!” and instead take kind of a long view on where things are going with respect to course design. Not that I won’t eventually preview each of the courses, but this is a post about whether it is or isn’t worth investing into deep analyses of these courses anymore. And to spoil the ending... it might not be. Let’s dive in.
[Oh, and this is probably a good time for my annual mention that I wrote a book about these races in 2016, and while a lot has happened in the last seven years, it’s not a bad primer on the history of these races, all things considered, and it features probably the greatest photo ever of anything (see below). Buy on Amazon or ping me for a more direct connex. Anyway...]
Ronde van Vlaanderen
The Tour of Flanders is not only the main event, it’s the cool kid who the other kids check out what s/he is wearing before deciding on their own look. So let’s start there. And I have news!
Awww... the Ronde van Vlaanderen is back to Bruges! A five-year agreement was reached last year sometime (vaguely recalling rumors) and officially announced about a month ago which will bring the race back into the historic County of Flanders every other year, after six editions starting “overseas” in Antwerp — though Belgium’s largest municipality will still alternate in as the even-year start-line host. Culturally, this change is kind of a big deal! It opens de Ronde up not only to the beautiful start in the Grote Markt of its most famous lovely city, and how can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and fairy tale stuff not be someone’s thing?
But more importantly, using Bruges as the start town returns de Ronde to West Flanders, a point which is not to be overlooked. Exactly zero of the six editions starting in Antwerp made it as far west as Gent — which is in East Flanders, as was about every single kilometer of every Ronde since 2017 (minus Antwerp and maybe the odd diversion into Brabant or Hainault for a few meters).
Well, that’s not a “tour” of Flanders. And I’m not accusing the Sinjoren of bad faith, it’s simply that West Flanders is about 100km from Antwerp at a minimum, so unless you wanted your Tour of Flanders to really just be a bunch of guys touring Flanders casually on their bikes and then sprinting into the center of Kortrijk, the entire western province was out of the question. Not anymore. This year the route will wander out to Izegem — home of Yves Lampaert (and Johan Bruyneel) — before getting down to business in the Vlaamse Ardennen. Down the road let’s see if they don’t make it all the way to the coast.
Beyond the start, though, the route is fairly settled at this point, following the upheaval after 2011 when the old Muur-Bosberg-Ninove finish fell off the agenda. Like all progress, we fought bitterly against it and decried all involved as charlatans, only to be proven kinda-sorta wrong in the end. Aesthetically nothing will ever be as lovely as the race hitting the Muur in all-out battle mode, and I don’t think I am being biased in saying so. But if you lean on me a little, I will admit that aesthetics are not the main point, competition is, and after some fits and starts the RvV has molded the finish into one that invites the climbers, sprinters and cobbled warriors to try their luck, which is exactly what you want that race to be.
All of this comes down to money as well, and I am sure the alternating departure thing was a way for both Bruges and Antwerp to limit the pain, while Oudenaarde will keep dishing out up to €500,000 annually to keep the finale until 2028 at the earliest. That was just extended too, and the RvV people went so far as to say they never considered anywhere else.
All of this is super instructive for thinking about the parcours over the long haul. More and more, sporting events are hitting on the right (enough) formula for monetizing their events, and then sticking with that formula for as long as they can. De Ronde is very much at this point too. Sure, they may feel a pull to move the start around as to be inclusive of their whole cultural area, but even there the alternating Bruges/Antwerp starts helps a lot. The transition of the race to an Oudenaarde ending, however painful, has given them the kind of stadium feel they couldn’t achieve on the Muur, for both logistical and financial reasons. Even if Geraardsbergen agreed to hand over the town for the day, you’re still talking about one passage, or two (ugh) at most, whereas the current course can make multiple trips through the the Triangle (view the image slider below) between Ronse, Oudenaarde and Kluisbergen.
This Triangle fills up with fans, centered mostly around the Oude Kwaremont VIP sections and the Paterberg, but it’s not far from the Kruisberg (in Ronse) and Koppenberg, plus the neighboring Korte Keer for earlier climbs. You can move between climbs, buy beer and frietes at the latter two, and watch giant screen TVs to get ready for the approaching pack. It works bloody well, and the race does too, so unless Oudenaarde runs out of cash to throw at the race, it seems like we could be looking at this formula for a long while.
Paris-Roubaix will not fundamentally alter its course in our lifetime. Nobody is even willing to discuss this, least of all myself. Let’s move on.
E3 Prijs Harelbeke Saxo Bank Classic
The one race which is truly free to do whatever it wants — not being owned or organized by the FlandersClassics behemoth — does what it does best by putting out more or less the same race every year — a spaghetti-looking circuit through the Flemish Ardennes that starts and ends in the Leie River-side town of Harelbeke, between Kortrijk and Gent. No race has better attached itself to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and while that race hasn’t always reciprocated the love, the E3 Prijs has thrived in this relationship regardless.
[And as to that... it should be noted that there are a few levels of brands at work here. Each race has its own unique brand, but Flanders and Roubaix are among the five Monuments, which stand apart from all other classics. You knew that. But you might not know (for lack of recent press) that Flanders and its warmup races have often been lumped in as “Vlaamse Wielerweek” (Flemish cycling week) and probably still are in Belgium, where from the start of E3 until the end of De Ronde is something of a non-stop holiday. Oh and there used to be a Trophy of Flanders, which I suspect was very similar (pre-E3). And Holy Week too... more on that below.]
Course-wise there is a general theme with only slight variations from year to year. I can’t find a map from 2010 or earlier, so it’s just a hunch that the Taaienberg was a bit later in the race than it is now, else it would not have been the site of countless Quick Step maneuvers to the point where they renamed it Boonensberg on race day each year.
But the finale is unchanged and the overall course has barely changed in the past decade, making a lengthy sojourn to Geraardsbergen (minus the big climb) and Flobecq to Francophy the race like no other Flemish cobbled classic. Then it’s into the Ardennes mixing bowl, with some flat cobbles for good measure, and then cutting across the Triangle from the Kapelleberg to the Paterberg-Oude Kwaremont double, then out to the Tiegemberg before dashing home the last 17km to Harelbeke.
For a while E3 seemed like the perfect warm-up for De Ronde in terms of the parcours shape and feel, right down to the long flat run to the line, and though Dwars kind of stole E3’s thunder for a few years, the more recent calendar effects puts E3 back in its best-of-the-dress-rehearsals spot. It’s also still the only one of these events that starts and finishes in the same place, isn’t owned or influenced by FlandersClassics, and has carved out its own independent place in the lineup. Some of these things are related.
The calendar spot, now locked in on the Friday nine days before De Ronde, is perfect for making it the tuneup event for Ronde hopefuls. Which it was before, and then FC tried to bump it off its corner, only for people to realize that Gent-Wevelgem isn’t really a Ronde tune-up... I’m repeating myself here. Safe to say, though, that with the finish moved from the (much cooler and trickier) city-center finish to the wider, more VIP-tent-friendly road, it’s probably going to look exactly like this for a while.
If you were to sense a pattern here, you might phrase it as “these races all spent the last decade tinkering with their routes but probably have it set for a while,” and the same can be said for this venerable West Flandrien Sprinters’ Epic. In recent years the race has rebranded itself as “Gent-Wevelgem — In Flanders Fields,” because nothing captures fans’ imagination like putting two different types of dashes in a name. In fairness to the organizers, it’s rather apt, because if you ride anywhere around Ypres and take the time to absorb the proliferation of World War I ceremonies and tributes, you are likely to be overtaken by the solemnity and profound sadness of the experience to the point where you want to recite the McRae poem or watch another remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. It is powerful stuff, even if a bike race doesn’t seem to add much to the basic point (war is hell).
Anyway, while the rebranding happened in 2015, the race itself reorganized itself rather dramatically between 2008 and 2010. Before that, the event had settled into a West Flanders tour, from Gent to the coast and back to Wevelgem, with a couple laps of the Kemmelberg thrown in to loosen things up. Since 1960 Gent-Wevelgem lay between Flanders and Roubaix as part of a three-race Holy Week, and to entice the Giants of the Cobbles to go for all three, Gent-Wevelgem had to keep the demands to reasonable levels.
But as doping began to wane some after Operacion Puerto (or wherever you want to draw the line) and the demands of attempting all three in earnest fell out of favor, the race slid more toward the status of a sidebar event for the sprinters. The organizers didn’t take this lying down, however, and in 2008 they started packing the Kemmelberg laps with additional climbs. First it was the Heuvelland climbs of Zwarteberg, Baneberg, Rodeberg and Monteberg, then in 2010 the race slipped back over the border into French Flanders (done once in 1957 but abandoned because of the pre-Schengen system of border closures) with the Mont des Cats and others. This was the year they moved it to Sunday, a week before Flanders, to justify the extra effort required. And in 2014 they added a pass under the Menen Gate in Ypres for maximum cultural impact.
That’s a lot of change! So for that reason, I suspect that the recent stasis around course design may be here for a while. They do vary the pre-Kemmel climbs from year to year, like a croupier shuffling a well-defined deck of cards, and the race is all the way out to 250km now, but all of those changes have reached a place of relative comfort. First, the race’s calendar spot and overall difficulty fit nicely with its big almost-monumental brand — achieved, ironically, as the thin slice of bologna in the Holy Week sandwich — and only purists and racers think of E3 on equal terms. The race is also competitively balanced now, for sure still more of a sprinters’ race than the others, but capable of being a real Classic. And most importantly, the connection to WWI, even if it gets laid on a little thick for one’s tastes, brings home the point that this is a uniquely West Flanders day. It’s not like the others.
Dwars Door Vlaanderen
Vlaamse Wielerweek’s least-recognizable event was on the rise in 2010. Happening the Wednesday before E3, it was game on and at that time it could do what it wanted. E3, meanwhile, was under attack from Gent-Wevelgem’s move to Sunday, a back-to-back, and little E3 was going to struggle to hold its own against the bigger race. But Gent-Wevelgem, as discussed above, wasn’t really a Ronde dress rehearsal, it was its own thing. Into that power void and play for rider attention marched Dwars... and like Matti Breschel’s tire pressure on that day, it all unexpectedly petered out.
At this point the races discussed above have sealed Dwars’ fate as the lesser event, something that really only took hold in the last few years. In 2018 its calendar spot was switched to the Wednesday before de Ronde, bumping out Driedaagse de Panne (which was for sure a mild tune-up and/or race for non-Ronde combatants). Moving to this spot required Dwars to tone down the parcours a bit, chopping off some 20km and avoiding a few featured climbs like the Paterberg. It also limits the extent to which the top riders will even bring the iron on that day. I don’t really understand this decision, given that Flanders Classics was surely behind it — did they think the Wednesday a week earlier was too early? Dunno, I thought that it at least had a solid identity as the Cobbles Curtain Raiser. Now what is it?
A lovely race, for those who contest it:
By the way, the name seems absurd now (as does E3’s tribute to the E17), but when it was created it was a race from Roeselare to Limburg Province or even Liège, where it would stop for the night and race back to Roeselare the next day. Now that’s a race across Flanders! It was even called Dwars door België, reflecting its foray beyond the County of Flanders. Over the years it has been winnowed down bit by bit, and the West Flanders start/finish (it ends in Waregem nearby Roeselare) means that it can’t afford to waste time once the peloton exits the Flemish Ardennes, if it’s to keep open the possibility of escaping to victory. Like all the others, the current pattern seems here to stay.
In conclusion... no blog post should ever begin a paragraph with “in conclusion.” But the take-home message here is clear: things changed in the last 20 years in cycling, and one of the ways that is being borne out is by this period of unprecedented stability with respect to the course designs. Chronologically, you could put it like this:
- While they have always been good, the Classics started to really broaden their appeal after the turn of the millennium, with a great Boonen-Cancellara rivalry pitting telegenic international stars, as well as with teams from outside the tighter circle of European cycling nations drawing in new fans.
- Doping created a ton of upheaval around the same time (and going back another decade or so).
- The Tour de France and UCI went to war over control of the races, which the Tour won in hands-down, humiliating fashion, a lesson that the UCI has taken to heart by... let me get back to you on that.
- Anyway, live video streams went from pirated Euro feeds to legitimate overseas ones which broadened access tremendously.
- Because the Tour — backed by strict French anti-doping laws — won out over the UCI, it was better positioned to help the sport restore stability and beat back doping. This is a vastly complex subject but for the purposes here, let’s just say that doping has been curtailed in time for more fans using better video streams to connect to the sport, especially the classics.
- All that brought back a bit more stability in sponsorship. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that there has been a bike boom worldwide the last few years, since the manufacturers are among the sport’s best sponsors.
- With enough money to not go under, the races themselves have been able to apply new thinking about monetizing their races, like so many other sports, by selling high-dollar experiences to VIPs.
- All of that is good news, but big business also likes predictability, so that larger picture calls for the race course designers to not go too crazy every year.
So, to recap, Tom Boonen saved Cycling, and now we have the same Flanders finish every year, at least until people figure out that Mathieu van der Poel might break the wins record.
OK, on to the start of the classics!! Hold me...