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When Flandriens Attack! Part 1: The Old Course

Cycling - Tour of Flanders
Cancellara and Chavanel
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

These days I think what I do best is recall past editions of the Tour of Flanders. Well, and my puttanesca is pretty nailed down too. But that won’t help us this week, not at least without knowing who may be putting their Ronde dreams in jeopardy by eating bad pasta. So assuming the team chefs are on their game, then let us turn to the past... to YouTube... to lessons learned from...


Naw, man, that’s When Animals Attack!, a super dumb American TV show from the 14th century. I’m talking about cycling!

The small journal Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

Huh. Bike racing in Russia 100 years ago was LIT.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to dredge up some old lessons about famous attacks at the Ronde van Vlaanderen as a way to think about this Sunday’s race. Let’s look at a few from the old course today, and a few more from the new course tomorrow.

The Lieutenant Attack

There was a fair bit of chatter this week after Jumbo’s Wout Van Aert, Belgium’s top classics star, allowed his French teammate Christophe Laporte to take the win from a two-teammate breakaway at Gent-Wevelgem. Recriminations came from the usual old heads who couldn’t imagine such a chivalrous gesture — if anyone even tried asking Roger De Vlaeminck what he thought, I hope they did so from a safe distance. But even Tom Boonen, one of the nicer megastars of recent cycling vintage, was a bit disapproving of the move, saying Wout may regret it. Maybe Tom was thinking of this:

Cycling: 93E Tour Of Flanders / Elite Men Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Tom has regrets. He regrets letting Stijn Devolder off the leash as a supposed decoy, not once, but twice, and now Devolder, a perfectly cromulent classics talent, is a Double-Flanders Winner.

No disrespect intended though. Devolder was an absolute beast in the 2008 race (and nearly as stolid in 2009 when he snuck away on the Muur from a small group of C-list escapees, but let’s focus on that first one). Boonen entered the ‘08 Ronde as a god-like figure who was sure to have half the peloton on his wheel... and revenge on his mind after Alessandro Ballan’s shock win the previous spring. His Quick Step team seemed reasonably strong but more “Tom and his boys” than some of the real armadas Lefevre has brought to the race before or since. So it would take extraordinary measures to win Boonen any protection. The solution was to put Devolder up the road and force other teams to chase, which worked perfectly fine insofar as coming into the final three decisive climbs of the Eikenmolen, Muur and Bosberg, it was Lotto and Liquigas who had burned a few guys in the chase.

But on this day, those guys were playing checkers, and Stijn Devolder was playing high level chess.

This link should play at the 2:59:30 mark of the video, which is exactly when things get super interesting. The peloton had juuuust about formed the juncture with the breakaway, heading to the bottom of the Eikenmolen, and had put their back into closing the gap — except of course Boonen, who happily sat back and watched. The escapees too had left it all out on the road, and as the big boys closed in, their pace slackened. Except for Devolder.

Somehow, with something left in his legs, Stijn attacked— knowing his break-mates didn’t want to follow, and if anything they would wobble across the road and get in the way of any real pursuit for a few seconds. He knew the peloton was led by guys who just finished positioning their captains to get hold of things on this one last not-yet climb, from which you can look on the horizon and see the Muur van Geraardsbergen in the distance. Devolder knew that nobody wanted to deal with his shit at that moment, like at all, so he took off.

Making Boonen’s rivals miserable was ostensibly his job, and had the chase reeled him in again, say on the Vesten, then Devo could have said he did his job masterfully and everyone would have agreed. He was the hero of the day long before he raised his arms in Ninove. Then he made it to the record books, for good measure.

Obviously this formula is available to the Jumbos on Sunday, but I would say Alpecin Deceunink could try it as well, if van der Poel is radiating his usual superstrength and freaking the shit out of everyone. Is Soren Kragh Andersen up to this task? Maybe not, but it’s worth thinking about. Tiesj Benoot is licking his chops. So too is Dylan van Baarle.

Boonen vs Cancellara. 2010 RvV Kapelmuur
Boonen vs Cancellara. 2010 RvV Kapelmuur
ef2204 PdC Photogroup

The Telegraphed Attack

If anyone has a complaint about the pre-2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen course, it would be ... I don’t know anyone who has a complaint about the pre-2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen course. But I guess back in the day we used to wonder aloud if the Muur was becoming the Alpe d’Huez of Flanders, where you just know everyone is going to do their thing. This was what counted as a problem back then. Simpler times I guess.

Anyway, there was some evidence that the 2010 Flanders would be decided in one of several spots on the course, with the Muur being just one option. If Boonen, seeking his (now becoming elusive) third win, was involved, chances are the Muur would be considered too obvious. As the race played out, Fabian Cancellara — who Boonen named as the favorite following the Swiss Bear’s steamrolling of Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha a week earlier in E3 Prijs — was the one deciding the attacks.

It was a two-part strategy. Part one occurred on the Molenberg, where only Boonen could follow, drawn away from any teammates, intrigue, wheelsuckers and considerations in general. From 40km out to the arrival at the Muur with 16km remaining, Boonen and Cancellara separated themselves from the outside world and just focused on beating each other.

Part two happened where everyone on Earth would have guessed it would, if you told them these two great champions would be at the front of the race in the final hour.

There is soooooo much Flemish Gold in this Michel Wuyts description of Cancellara’s attack here. But in contrast to the previous entry, that’s all we have, an attack in its simplest form, strength versus strength, side by side... until that is no longer the case. Sure, the chess maneuverings are exciting at times, but at bottom this is an athletic contest, and to see victory distilled down to its purest elements as it was on this day is a sight to behold.

Nowadays I am not so sure there is a single obvious place to attack for the win (more on that tomorrow), but if we are treated to a mano-a-mano match for the win — and we all know which mani I am talking about — then I very much look forward to a reprise of 2010’s most glorious attack.

Cycling - Tour of Flanders Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

The Don’t Overdo It Attack

Just one more for tonight that I think is definitely on point. It’s the Going-For-It-When-Maybe-You-Shouldn’t attack, courtesy of Cancellara. Some background.

In 2006, Boonen won Flanders as an overwhelming favorite against teams who had plotted all sorts of mischief to slow him down. The prize for the most obvious strategy went to Discovery Channel, who had George Hincapie sitting on Boonen all day and at the Valkenberg — again, within sight of Geraardsbergen — they launched Leif Hoste to try to put Boonen back on his heels. But when you are the strongest guy and everyone is looking at you, any chance to get away is a good one. Boonen leapt onto Hoste’s wheel, happily dropped the entire rest of the race, and the two (somewhat inexplicably) trundled away to perform history’s least suspenseful two-up sprint.

By 2011 Cancellara had supplanted Boonen as the obvious rider to beat, and he too was surrounded by treachery during the first several hours of the Ronde. Like Boonen five years earlier, though, he fancied himself as the strongest rider too (not without reason), so any opportunity to escape the slow suffocation he was experiencing in the peloton, he was gonna take.

What he chose was somewhat similar to Boonen’s choice in ‘06, an attack by Sylvain Chavanel of rival Quick Step being his ticket out of jail, which he would turn into a two-up gallop to the line. Just like Boonen did in 2006.

OK, lots to unpack here. First, it’s not that similar to the attack in ‘06 by Hoste, who shot out of the group and only Boonen could follow. This time Boonen himself began the hostilities on the Leberg, Cancellara responded, and came by Boonen, undoubtedly thanking him for the leadout. Wise as an owl, Cancellara wound his way through the accumulating road furniture in the personages of the days’ breakaway riders, who then got in Boonen’s way, allowing Cancellara to get all the way up to Chavanel.

But then things changed. Unlike five years earlier, Quick Step had a Directeur Sportif in the car who wasn’t going to let his decoy rider (Chava) work with Cancellara. The two got away, but with 32km remaining it wasn’t going to be easy for Fabulous Tony Spartacus Montana Cancellara to enjoy the peace and quiet away from his rivals. He drove the pair to Geraardsbergen, but no further, having gone a bit too deep in the red for the privilege of towing Sylvain Chavanel to a historic French victory. So Cancellara slowed up on the Muur, latched on to the front group of big names, and took part in the 12-rider approach to the line, won by Nick Nuyens, handsomely rewarded for his overall refusal to work too much before the sprint.

This is a lesson which should be heeded this Sunday by exactly one rider: Mathieu van der Poel. The audacious long-range acceleration might be tempting as a way to send off your overly attentive rivals, but if you are the strongest rider in the race, and people from the other riders to their sport directors all know you are the strongest rider in the race, then any long range attack will be given some room for you to burn yourself out needlessly. Is it as memorable to just sprint it out in Oudenaarde for the win? Nope. But discretion might be the better part of valor, with 260km to cover.

OK, that’s all for today but please feel free to drop some of your own memorable attack videos in comments, with a description of what today’s peloton should take from them. More in Part II tomorrow!