Here at When [Insert] Attacks! headquarters, we have tried to franchise our product across the cycling landscape, but I have to tell you, it isn’t going well. From 2015 alone, we tried several different things:
When Neutral Support Vehicles Attack!
There was a second incident when another Shimano car rear-ended an FDJ vehicle and knocked over a rider who had pulled over for a wheel change. Nobody liked either of them and the series was canceled.
Then we debuted something you would think everyone would love: When Giant Inflatable Road Thingies Attack!
Nobody cared much for that. And I don’t even want to get into the much-derided When Handbags Attack And Ruin The Race! OK, more on that in a bit, but we will not be pursuing that either.
OK, back to human beings on bikes attacking to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which I am pretty sure is why you are here. Generally speaking, since the advent of the new course in 2012, the closing loops of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg have made a major impact on the race’s outcome. It’s like a prize fight where there’s a definable moment where a fighter wobbles to the mat, but before that there were a few combinations that set it all up, and take your pick as to which one you want to call “decisive.” That’s the closing duo of climbs. If the Kwaremont doesn’t get you then the Dad’s Berg will. To wit:
2022: Final duo (MvdP and Pogs) get away on Oude K
2021: Same (MvdP and Asgreen)
2020: oude K again
And so on... I will get into some details, but the first few years while Fabian Cancellara was still a factor, it was all about the final 1-2.
But are there alternatives? Sure, it’s bike racing, the less people think there is an alternative, the more alternatives there are. By 2015, it was time for an alternative. Let’s dive in.
The Chalk Attack
By “chalk” I mean the one that they drew up in the team meeting (I think? I’m not a master of hipster sports slang). Here are a couple examples: the Oude Kwaremont attack and the Paterberg attack. As trite as they may seem at times, in the moment they are still completely awesome. Here’s a street-level view of Alberto Bettiol improbably dropping the peloton on the Oude K in 2019:
And here is another classic, Peter Sagan ditching Sep Vanmarcke on the Paterberg (and Cancellara and Niki Terpstra, who had melted away on the Kwaremont cobbles) in 2016:
I can’t really tell you much that you don’t already know, except that these attacks are usually the product of earlier attacks to reduce the field... often at the Taaienberg, because for some reason when people see the Taaienberg they can’t help themselves. Well, and also it’s long and bites super hard at the beginning and the cobbles hurt and the top part seems to go on and on while your body screams for mercy. So it’s not insane. But if the race started from the Taaienberg, I am sure we would see the top riders move to the front and stay away for the next five hours.
The “He Attacked Where?!” Attack
As I said above, if attacking on the final two climbs becomes too conventional, eventually they’ll have to look somewhere else. And right underneath their noses for a few editions was the ideal place to do so: in Ronse, just as the race transitions from the Taaienberg/Kanarieberg side east of the N60 (connecting Ronse and Oudenaarde) to the west side where the last climbs play out. Niki Terpstra knew all about this opportunity.
Going back to 2015, Terpstra followed an acceleration by Alexander Kristoff to usurp the plans of the other big names before they could be launched. It was on the Oude Kruisberg, just parallel to the N60 as it rises up from downtown Ronse — a medium-length, bumpy, biting climb that could be about as classic a Cobblestones riding experience as there is.
Except that, like the Taaienberg, it keeps going. The race swings off the stones, onto the main highway, up several more unpleasantly angled meters of road to an intersection where they turn left to the Hotondberg, at which point it’s on a false flat, still going up. While Terpstra followed Kristoff and caught people napping the first time, the second time he was even smarter about it. From this excellent graphic via Cyclingstage.com, you can see where my cursor is — that’s the left turn at the intersection at the top of the Oude Kruisberg. You think you are done. You really want to be done. You’re not done.
So that sucks, but it gets worse. Remember in yesterday’s description of 2008, how Devolder accelerated on the Eikenmolen at exactly the moment when nobody had any interest in following? That’s the upper Kruisberg/Hotond area. Like that ‘08 move, where you can see the Muur in the distance, from the Kruisberg you can’t see the Oude Kwaremont but in your head it is absolutely looming, some 8km away, mostly downhill. You will be on that beast in the blink of an eye.
Terpstra’s winning move in 2018 was perfect — and the product of trial and error on his part — not only because he got away with someone (Nibali) who doesn’t sprint like Kristoff, but he waited patiently, allowing the first round of skirmishes to play out, and for Nibali to seize on the post-regrouping lull, then quickly bridging up to the Italian’s masterful counter. From there Terpstra had the legs, Nibali didn’t, chaos reigned behind, and the Kwaremont/Paterberg saw their glory stolen away, at last.
Don’t rule out some intrigue in the Greater Ronse area this weekend.
The “He Attacked When?!” Attack
Before Terpstra’s masterpiece — but after his previous version of the same — we got the mother of all Ronde van Vlaanderen new course escapes, the most audacious attack we have seen since the course came into existence. The Gilbert Solo:
This was a not-unheard of move in several respects. Yes, it was the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, not the final one, but it’s still a great place to create some space. And yes, Philippe Gilbert has made a career out of long-range solo attacks, dating back to his FDJ years in the Aughts, so a 54-km burst wasn’t unthinkable. But most importantly there is the team aspect.
Gilbert was more or less the team captain for a Quick Step squad loaded with credible threats. Terpstra himself was on the squad, two years beyond his second place finish. Tom Boonen was still chugging along, and while he was taking his retirement lap and not much was expected from him, not much was ruled out either. Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar and Matteo Trentin all seemed like guys you don’t want to forget about. So when Gilbert went, Quick Step’s rivals had a lot of reasons not to respond.
But cycling is funny in how one moment you think there isn’t much to worry about and then slowly but surely you get to DEFCON 1 and teams are scratching and clawing at each other, making matters worse. And that is the story of the 2017 Ronde van Vlaanderen... if you think Gilbert had the race in hand on the final lap, when Sagan launched with Oliver Naesen in the part of the Oude Kwaremont crammed with VIP spectators, and got dropped by a handbag.
Ah well. Anyway, long range stuff is in play here this Sunday, especially
The Last 200 Meters Attack
This one isn’t much of an attack, just a reminder of what we might see (if the bettors are right) and how we’ve seen a version of it already.
Incredible, legendary stuff from that rescheduled 2020 race. We needed it then. We could use some more legends this weekend too.