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In the cycling-obsessed region that is Flanders, the sport and its key players are worshipped – and Tour of Flanders is the holiest of holy days. It seems only fitting, then, that the race takes place on Easter Sunday (April 5th this year). All of Belgium is worshipping roadside as the best of the Spring Classics best battle it out over the climbs and cobbles.
The appeal of the race extends far beyond the boundaries of this region. Saturday’s sportive saw nearly 10,000 out of a reported 25,000 participants from outside of Belgium make the trek to Oudennarde to ride the hallowed roads the professionals will race on Sunday. The course, the atmosphere and the history combine to capture the imagination of those who love this sport.
De Ronde, as it is affectionately known, is the third race in the Women’s World Cup series following Trofeo Binda and Ronde van Drenthe. Run over the same roads as the men’s race, the women’s race is shorter, coming in at 145 kilometres, but every bit as selective and scintillating.
Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) lines up as defending champion of Tour of Flanders with all the pressure that accompanies having previously won the storied race. The Dutchwoman took a brilliant solo victory in Oudennarde last year. Lizzie Armitstead, van Dijk’s teammate, enjoyed a free ride on Johansson’s wheel in the futile pursuit of the lone leader. Having saved her energy in the chase, Armitstead outsprinted Johansson to the line and into second place.
It was a hugely successful day for the Dutch outfit and one they hope to repeat. The team has emerged as the squad to beat this season with Armitstead, van Dijk, Megan Guarnier, and Chantal Blaak all with wins to their name already this year. They won three stages of Tour of Qatar and the overall, Le Samyn, Strade Bianche and Trofeo Binda. Armitstead currently leads the Women’s World Cup series.
“Our results already this year put some pressure on the team in races,” explained van Dijk. “All the other teams are watching us. They’re counting on us. We feel pressure, but I think we have a great opportunity to use the strength we have in Flanders. It’s a luxury position to be in.”
“I rode the course again with my brother on Wednesday,” van Dijk added. “I wanted to do the recon. The team did it already after Omloop het Hageland, but I was injured, so I couldn’t go with them. When I did it, I experienced the whole thing from last year all over again. While I was riding, I thought: ‘How did I do this last year?’ It’s still unbelievable.”
Ella CyclingTips asked the defending champion about the moments that most stand out of her mind about the huge win.
“The moment I attacked, I still have it really clear in my mind,” van Dijk said. “The solo I was riding and what I was thinking, I remember all that, too. I still think: ‘Wow. How did this happen?’ When I ride there now it feels so much harder than it did last year. Everything gives you wings when you have a ride like that one – all the spectators and being on the front of the race.”
“When you are doing a recon by yourself, you have all the wind and none of the cheers,” van Dijk continued. “It’s different. I have to say I appreciate my win from last year even more now than I did when I won.
“It was good to get back on the course,” she added. “Of course I’m getting nervous, but I’m feeling good. For me, Flanders is the most important race of the Spring Classics. The way it went last year was just so perfect, and I also realise that it’s very hard to repeat that, but it’s the goal.”
Sean Robinsin at Velofocus has this to say about the course:
The first hour of racing doesn’t feature too much in terms of cobbles and bergs but can be a nervy stage of the race. Keeping out of trouble with a huge peloton on roads littered with street furniture is key to avoid your race ending before it’s really begun.
As the riders reach Wolvenberg just under 50 kilometres into the race it’s non-stop action all the way to the finish some 95 kilometres later. Climb, cobbles, cobbles, climb with cobbles and repeat. One after another, after another with cheering fans lining the route, Flanders flag in one hand and beer in the other.
Over the Wovenberg and it’s straight onto the cobbles. 6.4 kilometres of cobbles in total over the next 20 kilometres of racing, including the Molenberg climb.
Over the two kilometre stretch of exposed Haghoek cobbles and then up the Leberg closely followed by the Berendries and Valkenberg climbs. There’s a brief moment of respite and a chance for the lead riders to take stock before the race enters its final phase. Who’s still here? Who’s missing? Do we need to re-think the race plan? How do we stop Boels Dolmans?! .
Kaperij, Kanarieberg, Kruisberg climbs follow, then all that stands in between the riders and the finish line is the ‘one-two punch’ of Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. Roaring fans line the iconic 2.3 kilometre cobbled ascent of Oude Kwaremont, closely followed by it’s much shorter, but significantly steeper sibling, Paterberg. It’s then a flat dash to the finish back in Oudenaarde to crown the winner of the 2015 edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Ellen van Dijk says:
Part of the reason this is such a great race is because all of time, you have something go on in the course. There are cobbles. There are hills. It’s never boring or straight. The first 40km are flat, ok – but after that, every five kilometres, there is something going on. A lot can happen in the race. With the cobbles, the hills, the winds, everything. It has everything in it, and that’s why it’s so exciting.
There’s always a big fight to get into position into the climbs and cobbles. When I’m in position, I’m not nervous. The Kwaremont is the longest hill with cobbles, and it has the worse cobbles. That can be the hardest one for them.
The Paterberg I hate the most. It’s just steep and normally in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, we also ride up it, but there’s a little gutter along the left side of the road, and girls are always trying to ride in the gutter because it’s so much easier. For sure somebody will crash and the whole bunch is standing there and it’s 17 percent steep so you will never get on your bike again anymore. That’s why I hate the Paterberg. In Flanders, the gutter is closed, so everybody has to ride the cobbles, which is a little less nervous for the bunch, I think.
When I was working with GreenEDGE last year, I sat down with all the riders from the women’s team to put together a preview for Tour of Flanders. One of the questions I asked all of them was to describe the atmosphere of the race for someone that has never experienced it themselves – what does it sound like? Smell like? Feel like?
They talked about frites and beers and the massive crowds. They described the cobbles and the climbs. They mentioned the cycling-crazed Belgian public and the long-standing historical significance of the race and the course. Emma Johansson was the last to answer the question. “I can’t describe it,” she said. “It’s impossible. You just have to experience it for yourself.”
Johansson lives in Zingem in the spring, just a few blocks away from the course. The residents of the town have adopted her as one of their own. She’s the Swedish ambassador to Flanders, a “real Flanderian” they say, and as such, she considers the Ronde a home race.
The street of Heirweg is known as “Emma Johansson street” because her friends and family decorate it with Swedish flags and blue and yellow balloons. They paint her name across the street and hang giant banner with her picture.
Johansson calls it her favourite race – a race she is desperate to win – and I thought if anyone should be able to describe the experience of this race, it would be Johanasson. I pushed her to say more – unsuccessfully – and felt mildly annoyed at what I thought was an evasive answer until…
…the next day, which was when I experienced my first Ronde. I apologise to Johansson publicly here. You can attempt to describe it, but no words do the experience justice. I thought I had been to big bike races before Flanders. And maybe I have, but Flanders is in a league of its own.
Worth noting: Johansson broke her collarbone just under three weeks ago. She’s diligently done everything she possibly could these past three weeks to rest, recover and maintain a high level of fitness. Understandably, she was thrilled when she received the clearance to race from her doctor on Friday.
She maintains that its a victory simply to start, stating on her personal website: “The Ronde is my favourite race of the year. I would have been devastated to miss it. I don’t know exactly what to expect of myself in terms of how I’ll compare to the rest, but it’s a victory in a way that I even get to start.”
Ellen van Dijk says:
The atmosphere we experience here, we don’t have that in any other race – and that’s partly because it’s such a big race for the men. All the spectators that are there already for the men, they see us and cheer for us, too. We definitely profit from it. We also have a big benefit from the media that is there, but I still think that can be improved a lot.
Belgians are a little crazy in general, and they are especially crazy when it comes to cycling. They cheer super loud and the whole day they stand along the course. They’re drinking beer, so you can imagine that they’re all happy and super enthusiastic. Belgium is, of course, famous for their frites. They fry them all day long, and we smell them while we’re racing. The whole atmosphere makes the race really special.
The Spring Classics are synonymous with foul weather. Wind, rain and cold wrecked havoc on the women’s peloton at Gent Wevelgem last weekend. While the stories out of Gent Wevelgem illustrate the extreme, it’s fair to say that riders must be prepared for the worst when racing in Belgium. With that said, current weather forecast suggests a cold, dry and windless race on Sunday.
Ellen van Dijk says:
Of course you can’t influence the weather. You just have to accept it. Personally, I prefer that we would have rain or storms. Normally I like that kind of weather. Not that I mind riding in the sun, but I think it’s better for the team when have the hard weather conditions. It doesn’t look like there’s going to much wind and it will probably be dry on Sunday but the course is hard enough that we don’t need the weather to make the difference.
I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but it would be foolish to look past Boels-Dolmans. I have said this for every race that they’ve started since Ladies Tour of Qatar and imagine saying the same through at least the end of the month. Between Armitstead and van Dijk they have pre-race favourites, and although both have been vocal about their ambitions, the team has options beyond the leading duo.
Given Johansson’s spirits these past few days, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see her on the podium. The top step would be a big ask. She is less than three weeks removed from surgery to repair her collarbone and may not have the team support required in the finale to give Boels-Dolmans a run for their money.
Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) has been consistent since she won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad five weeks ago and will be hungry for a win after she and Pauline Ferrand Prevot finished second and third to Armitstead at Trofeo Binda last weekend.
Bigla has been knocking on the door of a big result, and Annemiek van Vleuten may be the rider to finally deliver. Wiggle Honda has Elisa Longo Borghini and Audrey Cordon. While the former is a more obvious choice, the latter has seen a huge jump in performance from this year last time. Cordon crashed heavily in Italy last weekend, and it will be interesting to see how she has recovered.
Ellen van Dijk says:
I think a lot of teams will look at our team again. I hope it’s going to be a very selective race and only a handful of riders at the finish. I think this race is about the strongest that will survive to the end. It would not be my choice to have a big group or a bunch sprint, but you never know.
Additional Ronde van Vlaanderen resources: