It’s that time of year again – time for the world’s best Classics riders to take to the narrow, cobbled roads of Belgium for one of the greatest races on the international racing calendar: the Tour of Flanders.
The Ronde van Vlaanderen is one of the hardest and most prestigious races in the WorldTour and a must-watch for true cycling fans. And this year’s edition takes on a special significance — it’s the 100th edition of “De Ronde”, a race that started way back in 1913 (it didn’t run from 1915 to 1918 due to World War I).
Before you settle in to watch the Tour of Flanders this Sunday, here are some things you should know.
The race is more than 250km long and features two complicated finishing loops
At 255km long, the Tour of Flanders isn’t the longest race on the UCI calendar – that honour belongs to Milan-San Remo – but it is certainly long and hard enough to make for one of the most challenging races of the season.
From the start in Brugge the riders follow a relatively straightforward route to Oudenaarde where, after 92km, the racing really gets underway. From here the riders tackle one lap each of two convoluted circuits — the first of roughly 105km (top left in the map above), the second of some 50km (bottom left) — before returning to the finish in Oudenaarde.
It is in these two finishing circuits that all of the race’s major challenges are located.
The race tackles 17 cobblestone sectors and 18 climbs (including some cobbled climbs)
While the Tour of Flanders tackles seven sections of flat-ish cobblestones it is the race’s many climbs, and in particular its cobbled climbs, that tend to prove decisive. Starting with the Oude Kwaremont climb after 103km, the riders begin a series of climbs in quick succession with an average of 7km between ascents.
Most climbs feature only once, but two of the most decisive ascents feature on multiple occasions. The Oude Kwaremont is climbed a total of three times, the last two of which tend to have an impact on the outcome of the race. These final two ascents of the Kwaremont — with 55km and 17km to go — are each followed by the Paterberg, the second ascent of which is the final climb of the day, some 13km from the finish.
Beyond these two decisive climbs, the most well-known of the “Hellingen” is the Koppenberg, a brutally steep cobbled ascent which comes with 45km to go and often has riders walking due to its steep grade and narrow width.
In all, this year’s edition of De Ronde is 9km shorter than last year’s and features one less climb. But the important parts of the race remain the same and the climb that’s been removed – the Tiegemberg – was the very first ascent of the day and came with nearly 180km still to go.
This will be the fourth running of the Tour of Flanders since a controversial route change saw the Muur van Geraardsbergen/Bosberg finale removed.
The race often comes down to a small group
Where Milan-San Remo is usually decided by a (reduced) bunch sprint, the Tour of Flanders almost always come down to very small group, or a solo rider. In fact, in the past 10 editions of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the biggest group that has come to the finish was four riders strong. That was in 2014 when Fabian Cancellara outsprinted three ‘vans’ — Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh — having shed the rest of the field on the last two climbs of the day: the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg.
As mentioned, it is these two final climbs that often play a major role in deciding the race. With the pace at warp speed in the closing kilometres — and with the day’s break typically accounted for – the strongest rider(s) tend to force a split on the Oude Kwaremont before finalising the selection on the Paterberg.
Of course it doesn’t always work this way — in last year’s edition Alexander Kristoff and Niki Terpstra were already 30 seconds clear by the time they reached the Oude Kwaremont. But as a general rule, it is the race’s final two climbs that usually prove most important and where viewers can expect the most action.
Last week’s E3 Harelbeke gives us a good indication of who might be in the mix on Sunday
At ‘only’ 206km long and with ‘only’ 15 climbs, E3 Harelbeke isn’t as long or as hard as the Tour of Flanders, but it does give a sense of the riders to watch come De Ronde. Case in point: all three times Tom Boonen has won the Tour of Flanders he’s also won E3 the week before. Cancellara won E3 in the lead-up to two of his three Flanders wins.
E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders are raced in the same part of Flanders and this year’s editions shared five climbs, not least the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. In last Friday’s E3, Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) got clear on the race’s penultimate climb and managed to hold a slender lead all the way to the finish, where Kwiatkowski got the jump on the reigning world champion.
Based on that result (among others) it would seem likely that both Kwiatkowski and Sagan will be in contention on Sunday. Both riders are super-strong on the climbs, both know where to be at the right time, and both like to be aggressive in long, hard races.
Gent-Wevelgem is also a good indicator of form
If Peter Sagan didn’t demonstrate his strength and form at E3 then he certainly did at Gent-Wevelgem two days later. Sagan again made it into the winning move, this time on the day’s final climb, and on this occasion was able to outsprint his companions to take the win.
While Gent-Wevelgem doesn’t feature as many climbs as De Ronde, it is still a very hard one-day WorldTour race; the last of its kind before Flanders. Sagan’s showing at Gent-Wevelgem again showed how dangerous he’s likely to be come Sunday. Can he finally win his first Monument, after so many years knocking on the door? (Pop quiz: who was the last rider to win a Monument as world champion?)
There are four former winners on the startlist
With three Tour of Flanders titles apiece, Tom Boonen (2005, 2006 and 2012) and Fabian Cancellara (2010, 2013 and 2014) are among the six riders that hold the record for most victories at De Ronde. Both will be on the startline in Brugge come Sunday but they won’t be the only former winners to line up for another shot at glory.
Cancellara’s fellow Trek-Segafredo rider Stijn Devolder won back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, both times solo, but he’ll be in a supporting role for his Swiss teammate on Sunday. And last year’s winner, Alexander Kristoff, will be there as well, hoping to become the first to take back-to-back titles since Cancellara in 2013 and 2014.
Alexander Kristoff is the defending champion but isn’t quite at the same level as last year
But while Kristoff is certainly among the riders to watch come Sunday, he himself has admitted he’s not quite as strong as he was last year.
After five early-season wins in Qatar and Oman the Norwegian strongman has been slightly quieter in recent weeks, not least due to illness that forced him out of Gent-Wevelgem.
He did win the opening stage of Three Days of De Panne and lead that race until the final stage, but it remains to be seen whether Kristoff has recovered sufficiently from his illness to be able to repeat his phenomenal performance from 2015 (see video above).
There are a handful of five-star favourites that should feature in the closing kilometres
In addition to last year’s winner, there are several big-name riders you can expect to be in the mix when the race hits the Oude Kwaremont for the final time. We’ve already noted the imposing form Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatwoski are in, and former winners Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara always deserve a mention when lining up for a race like De Ronde. The former, while still an imposing figure, is arguably a few years past his best but the latter is among the biggest favourites come Sunday.
The Swiss maestro won Strade Bianche with a devastating attack on the race’s final climb, he won the Tirreno-Adriatico individual time trial and while he’s had a frustrating time of it in the past few weeks, it’s clear he’s still among the strongest in the bunch.
Cancellara was in the mix at Milan-San Remo when Fernando Gaviria’s crash scuppered his shot at victory, and then at E3 Harelbeke Cancellara broke his rear derailleur just as a select group caught the daylong breakaway. After a long wait for a new bike, the Trek-Segafredo rider spent 30km chasing back on, aided by teammmates, ultimately shutting down a gap of almost two minutes. He missed the winning move, which Sagan launched shortly after Cancellara made contact, but his chase back to the front was demonstrative.
Cancellara also made the winning move at Gent-Wevelgem, having marked Sagan’s move over the Kemmelberg, but was beaten in the four-rider sprint.
It would be a great surprise not to see Fabian Cancellara in the winning move again this Sunday. Who knows: maybe we’ll see a repeat of the breathtaking solo wins he took in 2010 and 2013?
Etixx-QuickStep will be doing everything it can to win on Sunday
It’s been another frustrating lead-in to the Cobbled Classics for Etixx-QuickStep in 2016. At E3 Harelbeke Matteo Trentin just missed the key move when Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski went clear over Karnemelkbeekstraat with 30km to go. At Gent-Wevelgem, it was Zdenek Stybar who was unable to follow Sagan and Cancellara on the Kemmelberg with 30km to go.
In both instances, Etixx-QuickStep had three, four or even five riders strong enough to ride at the head of the race while most other teams had one, or two riders left. Indeed, with the likes of Boonen, Stybar, Trentin, Terpstra, Tony Martin (see video below) and Vandenbergh, the Belgian powerhouse team has arguably the strongest Classics line-up in the world. And yet a big win has proved elusive thus far.
— inCycle (@inCycleTV) March 31, 2016
It’s not too late for the team to turn around its Classics season; a win at Flanders or Roubaix would go a long way toward redemption. But in order for that to happen, the team cannot miss a move when Sagan, Kwiatkowski, Cancellara, Kristoff or another big name attacks.
There are many riders that could contend for victory, if things go their way
BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet has had an impressive start to the year and should be there when the action heats up on those final climbs (if he isn’t already off the front, like he was in 2014). He’s a proven performer in this race – third in 2015, second in 2014, seventh in 2013, fourth in 2012 — but he’s yet to take that top step of the podium. Few would begrudge the gritty Belgian a win at De Ronde – he’s been close so many times – and victory on Sunday would surely spell the end of jibes at GVA for always being “the bridesmaid”.
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) is another Belgian whose career has arguably been defined by near-misses, including a third place at the Ronde van Vlaanderen two years ago. For Vanmarcke’s many fans, a win at De Ronde would be a case of his vast potential finally fulfilled. In order to achieve that, he’ll need to get to the finish in a small group without fast-finishers like Sagan, Kristoff and Cancellara. No small ask, as he himself admits (see video below).
And there are any number of riders that are an outside chance at victory. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) showed terrific form at Milan-San Remo a few weeks ago, finishing third, and was third in the 2013 edition of De Ronde. His young teammate Tiesj Benoot was one of the standout performers at last year’s race, finishing fifth just weeks after his 21st birthday. He is worth keeping an eye on come Sunday.
While Team Sky will seemingly go into De Ronde with Michal Kwiatkowski as Plan A, the team has the luxury of a very strong supporting cast. Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas are particularly strong and both are arguably able to win the race in their own right. It will be fascinating to see Sky’s tactics in the final 55km.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Heinrich Haussler (IAM) and Lars Boom (Astana) all have the ability and experience to be there when it counts as well but all three will need luck on their side for a good result.
Being one of the world’s biggest one-day races, the Tour of Flanders will be live on TV
For Australian fans, the Tour of Flanders will be live on SBS and streaming online via Cycling Central from 10:30pm AEST. It will also be on Eurosport (Foxtel channel 511) from 11pm AEST.
U.S. viewers will need to have a beIN Sports cable subscription and will be able to see the race live there from 8.00am ET.
Eurosport coverage in the UK and Europe starts at 2pm CET.
As ever, be sure to double-check your local TV guides to see when the race will be on TV in your region.
The women’s Tour of Flanders is on the same day as the men’s and the finish will be broadcast live
The women’s Tour of Flanders starts a few hours before the men’s race and finishes while the men’s race is in progress. It’s one of the biggest and most prestigious races on the women’s calendar – it’s the fifth event on the inaugural Women’s World Tour – and yet the race has suffered from a lack of live coverage in recent years.
It’s our understanding that, this year, the closing stages of the women’s race will be broadcast live, alongside the men’s race, in a split-screen arrangement. It’s not clear exactly how much of the race we’ll get to see live, but the fact we’ll get to see some on TV is a step in the right direction. The race is also being streamed live online via Proximus.
For a in-depth preview of the women’s Tour of Flanders, be sure to head over to our sister site, Ella CyclingTips.
So, who’s your pick for the 2016 men’s Tour of Flanders? And how do you think they’ll win it?
CyclingTips’ U.S. editor Neal Rogers contributed to this preview.