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by Matt de Neef
March 31, 2017
Photography by Kristof Ramon & Cor Vos
NEWS & RACING BROUGHT TO YOU BY CHAPTER2 BIKES
It’s the second Monument of the year, the biggest bike race in Belgium – if not the biggest sporting event in Belgium — and one of the hardest one-day races in world cycling. The Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, returns this Sunday with what is its 101st edition.
Here’s what you should know before tuning in.
The course has changed a little from previous years.
In 2017, the Tour of Flanders has a different starting location — Antwerp instead of Brugge — and it’s a fraction longer than last year — 260km vs 255km. The basic format is the same, however: a relatively easy opening section of 100km down to Oudenaarde, before the riders begin two circuits to close out the race.
The first circuit is roughly 95km long and features 12 climbs, while the second is 35km long and contains six climbs. Then it’s back into Oudenaarde to contest the finish.
The climbs are what make the Tour of Flanders.
There’s a total of 18 climbs (or “hellingen”) in this year’s Tour of Flanders, all of them coming in those final circuits around Oudenaarde. The first comes after 115km, the last comes after 247km, meaning there’s an average of roughly 7km between ascents.
Many of the climbs features in this year’s race are the same as last year — and in the years before that — but there is one notable change. The Muur-Kappelmuur climb, so long the penultimate and decisive climb of the Tour of Flanders (see video below), returns to the race in 2017. It was in 2011 that the Muur last featured in the race, and its removal was the cause of much disappointment.
While the return of the Muur is exciting, its position in the race is less so. Coming as the eighth climb of the day, 95km from the finish, the Muur is unlikely to have any significant impact on the race.
The final 75km of Sunday’s course remain unchanged from last year, meaning it will be the back-to-back cobbled climbs of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg that serve as the biggest challenges of the race. The Oude Kwaremont (2.2km at 4%, max 11%) peaks 17km from the finish while the Paterberg (400m at 12.5%) is 13km from the line. From there it’s a mostly flat run-in to the finish in Oudenaarde.
The race is likely to be decided in a small bunch or won by a solo rider.
If you look at the last 10 years of the Tour of Flanders, five editions have been won solo. Two have been won from a group of two, two from a group of three, and one from a group of four. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find the last time a group of more than four contested the win (when Gianluca Bortolami won the sprint from a group of eight).
Given this history, the course, and the riders lining up on Sunday, a small group or solo winner again seems the most likely result. There’ll be an early breakaway that likely gets caught in the final 50km, and then there’ll be the usual flurry of attacks with riders trying to use the late climbs to get away from the rest of the field.
Again, it’s the final two climbs — the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg — that are likely to decide the race. Expect any breakaways or late moves to be accounted for by the time the race hits the Kwaremont. From there it’s likely to be a case of who is strong enough to stay with the favourites over the last two climbs.
There are two five-star favourites: Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet.
Few that saw Peter Sagan’s effort in last year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen will forget it. The world champion stomped away on the Paterberg (see video below) before soloing his way into Oudenaarde to win his first Monument. There’s every chance the same thing will happen again in 2017.
Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) has looked in sublime form so far this year and already has three wins, six second places and two third places to his name. His attack on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo a few weeks back showed, once again, that he’s got the strength to simply ride away from most of the best riders in the world. The harder parcours of Flanders suits Sagan even more than does Milan-San Remo.
As he showed last year, Sagan is more than capable of going it alone from the Paterberg. He’s also one of the world’s best sprinters, so if it’s a small group that reaches the finish, few will be able to beat him.
It will be fascinating to watch how the other teams try to deal with Sagan come Sunday. He’ll be the most marked man in the race and as we saw at Gent-Wevelgem, rival teams will do anything to avoid helping Sagan into a winning position.
At Flanders it might not matter. If Sagan’s in good form and can ride everyone off his wheel on the final two climbs, he’ll be very hard to drag back.
The one man that goes into the race on equal footing with Sagan is the Olympic champion, Greg van Avermaet (BMC). The Belgian has undoubtedly been the rider of the Spring Classics so far, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (where he beat Sagan in the sprint), E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. His win at E3 Harelbeke is perhaps most instructive as it’s raced on many of the same roads and climbs as Flanders and features a similar field.
Van Avermaet has finished in the top 10 at Flanders on five occasions, including a second, a third and a fourth. Notably, he was in terrific form when he crashed out of last year’s edition meaning we didn’t get to see how he’d go against Sagan on the closing climbs.
In a press release this week Van Avermaet said he’s the strongest he’s ever been in the Spring and that “this year I feel like it’s my turn”. With any luck we’ll get to see he and Sagan duke it out on those final climbs. Should Van Avermaet win it, it will be his first victory in a Monument after being so close on several occasions.
Van Avermaet (right) out-kicks Jens Keukeleire to win Gent-Wevelgem, his third Belgian Classic of the season.
Behind Sagan and Van Avermaet, there’s a host of very strong contenders that are more than capable of winning.
Philippe Gilbert has had something of a resurgence in 2017. The former world champion (and now Belgian champion) has made the switch to QuickStep Floors this year and the move seems to be paying off. Gilbert was second at Dwars door Vlaanderen, second at E3 Harelbeke and then went on to win the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne.
Gilbert’s had some good results at Flanders in the past — third in 2009 and 2010 — and while those were a few years ago now, Gilbert is showing the best Classics form we’ve seen from him in a long time. Can Gilbert wind back the clock and beat his more fancied rivals on Sunday?
It’s certainly possible. One thing’s for certain; he’s got the strongest team in the race: Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar, 2014 Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, Julien Vermote, Matteo Trentin, Iljo Keisse, and, just for good measure, three-time former Flanders winner Tom Boonen.
Gilbert won the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne and looks in great form.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) admitted in his pre-race press conference this week that he’s still a little off his best, but the 2015 winner certainly shouldn’t be discounted. Flanders is his favourite race, he comes in with good form — he has five wins for the year including a stage of Three Days of De Panne this week — and as he showed in 2015 he’s capable of a long-range move if he’s on a good day.
Of course, if he’s there in a small group at the end, his strong sprint will put him in very good stead.
Kristoff won the 2015 Tour of Flanders ahead of Niki Terpstra.
Sep Vanmarcke was third at Flanders last year having been there with Sagan on the Paterberg before the world champ rode away from him (see feature image above). Vanmarcke was third in 2014 as well.
The 28-year-old Belgian faces the same problem he has ever since he rose to prominence: while a phenomenal athlete, he’s not quite at the same level as someone like Sagan, on the climbs, when trying to get away solo, or in a sprint finish. Vanmarcke could well finish on the podium again on Sunday, but to win it he’ll needs things to really fall his way.
There are many other contenders for the podium (or even the win) if things work out in their favour.
Bike racing is an inherently unpredictable sport. It isn’t always just a case of the strongest riders squaring off at the most decisive moments — a crash, a mechanical, a lack of concentration and even bad luck can all have a dramatic impact on the race. With this in mind, it’s worth considering a handful of other riders that, should the cards fall their way, could achieve a great result on Sunday.
Tom Boonen (QuickStep Floors) might be lacking a tiny bit of punch up the climbs these days, but he’s not to be discounted. It seems likely Boonen will ride in support of Gilbert on the day but if that doesn’t work out for whatever reason, Boonen could well get his shot at contesting a fourth win. Unlikely, perhaps, but it would be quite something in what is Tommeke’s final fortnight as a pro.
Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) turned heads two years ago when he finished fifth at Flanders as a 21-year-old. Now, a couple years on, the Belgian has had plenty more racing in his legs and plenty more experience. He’ll likely go in as co-leader with Tony Gallopin — assuming the latter has recovered from his crash at E3 Harelbeke — but is capable of a very good result if he plays his cards right.
Ag2r-La Mondiale, too, has a compelling prospect in 26-year-old Oliver Naesen. The Belgian has had an impressive Classics period so far, with seventh at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, eighth at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen and then third at E3 last Friday (in a group of three behind van Avermaet and Gilbert). An outside chance of a podium come Sunday?
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) hasn’t seemed as his best so far this Spring but then again he was fifth at Gent-Wevelgem. He’s finished in the top 10 at Flanders twice before — seventh in 2015 and ninth in 2013 — and is definitely capable of a similar result on Sunday.
Another outsider worth keeping an eye on is Australia’s Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott). The rangy West Australian has long been billed as a Classics rider of the future, and in 2017 that future seems to have arrived. Durbridge was sixth at Strade Bianche, fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, and then second on the opening stage of Three Days of De Panne. One to watch.
The weather is looking alright for Sunday.
There’s a slight change of showers on Sunday morning but nothing that’s likely to impact the race in any meaningful way. There’s also likely to be a little bit of wind around but probably not enough to affect the race.
The race will be beamed live around the world, on TV and online.
Fans in Australia can catch the race live on SBS Viceland (formerly SBS2) and streaming on the Cycling Central website from 9:20pm AEST. Those with Foxtel subscriptions can watch Eurosport’s coverage on channel 511 from 10:45pm AEST.
For viewers in Europe and the US, be sure to check out Steephill.tv and your local TV guides for up-to-date info on where you can catch the race.
If you’re following the race on Twitter, the hashtag you’ll want is #RVV.
Who’s your pick for the 2017 Tour of Flanders? How will they win it?