We’re deep into cobbled classics season and it’s now time for the second Monument of the year: The Tour of Flanders, or De Ronde, as it is lovingly known. This Sunday’s race will be the 102nd edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the biggest bike race in Belgium and one of the biggest one-day races of the year.
In the following preview we get you up to speed on the course for this year’s race, how it might unfold, the riders to watch, and how you can catch the action.
It’s the longest Tour of Flanders in 17 years.
The 2018 Tour of Flanders covers a lengthy 267km from Antwerp to Oudenaarde, following a course that’s 7km longer than last year’s race and 12km longer than in 2016. In fact, it’s the longest edition of the Tour of Flanders since the 269km-long 2001 edition.
The course comprises three main sections:
– An easy 108km south-westerly jaunt from Antwerp to Oudenaarde with no designated climbs.
– A 110km circuit that starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and features 12 climbs
– A closing 49km that also starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and features 6 climbs.
There are 18 climbs in total.
The Tour of Flanders is defined by its short but steep climbs (or “Hellingen” in Flemish), many of which are on rough cobblestone roads. As noted above, this year’s 18 climbs are concentrated in the final 150km of the race, making for a race that gets harder as it goes along.
The climbs used this year — and the order they appear in — are almost identical to last year. The only alteration is the day’s third climb — gone is the Eikeberg and in its place is the Edelareberg. The more significant climbs come much later, however.
The famous Muur van Geraadsbergen is the eighth climb of the day, peaking 97km from the finish line. It came back into the Flanders course last year after a six-year hiatus and, being so far from the finish, it seemed unlikely to have an impact on the race. But it did have an impact, thinning the peloton and paving the way for a long-range solo attack from the lead group by Philippe Gilbert. Don’t be surprised if the Muur plays a role again in 2018.
The Koppenberg is climb #13 and peaks 46km from the finish. It’s an infamously steep and rough ascent that often forces riders to unclip when things slow to a crawl.
But the most important climbs of the day are the Oude Kwaremont (2.2km at 4%, max 11%) and the Paterberg (400m at 12.5%). The Kwaremont is climbed a total of three times — climbs #1, #11 and #17 — with the Paterberg following it the second and third times around (climbs #12 and #18).
As such, the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are the final two climbs of the day, peaking 17km and 14km from the finish respectively. It’s little surprise then that these climbs often act as the springboard for a late attack.
After the descent off the Paterberg it’s a mainly flat approach to the finish in Oudenaarde.
The race is likely to be won by a solo rider or from a small group.
The Tour of Flanders is a race of attrition. Sure, there’ll be a breakaway that gets up the road early, but that’ll likely be accounted for in the closing kilometres as the climbs start to come thick and fast. As the pace increases, more and more riders will lose contact with the lead group, leaving fewer riders with a chance of victory.
As mentioned above, it’s the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg that normally prove most decisive. Whoever can get over the final ascent of the Paterberg at the front — either alone or in a small group — has a good chance at victory.
To illustrate the attritive nature of the Tour of Flanders, consider the past 10 editions of the race:
– 6 editions were won solo (2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2017)
– 1 was won from a group of two (2015)
– 2 were won from a group of three (2011 and 2012)
– 1 was won from a group of four (2014)
The last time a group bigger than four riders contested the finish was in the aforementioned 2001 edition, when Gianluca Bortolami won from group of 8.
The Flanders favourites
Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem provide clues, but it’s impossible to say who has the legs until race day. Still, riders and teams come into De Ronde with certain consistent strengths and weaknesses. Here are the favourites, roughly in order of their odds of victory.
Anyone on QuickStep
A race of attrition like Flanders goes to the strongest man, except when it doesn’t. There is room to play team tactics, and the outfit best suited to do so is QuickStep Floors. Of the team’s seven starters, four could win: defending champion Philippe Gilbert, Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, Yves Lampaert, and perennial threat Zdenek Stybar.
QuickStep is the strongest team in the race. It has the most cards to play. Its tactics at Harelbeke proved it’s willing to play them, and play them early. The move by Niki Terpstra and Yves Lampaert with 70km to go forced a chase from contenders like Peter Sagan, and that effort put the World Champion out of the running. Lampaert’s victory at the final Flanders tune-up, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, prooves that even its second-tier riders are dangerous. QuickStep doesn’t need to have the strongest man — though it may, in a flying Gilbert — it just needs to break the domestiques of the other favourites and force contenders to chase.
A solo victory in 2016 was followed up by disappointment last year when Sagan was felled by a jacket hanging over the fencing. It is impossible to say whether that crash — which also took out Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen — is what let race winner Philippe Gilbert stay away to the finish, but it certainly worked in the Belgian’s favour.
Sagan remains the favourite, simply because no race suits his characteristics more perfectly. He’s strong enough to win a race of attrition and fast enough to win a sprint against whoever is left. His challenge will likely lie not in any single rider but in controlling an unruly QuickStep squad. That team’s E3 Harelbeke tactics are likely to be used once again at De Ronde.
Greg Van Avermaet
Van Avermaet’s record at Flanders is impressive, though a win remains elusive. He’s been 8th, 7th, 4th, 3rd, and twice second. He was caught up in the crash with Sagan last year, ending his run once again.
Van Avermaet’s best bet is out of a small group, preferably one that does not contain Sagan, but a solo mission isn’t out of the question.
Anyone who saw Benoot’s raw strength at Strada Bianche would be a fool to count him out of Flanders. His solo victory into Sienna, over Romain Bardet, proved he’s on good form this spring. He followed that up with fourth at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Benoot probably needs to be alone to win. The other riders likely to be in a final selection — Sagan, Van Avermaet, Gilbert — are all faster sprinters. The good news for Benoot fans is he may be able to fly under the radar a bit as the battle between QuickStep, Sagan, and Van Avermaet attracts all the attention. If he has the legs, watch for a relatively early move.
Vanmarcke has been third twice, but how does he win it? He’s clearly been the strongest rider in prior races but has been unable to come away with a big victory. His sprint is unlikely to topple Sagan or Van Avermaet and it’s hard too see QuickStep letting him go solo. His best chance may be bad weather: if he does have the best legs of the favourites, a bit of rain might let him escape.
The Belgian champion had strong performances in the cobbles classics last year and made the decisive moves at Harelbeke and Gent Wevelgem. Wearing the Belgian tricolor at De Ronde adds 10 watts, so we hear, so don’t count him out.
Kwiatkowski had a quiet few weeks in the lead-up to Flanders but showed his form with a stage race win at Tirreno-Adriatico. He’s won Harelbeke, the mini-Flanders, proving he has the right qualities to contest at the big show. But he simply hasn’t raced Flanders much in recent years. His breakout ride in 2013 was followed by just one appearance, in 2016. He finished 27th.
Like Benoot, Kwiatkowski could benefit from an all-eyes-on-QuickStep dynamic and try to make a move early.
The 2015 champion hasn’t shown the sort of form required to make the race yet this spring, but Kristoff is a perennial threat if the race comes down to a small group sprint. This is relatively rare. Kristoff’s path to victory is to look for a small move to jump on in the final kilometres and then rely on his sprint.
Trentin moved from QuickStep to Mitchelton-Scott this year and will thus have the force of an entire team behind him. No more sharing leadership or waiting for a team leader to slip up. He’s dangerous in a sprint and was present at all the key moments at Harelbeke and Milan-San Remo, so the form is good.
Stuyven loves a solo move almost as much as he loves a good chocolate (he owns a chocolate store) and has felt on the edge of a big win for years. Is this the year? He made a tactical error at Harelbeke (stopping for a pee when the going got fast, which left him chasing even as the main field crashed) but still finished 6th. He has the legs, but needs some luck.
Wout Van Aert
Don’t put anything past the cyclocross world champion. Van Aert has showed incredible versatility all spring. He was a protagonist at Strade Bianche, blew the race apart at Driedaagse De Panne, and has factored in the front group of almost every race he’s entered. But 267km is quite different from 200km. He’s unproven in the monuments, and victory at Flanders would be a major upset.
Tour of Flanders weather
As of press time, the forecast for Sunday is for a high temperature around 10c (50F), with a 20% chance of rain. But that forecast has changed every day for the last week.
Bad weather – either rain or high winds or both – make a hard race even harder. If it’s nasty on Sunday the attrition rate will increase, paring the lead group down to favourites sooner. That could work into the hands of QuickStep, which is likely to have more riders in late selections than any other team. But it could also work in favour of one of the second-tier contenders. A bit of luck and a heap of daring can make all the difference in a wet Ronde.
It’s important to note that it doesn’t actually have to be raining for Flanders’ cobbles to be slippery. The Koppenberg in particular is a greasy mess when half dried out, largely thanks to the overhanging trees over its steepest pitch.
How to watch the Tour of Flanders
The Tour of Flanders is one of the season’s most important one-day races and it gets considerable TV coverage as a result. Australian fans will be able to catch the race live on SBS TV and online.
In the US, subscription service FUBO TV will have the live stream.
In the UK, the race will be shown live on Eurosport 1.
Follow along on Twitter using the official hashtag, #RVV18.
Who do you think will win the 2018 Tour of Flanders? And how will it unfold?