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It’s time for the second Monument of the year and the biggest bike race in cycling-mad Belgium: the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Ahead of Sunday’s 103rd edition of the men’s Tour of Flanders, we bring you up to speed on the course, the climbs and the contenders for what is one of the world’s most important and beloved one-day races.
At a punishing 270km in length, this year’s Tour of Flanders is the longest edition since 1999, which also clocked in at 270km. It starts in Antwerp for the third year running and finishes in Oudenaarde, just as it has done since 2012.
The course comprises three distinct sections:
– A 97km largely flat opening section from Antwerp to Oudenaarde with no designated climbs.
– A 123km large loop that starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and features 11 climbs.
– A 50km shorter loop that also starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and includes six climbs.
As noted above, there are a total of 17 designated climbs in this year’s Tour of Flanders. The first comes after 119km and from then on there’s a climb every few kilometres until the final ascent after 256km — 14km from the finish line.
None of these climbs are more than a handful of kilometres long. The difficulty comes from the fact that many of these climbs — including all of the last eight — are on rough cobblestone roads. That plus the fatigue that builds over 270km of hard racing, many of those spent fighting for position on narrow roads on approach to the climbs.
Here are a selection of the key ascents:
The Muur-Kapelmuur – One of the most famous climbs in all of cycling — a tough 1.1km ascent (average 8%) up to a small chapel. This climb once fell towards the end of De Ronde but ever since its return to the race in 2017 it has fallen a long way out from the finish.
This year it’s climb #8, after 171km, meaning there’s a touch under 100km still to race once the Muur is complete. It’s unlikely to be decisive (although it did have an impact two years ago when Philippe Gilbert won) but the big crowds always make it a grand spectacle nonetheless.
The Koppenberg – Probably the hardest climb on course (500m at 12%, but much steeper at its worst), the Koppenberg is a rough, brutally steep cobblestone ascent that often forces riders to dismount and walk, particularly if it’s wet. It’s climb #12 this year, 46km from the end, but is probably unlikely to decide the race.
Oude Kwaremont & Paterberg – Ever since 2012 this pair of climbs has served as the final challenge for those taking on De Ronde. In all though, the riders will climb the Oude Kwaremont (2.2km at 4%, max 11%) three times and the Paterberg (400m at 12.5%) twice.
The Oude Kwaremont is the first climb of the day (after 119km) before it returns as part of the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg combo twice more, later in the race. The first time the climbs come in succession — at 56km and 53km to go — really marks the start of the race’s finale. And then the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg will be the last two climbs of the day, coming 17km and 14km from the finish.
Both climbs are steep, both are covered in rough cobbles, and both serve as the perfect launch pad for a late attack.
From the top of the Paterberg there’s a short descent and then it’s a mainly flat run-in to the finish in Oudenaarde.
How it might play out
The Tour of Flanders is not a race that ends in a bunch sprint. It’s the very definition of a race of attrition; a race where only a select handful of the world’s very best are left at the front to contest the victory. We need only look at recent editions of the race to see this in action.
Of the last 10 Tours of Flanders:
– Six have been won by a solo rider.
– One was won from a group of two.
– Two were won from a group of three.
– One was won from a group of four.
The last time a group of more than four sprinted for the win was in 2001, when Gianluca Bortolami won from a group of eight.
Expect a breakaway group to get up the road early as the peloton makes its way south west towards Oudenaarde. Also expect that group to dwindle in size as the climbs tick by and as the big hitters in the bunch start to get itchy feet.
It’s very unlikely the winner will come from the early move, but a winner from a later escape is much more possible. Like many of the Spring Classics, the Tour of Flanders is a race where many groups are likely to form over the course of the day, especially in the closing kilometres. Expect to see attacks aplenty as the kilometres roll on.
While climbs like the Oude Kwaremont or the Paterberg are the most likely place for a race-winning attack, that’s far from a given. Last year we saw Niki Terpstra attack between designated climbs with roughly 27km to go, and Alexander Kristoff and Terpstra formed the winning move in a similar fashion in 2015.
Indeed, anything is possible on Sunday, from a long-range solo attack (a la Philippe Gilbert in 2017), to a small group getting away from the peloton in the closing 30km, to the strongest two breaking clear over the Paterberg. Bike racing is unpredictable at the best of times but the Tour of Flanders is on another level.
An unpredictable race De Ronde might be, but there’s still a handful of riders that will be fancied above all others. Here’s who we think you should keep an eye on.
Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) – If Deceuninck-QuickStep is going to continue its dominance of the 2019 Spring Classics this Sunday, it’s most likely to be through Zdenek Stybar. The Czech rider has had his best Classics season to date, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad solo and the E3 BinckBank Classic from a four-up sprint. That’s two impressive wins in the lead-up and two wins that show a lot of versatility. He’s a big threat either on his own or from a small group.
Stybar also has form in this race — he’s been in the top 10 on three occasions without a win. Sunday could be the day he finally wins a Monument. And if he does win, he’ll be the first man to take out both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders in the same year (One woman, Lizzie Deignan, managed it in 2016.)
If it’s not Stybar’s day on Sunday, Deceuninck-QuickStep certainly isn’t without options. 2017 winner Philippe Gilbert and two-time Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert are more-than-handy fill-ins, so too Bob Jungels who so far this spring has won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and finished fifth at E3 and third at Dwars door Vlaanderen. The Luxembourger is very dangerous, particularly if he can get away late on his own.
Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) – The defending champion might have left Deceuninck-QuickStep at the end of 2018, but even as part of the weaker Direct Energie squad he remains a very potent threat. While Terpstra hasn’t been at his blistering best so far this year, the Dutchman does have three podium finishes at Flanders, including his win last year, so he understands the race better than most. Expect him to try getting away on his own late, just as he did so successfully last year.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) – The three-time world champion would admit he hasn’t had his best-ever start to a season. He’s only won once (at the Tour Down Under) and a combination of bad luck, illness and slightly below-average form has seen him underperform in the Classics so far.
All that said, it would be folly to discount Sagan completely. He won De Ronde in 2016 with a huge solo move over the Paterberg and if he’s on form, a similar move is well within his range. Of course he’s also one of the best in the world in a small-group sprint. The Slovakian will just be hoping it all falls into place on Sunday.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) – Van Avermaet, too, hasn’t started 2019 in absolute peak form (remember the spring he had in 2017?) but the Belgian has been hinting at a big breakthrough. He was second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, winning the group sprint behind Stybar, and third at E3, when Stybar won the sprint.
Van Avermaet has been second twice, third and fourth at De Ronde. In fact, he’s been inside the top 10 on seven occasions without a win. It would hardly be a surprise if he was able to add a second Monument to his trophy cabinet this weekend.
Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) – Third at Strade Bianche, sixth at Milan-San Remo, second at E3 — Van Aert is much more than a cyclocross star dabbling in road racing. He’s been one of the standout performers so far this spring and it would be no surprise to see him go better than his ninth at last year’s Ronde.
Van Aert’s world-beating cyclocross skills line-up perfectly at Flanders — there mightn’t be rutted mud puddles or off-camber descents to contend with, but there are plenty of times where he’ll need to ride very hard for a short time, to maintain position, stay with the best over a climb, and maybe even in the final sprint.
Van Aert’s on a bigger team than last year and based on current form, he should be there when it counts on Sunday. An exciting prospect.
Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) – Until yesterday, van der Poel hadn’t had the same sort of impact on the Spring Classics as his cyclocross rival Wout Van Aert. But with his win at Dwars door Vlaanderen (DdV) on Wednesday — victory in just his second-ever WorldTour race — van der Poel doesn’t just put himself on par with Van Aert (who’s yet to win at the Classics), he very much puts himself in contention for De Ronde.
Like Van Aert, the Dutch road champion has all the skills necessary to be competitive at Flanders and he showed at Gent-Wevelgem and DdV that he’s sprinting very well. His solo win at the GP de Deinan (something of a mini-Paris-Roubaix) showed that it’s not just on the CX track that he can win solo.
It would be a monumental effort for van der Poel to win the Tour of Flanders on debut but crazier things have happened. If he does win it, he’ll join his father on the honour roll, 33 years after Adri won the 1986 edition.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) – To be honest, Kristoff probably wouldn’t be on this list were it not for his win at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend. But the Norwegian showed there that he’s in great form, and reminded us all that he shouldn’t be ruled out at this time of year.
Of course, Kristoff’s won Flanders before — beating Terpstra in a two-up sprint in 2015 — and with a total of five top-fives, it’s clear De Ronde suits him well. It will be interesting to see if Kristoff gets to lead the team or whether he’ll be on support duties for Fernando Gaviria, who’s making his Flanders debut and is eager to make an impression in the cobbled classics. If the more experienced Kristoff ends up on leadership duties, be sure to keep an eye on the big Norwegian.
The Tour of Flanders is a race that does turn out a surprise winner from time to time. It’s certainly a race that plays host to standout performances from those we mightn’t have expected. Just look at Mads Pedersen’s plucky second last year from the break, or Tiesj Benoot’s fifth on debut in 2015.
On that note, here are some of the riders that we reckon you should keep an eye on, not necessarily because we think they’ll win, but because they could well have an impact on the race.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) – Valverde is more suited to the Ardennes classics than the cobbled classics, but a strong performance is within the world champion’s range, even though he’s on debut at Flanders. He should be able to hold his own on the climbs; it might just be a question of positioning and a relative lack of experience on the narrow roads of Flanders that work against him. Worth keeping an eye on.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) – Matthews is also racing De Ronde for the first time, and like Valverde the Australian is worth bearing in mind. On paper, the race should suit him — he climbs well for someone who sprints as well as he does, and he tends to be good at the end of long, hard races. He also brings decent form into the race, having won two stages at the recent (and always hard) Volta a Catalunya.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) – Naesen would normally be among the contenders for De Ronde but there are reports he might not take the start on Sunday due to bronchitis.
If Naesen does manage to start and is healthy, he’s in with a shot. He’s been hinting at a big win this spring with second at Milan-San Remo in a reduced bunch kick, eighth at E3, and third at Gent-Wevelgem. His best chance of victory likely comes from a small group.
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) – The European champion has had a very solid Classics season, finishing in the top 10 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Milan-San Remo, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. The additional climbing at Flanders works against him somewhat, but the Italian could factor late. And if he’s in the lead group at the end, watch out.
Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) – Ever since his storming fifth on debut, Benoot has been one to watch at the Tour of Flanders. He’s only finished two editions but with fifth and eighth he’s certainly been around the mark. Unfortunately he hasn’t been at his best so far this Classics season — courtesy of a crash at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad — so he’ll need to step it up a gear or two if he’s going to be competitive on Sunday.
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) – Fourth at E3 last week suggests the Italian is peaking nicely for De Ronde. He’s unlikely to win it, but it’s not hard to see him nibbling at the podium if everything falls his way. Note too that EF Education First also has Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld as potential options — both of whom are experienced campaigners in the cobbled classics.
How to watch
If you’re reading this in Australia, you’ll be pleased to know that De Ronde is being broadcast live via the SBS network. Live coverage of the men’s race will start online at SBS Cycling Central from 6:15pm AEST Sunday night, before switching to SBS Viceland at 9:30pm. Note that the women’s race, which runs concurrently, will be livestreamed from 9:30pm once the broadcast of the men’s race switches to TV.
Who’s your pick to win the 2019 men’s Tour of Flanders? How will they do it?