The weekly spin: Flanders into Roubaix, pro cycling’s holiest of weeks

by Neal Rogers


It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s often referred to as Holy Week, the span between the start of the Ronde van Vlaanderen in the port city of Antwerp and the finish of Paris-Roubaix in the arena of the Parc Municipal de Sports velodrome in Roubaix.

Officially, it’s called Holy Week because these consecutive Sundays often fall on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Unofficially, it’s because they’re two of the hardest, most dramatic, most historic events on the race calendar, held one week apart.

Until recently, that holiest of weeks also included Gent-Wevelgem sandwiched in on the Wednesday between the two Monuments. Gent-Wevelgem has since claimed its own Sunday, the weekend before the Ronde, with Scheldeprijs slotting in between Flanders and Roubaix. Dwars door Vlaanderen has moved into the Wednesday slot before the Tour of Flanders, as Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne (“Three Days of Brugge-De Panne”) became a one-day race, but also a WorldTour race, and is now held 10 days before the big show.

The dates may shift around, but the themes at these races remain the same: Cobblestones. Crowds. Crosswinds. Clashes. Crashes. Chaos.

And it’s not just the religious holidays that have given the Holy Week handle its staying power; there is biblical imagery in the terrain as well.

The chapel atop the Muur van Geraardsbergen, also known as the Kapelmuur, or “chapel wall,” has been the site of an annual pilgrimage for cycling fans for decades, even if it no longer features in the final at Flanders (more on that later.)

The Hell of the North, the nickname attributed to Paris-Roubaix following the destruction of World War I, depicts a voyage into a burnt-out hellscape. A hundred years have passed since the end of the Great War, and those fields are once again covered in green grass, but the moniker remains, and it doubles as an apt description of racing across rough cobblestone farm tracks.

Chapels. Hellscapes. Death, and resurrection.

The race leaders passed  through the Menin Gate War Memorial at the 2019 Gent-Wevelgem.

For me, pro cycling’s Holy Week is really the culmination of a monthlong build up that begins with Omloop Het Nieuwsbald in early March. It’s comparable to the fall–winter holiday season in the United States; Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne open things up, like Thanksgiving; a month later, Flanders and Roubaix are the equivalent of Christmas and New Year’s Day.

In between are mini-holidays, previews of what’s to come at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen — all held within the span of eight days.

Each race has its own flavor, but there’s no denying they all inform one another. Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem are both impacted by coastal winds and ascents of the cobbled Kemmelberg climb. E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen are both shorter versions of the Tour of Flanders, using many of the same kasseien (cobblestones) and hellingen (short, steep climbs) as at the Ronde, such as Taaienberg, Knokteberg, Paterberg, and Oude Kwaremont.

These races have unique characteristics, but the smells are the same: Beer. Frites. Embrocation. Cigarettes. Cologne. Manure. More beer.

As I said, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

THE HOLY DOUBLE

I got my first taste of Holy Week back in 2005, when I attended Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix. Tom Boonen won both Monuments that year, his first victories at both, and I saw firsthand how seriously the Belgians take these cobblestone classics — particularly when a Belgian wins. Particularly when he does the double. And particularly when he’s young, handsome, and charismatic. The mania around Boonen’s Flanders-Roubaix double was almost impossible to describe. I’d never seen anything like it before.

As I have written previously, after Flanders I saw an older Belgian gentleman walking Boonen’s bike to the press conference, holding the bike with reverence as though it was a sacred ancient artifact. Tears were in his eyes, and he was shaking; it looked as though he was willing to die to protect that bike.

A week later, on the infield of the Roubaix velodrome, I saw people lose their minds. I saw a sprinting camera crew, joined by microphone cables, trip over their own wires, and sprawl across the grass, thousands of dollars of equipment flying through the air. Inside the Quick-Step team camp, grown men were hugging and crying. Outside of that camp, there was yelling as cameramen and event security officials pushed, shoved, and pleaded.

There have been 12 occasions when a rider has pulled off the Flanders-Roubaix double — and it’s happened five times in the past 20 years, with both Boonen and Fabian Cancellara accomplishing the feat twice, the only riders to do so. Even the great Eddy Merckx, a two-time Flanders winner and three-time Roubaix champion, never managed to do it.

Flanders and Roubaix are similar in many ways — they’re over 250km, they feature cobblestones, they favor the strongmen of the peloton, they’re held a week apart — but they also quite different.

The Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, a museum dedicated to the event, is located in the Oudenaarde city square.

The Tour of Flanders utilizes several ridgelines across the Flemish Ardennes, connecting numerous villages along a serpentine route that culminates in finishing circuits near Oudenaarde. Paris-Roubaix is much more remote, utilizing farm tracks that connect Compiègne, north of Paris, to Roubaix, near the border with Belgium, in a comparably straight line from south to north.

Because of this, while Roubaix may have more mythology built around it, the Tour of Flanders is more revered. There’s a museum in Oudenaarde dedicated to the Ronde; a few years ago, there was a fictional TV series based solely on the events surrounding race day. The Sunday of the Ronde van Vlaanderen is like a national holiday in West Flanders, drawing upward of one million spectators when the weather cooperates. The Tour of Flanders cyclosportive, held one day before the big race, draws around 20,000 participants, and feels like the cycling version of a big city marathon.

And while there are several events using similar roads leading into the Ronde van Vlaanderen, in this regard, they are quite different; there is only one race, the GP de Denain, which simulates Paris-Roubaix, utilizing 21km of cobbles, spread over 12 sectors, including the Wallers à Haveluy sector so often featured at the Queen of the Classics.

THE ANNUAL QUICK-STEP QUESTION

The years differ, but over the past 15 years, one storyline has been consistent — a Belgian squad managed by Patrick Lefevere will be the team to beat. Since Quick-Step came on as a team sponsor in 2003, Lefevere’s teams have won Flanders on seven occasions, with four different riders, and Roubaix on five occasions, with two different riders. Even following the 2017 retirement of Tom Boonen, who shares the record number of wins at both Flanders and Roubaix, the Quick-Step squad has set the watermark for dominance across the cobbled classics.

Last year, between February 27 and April 4, Quick-Step won Le Samyn, Dwars door West-Vlaanderen, Nokere Koerse, Handzame Classic, Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, and Scheldeprijs.

This year, between March 2 and April 3, Deceuninck-Quick Step has won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, Le Samyn, and E3 BinckBank Classic, as well as a few races over in Italy you may have heard about, Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo.

But for all of Deceuninck-Quick Step’s strength, we saw at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen that they are most certainly beatable. At De Panne, Viviani could only manage third behind Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates); at Gent-Wevelgem there were no Deceuninck-Quick Step riders in the top 10, with Viviani their top finisher, in 19th.

What’s noteworthy, of course, is that when the team goes all in for Viviani, they effectively eliminate their greatest weapon — strength in numbers. The team fares better when has several cards to play in riders like Stybar, Yves Lampaert, Bob Jungels, and Philippe Gilbert, a Flanders winner in 2017 after 50km alone at the front.

After Bob Jungels (background) was caught with 7km to go, Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck – Quick Step) went on to win the E3 BinckBank Classic.

At Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Jungels went clear 16km from the line and stayed away; at E3, he went clear 30km from the line but was caught with 7km remaining, setting up Stybar, the freshest rider in the five-man group. It’s the same tactic the team used to set up Terpstra, and Gilbert, for their Flanders victories, and further back, Stijn Devolder in 2008 and 2009, with Boonen waiting to pounce from the chase group.

At Gent-Wevelgem, only Tim Declercq made the front group selection in the crosswinds; once he was dropped on the Kemmelberg, the team was forced to chase. At Dwars door Vlaanderen, Jungels was in the front group with winner Mathieu van der Poel, but could not get away; he finished third, while Gilbert was forced to abandon with stomach issues.

And then, of course, there is the Omloop Curse. No man has ever won Omloop and gone on to win the Tour of Flanders. (One woman, Lizzie Deignan, managed it in 2016.) Stybar was this year’s Omloop winner, and he went on to win at E3 four weeks later. Which brings up an opposing bit of trivia: Over the past 15 years, the winner at E3 has gone on to win the Tour of Flanders on six occasions: Boonen in 2005, 2006, and 2012; Fabian Cancellara in 2010 and 2013; and Terpstra last year. So which will it be this time around — the Omloop curse, or E3 as dress rehearsal for the Ronde?

Based on his wins at Omloop and E3, and stellar domestique performances at San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem, Stybar looks very much poised to take a first Monument victory at either Flanders, where he has often been in a support role, or Roubaix, where he has twice finished runner-up.

A LONG LIST OF RIDERS TO WATCH

Beyond Deceuninck-Quick Step, the list of contenders to watch at these races is long, and varied.

Let’s start with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who won Flanders, in 2016, and Roubaix, last year. Or Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), winner at Gent-Wevelgem and a Flanders champion in 2015. There’s Greg Van Avermaet (Team CCC), three times on the podium at Flanders and Roubaix winner in 2017, who finds himself in the unenviable position of racing on a much weaker team than in years past.

We can’t forget John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Roubaix champion in 2015 and runner-up at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. Or Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), the defending Flanders champion seeking a first victory with his new team. You’d also have to include Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), the European champion, who made critical selections at Milan-San Remo, E3, and Gent-Wevelgem, finishing in the top 10 at all three. And you can’t forget Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), fifth in his Flanders debut back in 2015, who looked sharp at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, where he finished fifth. A wise dark horse pick would be Mads Pederson (Trek-Segafredo), second last year in his Flanders debut, who attacked relentlessly in the final 10km at Gent-Wevelgem.

One anticipated rider to watch on Sunday is world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), making his Flanders debut at age 38. Another is Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), also in his Flanders debut, fresh off winning a pair of stages at Volta a Catalunya. Both men will race the Ardennes week; neither will follow Flanders with competing at Roubaix.

Mathieu van der Poel’s win at Grand Prix de Denain is the closest we’ll come to see him racing Paris-Roubaix this year.

Personally, I’m most excited to see what cyclocross stars Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel will do at the Tour of Flanders. At Gent-Wevelgem, both men were at the head of the race when the peloton split in the crosswinds, forming a 20-man all-star breakaway; on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, they held on while riders like John Degenkolb, Pascal Ackermann, and Jasper Stuyven were dropped with 75km remaining.

Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) finished ninth in his Flanders debut last year, while Van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), the Dutch road champion, makes his Flanders debut after a 10-day stretch that included winning GP de Denain with a solo breakaway before finishing an impressive fourth at Gent-Wevelgem, his WorldTour debut, and then going on to win a five-rider sprint at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Van der Poel will not race Paris-Roubaix this year, instead choosing to fly the Dutch tricolore on home turf at the Amstel Gold Race; he will look for a good showing at the Tour of Flanders, a race his father, Adri, won in 1986.

Van Aert has become one of the central stories of the 2019 spring classics, finishing third at Strade Bianche, sixth at Milan-San Remo, and second at E3 Harelbeke. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that, like Van der Poel, he’s still only 24, and like Van der Poel, he’s also coming off a full cyclocross season that began in September. Last year, Van Aert finished 13th in his Roubaix debut. I expect he’ll do even better this time around.

Another rider I had been hoping to watch very closely is Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale). The former Belgian champion has shown consistent form across the spring classics, finishing second at Milan-San Remo, third at Gent-Wevelgem, and eighth at E3. He doesn’t have the finishing speed of riders like Sagan, Degenkolb, or Kristoff, but this spring he’s always been there when it matters. However on Wednesday, Sporza reported that he’s doubtful for Flanders due to bronchitis; here’s to hoping he recovers for Roubaix.

A look at the front group at the E3 BinckBank Classic provides a pretty good idea of who to watch at the Tour of Flanders. From left: Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), Greg van Avermaet (Team CCC), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), and Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe).

As for Sagan, it would be unwise to read much into his lack of podium appearances at San Remo, E3, or Gent-Wevelgem. Coming off illness at San Remo, he made the split over the Poggio and botched up the sprint, finishing fourth. He was racing at the front at E3 when something hit his rear derailleur with 25km to go, and unable to shift gears, he could not follow accelerations on the Tiegemberg.

At Gent-Wevelgem, Sagan found himself in the all-star breakaway after crosswinds split the bunch; he later was part of the front group of four when the race broke apart with 65km to go. Once that group was caught inside the final 20km, the three-time Gent-Wevelgem winner had ridden at the front of the race for nearly 180km, and had nothing left for the sprint. If anything, it looked like a fantastic training day for the former world champion.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know how much emphasis to place on what we’ve seen when looking forward to Flanders and Roubaix. One thing is certain: beyond the distance of the Monuments, and the depth of the field, team strength is going to make a big difference for riders like Terpstra, Van Avermaet, and Van der Poel. And, as always, we’ll have a better idea of what to expect at Roubaix after Flanders.

FLANDERS VS ROUBAIX: A MATTER OF PREFERENCE

Flanders. Roubaix. Which is the better race?

For years, it was an easy answer: De Ronde. It’s the best race of the year, I have said often, with confidence. It’s got the hills. It’s got the crowds. It’s less of a lottery. The 2011 edition of the Tour of Flanders, won by Nick Nuyens ahead of Sylvain Chavanel and Fabian Cancellara, remains one of the most thrilling finishes to a one-day race I’ve ever seen.

Today, I’m less certain in my answer, and if anything, I lean towards Roubaix.

The reason lies in the course change at the Tour of Flanders, doing away with the iconic Muur-Bosberg finale into Ninove and replacing it with the Kwaremont-Paterberg circuits in Oudenaarde. I understand the rationale behind it — I wrote an entire column about it at the time, calling it blasphemous — but in terms of racing, it’s made for a more predictable, less-thrilling finale. The last two editions have been won by soloing Quick-Step riders, a bit anticlimactic. Sagan’s victory in 2016 was a memorable one, the 100th edition won by the world champion ahead of Cancellara, who had hoped to break the record of Ronde in his final attempt.

Sagan won last year’s Paris-Roubaix from a two-up sprint ahead of Swiss champion Silvan Dillier.

By contrast, the last four editions of Paris-Roubaix have finished with sprints in the velodrome. Degenkolb won ahead of Stybar from a six-man group in 2015. After riding in the daylong breakaway, Mathew Hayman deprived Boonen of a record-breaking fifth Roubaix victory in 2016, the dedicated gregario finishing ahead of one of the sport’s biggest stars in a race finish that couldn’t have been better scripted. Van Avermaet pulled off a sprint win ahead of Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld from a five-man group in 2017, and last year, even the two-up sprint between Sagan and Silvan Dillier was far from a foregone conclusion for the world champion, who had struggled with cramps in the final hour of racing.

Of course, Roubaix also has the benefit of coming last — a fitting, climactic finish to the holiest week in pro cycling.

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