Vlaanderens Mooiste… Your Complete Flanders Preview
It’s the Mooiste Wonderful Time of the Year! Corona or no, spring is upon us, and there is no stopping the feel of spring from seeping into our bones. As a sports-watching-guy, this weekend mashes up college basketball’s crowning event, the return of baseball, and of course the Cobbled Classics — all of which are happening to some extent from the American perspective. Yes, things are getting dicey in Europe and the return of normalcy might get pushed back on both sides of the pond. So let’s enjoy this ray of sunshine while it lasts.
The bad news: as you probably know by now, ASO has announced that Paris-Roubaix will be moved to October 2 (women) and 3 (men), due to the rise of COVID cases in France generally, and in the Department du Nord in particular. This feels kind of disastrous, particularly since this year would have been the first women’s edition of the race. But for one small detail… now the race will come a week after the close of the 2021 UCI World Championships in Leuven, just east of Brussels. In other words, we will have our Flanders-Roubaix Double after all!
That’s a bit rosy, and I don’t suspect the Worlds course will play out like De Ronde, but the similarities should be enough to draw out the classics studs, who are usually game for a Worlds try anyway, absent a pure climbers’ course. Should be true for both the women and men. And as we saw last October, the race conditions shouldn’t be too dissimilar to a spring event, maybe just a bit colder. Already Oliver Naesen and Jasper Stuyven have made approving statements of the October fallback plan.
Anyway, the race is on Sunday, let’s cover some notes.
Details of the Parcours
Like last year, the organizers seem to be keeping a close hold on course information, as a way to discourage fans from stopping by to watch. There will be no maps or profiles, unless someone else puts them together. The most we get from the race organizers is this list of climbs and cobbled sectors:
Apparently the course is largely similar to last year’s race, except for the removal of the Leberg just before the Berendries, and the addition of the Molenberg (!) and Marlboroughstraat in that same sequence. Also Berg ten Houte has been added to the space between the Valkenberg and the Kanarieberg. That’s a net gain of two additional climbs beyond last year’s total. These three additions (and one deletion) come in the thick middle of the race, and aren’t likely to be strategic so much as part of the process of attrition.
You can, as usual, divide the race into the following phases:
- The opening 120km, a/k/a everything before and including the first climb of the Oude Kwaremont. This is largely flat stuff but the approach of the Oude K will thin out the field and cause some preliminary ordering of events.
- The First Big Wave: about 10km after loosening the legs on the first passing of the Oude K, the riders head back across the N60, which links Ronse to Oudenaarde and draws a line between the geologic features of the Kwaremont-Koppenberg just west of the road from the geologically separate jumble of hills to the east. What you get next is the Kortekeer (at 131km) climbing to the N60, then crossing over to the Eikenberg (139km), Wolvenberg (142.5km) Molenberg (152km), Marlboroughstraat (156.4km), Berendries (160km), and Valkenberg (165.8km). Then you want to die, or stop for a beer, or both… unless you are a racing cyclist in which case you just ignore all feelings of any kind and keep going.
- The Brief Respite: Berg Ten Houte happens shortly after, cruelly interrupting the break the race normally takes before the very lovely Kanarieberg climb into the Music Forest… which itself is followed by another 15km(ish) before shit gets really real.
- The Almost-Final: Talk about getting real. The penultimate wave of climbs, from km200 to maybe 230, includes the Oude Kwaremont again, the first climb of the Paterberg, the Koppenberg, then quickly back over the N60 to Mariaborrestraat/Steenbekdries, followed two seconds later by the Taaienberg, then about 10km to Ronse for the Oude Kruisberg/Hotond climb, or climbs, depending on whether you consider the 50 flat meters after the traffic light on the N60 to be some sort of geological interruption.
- The Final-Final: From the Hotond it’s a smooth highway dash down to Kluisbergen for the last run up the Oude Kwaremont, followed by the Paterberg, followed by the 11km dash to the line.
Dorp Van De Ronde
Every year the Tour of Flanders picks a Village of De Ronde, as a way of signifying that we should pay attention to that village. Language has meaning, power even, and far be it from me to resist. So with that in mind, I command you to pay attention to the Dorp van de Ronde.
Except since 2016 the organizers decided to give us seven Dorpen van de Ronde, for reasons too sinister and unjustifiable for me to even think through. The seven villages are Erpe-Mere, Sint-Niklaas, Hamme-Zogge, Aalst, Herzele, Zottegem and Berlare. I just want to talk about one dorp, and will rule out the hyphenated ones, for starters, as being too anxious for attention to choose a single name. [As it happens, all of those have had more than enough attention from cycling, possibly thanks to their hyphenated names.] Same for Zottegem and Aalst, two more cities with enough cycling lore, mononame and all. That leaves Herzele and Berlare. Herzele is a sleepy little town with a small castle and some sheep, so I’ll go wither Berlare.
Berlare is one of the dorpen van de Ronde because it is an example of the uniqueness of each village along the route of the race. It has a large church, a medium sized church, and a small church. It also has a pub, a bakery, a fish store, a frituur, and at least one pizza joint. The bike shop has been replaced by a snowboard store, although if you ask them I’m sure they will fix your bike for you. Berlare is, by all accounts, a friendly place. The main source of income is undoubtedly the commercial fisheries on the Nieuwdonk, a/k/a The Great Berlare Lake. The waterzooi is said to be among the finest anywhere from Gent to Dendermonde.
Best of all, somewhere in town, for those in the know, is the Supporters Club Oliver Naesen. It used to be the Supporters Club Preben Van Hecke, but he’s downshifted into the twilight of his career. Before that, it was probably the Supporters Club Jarno Van Mingeroet, and at some time it was absolutely the Supporters Club Fred De Bruyne, the double Flanders-Roubaix winner in 1957, among other (obviously less important) palmares. It’s probably still the Supporters Club De Bruyne, at least until Ollie or his brother Lawrence finally win the big one and restore the honor of Berlare.
So that is Berlare. It is a totally unique village. If you were to visit, you would meet an entirely different group of people than you would find in, say, Herzele. Definitely put it on your list. If nothing else, it’s a short ride into central Gent and all the splendor that holds.
News About the Start Town
Speaking of route info, there is some preliminary non-final news that the Ronde will settle the tug of war over the start between Antwerp and Bruges by alternating in some fashion. Bruges was the start town for the Tour of Flanders from 1998 to 2016, before Antwerp bought a five-year period as the host city, expiring after Sunday’s race. Antwerp wants to keep it, Bruges wants it back. So, in very Belgian style, they will just have to learn to share. The CEO of Flanders Classics, Tomas Van Den Spiegel (can I please please please have your job?), said he is “happy” with the sharing arrangement but didn’t want to make a final decision with so much to do to get this year’s race safely to its conclusion. Antwerp will have seen two of its five starts happen without fans, which sucks, but hopefully will be something they and we can all get over in a while.
Helling Van de Ronde
May I pick a Climb of the Race? Much like the Dorp van de Ronde, it seems altogether fitting that we anoint a climb as deserving of particular attention. The main courses, your Muurs and Koppenbergs and Paterbergs… I mean, how many times can I write about them? [A lot, including an entire book, but let’s stay on topic.] Today, I nominate as the Helling van de Ronde… the Berg ten Houte.
Why? Well, because it has popped up in some races lately but has not been on my radar. It has an odd history, featuring in the Ronde and E3 Harelbeke numerous times in the 80s and since… but as a paved climb, as pictured above. It lies roughly in the center of the triangle between Ronse, Oudenaarde and Brakel, easily tucked into your murderer’s row climbing route with the Taaienberg, Kanarieberg and some less well known stuff just a few km south in the Francophone area.
And it is now, as of 2018, cobbled. In recognition of its ancient history as a Roman road connecting Wallonia with the Schelde, the local folks decided to adorn it with a proper coat of cobbles. You can see the work in progress here. The stones are all new and the surface is somewhat polite, but that is of course how all cobblestone surfaces start out. Give it a few years, drive a few tractors over it, pelt it with several metric shit-tons of rain, and see where things stand. As to its race potential, it is popping up on classic menus now, most recently, uh, this Wednesday, where Dylan van Baarle launched his race-winning attack. That gets you into the club, new stones and all.
The climb is not dissimilar to a lot of the Flemish Ardennes climbs in that it hits you hard right at the bottom of the climb, going to 10 and then 12 percent over the first 400 meters, before slowly leveling off… but still going up. And up. And up. It totals 1.1km, and before the top there are some 300 meters of false flat, but then one last kick up a 5% incline for the last 100m block. These climbs are hard, and they grind on. The Berg ten Houte is no exception.
Where Will the Race Go Berserk?
A better question might be, where won’t it go berserk? The Quick Step-versus-the-world dynamic means that teams will want to consider making moves sooner than they might be comfortable with, because if Quick Step gets off the front, everyone else is playing defense the rest of the day.
So where can it happen? The Molenberg launched the 2010 Ronde to greatness, but it’s awfully far from the line on the new course. The Oude Kwaremont second pass happens 60km from the line, and no doubt that and the next few climbs will continue to winnow away the size of the main field. But it’s waaaaaay too obvious a place to launch your big plans for Quick Step to have not already preempted it. That makes my choices of a place for a decisive attack to take place as either the Kanarieberg or the Berg ten Houte.
My hope is the Kanarieberg, which deserves more attention as a hard climb, 1.2km at 7.9%, and a place that doesn’t get enough play in the race. Sure, it plays a key role in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but riders (in the men’s Ronde anyway) have kept their powder dry here. It’s also a very beautiful spot in the race with a restaurant at the top in a small clearing of the surrounding forest. People should be more hyped about the Kanarieberg. Don’t hate the non-cobbled climbs! [Don’t worry, I’m fine.]
Who Will Win?
The hard part. I am more interested in who’s hot and who’s not. The who’s not part, unfortunately, includes Mathieu van der Poel, who is out there telling journos that his last couple outings can be explained by warm weather, the likes of which will be long gone by Sunday. So maybe, if it is cold enough, he will find his way back onto the hot list.Maybe a couple easy days this week will have done him some good. We’ll see. Certainly we have seen way too much of him to rule anything out.
One rider who could be on either the hot or not list is Wout Van Aert, winner last weekend after faltering on Friday at E3. Being on a good team and being a fine sprinter may have helped him win Gent-Wevelgem, but his team isn’t as strong as another team, which arguably sat (itself) out at G-W, and Sunday won’t come down to a sprint. So… maybe?
The hot list does seem to include Greg Van Avermaet, Jasper Stuyven, Anthony Turgis, Dylan van Baarle, Matteo Trentin, Nils Politt, Sonny Colbrelli, Alexander Kristoff, and all of Deceuninck Quick Step. Maybe you can expand it to known quantities Oliver Naesen, Tiesj Benoot, Michael Matthews and Alberto Bettiol. But mostly it includes Quick Step.
Who is going to stop the multi-pronged attacks? Jumbo? Alpecin? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I’ve already said that the only way to stop them is for van der Poel and Van Aert to team up and form too strong a duo for even Quick Step to contain. It’s not unreasonable for them to conclude that they need each other, nor that this is a decent gamble — Van Aert thinking his sprint form is better right now, and van der Poel secure in the remembrance of last year’s final meters. Why not do this? If nothing else, it beats sitting back and just waiting for their punishment. If they get a bit of help from their teammates— not an unreasonable expectation— then they have a chance.
One key, in my opinion, is that they have to not focus too much on Julian Alaphilippe, because he’s the shiny distraction, clad in rainbow and with a track record of excellence in the race. The hotter hands are Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert. Both of those guys look ready to take a long attack to the house. Neither of them is all that likely to attract Van Aert’s or van der Poel’s attention as long as Alaphilippe is on hand. That would be the perfect move for Lefevre, launching early with your Plan B that’s actually a Plan A. Picture if they had actually told Stijn Devolder to go win the race. This is what it would be like.
So that’s my idea of a likely scenario. It seems a bit likelier than two rivals, on opposite sides of their peak form but most importantly not in the very center of it, teaming up to execute a perfect plan that neutralizes a team of up to five potential winners (I didn’t even mention Asgreen or Senechal, both of whom have been within striking distance of winning before, multiple times). I just can’t see Quick Step not bossing this race. They have had the same approach for several years now, in the post-Boonen days, and it worked to perfection in 2017 and 2018. Then Bettiol shocked everyone in 2019 when maybe DQT didn’t ride aggressively enough. And their plans were working well last year until Ala clipped the moto. So they know all too well what to do, and the fact that they have the riders to do it. They’ve missed once, twice… a third time is probably too much to expect.
Nobody is stopping the Steppers this time. I’m picking Stybar for the win.
Who ya got?