The Tour of Flanders is tonight. It’s the second Monument of the year, and arguably the race that demands the most from its winner – the combination of length (264km), cobbles, climbs and weather means you absolutely can’t get lucky and win at Flanders.
If the Ronde lacks the bloodthirsty brutality of Paris-Roubaix, and the climbs are not as hard or as many as Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it makes up for it by demanding a complete package of power, skill, stamina and courage, with a healthy dose of unpredictability thrown in.
Last one up the Paterberg is a rotten egg!
The race starts just outside Brugge (Bruges) and heads south through Kortrijk, then east towards Oudenaarde. It winds its way through the surrounding area in a series of tight loops, taking in iconic cobbled bergs such as the Paterberg (twice), the Oude Kwaremont (three times) and the Koppenberg. The climbs in this race are short, but can be extremely steep and run up narrow cobbled lanes.
The Paterberg (at 213km and 251km), for example, is only 360m long, but peaks at 20.6%. The even more fearsome Koppenberg (at 220km) is 600m long and hits 22.6%.
Passing is extraordinarily difficult in good conditions, and if it rains grip is nearly nonexistent. These are climbs that are best ridden seated, to keep the rear wheel from bouncing off the cobbles.
If you’re not in a good position at the bottom of these climbs, your race can be over quicker than a Belgian fan downs Jupiler cans on the roadside, so it’s all elbows and mayhem leading into them.
Fabian Cancellara has won the last two editions. In 2013 he won with a prodigious burst of power on the Paterberg, blasting Jurgen Roelandts and then Peter Sagan off his wheel and soloing 14km to the finish.
In 2014 he won in a completely different style, in a tense sprint finish from a group containing three Belgians: Greg van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh.
Of course, Cancellara is not racing this year, thanks to a nasty crash at E3-Harelbeke which left him with fractured vertebrae. This opens up the race considerably and makes selecting a favourite much more difficult.
So, who are my picks?
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
The Norwegian had a break-out year in 2014, winning his first monument at Milan-San Remo, and two stages of the Tour de France. He’s continued on this season, and already has 8 victories to his name. He was 2nd at MSR, and his form on the cobbles has been excellent: 2nd at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; 4th at E3-Harelbeke and 9th at Gent-Wevelgem. He’s also fresh from an overall victory at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, where he managed to nab a podium in the final time trial, behind Sir Bradley Wiggins and world individual pursuit champion Stefan Kueng. So, he’s flying.
If Kristoff gets to the finish with the leaders, he’ll win. He was 5th last year – first of the chase group.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin)
Degenkolb won Milan-San Remo, but his cobbles form this year hasn’t been as good as Kristoff’s. 25th at E3-Harelbeke and a DNF at Gent-Wevelgem (which he won in 2014). Nevertheless, he was 15th in Flanders last year and 2nd at Paris-Roubaix, so he can ride the cobbles. Whether he has the team to support him remains to be seen.
Degenkolb is a popular rider, and I’d certainly love to see him sprinting to the win.
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo)
The Belgian is in one of the most consistent performers in cobbled races on the World Tour, but hasn’t managed to snare a big win. He is a powerful and gutsy rider, but is often found lacking for top end speed at the finish. That said, he was the only rider able to hold Cancellara’s wheel up the Paterberg in 2014, which tells you something about his ability. Expect Vanmarcke to podium, but he’ll need to have it won before the finishing straight if he wants to go home as champion.
Greg van Avermaet (BMC)
Another perennial podium-placer, van Avermaet desperately wants to climb onto the top step and dump the nearly-man tag, once and for all. He’s a good enough chance, although he is another rider who tends to lose in sprint finishes. I hope he doesn’t win. He’s currently under a cloud of doping suspicion relating to the illegal use of ozone therapy, and I’d rather avoid the hassle of stripping his name from the record books later.
BMC should have had the decency not to select him. He crashed heavily at E3-Harelbeke, which won’t help his chances.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo)
You can never count Sagan out, but I don’t think he’s in his best form. Never a tactical genius, in the past he’s relied on sheer bloody talent to win despite some epic blunders. But it just doesn’t seem to be working as much lately.
Perhaps he’s been worked out by his rivals. Perhaps his fat new contract and heavy marketing workload have distracted him. Perhaps the pressure coming from Oleg Tinkov is hurting his confidence. Whatever the reason, I don’t think Sagan will win the Ronde this year. I do still think he’ll be thereabouts when the race gets serious. Probably trying a ridiculous and unnecessary attack.
He won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and was 4th at MSR, so he’s not far off.
Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quickstep)
The 2014 Paris-Roubaix champion steps up in the absence of Tom Boonen. He was 2nd at Gent-Wevelgem in horrendous conditions, and 2nd at Omloop Het-Nieuwsblad. His best place at Flanders is 6th, in 2012 and 2014. A decent outside chance, but probably not if it comes down to a sprint. Terpstra’s biggest problem might be a lack of unity within his powerful team.
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quickstep) – 2nd at E3-Harelbeke and 1st at Strade Bianche, will be a key player in any drinking games involving “former cyclocrosser”
Lars Boom (Astana) – another “former cyclocrosser”, Boom won the cobbled stage 5 of the Tour de France, but his form has been indifferent so far this season. I still think he’ll be in the top 10.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) – is Wiggins riding Flanders as a warm-up for Paris-Roubaix, or will he give it a real crack? He blew away the field in the TT at Driedaagse De Panne, so you get the feeling that anything is possible if he can stay out of trouble.
Geraint Thomas (Sky) – blown into a ditch at Gent-Wevelgem, but won E3-Harelbeke in some style. Gutsy and has great form.
Best Aussie chance:
This is not a race that suits most Aussie riders, but I think it’s probably Heinrich Haussler (IAM). I would love to see Luke Durbridge (OGE) have a crack though. He’s got the size and power to succeed on the cobbles, but he needs to gain more experience at the pointy end of the race.
Drink of choice:
It’s all Belgian flavours. I’ll be sipping:
- Saison Dupont, a lighter farmhouse style from Tourpes, about 40km south of Oudenaarde.
- Rochefort 10 from Rochefort, which is a fair way from Flanders in the south-east of Belgium, but then it is a monumental quadrupel.
- Bridge Road Chevalier Saison, an excellent Australian interpretation of the Belgian style, from Beechworth in Victoria’s north-east.