Tag Archives: tour of flanders

Tour of Flanders preview

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.

Screenshot 2015-04-05 16.55.15
Loopy!

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.

The rest…

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.
Proper hydration is important, even for spectators.
Proper hydration is important, even for spectators.

The end of a monumental rivalry

One of cycling’s great rivalries probably ended last Friday when Fabian Cancellara’s crash ruined his classics campaign. It followed Tom Boonen’s own classics-killer crash at Paris-Nice two weeks ago.

That’s it, it’s done.

This year’s cobbled monuments will be without their two great champions, and with both approaching the final stages of their careers, we’ve almost certainly seen the last time they duke it out in earnest on the pavé of Belgium and northern France.

Spare a moment to think about the end of an era.

We’ve written about Cancellara and Boonen a lot on The Roar over the past three years, because their rivalry is one of those sporting stories that rises clear above the daily news cycle of race results and speculation.

It’s a rivalry built more on statistics than any personal grudge, or even that many direct contests.

In fact, actual head-to-head battles between the two in top form have been rarer than we might have liked. Too often, especially in recent years, one has crashed out, been injured from a crash in a previous race, or been out of form after a crash.

They clashed at the 2010 Tour of Flanders, where Cancellara rode Boonen off his wheel on the Kapelmuur to win (find a video on YouTube, it’s an astonishing display of controlled power). They were both in the top 10 in 2006, which Boonen won, and again in 2014 which was Cancellara’s.

At Paris-Roubaix they met more often: they genuinely competed in 2005 (Boonen), 2006 (Cancellara), 2008 (Boonen), 2010 (Cancellara, Boonen 2nd) and 2014 (Terpstra).

But the last few years we have been starved of the sight of Spartacus and Tommeke pounding over the cobbles together, and this year we will see neither.

Each has earned his place individually amongst the greats of cycling, rare enough talents in their own rights. But their careers have overlapped almost completely, allowing the pair to dominate the cobbled monuments for the last decade.

Since Boonen’s first Paris-Roubaix victory in 2005, the pair have shared 7 out of 10 editions.

In the Tour of Flanders, it’s 6 out of 10. Considering the rare combination of strength, skill and good luck required to win even one of these monster races, those figures are staggering.

Cancellara has won Paris-Roubaix three times, the Tour of Flanders three times, Milan-San Remo once (we’ll leave his four world time trial championships and Olympic gold medal out of this for now).

Boonen’s collection includes four Paris-Roubaix wins and three Tours of Flanders, plus a swag of smaller cobbled classics (E3 and Gent-Wevelgem have been happy hunting grounds) and a world road race title.

Both have won many other races, of course.

Which is better? Both are great. Nobody has won Paris-Roubaix more than Boonen, but Cancellara has never had the team support that his Belgian rival has enjoyed. Each has produced rides of stunning brilliance, panache and sheer guts.

I can’t really see Boonen winning another Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. He hasn’t won a cobbled monument since 2012, when he stormed away from the field and rode 53km solo to victory (again, find it on YouTube). It was arguably his best victory, but he hasn’t been able to reach those heights since (crashes have been the main cause).

He was close in 2014, but his teammate Niki Terpstra attacked solo from a reduced bunch and took the win.

By 2016, Boonen will be 35, and his sprint has noticeably faded over the last two or three years. He’s still a formidable rider, but he no longer carries that untouchable aura. See the way Ian Stannard caught and dropped him at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad a few weeks ago.

Cancellara has maintained his dominance better than Boonen, but he still can’t rely on his team like Boonen can, and he too will be 35 by the spring of 2016. He is the most heavily-marked rider in the peloton – his Spartacus nickname is apt considering the overwhelming odds he faces in every race. To win, he needs to be at his absolute peak, because he is never given an inch of space.

He’s said he’ll probably retire at the end of 2016, giving him only one more chance at the cobbles.

Over the next two weeks, get used to the cobbled monuments without these two giants.

Yes, change is inevitable and the next generation has some exciting talents: Sep Vanmarcke, John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Alexander Kristoff among the best. This week’s Tour of Flanders will be the most open for years.

That’s all well and good, but it is sad to see an historic rivalry finish with a dropped water bottle and hospital beds, and not with blazing wheels over the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

This piece originally appeared on The Roar

Van Dijk smashed Flanders, but Belgian TV dropped the ball

It took a remarkable individual performance from a time trial champion to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen. A dominant ride combining raw power, skill over the cobbles, and plenty of panache.

Of course, I’m talking about Ellen Van Dijk, who smashed the women’s race apart with a solo attack 27km from the finish, holding off a powerful chasing group to win by a minute.

It was a performance that typified all that is good and right about racing in Flanders.

Then in a textbook team performance, Van Dijk’s Boels-Dolmans teammate Lizzie Armitstead defeated Orica-AIS leader Emma Johansson in the sprint for 2nd, to retain her lead in the UCI World Cup series.

Australia’s Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized-Lululemon) finished 9th.

The women’s Ronde is one of the few races on the women’s calendar that takes place simultaneously with the men’s race, on the same (albeit shortened) course. The women race over most of the same climbs, the same cobbled sectors, and finish at the same spot, about 90 minutes before the men.

The race itself is a pretty good example of how to improve equality between women’s and men’s races. Even the podium presentation was held at the same time as the men’s – something that Van Dijk was obviously overjoyed with:

So yes, the Tour of Flanders is a really big deal in women’s cycling. As Australian Champion Gracie Elvin wrote in her rather excellent race review for Cycling Tips,

“The race is special for us not just because of the history of the roads, but because it comes second to none for the crowd.

We don’t get to experience the craziness of the Grand Tours like the men, so for one day of the year we soak up the craziness of the Belgian fans hollering over the fences for any rider in any kit.”

Important races in front of huge crowds are exactly what is needed to improve the financial situation and viability of women’s road racing. It’s becoming a cliché, but this was a perfect showcase for women’s racing!

Sadly, the Belgian host broadcaster completely ignored the race, despite the presence of cameras, production staff and broadcast infrastructure.

Fans were crying out for coverage, updates, information.

But there was no live television. No online feed. Big problem.

Maybe I’m just cranky from sleep deprivation, but we’ve been beating this drum for a while now, in time with plenty of others, and it was yet another huge missed opportunity, while the demand for televised women’s road racing continues to grow.

By now, the standard response to the lack of TV coverage is some tired variation on, ‘Yes, but there’s not enough interest and producing a live telecast is expensive’, but the online clamour for information demonstrates how absurd this position is.

During the race, the demand for updates via Twitter was huge. Tweets from the official Ronde account, from teams and their management on the course (Wiggle-Honda boss Rochelle Gilmore  was a popular example) were being retweeted around the world.

And let’s not forget that all the television infrastructure and personnel were in place. The extra cost would’ve been minimal.

The host broadcaster missed a trick. Someone failed to sniff the winds of change at the UCI, and amongst the fans.

Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby was clearly exasperated at the lack of footage, but he did manage to call Van Dijk crossing the line, live from his box at the finish. Sadly there were no live (or near-live) pictures showing Van Dijk’s attack or its result.

Kirby was not the only Eurosport commentator annoyed. His colleague Anthony McCrossan tweeted:

SBS Cycling presenter Mike Tomalaris suggested one possible reason:

I find it pretty hard to disagree with Tomo’s assessment. Ignoring the women’s race is blatant sexism. You wouldn’t see it happen in athletics, swimming, or triathlon.

Can you imagine if Channel 7 decided not to broadcast the women’s final at the Australian Open?

The UCI did publish a seven-minute online highlights package of the race, but compared to the hours of live streaming and broadcast of the men’s race, this is slim pickings.

So once again we’re left raising our hats to a wonderful performance from a brilliant athlete, or rather a whole peloton of brilliant athletes, and cursing the lack of coverage available. It’s time for the UCI to demand more from its host broadcasters.

This piece was originally published on The Roar.