Ronde van Vlaanderen preview

This year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) has been one of the most anticipated races of the season so far, with a resurgent Tom Boonen and a mind-bogglingly strong Fabian Cancellara set to renew their rivalry for the title of Greatest Classics Rider in the World Ever™. But the Ronde is so much more than any individual rider. To many, it’s the greatest race in the calendar and the very beating heart at the centre of Belgian cycling. So what’s it all about?

What kind of race is it?

The Ronde van Vlaanderen is one of the five Monuments in the Classics calendar and is considered by many to be the hardest one-day race of the year. Now in its 96th edition, the Ronde has acquired legendary status among both riders and spectators and defines the magic of Belgian racing with its gruelling parcours, its iconic cobbled climbs and the ferocity of the fans who come out in force, in all weather, every year. It is, quite simply, a race like no other.

Winners in the last five years:

2007: Alessandro Ballan (Lampre)

2008: Stijn Devolder (Quick Step)

2009: Stijn Devolder (Quick Step)

2010: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)

2011: Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank)

What happened last year?

Nick Nuyens pipping Cancellara at the finish of the 2011 edition (image courtesy of Flanders Classics website)

Fabian Cancellara had come into the Ronde as the hands-down favourite for the win, and it seemed the only thing worth speculating on was who would come second. Cancellara had made an emphatic statement the week before at E3 Harelbeke when he went from punctured loss to solo victory in a hard-driving masterclass on how to bridge your way through a peloton of lesser men and come out with your arms aloft. Oh, the others noticed and from then on, he was a marked man. Hoping to match his Flanders-Roubaix double in 2010, Cancellara took the race to the rest of the peloton, breaking away with Sylvain Chavanel and looking like he was going to duke it out with the Frenchman at the finish. However, cramps on the Muur – the climb on which the Swiss ditched Boonen and rode to victory the year before – meant that Philippe Gilbert could drive the peloton to erase the 40-second gap and bring everyone back together. Another attack in the final kilometres came to nought as Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens stayed on Cancellara and Chavanel’s wheels until he popped out to claim the victory, leaving Spartacus with third place.

1. Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank) 6:00:42

2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) same time

3. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) s/t

4. Tom Boonen (Quick Step) +0:02

5. Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) +0:08

6. George Hincapie (BMC) s/t

7. Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

8. Staf Scheirlinckx (Veranda’s Willems-Accent) s/t

9. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

10. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

This year’s race

It’s not just the quality of the peloton that’s made Ronde such a hot topic among the cycling chattering classes, but the change in the race’s parcours. The 255km race begins in Brugge and finishes in Oudenaarde. Cobbled sections start 90km into the race, and the first of the 16 climbs of the day starts with the Taaienberg 109km in. From then on it’s cobbles and climbs and cobbled climbs until the finish.

One of the most controversial changes in the parcours this year has been the removal of the iconic Muur, to be replaced by three finishing circuits where the riders have to tackle both the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg each time before they head for the finish 15km after the last climb. This is where the winner is decided, but earlier in the race – the Taaienberg, the Molenberg – is where riders can lose the race by being in the wrong position on the approach.

Once they hit the Kwaremont for the first time, there should be the punch, hold, punch, hold of attacks to sap the legs and, more importantly, break the spirits of the lesser men in the group, until some clear selections are made. By the time the Kwaremont comes up for the third time, we should be seeing pockets of riders as opposed to a peloton and the eventual winner in the lead group. Many have noted that this final section seems meant to separate the strongest from the opportunists. One thing is for sure – after a gruelling day of this race, whoever climbs to the top step of the podium deserves legendary status.

Who to watch

Unless you’ve been to the moon during the week, you’ll know that the two favourites for the race are Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara (You can read our head-to-head comparison of the two here.) Boonen has the advantage of having a great team around him – including Three Days of De Panne winner Sylvain Chavanel, Gert Steegmans, Stijn Vandenbergh and Dries Devenyns – while Cancellara has the advantage of not being the hands-down favourite this year and making sure OPQS does a lot of the work on the front. His team is stronger than last year but still not anywhere near as strong as OPQS. If it comes down to power over speed, you’d have to bet on Cancellara; speed over power and you’re on the Boonen train into Oudenaarde.

Big George Hincapie will be riding the Ronde with the BMC boys. (Image courtesy of Roz Jones)

However, as seen time and time again, races – particularly Belgian classics – are unpredictable and luck plays an enormous part in the race. So there are plenty of potential winners in the peloton on Sunday. BMC is fielding a strong team with Philippe Gilbert (hopefully healed from his dental problems), Alessandro Ballan, Thor Hushovd, Greg van Avermaet and veteran Ronde rider, George Hincapie. Vacansoleil-DCM are hoping it’ll be three times lucky for Stijn Devolder. Garmin-Barracuda has packed their team with potential winners in Heinrich Haussler, Johan Vansummeren and Sep Vanmarcke.

Rabobank has Lars Boom (who went boom trying to get round Boonen during Omloop) and Matti Breschel. Oscar Freire is riding for Katusha and GreenEDGE is fielding Matt Goss, Baden Cooke and Stuart O’Grady. Sky’s team boasts Edvald Boasson Hagen and ladies’ favourite, Bernie Eisel. Juan Antonio Flecha is also on the startlist, after being sidelined with a broken hand. Saxo Bank’s 2011 Ronde winner Nick Nuyens is out for some time with a broken hip so they are fielding Karsten Kroon. But my pick for the dark horse, for the second week running, is Liquigas’ Peter Sagan, who came in second at Gent-Wevelgem last week and has proved himself to be both strong and fast. If he can keep up front with the favourites, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him on the podium.

The Ronde van Vlaanderen takes place on Sunday 1st April. Live coverage and highlights will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other channels check cyclingfans.comVeloVoices will also be live-tweeting the race.

Link: Official website

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