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All of Belgium and indeed cycling fans everywhere are #ReadyToRonde. The Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is one of the sport’s biggest and most iconic races. This year, like most of the Spring Classics so far, the bitter winter weather could be a competitor that takes a few riders out of the running. However, two men who might just be stronger than snow and ice are Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan, the overwhelming favourites for the race.
What kind of race is it?
The Ronde is one of the hardest one-day races in the cycling calendar – many say the hardest – and is one of the five Monuments. It has acquired legendary status among both riders and spectators throughout its 97 starts – Belgians love their cycling races and this, in particular, holds a passionate place in their hearts. With its gruelling parcours and its iconic cobbled climbs, come rain or snow, sun or sub-zero temperatures, fans take to the roadside to cheer on the riders. It is, quite simply, a race like no other.
Winners in the last five years:
2008: Stijn Devolder (Quick Step)
2009: Stijn Devolder (Quick Step)
2010: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
2011: Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank)
2012: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
What happened last year?
Tom Boonen continued his Spring 2012 Domination Campaign™ by taking on the new parcours and taming it under his wheels. Once Cancellara had been felled by a stray bidon, riders started to zero in on Boonen. After an audacious attack by Alessandro Ballan (BMC) on the Paterberg that put the Belgian under pressure, the two riders broke from the group with just Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini) for company. Under the flamme rouge, the three played cat and mouse, with Boonen sweeping past both men to take a hard-fought race in a straight sprint to take the third Ronde of his career. By the way, just check out who came in fifth …
1. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 6:04:33
2. Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Serre Italia) same time
3. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) +0:01
4. Greg van Avermaet (BMC) +0:38
5. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t
6. Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
7. Luca Paolini (Katusha) s/t
8. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) s/t
9. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) s/t
10. Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
This year’s race
This year’s race takes on the same parcours as last year, with the Kapelmuur and Bosberg once again taken out of the equation. Brugge is the starting point for the 255km race and Oudenaarde its finish. In between, the riders have 17 climbs of varying gradients to get over and 18 cobbled sections of varying lengths to negotiate. The last 75km consists of three circuits that include the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, which are the final two climbs of the race before the road flattens out and smooths over in time for a sprinting shootout if a rider hasn’t ridden away from the bunch before then. Last year, Ballan almost slipped away on the final climb of the Paterberg with Boonen nearly on the limit, while the Kwaremont was the launch pad for Cancellara’s solo win in E3 a week ago so the strong riders will want their teams to pummel their competition on the climbs and cobbles before the final circuit so the killer blow can be dealt on the final ascents.
Who to watch
Just as last year saw two favourites head and shoulders above the rest (Boonen and RadioShack-Leopard’s Fabian Cancellara) so it is this year – this time with Cannondale’s Peter Sagan replacing Boonen in that duo. Boonen has put in some strong rides during the Three Days of De Panne this week, but his various injuries throughout the run-up to this race means that his preparation has not been as comprehensive as that of his main rivals.
With both Cancellara and Sagan victorious last week, Boonen will have his work cut out for him on Sunday. That said, if the two favourites mark each other out, there could be a Belgian national jersey swooping past for the win.
But there aren’t just two men riding this race. So who might be quietly wheeling themselves into a potential winning position while the peloton watches and waits for the dynamic duo? French national champion Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is fresh off his win in the overall at Three Days of De Panne and with his confidence up and nonchalance in the face of cold conditions, the peloton would be foolish to ignore him.
Astana rider Borut Bozic finished second in both Dwars door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem so he’ll be tackling this race with gusto. BMC are again fielding Thor Hushovd with Gent-Wevelgem’s third-place finisher Greg Van Avermaet and Marcus Burghardt on the team, but no PhilGil or Taylor Phinney. Gilbert has bowed out due to a cold and the fact that he’s targetting the Ardennes Classics in April while Phinney is nursing a nagging knee injury and has opted to rest up to be fresh for next week’s Paris-Roubaix.
Lotto Belisol are fielding Lars Bak and Jurgen Roelandts, who might make a splash, while Orica-GreenEDGE have hardman Stuart O’Grady on the roster along with Matt Goss. Can the experienced O’Grady win this with a bit of well-timed cunning and guile? It’d be heartening to see.
Sky are fielding a team not unlike last weekend’s, with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bernie Eisel, Ian Stannard and team leader Geraint Thomas looking to chalk up a victory in what has been a disappointing Classics season so far for the team. Heinrich Haussler (IAM) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil) have been noticeable in the peloton the past few weeks but ultimately with nothing to show for it so don’t be surprised if Flecha launches an attack joined by Haussler. With the timing of an attack especially crucial in this race, they might just pull it off.
And last but not least, Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini), this year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen winner, could pull off the biggest win of his career if he was in the right place at the right time. My, my, the Fantini would Glow for days …