Ronde van Vlaanderen preview

Ronde van Vlaanderen logoAll 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.

Tom Boonen celebrating his Flanders win (image courtesy of Flanders Classics)

Tom Boonen celebrating his Flanders win (image courtesy of Flanders Classics)

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

Click here for our full review of last year’s race.

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.

2013 Ronde profile

Who to watch

Spartacus (image courtesy of RadioShack-Leopard)

Spartacus (image courtesy of RadioShack-Leopard)

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.

The Velvet Samurai (image courtesy of Cannondale)

The Velvet Samurai (image courtesy of Cannondale)

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.

The gloveless Heinrich Haussler is looking to make his new team proud (image courtesy of IAM Cycling)

The gloveless Heinrich Haussler  (image courtesy of IAM)

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 …

E3 Harelbeke preview

E3 Harelbeke logoThe 56th edition of E3 Harelbeke starts the Belgian Classics campaign for the hard men of the peloton. With the weather the riders have had to endure over the past few weeks, they might be happy to know the forecast is partly cloudy and an almost balmy 10°C. With that in mind, our review will probably feature a freak thunderstorm that rained lizards. Reptile showers aside, defending champion Tom Boonen (OPQS) will be looking for his sixth victory in this race.

What kind of race is it?

Tom Boonen victorious in last year's E3 (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Tom Boonen victorious in last year’s E3 (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

This one-day race was elevated to WorldTour status last year and represents the start of the Vlaamse Wielerweek, a week of Belgian cobbled races which includes Gent-Wevelgem, Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne) and culminating with the mighty Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on March 31st.

The winners from the last five years are:

2008: Kurt Asle Arveson (CSC)

2009: Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)

2010: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)

2011: Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek)

2012: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

What happened last year?

Last year’s Classics season was supposed to be the one that matched Boonen and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) strength for strength, pedal-stroke for pedal-stroke, as both came into this race focused and in peak condition. After a few years plagued by injury, bad form and general ennui, Boonen was back to his old self, ready to take on Spartacus, the overwhelming favourite to perform an E3 hat-trick. In the end Boonen prevailed, as he came storming out of his Monaco wilderness to stamp his authority on this race by taking a head-to-head sprint against Oscar Freire (Katusha).

Cancellara, meanwhile, had what he famously tweeted as “a shit day of #unluck”, with punctures, crashes and getting floored by a Rabobank rider during a wheel change. Little did he know that the next weekend in Flanders would end his Classics season with a bidon under the wheels and a multiple collarbone break. In contrast, by the end of the Classics season, Boonen’s victory salute became almost automatic.

1. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 4:51:59

2. Oscar Freire (Katusha) same time

3. Bernhard Eisel (Sky) s/t

4. Leonardo Duque (Cofidis) s/t

5. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) s/t

6. John Degenkolb (1t4i) s/t

7. Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) s/t

8. Alessandro Ballan (BMC ) s/t

9. Sebastian Turgot (Europcar) s/t

10. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) s/t

You can read our full 2012 race review here.

This year’s race

There’s a good reason why this race is so well-regarded and that’s because it follows much of the same route as the Ronde. Starting and finishing in the town of Harelbeke, the race is 210km long – 45km shorter than the Ronde – and has a snaggle-toothed look to its profile, taking in 15 hills, most of which are concentrated in the second half of the race.

Oh, and there are cobbled sections – both on the flat and up those short, sharp, iconic climbs, such as the Eikenberg, Taaienberg – known as Boonenberg as this is Tommeke’s favourite place to attack – and the Kapelberg. Leberg is the first climb and it has a maximum gradient of 14% so you can see where this race is going – to Suffersville with bells on. Nearer the end of the race the cobbled Paterberg bites the tired legs with a 12.5% gradient, while the Oude Kwaremont has a milder 4.2% gradient but is ridden over 1,500m worth of big Belgian cobbles. Anyone riding this race has to enjoy a little pain.

E3_Harelbeke_profile_13_hellingen

Who to watch

Sylvain Chavanel is hitting top form (image courtesy of OPQS)

Chavanel is hitting top form (image courtesy of OPQS)

As last year, all eyes will be on Boonen and Cancellara, in the hopes of getting the Classics season off to a rip-roaring start. Boonen will be supported by an aggressively in-form Sylvain Chavanel, Iljo Keisse and Stijn Vandenbergh, while Cancellara has Stijn Devolder, Tony Gallopin and Yaroslav Popovych to assist.

But both of these guys need to watch a certain Peter Sagan (Cannondale), who seems to be able to do almost any kind of race and so nearly won Milan-San Remo single-handed last weekend. It’ll be interesting to see what he can produce here and how that bodes as we look forward to Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Ian Stannard's performance in MSR bodes well for Sky (image courtesy of Team Sky)

Ian Stannard’s performance in MSR bodes well for Sky (image courtesy of Sky)

Sky have been training specifically for the Classics this year and, on paper, have an embarrassment of riches with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas, Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen star Ian Stannard and ladies’ favourite Bernie Eisel.

With EBH pinning on number 41, you’d think he was the protected rider but with Stannard’s current form much further up the road than Boasson Hagen’s, it’ll be interesting to see who the team is putting its watts behind.

Michael Schar will be great support for BMC's big guns

Michael Schar will be great support for BMC’s big guns (image courtesy of BMC)

BMC come with an equally strong team, with world champion Philippe Gilbert, God of Thunder Thor Hushovd and No-Nickname-As-Of-Yet Greg van Avermaet. Michael Schar, who shone for most of the day at Strade Bianche, is also on the roster.

Lotto Belisol are bringing Lars Bak and Jurgen Roelandts, while Blanco come to the start line with Lars Boom (who got unceremoniously squeezed into a ditch by an unforgiving Boonen last year), Mark Renshaw and Sep Vanmarcke. Garmin-Sharp has big Jack Bauer and super-tough Andreas Klier, former Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren, Nick Nuyens and road captain David Millar.

Also keep an eye out for Argonaut John Degenkolb, Saxo-Tinkoff’s Matti Breschel and Vacansoleil’s Juan Antonio Flecha. Wild-card team IAM brings the gloveless Heinrich Haussler (who’s surely ready to win one of these!) and Aleksejs Saramontins, Schar’s breakaway companion in Strade Bianche.

E3 Harelbeke takes place on Friday 22rd March. In the UK, Eurosport will be showing race highlights. For other options check cyclingfans.com.

Talking Tactics: Good tactics, bad tactics at Milan-San Remo

Sunday’s Milan-San Remo will go down as one of its most memorable editions, with the parcours shortened by snow, the riders frozen by the cold and tactics turned on their head. Team management were no doubt frantically tearing up their strategies and improvising new ones during the race stoppage. But who got it right and who missed out on a golden opportunity? Continue reading