PEZ Previews: Tour of Flanders

Tour of Flanders, Ronde van Vlaanderen or the Tour des Flandres – whatever you call this race there’s only one word to sum it up, epic. For many it’s the biggest race of the year, 256 hardman kilometers with cobbles, bergs and thousands upon thousands of screaming fans. It’s Flanders and it’s beautiful. Here’s PEZ’s preview of the great race.

Ask 100 Flandrian ‘renners’ which they would rather win, ‘de Ronde’ or the Worlds and 99 will have no hesitation in nominating the former. Win the Worlds and you’re on a par with Luc Leblanc, Laurent Brochard, Oscar Camenzind and Igor Astarloa. Win de Ronde and you’re a legend.

If Milan-Sanremo is the world’s most beautiful race then the Tour of Flanders is arguably the toughest. It’s run over the full Classic distance of 256 kilometres, just like Paris Roubaix; but not only are there the dreaded ‘kassein’ – cobbles – to contend with, there are 17 ‘hellingen’ – the savage, steep, short cobbled ramps of the Flemish Ardennes.

But it’s not just the race’s macho parcours that make it so tough; there’s the wind whistling in from the North Sea with little to arrest its progress – and then there’s the sheer desirability of a Ronde win. Win de Ronde and your agent will be rubbing his hands at the thought of his cut of the Euros which will be headed your way.

The ‘Markt’ in beautiful Bruges is alive at 08:00 am in anticipation of the 10:00 am roll out, despite the early morning chill the street cafes are mobbed and the beers are flying over the counter as the live band batters our music which is hard to classify – Europop/folk/novelty perhaps? But whatever you call it, it’s bad, real bad – but the more of that Jupiler pils you sup, the better it sounds.

The route heads south through Roselare to Wevelgem then east towards the cycling Mecca which is Oudenaarde. Good bars, mega portions of frites, the Tour of Flanders Centre – and the ‘bergs’ which define so many of the spring races are all within easy distance.

The first of the hills comes at 90.7 kilometres, the Tiegemberg; all told there are 17 such brutal tests of positioning, power and ability to go deep time after time in the unforgiving folds of the Flemish Ardennes. The Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Molenberg, Rekelberg, Berendries and Valkenberg take us to number seven. But this is where the purists get hot under the collar, there’s no Kapelmuur at Geraardsbergen to be climbed.

Instead the parcours describes three loops, all of which incorporate the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg with the first loop also taking in the Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries and Kruisberg; the second loop takes in the Hoogberg with the final loop involving only the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.

The new Flanders finish.

The official line is that the old more ‘stretched’ route made it too tempting for ‘race chasers’ to scream around Flanders in fast cars trying to catch site of the race as often as possible. The new route keeps the parcours tighter and means that for the last three hours there’s little point or opportunity for hurtling around in a car to try to catch site of the race. But the truth is less to do with safety and more to do with Euros.

The marketing of the race as part of the ‘Flanders Classics’ means that there are more VIP’s than ever – look out for the number of tents on the Kwaremont on Sunday. There’s dismay among dinosaurs like Dave, Vik, Ivan and me but we have to bow to progress – I guess. And despite the move towards money and the middle classes which drives the UCI and organisers; it’s still a wonderful occasion. There’s no other sport where you can gain such unfettered access to some of the greatest sportsmen in the world – and it’s free. The weekend of the Ronde is something every true bike fan should experience at least once.

The papers are full of pull-out ‘Ronde specials;’ the TV has endless analysis and there’s talk of little else in the bars – of which there are many. There will be few folks in Flanders who aren’t roadside or glued to the TV on Sunday afternoon.

But let’s get down to business – who’s going to win?

I managed to pick all three podium finishers in Milan-Sanremo, and got two out of three in Gent-Wevelgem – let’s see if I can read what the dice say for Sunday. Former Roubaix winner and Radio Shack DS, Dirk Demol goes with Boonen, Sagan and Cancellara – and that’s hard to argue with.

Boonen & Cancellara battling it out in 2010 just before ‘Spartacus’ soloed away to the victory.

And at this stage I’d like to digress into the thorny subject of ‘nick names’ – ‘Tornado’ Tom – ok; Terminator Sagan – well . . .

But ‘Spartacus?’ – I don’t recall Kirk Douglas being on a seven figure salary; and he sure as hell didn’t have his moniker air brushed on his scabbard.

Sorry, I’ve been meaning to get that of my chest for months. But half baked names aside, those are the three names that are most likely to win the 97th Tour of Flanders. As Heinrich Haussler says; ‘it’s Cancellara and Sagan’s race to lose!’

Haussler didn’t mention the ‘Tornado’ but it would be foolish not to rate the man who is joint ‘record man’ for the race with three wins alongside Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman and Johan Museeuw. His preparation wasn’t the best – bad stomach problems and nasty infected elbow didn’t give him the smooth winter that you need to be ‘super’ – but he’s worked hard in training and in races like Paris-Nice and De Panne to get to where he wants to be.

But his cause wasn’t helped by a nasty spill in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. Despite all of that, if Cancellara can’t get rid of him and Sagan isn’t there, then it could be four for the man from Mol.

Cancellara responded to my remarks before Milan-Sanremo about Father Time catching up with him by finishing on the podium in the city by the Ligurian; then taking a stunning solo victory in the GP E3, putting a minute into the third of the five star favourites – Peter Sagan. Sagan, as Dave said last year; ‘is winning for fun.’

Another wheelie come Sunday for Sagan?

He pulled out of De Panne after Wednesday’s stage but that’s to be expected – Boonen did the same; it’s all about the taper into Sunday. Whilst Boonen has the other poker players guessing, hiding his eyes behind those Oakleys and Cancellara has flung a few nice hands onto the table, Sagan has been coming up with Royal flush after Royal flush – two stages each in Oman and Tirreno; a win in GP Camaiore; second places in the Strade Bianche, Milan-Sanremo and the E3 and then a stunning win in Gent-Wevelgem topped off with a De Panne stage win. The Slovak was fifth last year; but this year he’s on another level and he’ll win a Monument soon – it could be this one.

Those are the unquestioned ‘super favourites’ but there are men not far behind and who, if the top three play the marking game, may benefit. The Sky pairing of Englishman Ian Stannard and Welshman Geraint Thomas must be considered; Stannard was bestial on the Ligurian coast ending up sixth and then taking ninth in Dwars door after another strong showing.

Stannard has done his National Champion’s jersey proud so far this year with some stellar performances.

Whilst Thomas – freed of the shackles of the GB team pursuit squad – started the year well with a stage win and the overall points in the Tour Down Under. He was fourth in Het Nieuwsblad, 19th in Dwars door and fourth in E3. But we still have the jury out on whether the Sky Classics boys should have ducked out on Paris-Nice and Tirreno – their level is high, no doubt, but there’s just that final little sparkle missing, we feel.

It’s hard to find anyone who’ll tip anyone other than those mentioned above – some say Pippo, but his Laigueglia win and second in Lazio (I can’t bring myself to say ‘Roma Maxima’) are beginning to seem like a long time ago. PEZ’s resident soothsayer, Vik has been glued to the TV and laptop these last few weeks and has missed little of the Flemish action.

He likes former Het Nieuwsblad and Pino Cerami winner Sebastian Langeveld (The Netherlands & GreenEdge); ‘he’s been showing his face’ as Vik puts it and was fifth in the E3 – so a good ride is possible, maybe. Vik also fancies Jen Keukeleire (Belgium & GreenEdge) but the man who set tongues wagging in 2010 with wins in Three Days of West Flanders and Nokere Koerse as a 22 year-old hasn’t progressed as we thought he would. But he’s been ‘showing face’ and was seventh in Dwars door.

I’m not so sure; but one name I do agree with Vik on is that of Heinrich Haussler (Australia & IAM) – who’s ‘done a Ciolek’ and found peace of mind in the Pro Continental ranks. He was 13th in Milan-Sanremo, 11th in Dwars door and a sterling fourth and ‘man of the match’ in Gent-Wevelgem. The form is there, the morale is good and he could perhaps be the ‘troisieme larron’ – the third thief who snaffles the swag when the others aren’t expecting it.

And we shouldn’t forget that QuickStep don’t just have The Tornado; De Panne winner Chavanel’s (France) form is in no doubt; Dutch team mate Niki Terpstra is going well and if big turbo diesel home boy Stijn Vandenbergh can get some daylight . . .

PEZ will be roadside on Sunday and yours truly will be glued to the monitor to bring you the race report – but the Boss says I’ve not to get too carried away with words.

As if . . . .