De Ronde Van Vlaanderen’18: The PEZ Preview!

Race Preview: The Tour of Flanders/De Ronde van Vlaanderen is the World championships, as far as the Flemish are concerned. Win in Flanders and you are a hero for ever, and probably Belgian. Ed Hood has a look at the history, course and makes his prediction as to who will win on Sunday over the kasseien and the hellingen.

The climb of the Muur van Geraardsbergen/Kapelmuur is still in De Ronde, but 100 kilometers before the finish in Oudenaarde

It’s hard to over-state the relevance of the Tour of Flanders, not just in cycling circles but in the national consciousness of the Flemish people.

The Lion of Flanders will be rampant on Sunday

During the Copenhagen six day race a few years ago I was sitting beside Gent’s own star of road and track, Iljo Keisse in the back seat of Michael Berling’s car, en route to our evening meal at the race restaurant. There was a bit of light hearted banter going on about Keisse joining the Quick-Step Floors team and his third place at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne a few years before. Keisse joked that he was lucky that day; then someone mentioned the Ronde. Keisse’s voice immediately dropped and in a reverential tone he explained to us quietly that the Ronde was special, the biggest race in the world to any Belgian racing cyclist and to win it was a dream. You don’t joke about the Ronde.

Iljo Keisse in De Ronde’17

On the Saturday before the race, there will be 16 page full color ‘pull out’ sections in the national daily newspapers. Every aspect of the race will be dissected – the parcours, the favorites form, previous winners, weather, radio and TV schedules, how last year’s race was run, what riders’ wives and girlfriends have to say – and the ViP tented villages on the Oude Kwaremont have been up and ready for days beforehand.

De Ronde VIP Hospitality

If you’re Flemish and you’re not road side or installed in a bar in front of the TV, you’ll probably invite friends around for a ‘Ronde Party’ to watch on the tele with a few beers. Personally, I could do with being installed in Iljo’s dad, Ronie’s bar, de Karper in Gent in front of the big screen TV for the duration with a bottle of Orvelo. Around 800,000 of Belgium’s 5,000,000 population will be roadside.

Most of Flanders will roadside on Sunday

The post-race analysis will involve scholarly gentlemen from Belgium’s cycling museums, not just ex riders with dubious haircuts. On Sunday, in Belgium, there will be absolutely no issue which carries more weight than the Ronde.

2017 Flanders winner – Philippe Gilbert

It was 1913 when Paul Deman won the first Ronde for Belgium – a trend which has continued with the home boys winning the race on 69 occasions – with a magnificent Philippe Gilbert, just last year. This year will be the 102nd edition; only the First World War has prevented it being run since – understandable, since much of the parcours was the field of conflict – but it ran through the Second World War. The Western Civilizations may have been struggling to survive the Nazi threat – but the Ronde went on.

Paul Deman the 1913 winner

To continue on the ‘stats’ theme, Italy has won 10 times, most recently with Alessandro Ballan in 2007 and The Netherlands eight times, but it’s a long time since 1986 and Adrie van der Poel’s win.

Jackie Durand with a young Philippe Gilbert

Switzerland has won four times – three of those courtesy ‘Fab’ Cancellara, most recently in 2014 – France three times with Jackie Durand the last man to top the podium in 1992; Germany twice with Steffen Wesemann the last winner in 2004; Denmark – Rolf Sorensen 1997; Norway – Alex Kristoff 2015; Slovakia – Sagan 2016 and Great Britain – Tom Simpson 1961 all have one win each.

Three wins for Johan Museeuw

There are six joint ‘recordmen’ on three wins Fiorenzo Magni (Italy), Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen (all Belgium) and Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland). Record for participations goes to Belgian legend, Briek Schotte who started 20 editions and finished 16 times.

George Hincapie in Flanders’12

George Hincapie has the record for finishes, 17 off 17 starts. Schotte shares the record for podium finishes with Johan Museeuw; Schotte won twice, was second twice and third four times.

Briek Schotte

Museeuw surpasses that with three wins, three second places and two third spots. One of Johan’s second places is the closest finish on record, Gianni Bugno beat him by seven millimeters in 1994.

If there was a man that should have won De Ronde, it would be Sean Kelly

And if there’s one man who should have won this race, it’s Ireland’s Sean Kelly – second three times in the race that was made for him. Boonen and Cancellara dominated the race through the last decade but both have retired leaving open the title of ‘King of the Kasseien.’

Boonen and Cancellara – Six wins between them

The parcours are highly technical; the 266 kilometers take in 18 hellingen (hills) and millions of ‘kasseien’ (cobbles). Experience never counted for more than it does in this race. The winner will be powerfully built, a ‘bulldog’ like Leman and Sagan or tall and strong like Boonen and Cancellara. Albeit waif-like Tom Simpson goes against type – but then he always did.

Simpson in 1961

The climbs are short but steep, mostly cobbled and are ridden on pure power – and technique. But it’s not just the climbs which take their toll, it’s the positioning battle which precedes every ‘helling’ and changes of direction which eat away at a rider’s reserves and ensures that; ‘only the strong survive.’

A surprise winner is unlikely in this race which is run like some giant ‘devil’ on the track with the hills and cobbles taking the place of commissars in eliminating those not fast enough or well enough positioned. For the second time the depart is from Antwerp in the north; at 10.30 a.m. Within the 266 kilometers there are countless cobbles and 18 climbs. These include the Oude Kwaremont on three occasions (one/11/17 in the sequence), the Edelare (3), Berendries (6), the savage Koppenberg (13) and the Paterberg twice (12 & 18).

Who can conquer such a parcours?
Whilst there may be ‘surprises’ in the top ten there’ll be none atop the podium – only the best of the best can win this race. The winner will come from one of these ‘Kassein Eleven’:

Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors & Belgium) – jumping ship from the big bucks ‘dolce vita’ of BMC to join Patrick Lefevere’s band of Barbary Corsairs last year was his smartest move in a long time. Last year was brilliant with the Ronde and the Amstel falling to him not to mention the Belgian Championships. And if ever we saw a man doing his final training for the biggest races of the year for Belgians – the Ronde and Roubaix – it was Phil Gil in Wevelgem last Sunday. He can do the double.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium) – last year he was in a state of grace, this year it all looks so much more labored. But this is a race where experience and ‘grinta’ count for much – GVA has both, not to mention Flemish pride.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe & Slovakia) – and there was us saying that he’d tired himself out over the winter with too many distractions. But that was before he’d out-dragged two of the fastest men on the planet to win Gent-Wevelegem. He’s won it before, he can win it again.

Ties Benoot (Lotto Soudal & Belgium) – fifth here as a second year pro in 2015, he’s no longer ‘on the cusp,’ not with the 2018 Strade Bianche win to his name. Hard working and like all Belgians would give a limb to win this race.

Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale & Belgium) – really suits that Belgian Champion’s jersey and was well in the mix in Gent-Wevelgem, he must win big soon?

Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors & The Netherlands) the Samyn and E3 are already notched on Niki’s top tube for 2018 – he can win this if Gilbert falters or is marked out. Strong, wily and ruthless with a great team around him – it’s well possible.

Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac & Belgium) – he’s been frisky in all of the cobbled confrontations thus far and whilst Roubaix is his biggest dream, the cobbles and hills here suit his power and work ethic.

Michael Valgren (Astana & Denmark) – won Het Nieuwsblad and demonstrated a lot of strength in the E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, he was 11th here last year and a podium is possible.

Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott & Italy) – he’s finding out that Mitchelton-Scott just ain’t the same as Quick-Step when it comes to springtime in Belgium but he’s quick and wily.

Gianni Moscon (Sky & Italy) – the young Italian time trial champion was top 20 here last year and since then has notched up an impressive autumn Italian semi-classic campaign, culminating with third in Lombardy and a strong spring with eighth in the E3 – worth watching.

Wout Van Aert (Verandas Willems-Crelan & Belgium) – it looks very much as if we’re watching a star being born here, just 23 years-old and well ‘there’ in some of the toughest races on the calendar – Strade Bianche, GP Denain and Gent Wevelgem. It will be interesting to see the World Cyclo-Cross Champion on this biggest of all stages.

Hennie Kuiper had to run up the Muur van Geraardsbergen in 1978

# Our 11 choices for one of the three greatest races on earth; keep it PEZZED this Sunday for the best in Ronde coverage in expert words and stunning pictures – we don’t know about you but we’re in a Westmalle Tripel kind of a mood, this year. To watch live on Sunday go to #

2017 Tour of Flanders

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,600 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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