PEZ Preview: De Ronde ’15
The early season Belgian cobbled Classics have been building up to this Sunday and the battle of the Tour of Flanders, or De Ronde van Vlaanderen. Ed Hood looks at the history and examines the parcours for this Monument of the road. Who will be the winner? Not an easy answer, but he will be a Lion of Flanders.
It’s hard to over-state the relevance of the Tour of Flanders, not just in cycling circles but in the national consciousness of Belgium. 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 our evening meal at the race restaurant. There was a bit of light hearted banter going on about Keisse’s joining the Quick-Step 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.
On the Saturday before the race, there will be 16 page full colour ‘pull out’ sections in the national daily newspapers. Every aspect of the race will be dissected – the parcours, the favourites’ form, previous winners, weather, radio and TV schedules, how last year’s race was run. . .
If you’re Belgian and you’re not roadside 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. 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.
De Ronde History
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 68 occasions. This year will be the 99th 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 Civilisations may have been struggling to survive the Nazi threat – but the Ronde went on.
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. There are six joint ‘recordmen’ all on three wins – Achiel Buysse (Belgium), Fiorenzo Magni (Italy), Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen (all Belgium) and a certain Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland). Boonen and Cancellara have dominated the race through the last decade but both have lost their chance to become outright ‘recordman’ due to crashes earlier this season which resulted in broken bones.
This year the race stays with the ‘finishing circuit’ concept with two ascents of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg so as the paying ViPs in their tented village on the former climb can see the race twice without leaving their canapés and Champagne; but most ‘die hards’ – me included – prefer the old finish over the Muur at Geraardsbergen then the Bosberg. But then it’s not me coming up with the Euros…
The start is in beautiful Brugge and the finish in Oudenaarde – a town steeped in cycling history and home to the Ronde Museum. The parcours are highly technical; the 264 kilometres take in 19 hellingen (hills), millions of ‘kasseien’ (cobbles) and require nine pages of tightly typed A4 paper to detail.
Experience never counted for more than it does in this race. The winner will be powerful and more often than not, tall – Boonen and Cancellara are both big men. The climbs are short but steep, mostly cobbled and are ridden on pure power – and technique. But it’s 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 velodrome with the hills and cobbles taking the place of commissars in eliminating those not fast enough or well enough positioned. With the absence of Boonen and Cancellara the dynamic of the race is changed and rather than two ‘super favourites’ this race should much more open than usual.
Who to Watch
And on that note; the PEZ list of ‘most likely survivors’ reads like this, in alphabetical order to avoid us ‘bigging up’ Geraint Thomas too much.
Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling & France) is past his best, no doubt, but this is a race where experience and guile count for so much and the Frenchman’s fighting spirit was still much in evidence in Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Alex Kristoff (Katusha & Norway) has to be considered in any long, hard Classic with second in Milan-Sanremo; fourth in the GP E3 Harelbeke and ninth in Gent-Wevelgem his form is solid and comes on the back of five early season wins.
Daniel Oss (BMC & Italy) the big man with the smile, curls and tattoos seemed ready to breakthrough with Cannondale back in 2010 when he won the Giro del Veneto; but it’s with BMC that his real strength is coming to the fore. Strong in the finale at Sanremo he was top 10 in the E3 and in Sunday’s Wevelgem apocalypse – and everyone finds that bit more for the Ronde.
Luca Paolini (Katusha & Italy) was on the podium in Sanremo a decade and more ago – and as former six day star, Maurice Burton said to me; ‘if Paolini hadn’t worked so hard for Kristoff then he could have won Milan-Sanremo, this year.’ And that statement seems in no way fanciful when we look at events on the roads between Gent and Wevelgem on Sunday past. With Kristoff and a tough as old boots team behind them they pose a real threat for Flanders honours.
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick-Step & Czech Republic) top ten in Het Nieuwsblad he won on the Strade Bianche and was second to a rampant Thomas in the E3. Lady Luck was against him in Gent-Wevelgem but that has to change and the world’s number one cobbled classic team’s fortunes must change soon. We see him on the podium.
Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick-Step & The Netherlands) second places in Het Nieuwsblad and Gent-Wevelgem speak for themselves. Belgium’s premier squad need a big win and Terpstra could just deliver – big, strong, self confident and seemingly never happy unless he’s fighting with that Specialized in a brutal finale.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo & Slovakia) fourth in Milan-Sanremo he cracked mightily in the E3; but if you believe your ‘French cycling old wives tales’ a ‘defaillance’ like that is the precursor to great form and in the nightmare that was Gent-Wevelgem, he was so strong in those echelons and still second to Kristoff in the sprint for ninth spot. This could be his first Monument win. . .
Geraint Thomas (Sky & GB) has turned a corner; no longer ‘promising’ or ‘on the way up’ he’s arrived at the top. He won in The Algarve and was bestially – if misguidedly – strong in the last hour of Sanremo. But his win in the E3 and third place in Gent-Wevelgem leave no doubt that in a brutal club fest at the end of a long hard day he’s one of the very best – he could just win this bike race if he can curb his desire to get ‘up the road’ too early. And it’s been a long time since 1961 and the last British winner; the late, great Tom Simpson.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium) top ten in Het Nieuwsblad, second in the Strade Bianche, a stage winner in Tirreno, prominent in Milan-Sanremo but the victim of a bad crash in the E3 with damage to ribs, hips and back he wasn’t quite there on the road to Wevelgem. But this is the Ronde and he was second last year. . .
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo & Belgium) fifth in Het Nieuwsblad and E3, fourth in the Strade Bianche and sixth in Gent-Wevelgem his form is where it should be. Big, strong and a man who doesn’t duck spells he goes through come what may and rides ‘til there’s nothing left – it’s hard not to admire him. All he needs is a little luck. . .
It’s been an epic and exhilarating Classics season so far and we see that continuing into the Flemish Ardennes on Sunday. Here at PEZ we’ll have square eyes peering at that monitor all day to bring you the best in race reportage; and whilst there’s no pils for us, remember that if you’re hitting the Leffe or Duvel on Sunday then pace judgment is all – don’t fall asleep before that last ascent of the Paterberg guys! Go to Steephill.tv for live coverage.
And for those final form clues keep a close eye on the Three Days of De Panne which started after we went to press.
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 1,100 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 www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.