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Oudenaarde - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Peter Sagan (Slowakia / Team Tinkoff - Tinkov) - Sep Vanmarcke (Belgium / Team LottoNL - Jumbo) pictured during 100th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour de Flanders - from Brugge to Oudenaarde - photo JB/PN/Cor Vos © 2016

PEZ Preview: Flanders ’17

Tour of Flanders Race Preview: The biggest day of the Flemish cycling year is on Sunday – De Ronde van Vlaanderen or the Tour of Flanders, if you prefer. Ed Hood looks at the possible winner, the course and the past of (probably) the best race of the season.

Oudenaarde - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - sfeer - illustratie peloton massive pictured during 100th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour de Flanders - from Brugge to Oudenaarde - photo LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2016
The ‘Flemish’ World championships

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.

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’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.

Cycling: 60th E3 Harelbeke 2017Tom BOONEN (BEL)/ Iljo KEISSE (BEL)/ Harelbeke - Harelbeke (206,1Km)/ pool nv /© Tim De Waele
Iljo and Tommeke – De Ronde is a serious matter

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 have been up and ready for days beforehand. 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. 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.

Paul Deman the first De Ronde winner

The 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 – with Tom Boonen last to do so in 2012. This year will be the 101st 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.

Flanders 1923

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. Switzerland have 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, last year and Great Britain – Tom Simpson 1961 all have one win each.

Kwaremont - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - MUSEEUW Johan, former road racing cyclist pictured during a training session and recon of the World Tour cycling race Tour of Flanders on March 27, 2017 in Kwaremont, Belgium, 27/03/2017 - photo Cor Vos © 2017
Three time Flanders winner Johan Museeuw riding the Kwaremont cobbles last week

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). Boonen and Cancellara dominated the race through the last decade but the Suisse has retired and Boonen – whilst still a force to be reckoned with – has his eyes on a prize some seven days further ahead; Paris-Roubaix.

Eric Leman 1970

The course
The parcours are highly technical; the 260 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.

Tom Simpson – Flanders winner 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 first time the depart is from Antwerp in the north; at 10.30 a.m.

Pianegonda, Michaelsen en Sciandri op de kasseien van de Paddestraat. Foto ©Cor Vos
Pianegonda, Michaelsen and Sciandri on the cobbles of the Paddestraat

Hamme-Zogge, home town of Olympic Champion Greg van Avermaet is on the parcours; with the first cobblestones of the day on Lippenhovestraat and Paddestraat as they approach the Flemish Ardennes with Oudenaarde for the first time. Once through Oudenaarde, the race heads to the first ascent, the Oude Kwaremont. The route takes them up the Kortekeer (climb 2), the Eikenberg (3), the Wolvenberg (4), the whole of the Holle Weg cobble section, the switchback Haaghoek cobbles, the Leberg (5) and the Berendries (6).

De Ronde profile

Ten Bosse is the seventh climb of the day, the Muur van Geraardsbergen (also known as the Kapelmuur) is climb eight then the Pottelberg the ninth. The Muur van Geraardsbergen is the third most frequently climbed hill section in the history of the Tour, after the Oude Kwaremont in Kluisbergen and the Kruisberg in Ronse.

Geraardsbergen - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - sfeer - illustratie the wall Andre Greipel (Germany / Team Lotto Soudal) pictured during Eneco Tour stage -7 - UCI World Tour) from Bornem to Geraardsbergen - photo Tim van Wichelen/Cor Vos © 2016
The Muur van Geraardsbergen

The last 75 kilometers unchanged from 2016; the Oude Kwaremont is climbed three times and Paterberg twice. The last nine climbs and the last cobble section remain as they were last year. After the Kanarieberg (10), the riders take on the Oude Kwaremont (11) and Paterberg (12).

Oude Kwaremont

Then follows the fearful Koppenberg (perhaps prophetically, ascent number 13) via Mariaborrestraat (cobble section), to Steenbeekdries (14), the Taaienberg (15) and the Kruisberg/Hotond (16) then the last ascent of the Oude Kwaremont (17), 17 km from the finish, and finally the Paterberg (18), 13 km from the finish in Oudenaarde.

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 10 men (plus Philippe Gilbert):
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium) – You don’t need us to tell you that he’s ‘super favorite’ with Het Nieuwsblad, the E3 and Gent-Wevelgem all having gone the Olympic Champion’s way. Against him he has the fact that his rivals know that only too well and will be watching him like a hawk and unwilling to commit and contribute until it’s late in the day and a podium place is on the agenda.

Kuurne - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - VAN AVERMAET Greg (BEL) Rider of BMC RACING TEAM pictured during Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne 2017 - photo PN/Cor Vos © 2017
The man on form – GVA

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe & Slovakia) – Our ‘second favorite’ is the best, most consistent, hardest working world champion we’ve had in a long time; this year he’s won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, two stages in Tirreno, been runner up in Het Nieuwsblad and Milan-Sanremo and was third in Gent-Wevelgem. Bold, strong, a brilliant bike handler and fast finisher it could come down to a GVA v. Sagan finale – let’s hope so.

Sagan on the attack in De Ronde ’16

Behind these two outstanding riders comes a raft of good talent with the ability to make the podium on Sunday; in a alphabetical order:
Tiesj Benoot
(Lotto Soudal & Belgium) – He was fifth here, two years ago as a youngster, since then there have been many top ten results including Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the Strade Bianche and Dwars door, this year already – but no big ‘breakthrough’ win. Belgium’s ‘other team’ needs a big result and team boss Marc Sergeant is hoping that Benoot or team mate Tony Gallopin can get the ever impatient Belgian cycling media off his back.

Siena - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Tiesj BENOOT (Belgium / Team Lotto Soudal) - Zdenek STYBAR (Czech / Team Quick Step - Floors) pictured during Strade Bianche elite 2017 - photo LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2017
Benoot was strong on the Strade Bianche

Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott & Belgium) – It was back in 2010 when this young man burst on to the scene with wins in Le Samyn, the Three days of West Flanders and Nokere. Then. . . not much of great note until last year when he won a Vuelta stage; but he reminded us of his talents with second place to GVA in Gent-Wevelgem at the weekend. His morale will be good and with Hayman beside him could be well there.

Wevelgem - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - VAN AVERMAET Greg (BEL) Rider of BMC Racing Team, KEUKELEIRE Jens (BEL) Rider of Orica - Scott Team pictured during Gent - Wevelgem World Tour UCI - photo PdV/PN/Cor Vos © 2017
Jens Keukeleire was close in Wevelgem

Alex Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin & Norway) – Is a previous winner and started the season in the best possible manner – with wins. In the Etoile des Beseges and Tour of Oman; he was just off the podium in the Primavera but failed to sparkle in the E3 or Gent-Wevelgem. It would be foolish not to give respect to the bull-like Norwegian though given his strength and experience. Subsequent to Ed penning this piece, Kristoff won Wednesday’s stage Two of the Three Days of De Panne.

Kristoff – Always a favorite

Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale & Belgium) – With third in the E3 Harelbeke, sixth in Dwars door, seventh in Het Nieuwsblad and eighth in Kuurne Naesen has proved his worth over the bergs and cobbles. It’s great to see a French team in the thick of the Northern Classic battles and Naesen could well make the podium.

Wevelgem - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - NAESEN Oliver (BEL) Rider of Team AG2R La Mondiale pictured during Gent - Wevelgem World Tour UCI - photo PdV/PN/Cor Vos © 2017
Don’t discount Oliver Naesen

Luke Rowe (Sky & Wales) – The hardy Welshman was fifth here last year, made the podium in Kuurne, this year and was sixth in Het Nieuwsblad. But the recent furore around his ex-team mate Bradley Wiggins and Sky’s medical practices can’t have helped morale on the squad. Albeit Kwiatkowski has been on fire and Henao won The Race to the Sun – but the controversy is much closer to home for the UK riders than for a Pole or Colombian. Perhaps Rowe and his equally big and strong team mate Ian Stannard can shake off the blues for this special race?

Luke Rowe will be the man for Sky

Zdnek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors & Czech) – Fourth in the Strade Bianche and ninth at Kuurne are his best results thus far in 2017 but he’s been top ten the last two years here and experience counts for so much in this race.

Kuurne - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - STYBAR Zdenek (CZE) Rider of Quick-Step Floors Cycling team and BENOOT Tiesj (BEL) Rider of LOTTO SOUDAL attacking on the Kwaremont climb pictured during Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne 2017 - photo PN/Cor Vos © 2017
Ex-World cross champ Stybar could be the Quick-Step card

Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors & The Netherlands) – He’s won Paris-Roubaix, stood on the podium and has a strong record of top ten finishes in this great race; he was just off the podium in Gent-Wevelgem so his form may well be coming to the boil at just the right time. Strong, wily and ruthless with a great team around him – another podium is well possible.

Niki Terpstra on the Oude Kwaremont in 2015

Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac & Belgium) – Since his third spot in Het Nieuwsblad his results haven’t shone; but his season is all about these next two weekends; third in Flanders and fourth in Paris-Roubaix in 2016 says everything about where the man’s ambitions lay.

Harelbeke - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Paterberg - Sep VANMARCKE (Belgium / Cannondale Drapac Professsional Cycling Team) pictured during 60e Record Bank E3 Harelbeke - photo Tim Van Wichelen/Cor Vos © 2017
Sep Vanmarcke could give Cannondale-Drapac the big win

(+ 1) Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors & Belgium) – Is our last minute addition to the ‘possible’ men for Sunday. With his solo win on stage 1 the Driedaagse De Panne – Koksijde on Tuesday he has given Patrick Lefevere another card to play in De Ronde. Gilbert said after the stage finish: “I know that people will now say that I’m one of the favorites for De Ronde and it’s no secret that I would like to win it. My condition is good, I look forward to the race, but to be frank, the most important thing is for the team to win there. We have many options and in-form riders, and it will be all about playing the right card in the right moment.”

Zottegem - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - GILBERT Philippe (BEL) Rider of Quick-Step Floors Cycling team - Mur de Geraardsbergen - muur 0 pictured during stage 1 of the 41th edition of the Driedaagse De Panne - Koksijde with start in De Panne and finish in Zottegem on March 28, 2017 in Zottegem, Belgium, - photo Cor Vos © 2017
The Belgian champ took the Muur in his stride on Tuesday

# Our 10 + 1 choices for one of the three greatest races on earth; keep it PEZ’d 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 Kriek lambic kind of a mood, this year. Live action on steephill.tv, check-out their coverage HERE. #

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 1,400 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.

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