What's Cool In Road Cycling

Flanders06: The Way Of The Cross

Former Flanders winner Andrea Tafi once said “Only those who are in top condition can say that the Ronde is not hard. For everyone else, it’s the Way of the Cross.” Indeed, the Tour of Flanders has rightly established itself as arguably the toughest of the Classics – offering everything up to the hopeful winner: wind, cobbles, length, tough roads, oh, and 17 bergs.

After heading north to the coast, it’s back into the heart of Flanders for a twisty course finding just about every hill imaginable.

Brugge To Meerbeke, Simple As That
It’s only 50 miles by car from Brugge to Meerbeke, but the riders manage to do almost 160, heading first to the North Sea and Oostende before turning back into the heart of Flanders for more climbs than anyone cares to count. Interestingly enough, that’s probably why it’s called the Ronde or Tour of, as it does a pretty fair job of taking in everything Flanders has to offer.

After heading north to the coast, it’s back into the heart of Flanders for a twisty course finding just about every hill imaginable.

The first hill, the Molenberg, isn’t until well into the race, far enough in that the riders had a decent enough warm-up, got pummeled by gale-force winds along the flat roads of the north, and right on time for the peloton to start kicking into full-swing to bring back the habitual early break.

After a break of unspecified size is allowed a long leash, it’ll be brought back into the fold around oh 230-250km into the race, and from there it’ll be time to light the powder.

The Molenberg comes at KM 145, from there, the seventeen climbs follow in rapid succession, 17 in 100 km, not to mention the numerous little cobbled FLAT sections that seem to continually pop up as well. The first real climb that will most likely produce some sort of selection is the Oude Kwaremont, the third climb on the day, following that, the fifth climb is the reverently feared Koppenberg where the day will end for many riders, and another efficient selection will be made.

The Koppenberg was a welcome return to De Ronde a few years ago, and does a damn fine job of shaking that rotten fruit from the tree.

You know things aren’t going too well when you end up doing this, because keep in mind, the leaders are well over the climb and probably hauling ass at over 50k/hr.

Nothing like finding yourself walking in a bike race. Sounds like loads of fun.

One could go about describing just how long the climbs are, or what percentage the road kicks to, but pictures sometimes take care of that, and seeing a quick succession of three climbs mid race seems like a lot, but perhaps it starts to drive home that every one of these climbs is steep and hard, and there are SEVENTEEN.

The Eikenberg is Climb #8 – about 200k into the race.

Quickly following the Eikenberg is the Boigneberg.

Out of breath reading yet? Yep, right after that, is #10 – The Foreest. And so on and so forth, imagine the long, slow tightening of the screws.

After this long introductory process for the favorites, it’s down to “the business end of the race” as the race heads into Geraardsbergen for the infamous Muur. Most likely some sort of winning move/seelection will make it happen there, leaving only the Bosberg and the flattish roll to the finish. That’s all.

The legendary Muur has been the site of most of the winning moves in Flanders lore.

The Bosberg is the final hill coming with only 12k remaining, a final springboard, or one final lump to further soften the legs?

The Contendahs
In this writer’s humble opinion, there is no sterner test in all of cycling – the ardors that Flanders offers up are so many and so hard, it’s no wonder the home crowd considers this the World Championships. They might be biased, but it’s hard to argue with the importance of a win here.

Last year, Tom Boonen confirmed what everyone already knew with an impressive solo victory after attacking the leading group with about 8k remaining. The rest is history…Boonen wins Flanders…then romps a week later in the Roubaix Velodrome. Of note, Peter Van Petegem was riding incredibly last year as well, he just had the misfortune of racing against Tom Boonen – Boonen’s move at Flanders was a counter to PVP’s attack, which apparently had been pretty decent because nary a soul twitched to pull back Boonen.

Tom Boonen makes his race winning move – not even letting it come down to a sprint. [Tech Ed Note; Yes, there was some discussion about the handy, arguable, moment of motorpacing the Belgian got…]

This year the name of the game is still Tom Boonen, hell, even moreso than last year. To say he’s the favorite would be putting it lightly. Boonen has won an incredible amount of races already this year, and looks like he has his form dialled in perfectly after a dominating performance at the E3 Prijs last week.

The E3 Prijs formed a perfect stage for arguably the two favorites come Sunday: Alessandro Ballan and Tom Boonen.

Only thing is – looks like little Tommy might have come down with a cold. It probably won’t hold him back come Sunday, but it goes to show that it doesn’t take much to make a full-on favorite an also-ran. That’s why there will be around 200 people on the start line in Brugge on Sunday, because there’s a better chance of Tom Boonen losing than there is of him winning – no matter how much of a favorite he is.

Ballan has been the revelation of the 2006 season so far – and he looks to be a solid bet in Meerbeke.

The list of possibles to bring down Boonen is not a short one. The first name to pop up has to be Alessandro Ballan, who is enjoying an incredible year so far this season with a victory at Laigueglia, as well as numerous podiums both in Italy and in Belgium. Ballan has already ‘proved’ that he can’t go toe to toe with Boonen in a sprint though, as was evidenced by the thrashing he received by Boonen at the E3 in the final 150 meters. Then again, who CAN go head to head with Boonen? Petacchi? He won’t be there in the finale.

The Three Days of De Panne is the final form gauge before Sunday’s Super Bowl, and on the first stage, three riders came to the fore and made the race their own: Gert Steegmans (Davitamon), Leif Hoste (Discovery), and Bernhard Eisel (FdJeux.com). Steegmans has ridden very capably this year and looks set to breakthrough with a big ride come Sunday, just as long as the wreck he sustained in Stage 2 of De Panne wasn’t too terrible (he suffered some nasty cuts and abrasions and had to drop out of the race).

De Panne is the final tune-up for Flanders, and on the first stage, three riders showed themselves in a big way: Leif Hoste with the win, Gert Steegmans with another great ride for Lotto, and Bernhard Eisel who lost the sprint, but took the next one.

Eisel is probably the surprise of the moment. He has been a good rider for his career, but has always lacked some sort of spectacular result – he won’t win DePanne (it’s Hoste’s to lose), but he has shown that he is going very well at the moment. Eisel and Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert could very well combine to form a serious force.

The criticism for pure Belgian Flahute Peter Van Petegem has become more scathing in recent weeks, but he seems not at all worried with his form – if anything, he’s one of the few people that could perhaps go toe to toe with Tom Boonen.

The pressure for the other Belgian superteam, Davitamon-Lotto, has to be mounting to extreme heights at the moment, as they toil on in the shadow of Quick.Step. It’s unfortunate that the team should be criticized, as it’s a damn good one – Steegmans, Van Petegem, Van Bon, Vogels – they’ve got riders aplenty who are all rolling very well and can and will be factors come Sunday.

Van Petegem is probably under the most pressure, but it only takes a win in the next week ad PVP will once again be King of the Classics. So it goes. With that said, Van Petegem has adamantly defended his preparation and form in the past weeks, and to his credit, he has shown strong rides, but has always kept his powder dry – he has his sights set on Flanders and Roubaix – that’s it. He has won them both, so in terms of a rider to be feared, he is definitely one – age be damned.

Discovery has amassed a stellar Classics squad that does a good job of laying low until the important Flanders/G-W/Roubaix week rolls along. Take your pick: Hincapie, Hoste, Devolder, Hammond, even Ekimov.

Discovery seems to go the way of Van Petegem in terms of the lead-up to the Big Week. Quick.Step the exact opposite: win everything all the time. Discovery and Van Petegem have had relatively quiet lead-ups, but after De Panne it’s plainly obvious that Discovery will have many names capable of something huge come Sunday. Hincapie dropped off the radar after California, but there is no doubt that he is going very well, and it’s about time that Hincapie had the breakthrough at Flanders that he has for so long sought. Then there’s those other slouches, Hoste (who has DePanne in his back pocket), Devolder, Hammond, Ekimov… They have a veritable menu of options. If Hincapie, Hammond, Devolder, and Hoste can stay out of trouble until the finale on Sunday, one will be on the podium.

If you’re looking for some other contenders come Sunday, Tom Boonen need look no further than his own team. Quick.Step has so many options it’s bordering on ridiculous. Boonen appears to be the leader, but even if the others are working with Boonen in mind, the possibilities for victory may still arise…see: Filippo Pozzato at Milano-Sanremo, or Nuyens at KBK – he was attacking because he COULD – he had Boonen in the group as the sure fire bet if he failed.

Pozzato has openly said that he will be working for Tom Boonen, but working for someone can sometimes lead to a big time result – see Leif Hoste’s 2nd Place in 2004 whilst riding for Davitamon, or Pozzato just a few weeks ago.

Oh, then there’s Il Grillo himself, who wouldn’t mind getting a taste of Cobbled Glory. Bettini is a little bit more of a question mark, as he has had more than his fair share of teammate problems in the past, if anything, an in-form Bettini who thinks and feels he should win, could very well be a liability.

Paolo Bettini will be part of the Quick.Step All-Stars, and if things work out right, he could very well find himself with a hand to play in the finale.

Fortunately for Quick.Step, even if Bettini goes the way of the solo rider, they’ve got a plethora of other riders to do the work of good teammates. Even the domestiques on Quick.Step win big time races, just look at today’s results from DePanne:

1 Steven De Jongh (Ned) Quick Step-Innergetic 2.48.23 (42.403 km/h)
2 Claudio Corioni (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
3 Sebastien Rosseler (Bel) Quick Step-Innergetic
4 Wouter Weylandt (Bel) Quick Step-Innergetic 0.27

Yeah, enough said.

Sleeper? The Chocolade Jacques team has some solid riders, but Nico Eeckhout is the PEZ pick for a sleeper – not for the win, but a solid showing, top 5…maybe.

Nico Eeckhout has threatened for a long time to come up with a win in one of the Monuments – perhaps this weekend will be his time?

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