What's Cool In Road Cycling

Flanders Preview: History Class

This year will be the 92nd running of the Ronde, a race started in 1913 in the same manner as many of the other great races – by a newspaper editor looking for a way to sell more newspapers. The Tour of Flanders stands alone as one of the great cycling races, here’s a brief look at the rich history of Vlaanderen.

Paul Deman was Flander’s first winner, but he probably couldn’t sit down for a week after that one…

As March draws to a close the professional peloton prepares itself for the first serious races of the year. The stage race specialists have all tested their legs
in the early season races throughout February and March and are setting up for a showdown at the Giro d’Italia in May, but now, April, is the season for the hard men.

Omloop Het Volk gave us some indication as to who’ll be going well as one-day classics specialists prepare for the legendary cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, the murs of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Dutch mafia at Amstel Gold. But it all opens with the first of the cobbled classic, the legendary Ronde Van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders.

Briek Schotte: The “Iron Man”

Belgium is the heartland of the classics and the Tour of Flanders is the most valued prize in any Belgian’s season. The Ronde was first held in 1913, organized by Karel Van Wynendaele, the newspaper editor of “Sportwereld”, which would later become “Het Nieuwsblad”. The first edition of the race covered an astounding 330 kilometers, a distance that, despite the atrocious road conditions, was not uncommon at the time. Van Wynendaele first had the idea for the Ronde after watching the epic races Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Bruxelles, both of which were over 300 kilometers at the time.

The man who started it all – Belgian
newspaperman Karel Van Wynendaele.

In the 20’s and 30’s the popularity grew enormously. At first, the Ronde was held 14 days before Easter and often clashed with the Italian classic Milan-San Remo. It was eventually moved one week later to allow participation in the both races, the calendar position that it still holds today.

In 1947 the Tour of Flanders became part of the Desgrange-Colombo Trophy series, an early precursor to the World Cup series. This cemented the Ronde, along with Paris-Roubaix, as a pavи classic. In the first half of the 20th century, cobblestone roads were easy to find throughout Belgium. After the second World War, the Belgium government began paving many of the roads previously used in the race. As a result of the loss of selective pavи, steep climbs were added to the parcours to make the race more difficult and the Flemish Ardennes became the race’s heartland.

The Ronde Van Vlaanderen has always produced heroes on the roads. Riders such as Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, and Eric Leman have all given something special to the Tour of Flanders with their love of the Belgian classic. In the 90’s it was Johan Museeuw and Peter van Petegem which seemed to own the race, while in this decade it’s been names like Stefan Wesemann (2004), Tom Boonen (’05 & ’06) , and Alessandro Ballan(’07) who’ve triumphed.

At 264km it’s a long day, and the 17 bergs only start after 98km of warmup… You’ve gotta be tough enough to survive the cobbles and the hard accelerations that lead to each climb, as the animators work to shake out the dead wood and hangars on. In recent years the pivotal point has been the Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergan – a tough 475m cobbled climb that twists its way through town, past thousands of fans (many of them well liquored at the beer garden), hits almost 20% grades, and emerges at the famous chapel on top of the hill.

It’s here that the real contenders explode the race and escape to battle amongst themselves for glory some 15km, and one more climb later.

Winning the Ronde requires experience and tenacity, as this cobbled Classic is rarely won by ‘flash in the pan’ type riders, and almost never by youngsters. Almost invariably, whoever wins Flanders is either destined for greatness, or has already established himself as on of the great riders of his generation.

Stay tuned to PEZ all wek as we follow the action of the week’s lead up races, present a bunch more previews, and will be on scene for Sunday’s big event.

Photos courtesy of the official Ronde website:

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