OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Seven cobbled sections. Seventeen bergs. The first of two monuments in one week.
The 97th Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is finally here, and this year’s roster is as stacked as ever, pitting phenom Peter Sagan (Cannondale) against the venerable former winner Fabian Cancellera (RadioShack-Leopard) and the field. After playing catch-up, three-time winner Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is hoping to find the right form at the right time, but is just one of many lesser favorites heading for the cobbled hills of the Flemish Ardennes on Sunday.
The Belgians have won 68 times at De Ronde. In second? Italy, with a distant 10. Only six riders have won two years in a row in the race’s 100-year history.
De Ronde is as big as they come, here in Belgium and across the cycling world. To win the second of the season’s five monumnets is to etch one’s name among the sport’s greats. The peloton will battle itself, but it must also contend with the legendary parcours, an EKG of a profile that’s crowned champions like Merckx and De Vlaeminck. The 256-kilometer Ronde features seven cobbled sectors, or kasseien, and 17 hellingen (short, steep climbs). The roads are narrow, and choke an otherwise robust peloton into a narrow tube of riders. Those at the front reap the rewards of positioning and those at the back are doomed to pay high prices for the mistakes of others.
The race initially started in Ghent in 1913, but has since been moved to Brugge, in the village center. The route has changed over the years, for myriad reasons, including the second World War, and now serves as a tour of the hilly region between Brugge and Oudenaarde. The Ronde begins in the north of Belgium and heads south on mild roads around Kortrijk before turning east toward Oudenarde, where the racing becomes make or break.
Major course changes in 2012 sparked controversy amongst the peloton and observers. Flanders Classics, the organizer behind a string of Flemish one-day races in the spring, introduced a new, three-circuit finish for De Ronde last year, eliminating the most iconic of the race’s climbs, the Muur van Garaardsbergen (Kapelmuur), and its final climb, the Bosberg.
The finishing circuits, each shorter than that last, do include the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg and in 2012 saw a hectic finale in which Boonen rode away with Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) on the former before a three-up sprint on the Minderbroadersstraat in Oudenaarde. Despite the controversy, the new parcours delivered on high drama and should do so again on Sunday.
The fabled Koppenberg, which translates to “head’s mountain,” has come and gone from the parcours since its introduction in 1976, and it appears in this year’s running as the 10th of 17 bergs, at kilometer 192. It won’t be the most decisive climb in the race — that will probably belong to one of three passes over the Oude Kwaremont or the Paterberg — but the Koppenberg is one of the most storied climbs in the race’s history.
It is but 253 feet tall and 600 meters long. By cycling standards, it’s more of a hill than a mountain. But it certainly won’t feel that way. It averages 11.6-percent gradient and has a maximum grade of 22 percent. It’s very narrow, and the wall-to-wall cobbles keep riders from ever finding any semblance of smoothness.
The Koppenberg is far enough from the finish that it almost certainly won’t name a winner, but it could end more than one contender’s chances, should things go sideways at the back of the field. Classics riders are opportunists, to say the least.
It was just after the crux of the Oude Kwaremont that Cancellera made his winning move last Friday at E3 Harelbeke, soloing home for more than 30km after surging over the long false flat atop the climb.
The Oude Kwaremont is long by Flandrian standards, at 2.2km. It isn’t nearly as steep as some of the others, with an average grade of four percent, but it is lengthy enough for a move to slip away. The real hit on the Oude Kwaremont comes near the summit as the road rolls onto a more moderate angle, kicks up again, and then continues to the top on a false flat. This is the perfect launching point for the powerful rolleurs like Cancellara.
Riders will face the climb three times in the final 75km of the race.
In the finishing circuits, the field must climb the Kwaremont and then the Paterberg within 3.4km of each other. The latter is 380 meters long and climbs only 48 meters, but it does that over a cobbled sector of 20-percent gradient.
A move that gets free over the top of the Oude Kwaremont could widen its margin and stay free of pursuers on the Paterberg, which summits just 14km from the finish. Boonen and co. did so one year ago, arguably establishing the new finale as a brilliant stroke by Wouter Vandenhaute and his Flanders Classics staff.
Vandenhaute said in early 2012 that if the new finale worked, it would stay for at least six years. “Everything is negotiable,” he said in a press conference announcing the route change. “But if this Oude Kwaremont to Paterberg to Oudenaarde finale works well, then it will remain, at least for the next six years. … And Oude Kwaremont may assume the role of the Muur.”
It is, of course, back for a second round in 2013, but it is not time to call the Oude Kwaremont the Muur-Kapelmuur just yet.
The weather will be nice on Sunday, but only in the sense that conditions are anticipated to be milder than they were for Ghent-Wevelgem, which organizers shortened due to extreme cold. The sun is expected to shine Sunday, but the high will only be about 40 degrees Fahrenheit; if the wind blows, it will cool things down further. There is a chance of precipitation in the days leading up the race, but the cobbles will likely be dry by the time De Ronde is rolling, meaning it will be rider against rider, against a demanding if not still controversial course that will be free of the snow and rain that have wreaked havoc across the classics in 2013.
De Ronde’s hellingen for 2013:
Tiegemberg (750m, 5.6%) — 91km
Taaienberg (800m, 5.6%) — 113km
Eikenberg (1.17km, 5.6%) — 119km
Molenberg (500m, 9.8%) — 134km
Rekelberg (800m, 4%) — 149km
Berendries (900m, 7.2%) — 154km
Valkenberg (880m, 6%) — 160km
Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%)) — 182km
Paterberg (380m, 13.7%) — 186km
Koppenberg (620m, 10.2%) — 192km
Steenbeekdries (700m, 5.3%) — 198km
Kruisberg/Hotond (1.8km, 4.8%) — 209km
Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%)) — 219km
Paterberg (380m, 13.7%) — 223km
Hoogberg/Hotond (4.2km, 3.1%) — 230km
Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%) — 239km
Paterberg (380m, 13.7%) — 243km