GENT, Belgium (VN) — The bergs and pavé of the 98th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) will play host to a generational showdown Sunday.
On one side are two confirmed classics superstars, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), the kings of the cobbles 10 years running. On the other, two ambitious 20-somethings, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), ready to stake their claim.
Boonen and Cancellara, a pair of veterans who’ve dominated the northern classics over the past decade, share 13 monument victories between them. But Sagan and Vanmarcke are two ambitious talents on the verge of their first.
And right behind are another half-dozen riders and teams with hopes and aspirations of glory in the 259-kilometer rumble over 17 “helling” — a twisting, punishing, unrelenting battle where only the lucky and the strong have a prayer.
This year’s Flanders sees a generational change, with the old guard feeling the heat from a new wave of contenders. And as more teams take on the challenge of the classics, Flanders is no longer a fight between two or three specialists. It’s more wide open than at any point in recent history.
“Maybe in the past, we had three riders, now we have 10-12 riders who can do well in the final in Flanders,” said Belkin sport director Nico Verhoeven. “It will be a very open race.”
An open race, yes, and perhaps the final Flanders for which Boonen and Cancellara are at their best. Will Sagan finally win a big one? Vanmarcke is waiting in the wings, but there are others perhaps no one is counting who can surprise the peloton.
The most important race in the world’s most cycling-crazed nation, with its history and cobblestoned climbs, a touch of crosswind and the chance of foul weather, and hundreds of thousands of beer-swilling spectators, makes for one of the sport’s most colorful spectacles.
Boonen, Cancellara, Sagan, Vanmarcke: The four favorites
This year’s Ronde sees a quartet of five-star favorites. Each has had a relatively smooth run-up to the classics this year, with the exception of Boonen.
The veteran Belgian came into 2014 looking trimmer than ever, and quickly posted early wins, but just when things were looking good for Flanders week, Boonen suffered a personal setback when his partner suffered a miscarriage that threatened to knock him off balance.
“These are the most important weeks of the year for him, so he has no choice but to race,” Omega Pharma boss Patrick Lefevere told VeloNews’ Gregor Brown. “He will not put that behind him, but what can he do? Stay at home? That’s not an option.”
Boonen skipped Milano-Sanremo in late March, and suffered a potentially serious crash in last Friday’s E3 Harelbeke, injuring his right thumb. He’s had time to recover, sprinting to sixth at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday with his right hand wrapped in tape and sitting out the mid-week Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde race.
In contrast, Cancellara was discretely off the radar, riding quietly into condition to peak for the classics. He put in big kilometers in the wind during a month-long assignment in the Middle East and erased any doubts about his form with second at Sanremo. “Spartacus” followed that up with an impressive demonstration at E3 Harelbeke, where he chased past nearly the entire peloton to regain contact with the lead chasers after a late crash in the peloton stopped him ahead of a key succession of climbs in the final 40km. Cancellara didn’t win, but he knows he’s ready.
“This year, everyone was saying, ‘he was a bit behind,’ but now it’s three months later, and he’s proven that he is ready,” said Trek sport director Dirk Demol. “When he comes to these races, Flanders and Roubaix, these are the two biggest races of the year in his eyes. You can see him growing mentally and physically toward this period.”
Boonen and Cancellara are money in the bank. If they don’t crash or suffer mechanicals, they’re almost guaranteed to be within striking distance of the win. Cancellara has won or finished on the podium in the last 10 monuments he’s finished, and Boonen boasts the deepest palmares of anyone in the race.
Sagan, meanwhile, entered this year’s classics season as the man to beat, even though he’s yet to win a monument. Despite a disappointing 10th in a cold and rainy Sanremo, Sagan dictated the action en route to his Harelbeke victory, and then sprinted to third at Gent-Wevelgem. There is no doubt that Sagan is ready, but can he win after 259 kilometers?
“It’s important, yes, but I also have a future,” Sagan said when asked if he’s getting impatient for a Flanders win. “Yes, I want to do well. It’s still good when I win, or when I finish second. The most important for me is to do the maximum in the race, then I am happy.”
That’s what he’s saying publicly, anyhow. After winning the first stage, Sagan packed it in early at De Panne on Wednesday to rest up for Sunday.
And then there’s Vanmarcke, the big, blonde-haired Belgian who rides for the Dutch Belkin squad, easily one of the deepest teams for the classics. Second last year at Paris-Roubaix, Vanmarcke has been in the top five in the first four classics he’s raced this season.
Don’t expect the mild-mannered Vanmarcke to be popping wheelies across the finish line, a la Sagan, but he’s already proven he’s strong enough to win a monument. Now all he has to do is do it.
The other challengers
The list of outsiders for a Flanders win includes another half-dozen or so teams with legitimate shots at positioning their candidates within podium range.
Omega Pharma isn’t counting only on Boonen. The Belgian outfit brings Niki Terpstra, third last year, and Zdenek Stybar, who lit up last year’s Paris-Roubaix before suffering a collision with a spectator.
In fact, most teams try to bring a few cards to play, because things rarely go as planned in a race so brutal and demanding. Lars Boom will be Belkin’s second option, and Greg Van Avermaet and Thor Hushovd lead BMC Racing.
Last year’s third-place finisher, Jürgen Roelandts, doesn’t enjoy the same wealth of options. He’ll lead Lotto-Belisol, the Belgian team that has seen crash after crash in the last week, with two riders suffering fractured collarbones since the northern classics opened.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), hot off victory at Gent-Wevelgem, is dreaming of Flanders success, but admits he’s not quite at the five-star-favorite level.
“I’m going to go 100 percent on Sunday. It’s the Ronde, it’s one of the biggest races in the world,” Degenkolb said. “I’d love to make a good result there. I am not a favorite … yet.”
Sky, which saw the late-hour addition of 2012 Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins to replace the injured Ian Stannard, brings a deep squad, with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas at the head.
And, despite a late crash at Gent-Wevelgem, Tyler Farrar will share the weight for Garmin-Sharp with Sebastian Langeveld.
“I cannot compare our team to the top four teams, like Omega Pharma, Belkin, Trek, or Cannondale. Then you have another four or five teams, and we are among them,” said Garmin sport director Andreas Klier. “Everyone goes flat out, until Cancellara hits the motor, and drops everyone. This has nothing to do with tactic, it’s a question of how much horsepower you have. It’s nice if you see a few blue shirts for a long time, but I am not stupid. If you are not already in the front, then I cannot expect our riders to follow Cancellara.”
Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr) is riding strong, as is Luca Paolini who will co-lead Katusha with Sanremo champion Alexander Kristoff.
There’s always room for unexpected surprises, as well. Think Nick Nuyens in 2011. Maybe the veteran Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) will finally pop for a big one. It’s not likely, but that’s the beauty of Flanders. It gives in sometimes-unexpected ways.
More changes to a controversial Flanders course
Organizers have once again tweaked a course that encountered widespread criticism when they did away with the iconic Muur-Kapelmuur climb and introduced a circuit finale in 2012.
Race owner Flanders Classics has refined that finale in 2014 to include two finishing loops where the main action will unfold.
The atmospheric central square of Brugge remains the morning focus of the race. Tens of thousands of fans pack in to the town square to catch a glimpse of riders signing in under the shadow of the spectacular Belfry of Brugge.
The course drives due south from the start, with the first of 17 climbs coming at 109km in the first of three charges up the Oude Kwaremont. The tension and atmosphere will be hitting 11 by the time the peloton roars up its historic ramps to open the first of two circuits.
Two more climbs soften up the bunch before Wolvenberg at 130km, quickly followed by the first of six flat cobblestone sectors. Though not nearly as rough and sharp as the Roubaix pavé, the cobbles could prove especially treacherous if the forecasted rain materializes this weekend.
At 205km, the pack bolts back up Oude Kwaremont for the second time, but unlike the first loop, the decisive Paterberg climb is looming just 3km later.
The final loop is a killer, with the Koppenberg (215km), Steenbeekdries (220km), Taaienberg (222km), and Kruisberg (233km) stacked in quick succession.
The finale opens with the third passage of the Oude Kwaremont before a second pass of the Paterberg, at 246km. From the top, it’s just 13km to the finish line.
“Flanders is so hard, so severe, but you also have to be smart. Ride at the front, avoid troubles, saving energy, and be ready to jump when the big engines go,” said Paolini. “There is no hiding in Flanders. It’s 100 percent from the gun. It’s so difficult, but so beautiful at the same time.”
The 17 hellingen for the 2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen:
Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%) — 109km
Kortekeer (1km, 6.4%) — 119km
Eikenberg (1.17km, 5.6%) — 127km
Wolvenberg (666m, 6.8%) — 130km
Molenberg (500m, 9.8%) — 142km
Leberg (700m, 6.1%) — 163km
Valkenberg (880m, 6%) — 171km
Kaperij (1.25km, 5%) — 181km
Kanarieberg (1km, 7.7%) — 189km
Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%) — 205km
Paterberg (380m, 13.7%) — 208km
Koppenberg (620m, 10.2%) — 215km
Steenbeekdries (700m, 5.3%) — 220km
Taaienberg (800m, 5.6%) — 222km
Kruisberg (Oudestraat) (1km, 6%) — 233km
Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%) — 243km
Paterberg (380m, 13.7%) — 246km
Rain in the forecast for De Ronde
After a week of warm, spring-like weather, things could turn sloppy over the weekend. Forecasters are calling for temperatures in the high 50s, with a 50-percent chance of rain on Saturday and Sunday.
Even light rainfall could produce treacherous racing conditions and an afternoon shower or two would put a slick glean on the cobbles — compounding the steep gradients of the Paterberg, and ratcheting up the tension even higher than normal leading into the second trip over the Oude Kwaremont.
And then there’s the wind. Skies have been calm in Flanders this week, but that, too, could change if rain blows in over the weekend.
Regardless, this year’s weather comes in sharp contrast to last year’s ice-box edition of De Ronde, where Cancellara rode Sagan and Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) off his wheel on the final trip over the Paterberg.
Milder weather will likely see more riders hanging on later in the race this year. All week, riders have complained that the combination of narrow roads, over-ambitious riders, no wind and summer-like temperatures have meant there’s been no natural selection in the earlier classics. A bigger bunch always equals more crashes, but hopefully it also equals more explosive racing when the most important race in Belgium hits the finishing circuit around Oudenaarde.