The Race to Rule Belgian Cycling


This is a reprint of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

Sunday is the date of the unofficial Belgian national championship, the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen in the native tongue). The Tour of Flanders is the race held most near and dear to the hearts of Belgians. To win this race as a Belgian will make your entire career. You’d never have to win or ride another race again in your life and you would still be seen as a Belgian hero into perpetuity. Nicknamed Vlaanderens mooiste (Flanders’ finest), the first edition was organized in 1913 by Karel Van Wijnendaele, co-founder of the sport newspaper Sportwereld. Before World War II, the race was held on the same day as Milan-San Remo, and as most Italians and French riders preferred to race the latter,  there was only one non-Belgian winner before World War II. After World War II, it became part of the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo, a precursor to today’s World Tour; this lead to a change in date so it no longer conflicted with Milan-San Remo and a subsequent rise in status. Despite its rise in popularity, Flandrian’s still thought of it as “their” race, on the hill in their back yard where they had learnt the craft of cycling. It’s as part of the Flemish culture as any other tradition and this is why it holds such a special place in the hearts of Belgians, and Flandrians especially. The race’s popularity within Belgium has not diminished over the years and many non-Belgians have adopted this race as one of the favorites.

The Cobbled Climbs

The race route follows the same pattern as it did at its inception: 200km through the plains, 100km through the maze of twisty, turn-ey lanes and cobbled hills. Cobblestone tracks were laid on the rolling hills of the Flemish Ardennes by the farmers to give traction for horses and wood-wheeled carts. It is this hills which define the race. Until the 1950s there were only three hills in the race- today there are usually 15. There is no one berg with defines or summarizes the Tour of Flanders, as each hill on its own wouldn’t be much to write home about. It’s more about how the hills are strung together after 200km of hard racing; how the short, steep gradients coupled with the cobbles make staying on the bike a difficult task; how the last few kilometers before each climb is a jostle-fest of trying to get the perfect position going into the climb. PezCycling News did a great piece breaking down one of the more famous climbs, the Koppenberg. Basically,  the location of this hill within the race (occurring directly after two already hard climbs), the slickness of the cobbles (regardless of rain or shine), and the steep pitch all combine to reduce even the hardest of cyclists to the indignity of pushing their bikes up the hill. Because once one rider falls, slips, or unclips to maintain his balance, he dooms everyone behind him to walking. The Koppenberg’s storied history has contributed to its occasionally removal from the race, as organizers deem it too dangerous one year or another.

The race has actually helped bring protection to many of the cobbled ways in Belgium. Many cobbled disappeared in the modernization period which followed World War II. By 1993, cobblestones had become officially protected, as the cobbles were recognized as the special sauce of the Ronde.

Who wins?

This race has always been dominated by Belgians, like many of the cobbled classics of the north. Belgians have taken the podium 66 times to Italy’s 10 and the Netherland’s 9. No American has ever won this race.

The winner will be someone who can attack the cobbled hills with full strength, maintain that power through the steepest gradients, and still have a burst of power left over to make it over the top. The ability to maintain sustained bursts of power is a must, which is why Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara are often at the top of the favorites lists for this race.

Last year, Cancellara motored to an impressive solo win, showing such a feat of strength that he was accused of having a motor in his bike.

This year, Bonnen, Cancellara, and Philippe Gilbert are at the top of many prediction lists. Heinrich Haussler, Geriant Thomas, Thor Hushovd, Sylvian Chavanel, Juan Antonio Flecha also seem to be on quite a few lists. Everyone and their mother has an opinion on who might win this race.

So, be sure to tune in the live streams on Sunday morning! Check out ProCycling LiveCyclingFans, and Steephill.tv for links to live streams and live tickers! Also, follow along on twitter with #RVV for up to the minute updates.

 

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