The new parcours of the Tour of Flanders gave us a great winner, but an underwhelming race.

Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday April 1, 2012

New route, same old winner. Tom Boonen took a deserved victory in the 2012 Tour of Flanders: he was the best sprinter among the clearly strongest riders, and there were few points in the race when he looked anything but. Can you think of a single moment, especially after co-favourite Fabian Cancellara had crashed out, when Boonen looked under threat?

With such a tough route, there was never going to be a surprise winner, but the organisers can breathe a sigh of relief that the new parcours and finish had such an illustrious champion. Boonen became the fifth rider in history to take a third Ronde, and it’s fair to say he’s by some distance the most popular man in Belgium right now.

But it’s possible that the reflected glory of Boonen’s historic win might blind us to the flaws of the new course. The arguments for and against changing the iconic Muur/Bosberg finale to a trio of finishing circuits around the Kwaremont and Paterberg have been well-rehearsed, and Lionel Birnie warned of the potential drawbacks in the run-up to the race.

However, now we have concrete evidence to go on. The Kwaremont-Paterberg combination, always damaging in previous years, where they appeared earlier on the route, cast a baleful shadow over the tactics of the race. The most fascinating thing about cycling, which fans of marathon running can never understand, is how important strategy is. The best-designed races give the strongest a good chance of winning, but they also give the riders who aren’t the strongest an extremely fair chance themselves. Today’s Tour of Flanders gave those riders very little, unlike Milan-San Remo, two weeks ago.

The first time up the Oude Kwaremont stretched, then broke the bunch. The second time did so again. While the second lap Paterberg crash interfered with the natural development of the race, a pattern was established: the race would fragment over the climbs, but then coalesce, ready to break up again up the Kwaremont.

There was plenty of anticipation that the new finale was so hard, the riders would come in in twos and threes. But instead, it had a chilling effect on tactics. Garmin seemed to have a good plan, putting Tyler Farrar in the early break, but their leader Sep Vanmarcke simply didn’t have the strength to be able to make an advantage out of it. Nor did anybody else, except Boonen, Pozzato and Ballan.

And so the third time up the Kwaremont, the three strongest simply rode away. There was little finesse, no subtlety, just boiled-down, concentrated logic. Cycling tactics for people with short attention spans.

And what the hills had started, the cross-headwind on the run-in finished off. Any ideas Ballan and Pozzato might have had about working Boonen over were quickly blown away.

Could anybody else have won? Cancellara, of course, but he crashed out. The race after his crash was defined to some extent by his absence. But it was more defined by the absence of the Muur and Bosberg. The race is going to finish in Oudenaarde for the foreseeable future, but the organisers would be wise to tweak their route for 2013.

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  • chas.horton

    I have ridden the 140 k sportive for the last 10 years with a group of 10 mates.
    When I received the e-mail to enter this year I filled in the comments box by saying “no thanks” as we thought the new course was Mickey Mouse.

    I am very pleased Tomo won and is back to his best form.
    Cancellara was never going to win on this years form.He is either riding carelessly or has no team around him.

    There is nothing subtle in this new route- may be the race was so popular because the old route (for over 30 years) was the best.
    I don’t think it can now be called a ”classic”

  • Edward Pickering

    A couple of things I would add:

    It’s not as simple as Muur/Bosberg=good race, no Muur/Bosberg=bad race. That’s the kind of binary thinking that suits shouty pub debaters but doesn’t reflect the nuances of the real world.

    I’ve focused on race tactics for the purposes of this piece, and while I was as happy as anyone that Boonen won – I like him and find him interesting – I was less enthused by the deadening effect of the loops on the tactics. Boonen, Ballan and Pozzato were impressive, but I missed the finesse of many previous editions.

    I’ve not made anything of the fact that the route change has nothing whatsoever to do with pleasing fans or riders. The route change is about the organisers wanting to make more money from their race. That’s fine, if that’s their priority, but let’s not be fooled that it’s about improving the race.

    And the other thing I left out of my piece because it’s an entirely subjective thing is that the Muur is unique. When I try to explain to friends who aren’t cycling fans what our equivalent of the Cup Final crowd is, I show them scenes from the Muur. It’s a cliché to describe the Muur as a cauldron of noise, but I didn’t see an equivalent on the new route. I wasn’t out on the climbs, so I’m happy to hear of your reports if you were.

    The new route may be duplicated next year, or tweaked, or changed wholesale. The organisers were perhaps unlucky that there was a strong cross-headwind for the run-in – it was the final guarantee that Boonen would win. We’ve got a few more years with the new route – perhaps the experience of having raced it will help the tactically clever riders find a way of winning on it.

  • Gavin Long

    I wonder whether this years edition will be looked back on as a dress rehearsal for future years. It must have been difficult for the teams to decide on tactics without the knowledge of the toll on the legs the new route would take. I would like to see the distance from the last ascent of the paterberg to the finish reduced.

  • Pappt

    O-Ph-QS had a pretty good plan too, and it went perfectly. Terpstra and Chavanel perfectly placed in the last 50km (and Boonen too), so the strongest and best prepared team won. Obviously this went so well because Cance hit the floor badly w 60km to go…