Things to consider ahead of Belgium's biggest race this weekend
No outstanding candidate for the men’s race
After weeks of build-up, it’s finally here – the Tour of Flanders. There have been plenty of hotly contested Classics over the cobblestones of Belgium, but this is the one we’ve all been waiting for; the race that all of Flanders will come to a standstill to watch, and make or break a rider’s spring.
In the races leading up to the Ronde, no outstanding candidate has emerged. Unlike last year, when Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) went on scintillating runs prior to finishing second and first respectively at the Tour of Flanders, this spring the wins have been shared out between multiple different riders.
The pattern has been for the big names to find themselves evenly matched, so that riders have won races with tactical moves rather than through sheer strength, such as Michael Valgren (Astana) at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) at E3 Harelbeke, or meaning no small selection is made and things culminate in a bunch sprint, as with Dylan Groenewegen’s (LottoNL-Jumbo) win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) at the Three Days of De Panne and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) at Ghent-Wevelgem.
The nature of the Tour of Flanders, with its Monument-length and endlessly undulating second half, should at last ensure that whatever small differences there are between the major favourites will be exposed.
Boels-Dolmans do battle with Sunweb in the women’s race
The two strongest teams heading into the women’s Tour of Flanders look to be Boels-Dolmans and Sunweb, both of which contain multiple potential winners.
Boels-Dolmans have been weakened by the absence of Lizzie Deignan, who announced her pregnancy a few weeks ago. But the Dutch team remain a formidable force, with world champion and last year’s third place finisher Chanel Blaak, Megan Guarnier, Ronde van Drenthe winner Amy Pieters, and Anna van der Breggen – for whom the Ronde is one of the few major races not yet on her palmarès – all set to ride.
Sunweb played a blinder in this race last year, with Ellen Van Dijk (who won in 2014) putting in a remarkable performance to bring the race back for a sprint, won by teammate Coryn Rivera. Both are capable of winning again this year, while Lucinda Brand offers another alternative.
At last weekend’s Ghent-Wevelgem, both teams peppered the race with attacks in the finale, but could not prevent a large bunch sprint.
That’s a much less likely scenario at the Tour of Flanders thanks to its much more severe parcours, which will likely take out of contention purer sprinters like Jolien d’Hoore (Mitchelton-Scott) and Marta Bastianelli (Ale-Cipollini).
Quick-Step Floors seek to exploit numerical advantage
One consequence of the lack of an outstanding individual in the men’s peloton this spring has been that Quick-Step Floors’ strength in numbers has been even more of an advantage that usual.
All spring they have tormented rivals by swarming all over races, sending riders into breaks and having others cover any counter-attacks, and usually having a sprinter should things culminate in a bunch finish.
They’ve won a remarkable six Classics over the past month, most impressively of all at E3 Harelbeke and Le Samyn, where Niki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert twice pulled-off a one-two for the ream.
For all their success so far, however, the team will ultimately be judged on how well they do at the Tour of Flanders, and the week after at Paris-Roubaix.
Terpstra and last year’s winner Gilbert look like the team’s strongest candidates for the Ronde, but the team’s tactics, which will likely involve trying multiple attacks and approaches until one works, also render Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert potential winners.
A long list of potential winners
Both the men’s and women’s races are tough to call this year, with multiple riders all claiming a realistic chance of making the top step of the podium.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) will inevitably be the riders most closely monitored, especially after the former’s win at Ghent-Wevelgem.
But there hasn’t been much to separate them from other candidates this year, including young star Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), perennial bridesmaid Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First), wildcard Wout Van Aert (Verandas Willems-Crelan) and the steadily reliable Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Team Sky have a fascinating looking line-up, lead-up by Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) – a rider impossible to write off even without having ridden on the cobbles all season – and also featuring bright young things Gianni Moscon and Dylan Van Baarle.
Aside from the Boels-Dolmans and Sunweb riders, both 2015 winner Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) have been on great form this season, especially the latter, who soured to an outstanding win at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda a few weeks ago.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) cannot be written off despite her indifferent form so far, while Marianne Vos (Waowdeals) will be hoping to roll back the years to repeat her 2013 win here.
Early climbs on the route
The Tour of Flanders is not a race you can simply catch the end of. It’s a race that ebbs and flows over several gripping hours, unfolding gradually over a series of cobbled bergs steeped in cycling history.
Some of the race’s best and most important climbs are positioned early on in the race, most notably the legendary Kapelmuur, which was reinstated to the race for last year’s edition following a five-year absence.
Positioned nearly 100km from the finish in the men’s race, it forced a small selection that included the race’s eventual winner, Philippe Gilbert.
In the women’s race, where it is climbed around 60km form the finish, it significantly reduced the size of the bunch and forced the big names to the front.
The race’s other great climb is the Koppenberg, famous for its especially treacherous cobbles and the site of riders sometimes dismounting their bikes to climb it on foot.
Although not featured in the women’s race, it retains a significant position in the men’s at about 45km from the finish.
The Kwaremont-Paterberg circuit
Since 2012, the finale has been structured around the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, the former tackled three times and the latter twice in the men’s race, and once each in the women’s.
The latter ascents constitute the last kilometres of climbing and therefore the decisive moment in both races, with little more than 10km left until the finish in Oudenaarde once both have been peaked.
Although the the previous finishing climbs of the Muur and Bosberg were initially much missed following their removal in 2012 – with the few editions immediately following the change being less exciting, attritional affairs – recent editions with the new circuit have been as exciting as ever.
The two climbs compliment each other well. The Oude Kwaremont is a slow and tense affair, lasting 2.2km in total and featuring tarmacked roads to begin with before switching to cobbles when the gradient increases, maxing at over 10 per cent.
The Paterberg, by contrast, is over in a flash, requiring an intense effort over just 400 metres with gradients touching 20 per cent.
It’s in these seconds here that the Tour of Flanders can be won or lost.