Flanders blog: Essential, last-minute tactics for the Ronde

Background knowledge, analysis and predictions for today’s big race.

Words by Edward Pickering

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‘Fabian Cancellara’s going to win,’ might be the most realistic prediction for the 2011 Tour of Flanders, but there’s going to be a lot more to today’s race than that. There are going to be hills, crosswinds, rain, crashes, attacks and tactical intrigue. And then Fabian Cancellara’s going to win. Or is he?

To accompany your viewing of the Ronde, here is Cycle Sport’s essential tactical for the race…

1. Watch out for craters

The roads in Belgium are in a right state. They weren’t brilliant to begin with – the construction method leaves an almost-tyre’s-width of gap between the two sides of the road, which can knock a rider off balance. But three extremely cold winters have caused some world championship-standard potholes.

Most are concentrated in the middle – widening that gap – and edge of the road, but there are enough that there are going to be crashes.

We noticed last year that random crashes were happening in the second half of the peloton when the race started approaching the hellingen. At best, crashes result in a fatiguing chase back to the peloton – in a Classic of this length, every extra effort costs. At worst, team leaders lose valuable team-mates.

2. The weather forecast
Yesterday’s Ronde sportive was run in warm conditions, although there was a strong westerly breeze. Today’s forecast is for the wind to drop, but it does look like it’s going to rain.

Wind is the biggest factor in the Tour of Flanders – a lot of the terrain is very exposed. Not only that, but through the hills, the road switches north and south as the route zigzags. Riders have to be constantly aware of their bearings, and know which side of the peloton to be on to be protected from the wind. For the moment, it doesn’t look windy, but if it does get gusty, the selections will take place a lot sooner.

The rain will make the cobbled hills extremely complicated. The Koppenberg is all but unclimbable in the wet, save for the first dozen, maybe 20 riders through. The Molenberg is tricky in the wet, and given that this was where last year’s winning move went, everybody is going to be trying to climb it in first position – the fight to the bottom is going to be a big one.

Later climbs aren’t so affected by rain – groups are smaller, so the only complication is fatigue.

3. Crucial climbs
It’s not steep, but it’s very long compared to the others. Watch for the strong teams really hitting the race hard here, not for the favourites to beat each other, but to eliminate as many from the back of the race as possible.

It’s followed by one of the best wide-angle shots in cycling television coverage – the top of the climb hits the N36 – a wide, smooth road which really shows the damage the climb has done. There’ll be a front group of 20 or 30, while behind, successive groups of riders are killing themselves to get on. Watch who is looking easy in that front group – it’s a real form indicator for later on.

It’s important because it comes so soon after the Kwaremont. The route heads down the N36 before diving down Lamontstraat almost straight to the bottom of the Paterberg. It’s almost a dead-turn right onto the Paterberg, which is very steep, but short enough that most riders are capable of sprinting up it. Race-winning breaks don’t go here, but it comes so soon after Kwaremont that riders dropped there might not have made it back by the bottom of the Paterberg. Chasing is hard enough as it is, without having to sprint up a climb as steep as this.

The steepest and toughest climb of the Tour of Flanders. If the rain comes, it’s a matter of when, not if, the first crash comes. And once one rider is down, everybody behind him is stuck, because the Koppenberg is about as wide as a fallen rider plus his bike. The Koppenberg rears up to 22 per cent, with uneven cobbles and wheel-grabbing gaps between them. Again, it’s too early to attack for the win, but the Kwaremont-Paterberg-Koppenberg trio is where the attrition really begins. Watch for the first half dozen riders over – chances are, your winner is in there.

The 10 kilometres before the Molenberg will be absorbing to watch – the peloton is going to be moving incredibly fast, with a lot of fighting for position. It’s a dead turn, and an extremely narrow, gravelly entrance to the climb, which means favourites absolutely have to be in the first half-dozen riders. The cobbles are very uneven through the S-bend.

This is where Cancellara and Boonen went last year – one of the reasons nobody could follow them last year was that most of the other favourites were a few riders too many back, right in the hesitation zone – a couple of escapees were just being caught, putting bodies between Cancellara and the others. That hesitation, along with the fact they were too far back, cost every other favourite the race.

It’s the length and atmosphere which make the Muur such a pivotal moment in the race. If a rider is strong enough to attack here, it seems to be generally true that he’s strong enough to stay away and win the race – recent examples are Cancellara last year, and Ballan in 2007. When Devolder won in 2009, he attacked his breakaway companions here.

It’s in the perfect place for strong men to attack. From the top, there are three very fast kilometres downhill to the Bosberg, then the final 12-kilometre run to the finish. Attacks here aren’t long-range, speculative punts – once executed, they tend to be carried through.

4. If a solo rider tops the Bosberg first is going to win
The wind isn’t as strong as yesterday, but there’s a tailwind and a steady drag down from the Bosberg. If there’s a solo rider here, a 20-second gap should suffice, depending on the motivation and strength of his pursuers.
It’s quite simple – if a rider is strong enough to have got here on his own, chances are he’s got the strength for the 15-minute schuss to the finish line.

5. Cancellara’s not unbeatable
From the pre-race predictions, you’d think that we might just as well skip the race, drive Fabian Cancellara straight to Ninove and present him with the trophy.

He’s got an extremely good chance of winning, but there’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion in a race like the Tour of Flanders. It’s an exceptionally complicated race to win – nobody’s ever won it four times, and even Eddy Merckx only managed it twice.

The evidence for Cancellara is compelling – he won last year, and his rides in Paris-Roubaix, plus Harelbeke this year, have been dominant. But look at it these ways – if Boonen had realised how strong Cancellara was, perhaps he’d not have worked with him, preferring to wait for a group to come up, and finish the race in a sprint. His Paris-Roubaix win was made to look good by dithering and lack of co-operation in the chasing group. Harelbeke was against weak opposition. That’s how Cancellara’s rivals need to be thinking.

His team is not the strongest. The teams who have strength in depth need first to get rid of his team-mates, then attack merry hell out of him. Garmin have Hushovd, Farrar and Haussler. Quick Step have Boonen and Chavanel. HTC have Eisel and Goss. BMC have Ballan and Hincapie. Sky have Flecha and Thomas. Most of these riders would have no chance in a one-to-one against Cancellara, but as a 10-against-one, they do. It’s up to them to exploit it.

6. Cycle Sport’s top 10
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Leopard-Trek
2 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Garmin-Cervélo
3 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega-Pharma
4 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step
5 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) BMC
6 Juan-Antonio Flecha (Spa) Sky
7 Bernhard Eisel (Aut) HTC-Highroad
8 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Cervélo
9 Nick Nuyens (Bel) Saxo Bank-Sungard
10 Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Katusha

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