The return of the Muur van Geraardsbergen
Following a five-year absence, one of cycling's most recognisable landmarks, the Muur van Geraardsbergen, returns to the race it is most closely associated with.
The Tour of Flanders (Sunday, April 2) hasn’t quite felt the same since it was dropped ahead of the 2012 edition in favour of a brand-new finale, but thankfully the organisers have found room for it in this year’s adjusted course, which will start in Antwerp instead of Bruges.
The Muur will not, however, play the pivotal role it did during its heyday throughout the 90s and 00s, when it was the race’s penultimate climb and springboard for decisive attacks - now it is positioned 95km from the finish, and will therefore play more of a whittling-down role.
Nevertheless, it still promises to be some spectacle. The twisty cobbled road that lead to the chapel at the top oozes beauty and character, and you can be sure that every inch of available space of the mounds that surround the road will still be covered in passionate Flemish fans.
The Oude Kwaremont / Paterberg circuit
In the absence of the Muur, the climactic obstacles in recent Tour of Flanders have been the twin bergs of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg.
The Oude Kwaremont is the first of the eighteen climbs tackled in the race (at 145km from the finish), and later both are tackled in succession twice during the race’s finale, the first time with 55km and 51km to go respectively to thin out the bunch so that only the strongest remain in contention, and then as the launch-pad for any final attacks at 17km and 13km from the finish.
Both complement each other well, with the steady but long Kwaremont stretching the bunch out in a long line, before the shorter but much steeper Paterberg where the most explosive moves are made.
Make sure to catch the Koppenberg too (at 45km from the finish), a hellish climb of monstrous cobblestone and gradients over 20 per cent, where it is still a familiar sight to see pros dismount their bikes and walk up.
The lulls between the bergs
The Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg might be the headline moments, but in recent years the smartest attacks have been launched on innocuous-looking flat roads in between the penultimate and last ascents of those climbs.
In 2013 Jurgen Roelandts slipped off the front just after the penultimate climb of the Paterberg, giving himself a head-start ahead of the favourites that would help in seal third place; Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh pulled off a similar the coup the year after attacking out of the bunch just before the Kruisberg, going on to finish second and fourth respectively.
Then in 2015, the duo of Alexander Kristoff and Niki Terpstra capitalised on a lull just after the Kruisberg to make their race-winning moves, and last year Peter Sagan caught everyone besides Sep Vanmarcke and Michal Kwiatkowski off-guard on a flat stretch of road shortly after the climb of the Taaienberg and later dropped that pair and rode to victory.
Each one of these attacks was made somewhere between 33km and 28km from the finish, and during the messy moments in between climbs. Riders who have done their homework will therefore have their eyes peeled for opportunities in between the Taaienberg (37km from the finish) and Kruisberg (27km from the finish).
>>> Check out six of the key Tour of Flanders climbs on Strava
Can Greg van Avermaet fulfill his destiny?
Greg van Avermaet has come of age this spring, firmly establishing himself as one of the best classics riders of his generation, and written his name in the record books by becoming the first rider other than Jan Raas to win the cobbled classic hat-trick of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem in the same season.
Yet there’s a sense that should he fail to convert his irrepressible form into victory at the Tour of Flanders, his spring would still not feel like a success.
The Tour of Flanders is everything to Flemish cycling, boasting a prestige that far outweighs any other event in the region - it’s this race and this race alone that the fates of Flemish riders like Van Avermaet are forged.
He has long threatened to triumph at the ‘Ronde’, impressing with eighth on his debut as a 22-year old, and going on to finish second in a sprint to Fabian Cancellara in 2014, and third the following year behind the two-man break of Kristoff and Terpstra. His form this year suggests he’s never had, and may never again have, as good a chance of winning.
Can Peter Sagan cope with everyone riding against him?
Along with Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan is one of the two major favourites for victory in Flanders, but whereas the Belgian has found riders willing to co-operate with him, Sagan has been left frustrated by others’ fear of him.
He did virtually all the work in the final few kilometres of Milan-San Remo only to be pipped by Michal Kwiatkowski for the win, then, at Ghent-Wevelgem, got so fed up at Niki Terpstra’s refusal to work with him that he allowed an ultimately decisive gap to grow between them and the leaders.
With only a mediocre Bora-Hansgrohe team to deploy, this could be a major problem for the World Champion, who may find all his own moves marked while others are let go.
However, the increased difficulty of the Ronde compared to all the of the Flemish classics make the race where the wheat is more guaranteed of rising from the chaff, so there’s every chance that Sagan will - as he did last year - simply ride everyone else off his wheel.
The best of the rest
Although the 2012 route change has made the Tour of Flanders a more predictable race, with less outside favourites triumphing as Nick Nuyens did in 2011 and Stijn Devolder in 2008 and 2009, there remains a whole host of riders fancying their chances of victory.
Quick-Step Floors boast a whole host of cards to play with, from the rouleur engines of Niki Terpstra and Yves Lampaert, to the punchy attacks of Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar to the finishing kicks of Matteo Trentin and, for one last time, Tom Boonen.
Everyone will be wary of taking Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) to the finish given their quick sprints, while Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) - if he can recover his best form - is one of the few riders capable of going toe-to-toe with Sagan and Van Avermaet.
>>> Tour of Flanders 2017 start list
The women’s Tour of Flanders
Taking place a few hours ahead of the men’s race is the Women’s Tour of Flanders.
It’s a reliably thrilling race that all the world’s best dream of winning, and also one of the toughest on the calendar - there are 12 climbs in total packed into the final 100km of its 153km duration, including the Muur van Geraardsbergen (59km to go), the Oude Kwaremont (17km to go) and the Paterberg (13km to go).
Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5), Ellen Van Dijk (Sunweb) and Annemiek Van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) have won this race before with attacks (in 2015, 2014 and 2011 respectively), and each has been in an attacking mood throughout this spring.
Their form and the parcours means it is unlikely to come down to a sprint (on only one occasion in the last seven editions has the winning group consisted of more than two riders) but in the unlikely event that it does, the on-form Lotta Lepisto (Cervelo Bilga) and 2015 runner-up Jolien d’Hoore (Wiggle High5) will be poised.
It’s been a quieter spring for Boels-Dolmans, compared to last year where they swept the board, which culminated in Lizzie Deignan and Chantal Blaak sealing first and third respectively. But any of their star-studded roster (which also features World champion Amalie Dideriksen, Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen and World Tour champion Megan Guarnier) are capable of winning if they can recapture their best form.
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