2015 Tour of Flanders Preview
Created in 1913 by Karel Van Wijnendaele, a sports journalist who was inspired by Henri Desgrange, the Tour of Flanders was a Belgian affair for many years, not only because it was scheduled on the same day as Milan-Sanremo, but also because the weather and the difficult course weren’t appealing to the foreign riders. So it’s not surprise that the first 31 editions had only one non-Belgian winner, Switzerland’s Henri Suter, at that time one of the finest Classics cyclists.
As the years went by, De Ronde grew in prestige and became one of the most important one-day races of the calendar, entering the famous club of the so-called Monuments, alongside Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Giro di Lombardia. As expected, some of the biggest riders came at the start and made Flanders one of their prime goals, but only few achieved it, because the Belgian race is one of the toughest out there and to win it you have to be strong, intelligent, but also lucky.
Looking over the history book of the Tour of Flanders, we can find the names of Briek Schotte, Fiorenzo Magni, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara among the ones of the winners, but there’s also room for Hugo Koblet, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly and Phil Anderson, some of the most famous cyclists who failed to take the victory they were dreaming of. This year, around 200 riders will line-up at the start, but only one of them will get to join the likes of Merckx, Boonen and Cancellara, while the others will think of the missed opportunity and count the days until the following edition.
For a couple of years now, the organizers seem to be playing a game in which they are trying to make the route harder and harder. This is why the 99th edition (264,2 kilometers) will have two extra climbs, a decision which was criticized by team managers and riders alike in the past months. Basically, they are accusing the race officials that in their desire to get a more spectacular and exciting course all they will really get is a boring race, giving the fact that the riders will not be willing to attack early on such a difficult parcourse.
As was the case in the past, the peloton will line-up in Brugge, the birth city of Guydo Reysbrouck, one of the best Classics riders of the ‘60s, with victories in Amstel Gold Race, Züri-Metzgete and Paris-Tours (three times). From there, the cyclists will have a long section of flat roads for more than 80 kilometers, before hitting the first hill of the day, Tiegemberg (which was the last climb in E3 Harelbeke). 30 kilometers later, the riders will face the legendary Oude Kwaremont for the first time (2200 meters, 4% average gradient, 11% maximum gradient) – a climb which starts with asphalt before switching to cobbles – and the real fun will begin from that point on.
Kortekeer, Eikenberg and Wolvenberg will follow, before a series of three flat cobbled sectors: Ruiterstraat, Kerkgate and Holleweg. The sixth hill of the race will be Molenberg (463 meters, 7% average gradient, 14,2 maximum gradient), where Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen left behind all the other riders at the 2010 edition, although back then Molenberg came much later in the day, with 40 kilometers to go.
The cobbled stretches of Paddestraat and Haaghoek are next, leading the way for Leberg, Berendries (which is returning on the route after a two-year absence), Valkenberg, Kaperij and Kanarieberg, which will all make for a very hectic race and trim the peloton before the second passage on the Oude Kwaremont. There will be no rest for the bunch, as Paterberg (360 meters, 12,9% average gradient, 20,3% maximum gradient) – one of the toughest hellingen out there – is tackled immediately, in less than four kilometers.
Number 14th on the menu will be the infamous Koppenberg (600 meters, 11,6% average gradient, 22% maximum gradient), and the battle for position will be a fierce one, because every meter counts on this hill. Koppenberg isn’t the oldest of the climbs, as it was brought into the attention of the organizers around 40 years ago, by Hubert Hoffman, but is the toughest one. Some riders call it “the torture chamber”, because of its steep gradient and irregular cobblestones, and it remains famous after the 1987 edition, when Jesper Skibby crashed and a race car drove over his bike. That incident led to Koppenberg being taken out from the parcourse until 2003, before being dropped again in 2007. After the Oudenaarde municipality underwent some significative repairs to the climb, it returned in 2008 and since then it’s making the riders’ life a living hell.
The ones left behind won’t have a chance of coming back in the pack, as Steenbeekdries, Taaianberg (which can give ideas to some cyclists) and Kruisberg/Hotond will follow up shortly, making for a race of attrition, before the final circuit on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. From the top of the Paterberg there are just 13 kilometers left on big, flat roads, so if a rider is at the front he’ll need a lot of power to stay there, especially with the forecasted headwind, as the ones coming from behind will put up a strong chase. Then, in Oudenaarde, where the race finishes for the fourth year in a row, we will find out the name of the cyclist who will get his place in history for winning the 99th edition of the race.
George Hincapie: “17 climbs was probably enough. The race is one of the hardest in the world anyway, I think the addition of the two hills may just make the earlier climbs perhaps a bit slower. On the other hand, although I feel like the old course perhaps had more historical significance, the new course is more spectator friendly. The fans can almost get a stadium like atmosphere going on the circuit. Either way, the race is going to be brutally hard and the favorites have to attack at some point, otherwise they may risk getting beaten by a sprinter at the end.”
Both Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara – each a three-time winner of Flanders – are sidelined after getting injured in March (the Belgian in Paris-Nice, the Swiss rider in E3 Harelbeke), and even though the race certainly has lost some of its glamour and shining because of their absence, it will serve as a preview for the time when the two of them won’t be in the peloton anymore and an heir will be expected to rise and take the vacant throne as king of the cobbles.
George Hincapie: “The absence of those guys will affect some of the tactics. I would envision a lot more Trek guys trying to get in breakaways rather then just staying in the bunch. Tom’s team already has a few guys that can win the race, so their tactics may not change too much. They will want to control the race from the start.”
Etixx-Quick Step has the numbers on Sunday, and Patrick Lefevere’s boys are expected to control the race and play it in their favour with an aggressive approach. On the other hand, having numerical superiority doesn’t mean you’ll win, which we could see last year: the Belgian team placed six riders in the top 60, while Trek had just one, but it was the winner. On the other hand, it’s important to mention that Etixx-Quick Step also has one of the main favorites: Zdenek Stybar. The Czech winner of Strade Bianche comes at the start in a great shape and with a high morale, and is expected to get that breakthrough win in a Monument on a course that really suits him.
On the other hand, it won’t be all about Stybar, because Etixx-Quick Step also counts on Niki Terpstra, the Paris-Roubaix champion. Terpstra was discrete in E3 Harelbeke, but showed that he is slowly getting into shape two days later, at Gent-Wevelgem, where he finished second. He will be another important weapon for the team, just as will be both Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Stijn Vanderbergh. Basically, all that Etixx-Quick Step has to do is to play its cards right and find the mojo of the past, when it made the decisive move at a moment when the others were less expecting it.
After his great Flandrian week-end (in which he won E3 Harelbeke and came third in Gent-Wevelgem), Geraint Thomas is considered by pundits and fans alike the premium contender for the victory, in a race which previously saw just one British winner (Tom Simpson, 1961). Sky’s leaders isn’t just one of the strongest men in the pack, but also one of the most intelligent, sensing when it’s the proper moment to launch the attack, as shown last Friday. Having finished eight at last year’s Flanders and supported by a solid team, Thomas has the consistency and confidence that it takes to win this time. Question is: after his recent feats, will he also have the freedom?
With Tom Boonen out of the race, Belgium’s biggest hopes in a win lie in Sep Vanmarcke, a rider who many are seeing as the rightful heir of “Tommeke” in the Monuments. Ever since the end of last season, the 26-year-old rider of LottoNL-Jumbo is training and making plans for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, 2015 being his big opportunity to lose the “nearly-man” tag that he is carrying on his back for some time now. Vanmarcke is in an excellent condition, knows how to position himself on the climbs, is strong, but lacks a fast finish, so he has to attack on one of the bergs and make sure he’ll leave everyone else behind.
Second last year, Greg Van Avermaet will lead BMC, with one goal in mind: get the win that has eluded him in the past seasons. Unfortunately for Van Avermaet, he crashed at E3 Harelbeke and finished Gent-Wevelgem just in 36th position, but he is poised to shrug off the disappointment and put on an aggressive display in a race where he came three times in a row in the top 10. If Van Avermaet – who you can be sure that he’s willing to attack and shape the race – fails to rise to the expectations, then watch out for his teammate, Daniel Oss, who is very strong this Spring and has the advantage of being an outsider, and thus surprising the big guns of a peloton in a moment they’ll look at each other.
In The Three Days of De Panne, Alexander Kristoff has had one of the most impressive rides of the season, winning three stages in a row, as well as the general classification, after an incredible individual time trial, which helped him cap a perfect race. Kristoff isn’t as explosive as some of his rivals, but he can hang on in there and even if he gets distanced on the Paterberg, he can come back on the flat roads that go to Oudenaarde, where he’ll be a favorite in a sprint. The stats aren’t in his favor though, as only two riders who won the GC in De Panne went on to conquer Flanders (Peter Van Pettegem – 1999 and Alessandro Ballan – 2007).
It’s important not to forget that Katusha also has an important joker, Luca Paolini, who can go at the front, in order to give his teammate a free ride in the bunch. But Paolini, who added Gent-Wevelgem to his palmares last Sunday after a wonderful and gutsy ride, is very dangerous and can be an useful decoy, so if the bunch ignores him in case of a late tactical move, then he can ride solo to the finish and become the oldest winner of the race.
Another very good sprinter who can climb is Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb. Supported by the likes of Koen De Kort and Zico Waeytens, the 26-year-old German wants to take his revenge after being hit by bad luck in E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, and thus continue his excellent run in the Monuments, after winning Milan-Sanremo. Degenkolb isn’t in the same league as the very best on the bergs, but depending on how the race pans out (especially if there’s a bad weather that will not favor the attackers), he can hope for a sprint finish, where he’ll start as one of the big favorites.
Despite his poor form and run, which netted him just a victory in 2015 (stage six of Tirreno-Adriatico), Peter Sagan remains a contender for the second Monument of the season, that could turn out to be a pivotal race for his first year with Russian outfit Tinkoff-Saxo. Things didn’t go smooth in the semi-classics for the Slovak, who missed the win in both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, and looks to be overtrained, while also having a mental block. On the other hand, maybe this uncharacteristic role of underdog will help Sagan surprise his rivals and nab the win in Oudenaarde, where he came second two years ago.
Stijn Devolder provided an emphatic display in the 39th edition of the Three Days of De Panne, although he came second in the overall standings, and he is looking very sharp before De Ronde. The result he got mid-week was a massive boost of confidence for the rider who took back-to-back victories in Flanders more than half a decade ago and Devolder will be keen to have one more shot at glory on home turf, especially as he s the roads better then 90% of the peloton. Clearly, the 35-year-old Belgian won’t be a top contender, but he remains a very dangerous man and if the others will underestimate him and he gets a gap, then there’s a big chance they won’t see him again until the finish.
George Hincapie: “Greg Van Avermaet is one of the big favorites. He has had an incredible form in the first part of the season. He’s been quiet the last few races due to crashes and bad luck, but his form and motivation to make up for last year’s second place will be there on Sunday. Peter Sagan will be looking for a change. He’s been there in all the big ones this year, but hasn’t pulled one off. We all know he is capable. Zdenek Stybar is also very strong, a complete contender with perhaps the deepest team. He will be among the protagonists at the end. Gerraint Thomas is in the form of his life and it was very impressive watching him over the last few months. If his team plays it right, he can for sure win. Kristoff was there in the second group last year, and he seems to be even stronger this year. You don’t want to bring him to the finish line with the favorites. If he is there, he will be hard to beat.”
Other cyclists who will go for a strong result on Sunday are Bjorn Leukemans (who, despite of his age, is always approaching the Classics in great form and is capable of a top 10), Lars Boom, Filippo Pozzato – who hopes to end Italy’s drought of 2360 days in the Monuments – Edward Theuns, Sylvain Chavanel, Heinrich Haussler, Jelle Wallays and Jurgen Roelandts, who had a strong and impressive ride in Gent-Wevelgem, where he showed he is on the right track for the Tour of Flanders, a race he finished third in 2013.
George Hincapie: “Daniel Oss is my outsider. He is showing great form. If he is in the breakaway, the team will want him to conserve energy in case Greg comes back to them. He could take advantage of that at the end if they don’t get caught.”
– Six riders share the record for the most wins: Tom Boonen, Achiel Buysse, Fabian Cancellara, Eric Leman, Fiorenzo Magni and Johan Museeuw
– Belgium leads in the nations standings, with no less than 68 victories
– Five of the 98 editions didn’t have a Belgian cyclist on the podium: 1951, 1961, 1981, 1997 and 2001
– Briek Schotte and Johan Museeuw share the record for the most podiums (wins included): 8
– The legendary Briek Schotte is also the rider with the most starts (20 in a row) and the most finishes (16), but the latter is shared with Frederic Guesdon
– Youngest ever winner is Rik Van Steenbergen, 19 years and 206 days (1944); oldest one is Andrei Tchmil, 37 years and 71 days (2000)
– 1920 – when Jules Van Hevel took the win – saw the lowest average speed: 26,105 km/h
– Highest average speed – 43,576 km/h – was recorded in 2001
– The first edition was also the longest one: 324 kilometers
– Only once throughout history De Ronde had less than 200 kilometers, in 1941 (198 de kilometers), when Achiel Buysse won the race for the second time
– Last rider to nab the victory while wearing the rainbow jersey was Tom Boonen (2006)
– 1919 saw the largest winning margin: 14 minutes between Henri Van Lerberghe and Lucien Buysee
– The only cyclist to take three wins in a row is Fiorenzo Magni (1949-1951)
– Five riders have won the amateur, as well as the pro Tour of Flanders: Roger Decock, Edward Sels, Eric Vanderaerden, Edwig van Hooydonck and Nick Nuyens
– Gent is the only city that has hosted both the start and the finish of the race
– Brugge is a start city since 1998, the year of Museeuw’s third and final win
– 1944 was the last year in which the Tour of Flanders ended on the velodrome
– In 1984, only Phil Anderson and Jan Raas got to the top of the Koppenberg without walking, the main reason being the deteriorating state of the cobbles
– Trek’s Stijn Devolder is the only former winner (2008, 2009) who will be at the start of this year’s edition
– John Degenkolb can become the second rider, after Eddy Merckx (1969 and 1975), to win Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders in the same season
– The youngest cyclist in the race is Quentin Jauregui (20 years); the oldest one is Matteo Tosatto (40 years)
– 18 neo-pros will make their debut in a Monument: Simone Antonini, Jesper Asselman, Tiesj Benoot, Sven Erik Bystrøm, Magnus Cort, Dylan Groenewegen, Quentin Jauregui, Tim Kerkhof, Oliver Naesen, Alberto Nardin, Luka Pibernik, Marc Sarreau, Kristoffer Skjerping, Ivar Slik, Sjoerd van Ginneken, Brian van Goethem, Bert Van Lerberghe, Ruben Zepuntke