The Tour of Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen as the locals know it, is to the Belgians what the Super Bowl is to Americans and the Grand National to the British. A one day festival in which at the centre of the party is a sporting event. The main difference however is that the arena in which the Tour of Flanders takes place is hundreds of kilometres in length and for the real fans wanting to attend, you can, and it’s free.
It is one of those races that every cycling fan should attend before they die, and one I have yet to tick off my long and generally unfulfilled cycling events bucket list. One day though, one day. An April spent travelling to and from the various classics across Belgium sounds like quite the trip.
The locals and those who do travel from abroad will line the route, drink a lot, have a lot of fun, and cheer loud as the race sweeps through the Flandrian countryside. The race starts in Brugge, heads west to the North Sea coast, travels south and then turns inland across the southern part of west Flanders, into east Flanders and the Flemish-Ardennes were the sharp little cobbled bergs will sort the men from the boys and find us a winner.
It’s those famous cobbled climbs — the Koppenberg and later the typically decisive Muur-Kapelmuur among many others — where the selections will be made and the race won and lost. None of the climbs are exceptionally long — most are between 500m and 1000m in length — but they are exceptionally steep and narrow and it doesn’t take much for a slip to force a stoppage in the group and leave some hiking their way to the top. It is why the fighting for position in the bunch is so intense leading into these sections so as not to get caught in a stoppage essentially ending your race, and the physical demands and bike handling skills required for this positioning is something that some riders cannot handle well.
So do not expect a large group to come to the line, except that is for the stragglers who haven’t abandoned and who tootle home together. If it rains — which it so often can in that part of the world — then expect mud, blood and chaos.
The cobbles in the harsh conditions are for the hardest of hard men cyclists only. It is why there has been no winner of this race who has also been a Grand Tour winner since Eddy Merckx. The only previous Tour de France champion lining up in this race is Sir Bradley wiggins and he’s only in there because potential Sky favorite Ian Stannard withdrew through injury.
Because of the cobbles, the bergs, the weather, and as a result, the likelihood of crashes, splits in the pack and mechanical trouble, it’s extremely hard to predict a winner. Of the 200 starting, the majority have a shot at being in the final selections if they play it right and luck goes their way, and if they’re strong, a good portion of those could very well claim the scalp.
That said, history tends to suggest that the strongest names in the sport are often at the fore and often winning and so luck only plays a small part. Strength, power, courage and bike handling skill all come into it. Fabian Cancellara is defending champion and has won it twice, Tom Boonen has won it three times, Stijn Devolder won it back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, and the great Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw won it three times, was second three times, and third twice.
Below is a list of ten names from which I think the winner will emerge. The names will seem obvious, but in a race like the the Ronde van Vlaanderen it’s about the only way you can predict.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory): Defending champion and two time winner, Cancellara’s big target for 2014 is probably a shot at the World hour record but results at the spring classics fall right in behind that. He hasn’t had great results so far this year (by his standards) which suggests he’s either saving himself for this weekend, or will come into the weekend desperate to prove he’s still the strong man of the Monument classics.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale): It was Sagan and Cancellara for the win last year when the bg man from Switzerland blew the young Slovak away on the final climb and rode alone to victory. Sagan has yet to win a Monument and the pressure will only grow until he does. Flanders is a race perfectly suited to his ability and being one year older and one year more experienced than last year you have to think this could be the first of what I have to think will be many Monument classic victories.
Tom Boonen (OPQS): The peoples favorite you can expect to see a lot of flags flying for Boonen. He didn’t finish last year but was working his way back from injury. He has won it three times however though in 2012 it was the first time he had won it since 2006 when he completed back-to-back victories. Boonen’s biggest victory so far this season was at Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, but make no mistakes, the Belgian’s season starts Sunday.
Zdenek Štybar (OPQS): He hasn’t won a big classic before but anyone who has seen the 28 year old Czech race knows he’s due a breakout ride. Last year at Paris-Roubiax it looked as though that day had come when he found himself in the final selection of riders only to suffer a crash that ended his hopes. He started this year off by going off road to win the World Cyclo-Cross Championships and will be hoping the bike handling skills and strength required in those conditions will pay off for him at Flanders.
Niki Terpstra (OPQS): The third Omega Pharma Quick Step rider on the list, Terpstra has had a fine start to the 2014 season. He won the Tour of Qatar and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the year and in the past ten days was 1st at the Dwars door Vlaanderen (26 March), 2nd at E3 Harelbeke (28 March) and 4th at the Three Days of De Panne (3 April). And the win at Dwars door Vlaanderen could prove the best insight to his form for it is across similar roads to what they’ll be on for Sunday and is an ideal warm up race. The only thing going against him is his team-leader is Tom Boonen who he’ll surely be expected to work for unless Boonen comes apart.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC): He’s had his fair share of top 10 finishes in these spring classics but has yet to crack the podium of a Monument classic. The closest he came was a 4th in the Tour of Flanders two years ago and a 4th at the Paris-Roubaix last year. Yet with his team-mate Philippe Gilbert not entering the Tour of Flanders, he will be the BMC team’s biggest hope for a result and while he might be an outsider to win the race, expect to see him very much in the mix when the real racing begins.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky): When Boasson Hagen broke into the sports big-time in 2008 many felt he would go on to one day dominate the classics, yet it has never really happened. Some feel Team Sky’s dedication to the Grand Tours has held him back, though this year his team do seem more committed to the one-day classics, determined to get a Monument victory under their belts. Ian Stannard won the lesser known Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the year after Boasson Hagen looked for a while to be in the winning break, but Stannard isn’t here this weekend and expectations to finally get that big result will fall on Boasson Hagen. He’s due that big scalp one of these days and on Sunday you can expect him to be there or there abouts, and at Flanders that’s all you have to be going into the final stages.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky): The Welshman has never had a big result in a major spring classic race, that is except for the 10th place in the 2011 Tour of Flanders, but his 3rd place at the E3 Harelbecke has shown signs that the form could be there to mix it up this weekend. He may be here primarily to support Boasson Hagen, but should the Norwegian fall short and without Stanndard available, Thomas could be the man looked for to pick up the pieces. A cool wet tough race might suit him nicely.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha): The hard man Norwegian looks perfect for this kind of race. He proved his ability in a Monument classic by winning this years Milan-San Remo in the driving rain. On top of that he was 4th in last years Tour of Flanders with 8th and 9th place finishes at the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix respectively. He’ll be the big hope of the Katusha squad though the last man to win the Paris Roubaix and Tour of Flanders in one year was Eddy Merckx in 1975 when ‘Bye Bye Baby’ by the Bay City Rollers was the UK number 1 song.
Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol): The third Belgian on the list will probably be seen as the most unlikely to win of the three, but he shouldn’t be ruled out either. At 28 Roelandts is hitting his prime and the classic races are his strong suit. He was 3rd in last years Tour of Flanders behind Cancellara and should have the ability to go well again this weekend.
Also, there are three Canadians in the race. Svein Tuft (Orica GreenEdge), Hugo Houle (AG2R La Mondiale) and Antoine Duchesne (Europcar). None are expected to threaten for the win, but then again, nobody is out of it before it starts.
Prediction: Niki Terpstra