Brugge will play host to the start of the Flemish calendar’s most beloved race on Sunday; the Tour of Flanders or Ronde Van Vlaanderen for the more continentally inclined. Legs have been firmly stretched in preparation for this second monument of the year; Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke and Dwars Door Vlaanderen having all played host to the build-up of this classic race. No longer can a rider rue his hesitation with the reassurance of another day on the horizon, by the time Flanders is upon the contenders, nobody can afford to leave an ounce of energy or desire jettisoned wastefully between the cobblestones. Perhaps the biggest contrast to previous years’ editions will be the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen; two men who have inflicted much hurt upon the peloton en route to their combined six wins. Most interestingly of all, Stijn Devolder (twice a winner) will be the sole previous winner amongst the pack upon leaving Brugge; making the crowning of a debut champion a seeming certainty.
Though the course may not be one which pleases the purists, this year’s route will be one to encourage brutal attacks and prevent many from catching a breath before attempting to reel breakaways back. Those with a knowledge of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen will be aware of its historic finish which previously used the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg as the stage for the day’s final showdown. Nowadays however, a greater leg breaking affair seems to have replaced this old duo, the race now set to be decided upon a final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. But this is only one aspect to fret about during the 264.2km ride from Brugge to Oudenaarde. Opening with flat open roads will give the riders a chance to build up a head of steam before having to concern themselves with the first climb of the day; this being the Tiegemberg after 87.3km of Belgian roads. At 750m long with an average gradient of 5.6% (max 9%), it will alert the pack to the imminent livening up of their day as they enter into the tumultuous terrain of this region. What follows is the Oude Kwaremont approximately 25km later, this will be the first of the day’s three ascents and is the opening salvo of what will comprise the day’s war of attrition. A contrast to say the least, this partially cobbled climb reaches 2200m in distance and possesses an average gradient of 4% which tops out at 11.6% in parts. From this point onwards there will be no clear cut opportunities during their expedition through the region’s draining hellingen; most of the day’s climbs are separated by less than 10km.
Three climbs now appear within 10km; these are the 1km Kortekeer (avg 6.6% max 17%), the 1200m Eikenberg (avg 5.2% max 10%) and the Wolvenberg which is only 645m long but hits 17.3% during the 7.9% average. A couple of cobbled sectors will then follow before the short Molenberg needs tackling; resulting in a 32m gain in just 463m of riding. The Molenberg is cobbled for the most part, is 7% in terms of average gradient and doubles this number as it tops out at 14.2% on its steepest ramps; making it a climb where position will certainly be fought for early on. After here there is a break from the relentless hellingen, instead requiring the peloton to focus upon the cobbled sections which now occupy their attention in the meantime. Fatigue will have started to accumulate by now, riders shall have been discarded from the back and some are likely to have succumbed to the expected crashes and collisions during the chaotic climbs. It is the reasonably relaxed Leberg which will return the peloton back to climbing once again, one which includes no cobbles across the 950m of riding upwards; the average gradient here is 4.2% (max 13.8%). The rapidity of these hills picks up keenly once again after the Leberg, hitting the 171km mark will result in a passage of racing which includes four hellingen in the space of 26km. Berendries is the first within this run of climbs, 940m long with an average of 7% and a relatively modest maximum of 12.3% compared to its fellow challenges of the day. Next comes the Valkenberg, only 540m in length but has an average of 8.1% which is stretched to the maximum of 12.8%. Kaperij follows at an average of 5.5% over the 1km and does hit a maximum of 9% to help ratchet up the fatigue once again.
It is then another 10km before they ride onto the 1km Kanarieberg (avg 7.7% max 14%), which then offers the biggest break from the climbing since the day’s ascents started once over the top. It is the next and 12th hellingen of the day where we are likely to see the first real confirmation of who will have the legs to contest the race victory all the way into Oudenaarde; this is Oude Kwaremont part two. By this point in time just over 54km will remain for the favourites to duke it out over and the pressure increases another notch, as on this occasion the Kwaremont leads into the diabolical Paterberg. Though only 360m in length, its 12.9% gradient will wear the legs rapidly ahead of the rocketing incline which eventually pushes the cobbles up to 20.3%. Though it will be difficult to process everything which is going on around the riders, it will be worth staying alert on these two climbs as they form the decisive double header of hellingen which shall decide the finale of Ronde Van Vlaanderen 2015.
Adding to their woes will be the cobbled Koppenberg (avg 11.6% max 22%), this is the third of three devastating climbs which follow into one another in only 10km of racing. A heavy shelling of contenders shall have occurred by now and the true favourites will now take their rightful position at the front of affairs. Mariaborrestraat is a cobbled sector which follows on from this and lasts 2km, linking directly to the Steenbeekdries; it is 700m long and has an average of 5.3% (max 6.7%). This combination ensures that there will be no moment to take breath or to establish a more comfortable rhythm. The historic Taaienberg (avg 6.6% max 15.8%) then appears 36.8km from the finish, a cobbled climb of just over 5oom which has been the backdrop to many Tom Boonen attacks during his spring campaigns’ over the years. We should have a strong indication at this point of which riders have the energy to cling on to any lead group and have enough left in reserve to battle for the win.
The Kruisberg (2500m, avg 5% max 9%) is next, a climb which is long enough to cause trouble despite its less intense gradients to those which have proceeded it this far. Positioning here will be crucial in order to react to anyone attempting to make a break for it with less than 15km remaining of the race by this point. Depending on the composition of the lead group which hits the Kruisberg first, a real explosion of attacks could occur in order to try and dislodge hanger-ons or rivals showing signs of weakness. This will now only leave us with the leg breaking Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg doubleheader with which to see the champion come to fruition. The Kwaremont begins with just under 17km left and the Paterberg just over 13km, having already appeared during the race, spectators will have an idea of who looks the more comfortable when approaching the climbs once again. Whoever remains at this point will look to ditch any further wheel suckers on either hellingen, so a decisive move is likely to appear on either the longer Kwaremont or the steeper Paterberg. Approximately 13km will separate the first over the Paterberg from the finish in Oudenaarde, the resulting flat run home meaning that the tempo will need to stay high to keep any chase at bay. Anyone present in a select group who is notoriously fast in a finish is likely to be faced with the challenge of enduring several attempts to ditch them; in contrast anyone who feels the weakest in a possible sprint will need to take off solo to keep any hopes of winning alive.
With neither Tom Boonen nor Fabian Cancellara present to cause a stir, this appears to be the most open Tour of Flanders in considerable memory. Favourites here will be those who have demonstrated convincing form so far this year at races such as Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem for example. As a result of this, Geraint Thomas enters the day as one of the most watched men in the peloton, coming to Flanders on the back of an E3 victory and a 3rd place at Gent-Wevelgem. The Sky rider perhaps lacks the level of team support which he is likely to witness exhibited by some of his rivals on the day, but should feel confident of coping once life becomes a more mano a mano style affair later on. His most encouraging factor is perhaps his performance on some of the same pavé which brought him victory at E3 Harelbeke most recently; looking comfortable and convincing when attacking on the Kwaremont for example. Thomas was perhaps robbed of a better placing at Gent-Wevelgem due to the abysmal work ethic present in his group, one which leaned on the Welshman to do most of the chasing before he refused to commit any further and the group subsequently disintegrated allowing Luca Paolini to take the win instead. Ultimately his current form might just work against him, making it difficult for him to make a solo move as nobody will want him to escape, nor work in a group with him knowing his ability to get away. Should he come to the end as part of a small group, Thomas will be one of the least fancied in the sprint, as many other favourites for Ronde Van Vlaanderen possess a more clinical finish.
A man who has greater form amongst the classics, but is still missing a win, is Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian has looked good so far this season; though misfortune has perhaps prevented him from picking up a win ahead of Flanders. In the absence of Boonen and Cancellara, Vanmarcke is perhaps the most talented classics specialist in the race on the day and will be hungry to make the most of a more open race. Even in the face of misfortune he still manages to maintain a level of consistency which would turn many riders green with envy, there is no doubt at all that he will fight to the end in order to stay in contention for the win. Similarly to Thomas, Vanmarcke is probably likely to find himself short on teammates by the time the pressure reaches breaking point, meaning he will have to rely on his own ability to stay out of danger and know which wheels to follow. He has more options available to him in order to win, being one of the quickest finishers amongst the favourites and could attempt a longer attack if required also.
Another man who has been prevalent in one day races this year is Zdenek Stybar, finishing second only to Thomas in E3 and finishing champion ahead of Greg Van Avermaet at Strade Bianche. His team is stuffed full of talent, so much so, that it could possibly be a negative asset as tactical decision making becomes muddied and complicated late on. He is incredibly talented in both technical ability honed on the cyclocross scene, as well as his ability to put out huge amounts of power when required. It seems likely that Stybar will be part of a group which splinters off from the peloton and works efficiently until they feel the need to begin attacking one another on the final climbs. There is no reason to think the Czech rider could not ditch his rivals on the Paterberg for example and solo onwards, but he would feel equally confident in a decisive bunch sprint given his finishing speed.
Greg Van Avermaet and Daniel Oss are sure to fly the colours of BMC proudly throughout the day; both having displayed strong form ahead of this second monument. Oss has looked particularly strong as of late, especially when leading the chase to the Thomas, Sagan and Stybar group in E3 Harelbeke towards the end. That however ended up being a redundant effort as leader Greg Van Avermaet spectacularly dismounted from his bike when sailing over his bars and landing heavily on his back. Since then much speculation has been made as to the condition of Avermaet, most diminishing his chances of winning Flanders because of it. The Belgian looked just as strong in Milan-San Remo, but has failed to chart anywhere near the podium in a one day classic excluding Italy’s Strade Bianche where he finished second. It seems foolish to rule him out totally considering his career’s form at this race – Avermaet has finished 2nd, 7th and 4th in the last three editions. If doubts remain during the race, Oss is a strong alternative to have up the sleeve of BMC and would relish the chance to be allowed off the leash at last. Often the Italian rider finds himself sent up the road in anticipation of an Avermaet attack, or to force a group to chase which contains his teammate. If Oss finds himself in a elite group late on, it would be fascinating to see how he seizes upon the opportunity to lead the team’s charge and is likely to be one of the most able to attack without being followed. Possessing the skill to go it alone if necessary, as well as dangerous in a sprint finish, Oss could be dangerously underrated on the day.
Two men who would really relish a sprint finish are John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff, riders capable of hanging in long enough to contest the finish in Oudenaarde. The former won Milan-San Remo this year and is probably still riding the high from winning his first classics monument. He is thought of predominantly as a sprinter, but the German has a certain affinity for the cobbles which has seen him finish high already in similar races; most notably 2nd in Paris-Roubaix. Despite seeming unlikely to go on the offensive during the day, he will be a difficult man to jettison on the hellingen and will benefit from the flat run into Oudenaarde if required to bridge back to a group. Similarly to Kristoff, Degenkolb has demonstrated that he is often the fastest man remaining at the end of a long race, making him favourite for a sprint finish. Much of the above can be said similarly of Alexander Kristoff too, a man equally fancied to capitalise if taken to the finish by a select group. He has been winning with relative ease it would seem, becoming the first man to win three stages in one edition of the Three Days of De Panne last week. Ultimately for the Norwegian, it seems difficult to imagine a scenario where he makes it to the finish in the lead group in order to fight for the sprint. Few riders will wish to work with him and the 17 hellingen in total are surely too great a task for this man to conquer while holding enough in reserve to win come the finish.
One of the first outsiders who could find himself in the mix once again is Niki Terpstra, a teammate of Stybar who has looked confident during the decisive moments of Gent-Wevelgem. With attention focused more upon his fellow Etixx-Quick Step rider, Terpstra cold find a chance to attack with great effect. Poor tactical nous from his directeur sportifs has cost him already this season, but the Dutchman has still managed to accumulate several good performances despite missing a win. No doubt he would like to attack solo near the end and aim to time trial his way to the finish, if in a select group with Stybar, Etixx would be confident of taking the win. Terpstra could attack solo and being known for his ability to win from these positions would mean a group would have to close him down, but bringing him back would simultaneously tow Stybar towards the sprint finish he desires. If Etixx can finally grasp the correct set of tactics, Ronde Van Vlaanderen has a great chance of ending up in their hands.
It seems amazing that it is now possible to talk this much about contenders for a classics race and not even begin mentioning Peter Sagan. His form up to this point in time has left a lot to be desired, often failing to make it into the crucial move and (even when he does) is simply found out for not having the legs required to react effectively to attacks. From a man seemingly destined to win this race at one point, to a rider who has already done so twice, Stijn Devolder will be the leader for Trek while Fabian Cancellara recovers from several broken bones. The 35 year old Belgian has displayed an increase of form at both E3 and De Panne as of late and should be involved to a certain extent during the day. However, it is difficult to fancy Devolder in presence of riders in better form and many years younger than him.
Jurgen Roelandts is a very talented rider who will be worth keeping a close eye on having already finished second here in 2013. Despite this, the general feeling is that he is yet to show much of an indication of ability to compete at the same level as some of the best men for these kinds of races. He finished 7th in both Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke; the latter being contested upon some of the same climbs as Flanders. Encouraging signs are certainly apparent and if he times an attack from a small group well, he might just find that the favourites spend too long looking at one another to chase and he crosses the line alone in Oudenaarde.
Others which are likely to comprise some of the day’s key moves include Stijn Vandenbergh, Bjorn Leukemans, Sylvain Chavanel, Jens Keukeleire and Jack Bauer.
Making the assumption that Greg Van Avermaet has made a recovery since his nasty crash at E3 Harelbeke, he could well be the man most likely to benefit from the no-show of both Cancellara and Boonen. Bolstering a strong team and the perfect lieutenant in Daniel Oss, Avermaet should cope with what Ronde Van Vlaanderen has to throw at him; hoping to sprint to the win from a select group. Alongside him is likely to be Zdenek Stybar, strong enough to hang in with the best and more than capable to run a man such as Greg Van Avermaet close in a sprint for the finish. Sep Vanmarcke needs luck to stay on his side in Flanders, but should feel confident of being a danger man upon the cobbled climbs throughout the day and should place high in Oudenaarde. Beyond these two, Geraint Thomas and Niki Terpstra are sure to make it into the elite bunch which shall aim to make it all the way to the finish uncontested by the likes of John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff. The dark horse most likely be worth watching is represented here by Jurgen Roelandts.
Sprint: 1st Greg Van Avermaet 2nd Zdenek Stybar 3rd Sep Vanmarcke
Solo: Geraint Thomas