The pro’s legs have had time to warm up with a few early races in the north of Europe. The Het Nieuewsblad and Gent-Wevelgem are both testing races, but this weekend is when the real business starts. Sunday morning in the centre of Brugge, the pro peloton will be rolling out for the 2012 Tour of Flanders. This race is the highlight of the Belgian race calendar and one of the monumental races where the passion for the sport makes for an outstanding event that never disappoints.
The second major Classic of the 2012 season sees a bit of a change to the Classic’s regular circuit. Out go the usual decisive climbs of the Muur and Boberg where for years the big names of the sport ripped each other’s legs off and made the winning moves. This year they’ll also be no pictures of the riders screaming up past the small church, instead the circuit now has a different route. The race heads from Brugge west and then south towards the city of Oudernaarde. From there the peloton tackles three different laps that now take in a few different climbs that will decide the race.
It’s been argued that the new course could be harder. The peloton will have to scale the first decisive climbs of the Taaienberg and Molenberg. The guys who are wanting to do well will have to be on it here, ready to follow the moves.
From there the Koppenberg; a notorious tough cobbled climb, is tackled. This is followed by Patterberg and Oude-Kwaremont three times each on the circuits. Though the climbs are new to the Tour of Flanders, they are known and raced by the professional peloton at the E3-Harelbeke and Dwaars door Vlaandren. The riders will know where they need to be placed at the right time on these climbs and other sections.
After the first ascent of the Patterberg some riders will look to split the race apart, separating the guys who want to win the race on a lone escape from those looking for a sprint finish.
If you’ve never been to Belgium and experienced or seen the cobbles and climbs (bergs) the pros take on, it’s hard to imagine how tough they actually are. The bergs, with their cobbles are tough enough when out training, they’re like riding up a hill of old broken cattle grids and going down them is just as hard and even more dangerous. Racing is another matter though, how the pros seem to glide across the surface is mind boggling.
I was lucky enough to ride with Johan Museeuw, 3 times winner of the Classic a few years back at the sportive version of Flanders. Watching him on the cobbles was amazing, he made it look effortless, a practical art. I could see why he was a multiple champion, Belgian superstar and a legend of the sport.
All the big champions will be lining up, all finely tuned and hitting their form for this weekend and next week’s Paris Roubaix. Riders like Boonen, Cancellara, Hushovd, Nick Nuyens (last year’s surprise winner), Devolder and Belgian champion Gilbert will all be ready to light the race up.
But similar to Roubaix, Flanders is a race that not just favours the strong and intelligent rider, but also the lucky. In order to climb the top step of the podium you need to dodge the dangerous (usually Spanish) riders who are unused to riding on the cobbles, avoid being caught out too far back in the peloton on certain sections, evade crashes and the untimely punctures. If a rider manages that he may just have a chance of winning.