There is one race that I look forward to more than any other. Once that ignites such a passion and excitement, confirms my love for cycling and never denies me the excitement I look forward to all year.
RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN (The Tour of Flanders)
The race began in 1913, conceived by Karle Van Wijnendaele, co-founder of the sports paper ‘Sportwereld’ as a way to promote the newspaper. The race was over 330km all on poorly established roads and finished on a wooden track that took the riders around a lake in Mariakerke near Ghent. 27 riders began the first ever race and it was the Belgian 25 year old, Paul Deman who crossed the line first.
The route has never been easy, mentally and physically it has challenged the greatest riders when they have attempted to tame the cobbled beast. Eddy Merckx even struggled but did eventually take it by the horns in 1969. It would take him a further 6 years to celebrate on the podium once more.
26 teams and 208 riders will line up on Sunday to charge the 256km route built of 17 climbs, 10 of them short, sharp and cobbled with a further 7 cobbled road sections. This is the race where you find the Koppenberg. 600 metres in length with an average gradient of 12% this narrow, cobbled section is where you may just see tears of pain in the rider’s eye as they power past the animated crowds, grasping for the top.
There have been dramas in this race, ones that the participants and spectators never forget. One of the most famous was in 1987 when Jesper Skibby fell on the Koppenberg. Still attached to his pedals the race official’s car ran over Skibby’s rear wheel narrowly missing his leg. After the incident the Koppenberg was deemed to be too dangerous to use in the race and it wouldn’t make an appearance again until 2002.
In 2009 drama occurred in the peloton once again, this time for Fabian Cancellara. His chain broke as he powered up the climb, without support cars following behind he was forced to abandon the race. However, in 2010 Cancellara would return to outpace Boonen in one of the most exciting Flanders stages in history.
When writing about the Classics it is hard not to mention the same riders for each race. I think this is because the classics take a special kind of rider to rise to the challenge. It is generally a Puncheur that survives the mental and physical anguish that goes with the unrelenting cobbled sections but domestiques can fair quite well too.
It is no secret that I am a Boonen (Omega Pharma) fan. His graceful and powerful style and his ability to transfix spectators has won me over on numerous occasions. This year Boonen has already struggled with injury and illness and questions loom over him. Is he capable of becoming the first cyclist to win the race 4 times? He has yet to show us that he is on form and a crash at Gent Wevelgem last Sunday only makes us doubt even more that he will be first over the line. Could he really be holding back? Acting like he is unfit to put off his components only to attack on the day and prove the he is now the King of the Classics?
If Boonen can’t perform than it may just be a day for Sylvain Chavanel. He has been seen with the bit between his teeth in recent races and is not shy of foul weather either. Physically, riders like Sagan are stronger but in cycling it can also be about the team behind the rider. Omega Pharma have sent an army to defend the title and if Sergeant Boonen isn’t fit for the fight than it may just be Corporal Chavanel who leads the men to victory.
There is no doubt that Peter Sagan (Cannondale) is on a winning streak and whispers of him wanting to take first place have been heard loud and clear. He is young, fierce and fearless, but he is also a little cocky and riders like Cancellara are unappreciative of his victory celebrations. Sagan has made himself a bit of a target, and will be closely monitored by everyone in the Peloton. In saying that, the Peloton is famous for playing a game of cat and mouse which we all experienced when Sagan rode away for the win at Gent Wevelgem this year. Honestly, the thought of Sagan winning does depress me, not because he isn’t a brilliant rider, but because, in my mind, he just isn’t as exciting as some others.
Garmin Sharp have put together a healthy team this year, the 2011 winner Nick Nuyens rides alongside Johan Vansummeren who was the 2011 Paris Roubaix winner and David Millar joins them to help pull on the front. RadioShack Leopard Trek looks healthy too. Cancellara of course is the main hopeful but Stijn Devolder is a past two time champion of this historic race and won’t be tailed like Fabian if he decides to break away.
Looking at BMC I can’t help but feel a bit unenthusiastic about Gilbert. Generally I would be indecisive about whether it would be Phillipe or Tom that would stand on the winner’s box but now I wonder if Taylor Phinney isn’t more promising of a victory within the BMC team. Taylor is talented when it comes to the classics, however with age comes stamina, is Phinney old enough to secure such a prestigious win? I think so, but his chances will also depend on if BMC allows Phinney to get away or hold back and work for the world champion.
I know there are plenty of riders that are in for a chance, 208 to be exact, but there are a few riders that we all hold out for. I deliberate for days, carefully analysing a riders past performances, mental capacity and current fitness before I choose my favourites. I am definitely not always right but sometimes I can pull it out of the hat and then it is a definite, “I told you so” bragging moment to anyone in earshot of me.
This year I am struggling to pick the winner though, as always I will choose Boonen just because I adore him as a classic rider, but there is no denying I have my reservations about this. When it comes to the ones to watch, I would say pay attention to the likes of Oscar Gatto from Vini Fantini-Selle Italia and maybe Sep Vanmarcke from Blanco. Don’t count out older riders like Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil) or dismiss the strength of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)either.
One thing for certain, when you are watching Sunday’s battle you will get lost in the moment. Become a fanatic, feel the passion, the pain and the emotion that is embedded in every cobble. Urge on every rider and appreciate all that they do for us to be able to become a part of their world. We are the fans, they are the riders and this is Flanders. This is the greatest race.