RUPERT GUINNESS March 28, 2012
Tom Boonen of Belgium has the speed for a sprint to win the Tour of Flanders if he can survive the tough climbs. Photo: AFP
It is regarded by some as THE heavyweight championship on wheels. To the hardened Flemish, the 254.4km race held on the once battlefield-stricken countryside is their world championship.
The Tour of Flanders, Ronde van Vlaanderen to the locals, is one of the toughest one-day races in the world.
Paris-Roubaix, , the 'Hell of the North", with its cobblestones is up there for excitement, challenge and toughness. There is no argument it is not for the faint hearted.
But there is a strong case to argue that a harder all-round race is the Ronde, even if it is less known in Australia. The classic is not heavily promoted outside northern Europe compared to Paris-Roubaix. It has not helped either that the race has not had an Australian winner as Paris-Roubaix had in Stuart O'Grady in 2007; even if Phil Anderson came close with two second places in 1985 and 1988.
"It would have been the sweetest race in the world to win. It was more my style of race than the Tour," Anderson told the Herald of the Ronde of which the 96th edition will be held on Sunday.
What sets the Tour of Flanders apart is the cocktail of difficulties that it offers those who race it. Paris-Roubaix has length in its 258km race, 27 sectors of cobblestones totalling 51.5km and narrow farm lanes; but the Ronde offers those plus more - the many short but steep 'bergs' (hills), the litany of twists and turns and with that the myriad wind shifts that can catch out the unwary.
But this year, a new veil of uncertainty is shrouded over the Ronde due to the debated course changes that were made after last year's race won by the unfancied Belgian Nick Nuyens in a sprint against Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara and Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel.
As a result, it has been suggested by some that the Ronde will no longer be the same after organisers opted to move the finish from Meerbeke where it has been since 1973 to Oudenaarde; and even worse cut out the famed Muur du Geraardsbergen and Bosberg climbs.
Critics believe organisers have sold out to the money offered by Oudenaarde's bid to host the finish. Others fear the race has been made harder by the placement of two of the traditional route's toughest climbs so near to the finish, the Oude Kwaremont (2.2km-long and at an average gradient of four per cent) and Patersberg (400m long but 20 per cent gradient at its steepest). Both climbs are on a finishing circuit that the peloton must negotiate three times. As Anderson says: "It makes it [the race] extremely difficult."
Anderson says they are "two of the hardest climbs on the old course. The Kwaremont is fast. You will do it in the big chain ring if the power's on. On the Patersberg, you use your smallest gear."
Anderson says the inclusion of a the circuit should also impact the tactics used by teams that will have trained on it often before Sunday's start.
"With two laps to go they will have it clearly in their mind what's coming next," he says. "In the old course there would be one climb after 230km, another different one after 250km and so on.
"With all training on the circuit, they'll be familiar with it, they will know what's around the next corner and where to spend their energy. In a normal Tour of Flanders, you don't see any of the course until you get to it. Teams will possibly strategise by saying. 'We'll get you to the first climb of the Kwaremont or the second time and that is where you launch your move. It will be a little easier to lay out the plan and riders rather than do it on the 12th or 13th climb as before."
They are not the only hills either. After a flat first 90km, the route includes the Nokereberg, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Molenberg, Rekelberg , Berendries and Valkenberg ascents before the riders hit circuit.
Whoever has the strength of mind and body to stay near the front on all the climbs and produce the winning move will be an exceptional athlete. Optimal form and a perfectly executed race plan is what's needed to win.
Saying that, Anderson says "you'll still see the early breakaway, and the favourites wait until the second last lap" of the finishing circuit for the winning move to come.
Which will be fine for organisers, so long as the winner can be hailed as the strongest rider.
Rupert Guinness' Tour of Flanders tips:
1. Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky
3. Fabian Cancellara (Swtz), RadioShack-Nissan.
Best Aussie bet: Stuart O'Grady, GreenEDGE
* The Tour of Flanders will be broadcast LIVE in Australia on SBS1 from 10.30pm (AEDT) Sunday and streamed live on www.sbs.com.au/cyclingcentral from 9.30pm (AEDT) Sunday