After weeks of classics and semi-classics taking place on the cobbles and bergs of Belgium it’s time for the main event, De Ronde van Vlaanderen. The race this year starts in Antwerp, after the previous 19 editions began in Bruges. The other change to this year’s edition is that the infamous and iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen returns after a five-year absence. However, as it appears early in the race it won’t have the same impact as it once had. In total there are eighteen climbs, twelve of which are cobbled ‘healing’, and five sectors of cobbles on the flat.
The first 80km feature no real tests for the riders, Greg Van Avermaet will have a chance to wave to any relatives lining the roads, as the race passes his hometown of Hamme at 28km. The first two cobbled sectors come just after 80km, but won’t have an effect on the race. We have the first of three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont, whose double digit gradient of the 2.5km climb won’t settle the race this time up, but it does provide a flavour of the next 145km! The next six climbs come thick and fast over the following 40km. They are the; Kortekeer, Eikenberg and Wolvenberg, the cobbled sectors of the Holleweg and Haaghoek break up the sextet before the final trio of the Leberg, Berendries and Ten Bosse.
You can bet that one of the biggest crowds of the day will be at around the 165km mark, this is where the Muur van Geraardsbergen makes its return to the race. The 20+% gradients towards chapel are part of the folklore of the race and whilst it won’t be decisive in deciding the winner its great to see it back.
There is then a 20km ‘respite’ before the next two climbs, the Pottelberg and Kanarieberg. Once the race reaches the Oude Kwaremont for the second time, the real action should begin. This second ascent is immediately followed by the Paterberg, a precursor to the finale of the race and it’s brutal.
Before the end though the pain doesn’t stop, as this nasty double act is followed by the Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, the Taaienberg and the Kruisberg. By the time the riders reach the final run up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, the peloton will be in bits and the final, race winning, moves will be made on these two climbs, as we saw Peter Sagan do last year. After this expect only a handful, or even solo effort, to be fighting it out over the final 13kms to the finish.
Unlike the previous monument of this year, Milan-Sanremo, where the field was incredibly open, there are three standout favourites going into De Ronde van Vlaardenern and handful of other riders that could also come away with the win.
The first is, and usually is, Peter Sagan, who comes here with the possibility of being the first rider to win back to back Tour of Flanders, in the rainbow jersey. We fully expect him to ride a similar race as last year and aim to solo away on the final climbs, possibly on the earlier Oude Kwaremount rather than the Paterberg. He has been one of the strongest, yet again, during the classics season and was pipped at the line in Milan-Sanremo. But since the racing has returned to Belgium he has actively struggled, or rather other teams and riders have played to his strength and refused to work in moves that he’s in, as a result he has only come away with one cobbled win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. However, this is his race. He is more suited here than at Paris-Roubaix next week and we expect him to be on the podium at the very least.
Greg Van Avermaet is the man of the cobbles so far this year. Last year saw him shake off his ‘never going to win a classic’ tag and he more than continued that in 2017. He has won Omloop het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, but this is his main goal for 2017, as it is for any Belgian classics rider. He was a DNF last year due to a crash in which he broke his collar bone and he really looks to be the man to beat. The one thing that Sagan possibly has the edge on him is the final explosive attack on the climbs.
The third favourite for us is fellow Belgium rider and current renaissance man, Philippe Gilbert. Fresh from winning the Driedaagse De Panne, he has shown great form during the whole of the cobbled season with two second places at E3 and Dwars door Vlaanderen. He might not have the same attacking paper on the climbs as Van Avermaet and Sagan, but he does have the ability to stick to their wheels and then look to attack on the flatter roads into the finish. The current Belgian national champion would be the first since Stijn Devolder in 2008 to win De Ronde whilst wearing the Belgium tricolour and from the form he’s shown so far it wouldn’t be a surprise if he did — it is contract year for him after all!
Gilbert also has the added bonus that his team is far superior, with the majority of the Quickstep team potential winners. Tom Boonen will be competing in his final Tour of Flanders and the whole of Belgium would love nothing more for another Boonen victory at De Ronde, but next week’s Paris-Roubaix is what he really has his eye on. That’s not to say he won’t look to make the most of any opportunity that arises, but it’s likely he’ll be used to work for others. Zdenek Stybar and Nikki Terpstra have formed a nice double act this classics season, working together in the chasing groups at races. Neither has really shown the type of form as previous seasons and they have been victim to the age old problem of Quickstep botching tactics at the sharp end of the race. Stybar looks to be the strongest on the climbs, with Terpstra likely to be used to go up the road to avoid his team needing to work in pulling a group back.
Sep Vanmarke has continued his unfortunate ability of not delivering in the classics. He was looking good with a third place at Omloop, but since then he’s had a shocker. There is no doubt his ability and if the stars align then he could win from the final group, but at the moment we just can’t see that happening. Que a blistering attack on the Paterberg, catching everyone off guard!
Orica-Scott is the dark horse here, with both Luke Durbridge and Jens Keukeleire, the later narrowly missing out to Van Avermaet at Gent Wvelegem. Durbridge would be more suited to Roubaix next weekend and could look to get into an early group, but his recent shows of strength probably won’t allow that to happen. Keukeleire has shown that he has the form to compete on the climbs of Flanders and a podium is not unthinkable.
Lotto-Soudal have had a very poor classics campaign and they have two races to turn it around. Tiesj Benoot hasn’t really shown the form of the previous two seasons. He, like van Avermeat, crashed out in last year’s race. His lack of form will mean he could go under the radar in this race and perhaps that’s what he will need, as the recent attention and expectation on his young shoulders has possibly thrown him.
Sky have also had a poor cobbled run. Luke Rowe has been the strongest but Ian Stannard looks really out of sorts, his target will be Roubaix next week, but he will want to have a decent showing here so that he goes into next week with a little confidence.
Trek-Segafredo are finding it difficult to fill the Cancellara shaped hole in their team, as was to be expected. John Degenkolb does look as if he is coming to the boil nicely with his fifth place at Gent Wevelgem and whilst he would be a surprise winner, a podium would be a shock. The young Belgium Jasper Stuyven hasn’t been in great form since Omloop and Kuurne and will be expected to support his German Teammate. Edvard Thuens and Fabio Felline are wildcard picks, but both strong breakaway contenders.
Our final rider that we’ll be looking out for is Oliver Naesen, who is currently having the season of his life, having never been outside of the top ten at a Belgium races before his twenty-second placing at Gent Wevelgem. He has shown that he can climb and sprint with the best and he is a huge podium potential.
Our Pick: We think that Philippe Gilbert can continue to roll back the years and take his first monument since Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2011. He was enjoying himself at De Panne this week and that could be set to continue here at De Ronde.