After last week’s Gent-Wevelgem, won by an in-form Tom Boonen, this weekend sees the second of the three cobbled Classics featuring in our Fantasy Cycling game this season, the Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen to the locals. It promises to be an intriguing edition not least because of a change to the location of the finish for the first time in four decades.
That decision has proved to be one of the big talking points ahead of Sunday’s race, and it’s been an unpopular and controversial one, with the finish moving from Meerbeke, on the outskirts of Ninove, to Oudenaarde. There have reportedly even been anonymous threats to scatter tacks on the course ahead of Sunday's race.
The full route map, with details of the eight pavé sections and the day’s 16 climbs, most of those cobbled and including three ascents each of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, is attached at the end of this preview, as are the timings for the day (remember to subtract an hour to get BST) and the latest start list.
The change to the finale have upset many, especially since it means the disappearance from the race of the Muur van Gerardsbergen, also known as the Kapelmuur or simply the Muur.
The climb had become emblematic of the Ronde and had featured on and off since the 1950s and regularly after Meerbeke was settled on as the arrival town in 1973. Locals even held a mock funeral after the altered course was revealed.
But the fact is that the route of the race, the climbs it includes and even the start and finish towns have always been subject to ongoing revision. Yes, the new finale will take some getting used to for riders and fans alike, and we’ll miss the spectacle of the Kapelmuur, but remember that a finish in Meerbeke too was once uncharted territory.
Organisers say they spent a year considering three options for the finish, including keeping it where it was or moving it to Ronse, before settling on Oudenaarde, which houses the Tour of Flanders Museum, the decision partly motivated by the fact that a tight closing circuit will make management of spectators and safety easier.
Ahead of the arrival there, the real battle in the 255 kilometre race will in all likelihood start to unfold in earnest only in the final 75 kilometres or so, following a flat 20 kilometre section ahead of a closing circuit that includes those three ascents of both the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, as well as climbs of the Koppenberg and the Kruisberg.
After that last time up and down the one-two punch of the Oude-Kwaremont and the Paterberg, it’s a flat, 15-kilometre run into the finish.
That doesn’t make it a race for the pure sprinters – the earlier climbs will still be influential there, not least because of the fight to get on them that will leave the field strung out and many dropped off the back.
What it does mean, though is that if a lone rider or small group wants to stay away, they’re going to need a lot more of a gap than Cancellara, Gerrans and Nibali did at Milan-San Remo.
Equally, it means that some teams will want to make sure they have men around in the closing stages of the race to support those who can get over the hills and keep something in reserve for the sprint – Liquigas-Cannondale for Sagan and Katusha for Freire, for example, and of course for Boonen, Omega Pharma Quick Step, who also have Sylvain Chavanel as a genuine contender – what’s more, the French champion has just won the Three Days of De Panne.
Other riders who would hope to be around to contest the finish, however it pans out, include Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, 1t4i’s John Degenkolb, and Garmin Barracuda’s Sep Vanmarcke, who outfoxed Boonen to take the the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February. There will be plenty of others looking to feature too, however.
Speaking about the course changes to IG Markets during an interview as part of its Insights Into Cycling series, Boonen certainly sees it as a tough finale, but thinks the new parcours means that it will only be the strongest riders who make it into the final group that will contest the win.
As Milan-San Remo does for the Italians, the Tour of Flanders of course tends to bring out the best in the Belgians, and those from the Dutch-speaking part of the country in particular.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the last nine editions have produced six home victories, including two apiece from Boonen himself and Stijn Devolder. Both have the chance on Sunday to become only the fifth man to have won the race three times.
In recent years, the Belgians have typically got at least three riders into the top ten – something to think about when making your team selection. One who won’t feature though is current champion Nick Nuyens of Saxo Bank, who fractured his hip during Paris-Nice.
Of the foreign contingent, past winners include Alessandro Ballan of BMC Racing, who has notched up a series of top ten finishes in big races this season, although it remains to be seen whether the latest developments in the Mantova doping investigation in which the former world champion is implicated may distract him from the job at hand.
Team mate Philippe Gilbert, meanwhile, might be many people’s pick for a Belgian victory – he’s never won the race, but he has come close, although so far this season he hasn’t yet recaptured the form that saw him finish 2011 as world number one with a string of big wins.
Cancellara, who powered to victory in 2010, is joint favourite alongside Boonen, but since his spectacular Flanders-Roubaix double that year, while he has regularly appeared on the podium in the biggest one-day races, it hasn’t been on the top step.
Partly that’s because some teams have adapted their tactics to contain his threat, and partly because others have identified him as the man to follow and hope to beat in an eventual sprint. He’s one of the safer bets to earn you points, but could you get more by looking elsewhere? Tough call. But it’s a tough race, after all.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.