‘Once is enough’.
The words of an old teammate, Patricia Schwaager, (when I asked her what racing Flanders was like) echoed in my ear as I was, seemingly, going backwards on a cobbled section in my first Flanders – only last year.
Full of a head cold, a temperature change of -30° from South Africa (from where I had recently returned) and a newfound incompetence at riding cobbles (I hadn’t ridden many previously), I contemplated immediate retirement. As my compatriots sprinted for 75th place I was too tired to even laugh; my only consolation was that I had finished. I was, however, happy that I finally got to do this iconic race, with its narrow roads, steep climbs (many cobbled), flat cobble sections and crazy fans. I felt I couldn’t really be considered a ‘proper bike rider’ had this box not been ticked.
Check out the excellent website for more detailed information of the course.
The neutralized start from Oudenaarde is at 10.55am CET.
The riders will tackle the cobble sections of the Lange Munte, Lippenhovestraat and Paddestraat before passing back through Oudenaarde. From here the race starts in earnest as riders face six successive climbs and two cobble sections.
These are: the Achterberg (at 56.1 km), the Eikenberg (at 62.7 km), the Wolvenberg (at 65.8 km), the Holleweg cobbles, (at 65.9 km), the Haaghoek cobbles (at 71.6 km), the Leberg (at 74.6 km), the Berendries (at 78.7 km) and Tenbosse (at 83.6 km).
After only a short break the riders will take on the challenging 1.1km Muur van Geraardsbergen, with an average gradient of 9.2% at 94km, followed by the Pottelberg at 112km.
The remaining 40km of the race remains unchanged from last year. Riders will hit the Kanarieberg (118 km), the Kruisberg/Hotond (127 km), followed by the, normally decisive, Oude Kwaremont (137km), 2.2km long at 4.4% with the steepest part at over 11%, and the Paterberg (140km) at 13 km from the finish – only 360m but with an average gradient of 12.9% and the steepest section at 20.6%. The race finishes back in Oudenaarde at approximately 3pm CET.
Differences from last year
153.3km vs 140km
12 vs 10 climbs
Climbs OUT Molenberg, Valkenberg, Kaperij
Climbs IN Achterberg, Eikenberg, Ten Bosse, Muur van Geraardsbergen/Kapelmuur and Pottelberg
What happened last year?
Last year was a real race of attrition. Although there were early attacks and breakaways it was the Kruisberg which tore the peloton apart, leaving a final lead group of around 30 riders. The Oude Kwaremont was the decisive climb of the day where Johansson attacked and only Deignan was able to follow. The chase group of eight consisted largely of teammates of these riders so the two were able to stay away. The sprint was a photo finish and Deignan was awarded the win over Johansson. Blaak, Deignan’s teammate, rounded out the podium.
What is so special about Flanders
Since I have only raced Flanders once, I asked recently retired professional cyclist Iris Slappendel what makes Flanders so special. Out of the previous 13 editions Iris has only missed a few … so she should know.
She said: “First of all because of the history of the race, it’s a race that speaks to the imagination, it’s heroic. For me as a young girl, it has always been the most famous race together with the Tour de France. Secondly, because of the atmosphere. I remember the first time that I raced it so well. It was by then one of the first races combined with the men. I was so impressed by the entourage and all those fans along the course. And last but not least, the demanding course. There are so many punchy climbs, cobble sections, narrow roads, etc. You have to be an all-round rider with great bunch skills. Positioning and tactics are even more important here than in other races”.
How to win Flanders?
I asked previous winners, Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott), Marianne Vos (WM3 Energie) and Lizzie Deignan, how they won Flanders in 2011, 2013 and 2016 respectively.
Van Vleuten said: “‘I found myself for the first time in the front group after the Muur. We had Sarah Duster, a teammate in front, (Marianne Vos) so I did not have to chase. After the Bosberg it was chased back. Antoshina attacked in the last five kilometres. Everyone was watching each other. I profited from having Marianne there. Every one was thinking it would be a sprint, so wanted to go for the sprint as fresh as possible. So I sneaked away! I beat Antoshina in a sprint.”
Vos explained: “The decisive break in 2013 was created on the Oude Kwaremont. Together with the Patersberg, this is a very selective part in the final. This year this will also be an important part, but I think ‘The Muur’ will create some damage earlier in the race. With a distance of 153,3km, I think some riders want to save a bit for the final. In 2013 we came to the line with four and I knew that I could be the fastest in the sprint. To keep it together was hard though, as there were a lot of attacks by the other three. It’s a race I wanted on my palmares, so I was really happy with the victory.”
Deignan said: ‘”Me and Emma Johansson attacked from a select group that had formed over the Oude Kwaremont. Ellen van Dijk pushed the pace over the Oude Kwaremont, after I expressed that I had good legs and the race was still too passive. We needed to force the selection from which Emma and I attacked. It was on the rolling section of road between the top of the Oude Kwaremont and the decent of the Patersberg; everyone is always on their knees at that point.”
How to prepare for Flanders?
Slappendel said: “This depends on the team. I’ve never been in a team where we did a very specific preparation together. Maybe only with the Cervelo Test Team where we spend some extra days in Belgium to have a good recon of the course and practice on the cobbles with equipment. I did a recon a few times by myself in the weeks coming up to the race. Knowledge of the course is key with this race. In my training I focused on the punchy climbs and that kind of efforts. I also choose the last few years to race Gent-Wevelgem instead of Binda (these were first on the same day) as a preparation’.
This will be Hannah Barnes’ (Canyon SRAM) first ever Flanders and I asked her if her team have done any specific preparation. She said: “We did a route recon when we were in the area for Le Samyn. But the weather was awful so we weren’t able to do much, but were able to see some of it. It helps that a few of the races I have done already this season have covered some of the sections.”
What is the hardest part about racing Flanders?
With 176 riders last year, I found positioning the hardest part. Getting enough fluid and food can also be difficult, as there is so much to focus on, but with a race of this length it is more critical than ever. It is essential for a rider to know what is coming up in the course and when. The majority of riders will stick tape on their stem indicating at what distance the climbs and cobbled sections will be.
Van Vleuten: “Focus, focus, focus is needed to be at every obstacle in a good position. It can happen everywhere.”
Deignan said: “For me it is the last climb, the Paterberg. If you have good legs at the end of Flanders then you have a great chance of winning the race there, the combination of the gradient and cobbles mean that you either fly over them or survive them as best as you can by maintaining any momentum you can; this is so, so hard on tired legs.”
Slappendel added: “For me it was the positioning before the cobbles and climbs. Also you need some luck. Don’t flat or crash on the wrong moment.”
Barnes predicts: “The distance will be difficult. The races are longer this year so that’s bringing another element to the race. Of course the climbs and the weather- they both can bring in another element too.”
Changes to the bike
When I rode Flanders we used 25mm tyres with less pressure and double bar tape. I asked some other riders what they will be doing this year.
Slappendel said: “For the first few years I had double bar tape but the last few years I didn’t. I also chose wider (25 mm) tires but last year we rode those all year. Also I wouldn’t use a deep rim. The choice of tires, wheels and pressure is most important.”
Vos said: “With our team we’re riding the Ridley Liz. This is the ‘all-round’ frame of Ridley and ideal for the cobble classics. We’re riding Vittoria G+ Corsa (tyres) like all the races, but with a little less pressure. We go down one to two bars compared to Trofeo Binda for example. Most of the riders will choose an 11×28 cassette, to be able to keep some cadence in the climbs. There are some nasty steep ones…’
Van Vleuten said: “We have the possibility of having shifters on top of the handlebars so we can also shift riding on top . Tire pressure – we adapt that and have less than in a road race on normal roads. For this race, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are usually the decisive parts of the course. Both are cobbled climbs, that’s why I go for less pressure in my tyres.”
Deignan added: “My bike remains mostly the same. Our tyre pressure will be less because of the cobbles. It’s individual to each rider and their weight but also their preference. My preference is always on the softer side, I hate bouncing around on the cobbles, I prefer to get my power down even if it costs me on the tarmac sections.”
And Barnes said: ‘We will most likely put different tyres on and less pressure’.
How to watch
Proximus 11 @proximus will stream and broadcast live
Sporza @sporza will give highlights during the men’s race
Voxwomen will be live-tweeting the race, offering unique insight from our team’s expertise in both riding the race and covering women’s cycling. Plus, there will be highlights in April’s episode of the Voxwomen Cycling Show.
I asked Slappendel who her favourites are for this year.
She said: “I have the feeling Ellen van Dijk will do it again this year. She is crazy strong at the moment, knows her way around that race so well and has played a key role in the race finale in the last few years. My second bet is Chantal Blaak. Other favorites will be Jolien d’Hoore, Longo Borghini, Deignan, Van Vleuten. And there are some other girls going pretty well at the moment.”
I also asked Barnes who she thought would be the riders to watch. “Canyon SRAM have had a good time in the Classics so we are looking forward to having a good race. And Boels Dolmans, with Lizzie and Chantal. Team Sunweb. Anyone really. Teams have a lot of strength this year so the races have been really wide open which is exciting.”
Women’s World Tour standings ahead of Ronde van Vlaanderen
- Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) – 220
- Elena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM) – 215
- Coryn Rivera (Team Sunweb) – 205
Young rider classification
- Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervélo-Bigla) – 12
- Amalie Dideriksen (Boels-Dolmans) – 6
- Elisa Balsamo (Valcar-PBM) – 4
- Wiggle-High5 – 390
- Boels-Dolmans – 386
- Team Sunweb – 384
About Sharon Laws
Sharon worked for over 10 years as a conservation advisor for a range or organisations before becoming a professional bike rider. She is a former road, time trial and mountain bike marathon National champion and World Champion bronze medalist in the team time trial. Sharon represented Great Britain on the road at five World Championships, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and, on the mountain bike, at the European Championships. Sharon retired in 2017 and is currently undergoing intensive treatment for cancer.