Continental Race Report: Tour of Flanders
Professional cyclists live and breathe cycling, and in their careers, they can only dream of limited success. For sprinters, they can hope to win stages of the Tour de France, and maybe even the rainbow jersey. For climbers, they hope to win on the most iconic mountain passes of Europe. For stage racers, they dream of Grand Tour glory. For Belgian Classics specialists, their whole season – and sometimes career – is geared towards one cold week in April, when the two biggest one-day races on the calendar take place. These races, famous for their cobbles, crashes and catastrophe, are the subject of almost every young Flemish cyclists’ dreams, and victory in one of them will often be the pinnacle of a rider’s career.
This year saw the 100th edition of the first of the week’s classics: the Tour of Flanders, or as it’s known by the locals: Ronde Van Vlaandren. It took place on a 255km course, including many short sharp cobbled climbs. Just over 200km in, the riders had to tackle the infamous Koppenberg for the second time. It might only be 0.6km, but at 10% with a maximum gradient of 22%, it’s far from easy. So far from easy in fact, that lots of the peloton ended up walking the famous slope. The final two climbs however, is where the difference was going to be made. First came the Kwaremont – slightly longer at 2.2km, but only 4% average. This was followed by the final hill of the day, the Paterberg: 0.3km at 12%. After that, a 13km flat run-in to the finish lay before the riders.
The day began in glorious sunshine, which was good news for the participants, although perhaps not so good for the viewers! Before the men’s race got underway, it was the turn of the women. Brit Lizzie Armistead started as the favourite, due to an incredible start to the season that included wins in Omloop Het Niewsblad and Strade Bianche. As the riders tackled the numerous and brutal climbs, it became clear that the race was going to be a war of attrition – the field was going to be gradually whittled down into an elite group of favourites. When they reached the Kwaremont, only 20km from the finish, there were only about 25 riders left, showing just how ferocious the pace had been. On the top of the climb, defending champion, Longo Borghini (Wiggle) attacked, and only a select few could follow, Armistead being one of them.
As they approached the final ascent of the Paterberg, Emma Johannson (Wiggle) accelerated, but was immediately marked by the Brit. The pair descended the hill together, and worked well in order to sustain a narrow advantage. Coming into the finish, Armistead was forced to lead it out. Hitting the line, neither rider was unsure of who had won the sprint, but a photo finish revealed that Armistead had just edged it. It was a terrific win for her, in what’s been a terrific season.
After this, came the men’s race, with many potential winners on the start line. Three time winners Fabian Cancellara (Trek) and Tom Boonen (Etixx) were both in action, in what was going to be one of the final battles between the two, given it’s their last season. Also there, was the world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), along with last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). In addition to them was Sep Vanmarke (Lotto NL Jumbo), who for many years has been a young hope for Belgium, although the time has now come to justify that title. Another young Belgian joined him: Benoot of Lotto Soudal. Leading Team Sky was Michal Kwiatkowski, with support from Brits Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas.
In the early stages of the race, seven riders got away, including star sprinter André Greipel (Lotto Soudal). Over 255km on flat exposed roads however, the group never had a chance of victory. In the peloton, tensions were clearly rising, with many small crashes occurring, the first of which involved Benoot, who unfortunately broke his collarbone and was unable to continue. Soon after, another crash brought down a few more riders, one of which was Greg Van Avermaet. He appeared to be in some discomfort, and was advised not to continue for fear of further damage. The Belgian was understandably distraught, crying at the side of the road.
Back in the bunch, on the first climb of the Kwaremont, Vandenbergh (Etixx) and Van Baarle (Cannondale) attacked. The peloton wasn’t worried though, and allowed the pair to bridge the gap to the breakaway. Shortly after this, the riders hit the Paterberg, on which Ian Stannard (Sky) went clear. The main group still didn’t panic, and the pace remained steady and constant, but only until they reached the Taaienberg, where an elite selection of riders formed, with Cancellara, Sagan, Boonen, Vanmarke, and Kwiatkowski all involved.
On a false flat, during an unusually quiet section of the race, Sagan and Kwiatkowski attacked, quickly followed by Sep Vanmarke. Looking up the road, the members of the pelotons’ hearts must have sunk, as they saw the current and former world champion, along with a Belgian fan favourite, disappear up the road. The trio quickly caught the early break, as they tried to press on away from the bunch.
As they hit the Kwaremont for the final time, Sagan and Vanmarke went clear, leaving the rest of the break behind. Meanwhile, in the main group, Cancellara attacked before setting off in pursuit of the two leaders. On the final climb – the Paterberg – Sagan accelerated once more as the road ramped up to 20%, and Vanmarke couldn’t hold the pace. Cancellara quickly came up behind him over the top, as the pair set about trying to pull back the world champion.
No matter how hard they tried though, Sagan was not coming back. He rode solo to the finish, raising his arms in triumph. It was Sagan’s first win in a monument, and given his age (26), it probably won’t be his last. Behind him, Vanmarke didn’t challenge Cancellara for second place, as the Swiss rider waved to the Flemmish crowds for one of the last times in his career. Kristoff won the sprint for fourth, with Luke Rowe coming in fifth. Tom Boonen could only manage fifteenth.
Peter Sagan dedicated his win to the two Belgian riders who tragically passed away last week due to injuries sustained whilst cycling: Demoitié and Myngheer. The death of these two respected riders serves as a reminder of the constant danger that pro cyclists put themselves in on a regular basis. It also shows more than anything else, that at the end of the day, it’s just a bike race, and there are far greater and more important issues at hand.
Next weekend sees the culmination of the cobbled classics, with Paris-Roubaix, one of the biggest races on the calendar. To some riders, a win in Roubaix means more than a Tour de France victory, showing just how special a win is in the so called ‘Hell of the North’.