Spring Classics #2: Tour of Flanders

Lance Armstrong pegs this as the toughest of the 5 monuments. If you aren't a cycling fan and don't know what the monuments are, here's a little refresher for you.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen aka Tour of Flanders is the best of all worlds when it comes to spring classics. It is long enough to be a test to weed out the weak, it has punchy climbs which makes people walk and teeth-shattering cobbles. It started in 1913, back when roads were all cobbles. In the 60s, when roads became flatter, the race organisers went around searching for cobbles to retain the character of the race.

It is a tactical beast, with teamwork coming into play. The testament to this race's toughness is the fact that no-one has won it more than thrice. Even the GOAT, Eddy Merckx just managed to win it twice. 18 cobbled climbs including the notorious Koppenberg(at 45k to go), which can trigger a collapse like in the picture above, make this race one of the best to watch. And to those who drink beer, this race is a dreamland as if you win, you get your weight in beer! Hence the slogan: "Blood Sweat & Beer".

And it is a Belgian race, with Belgian fans who are among the most passionate cycling fans in the world. Last year it was a Belgian, Philippe Gilbert riding for a Belgian team, Quickstep Floors, who won the Tour of Flanders. He attacked with 55k to go and had enough of a lead, to dismount and carry his bike across the finish line.

And as you can see, it is not the typical Belgian weather, with the sun out.

This year it was back to proper Belgian spring. Cold, rainy and 30 kmph crosswinds to cover the 265 kms. In weather like that it is hard enough to touch your bike, these brave men were going out to counter the cobbles and the hills for a piece of history.

For the 2nd year running, the race started in Antwerp as opposed to Bruges. The rain varied itself from gentle to full-blown downpour even as the wind stayed at a consistent horrid speed. It was funny to see even pro riders struggling to wear their gilets as the wind blew them sideways.

The peloton today didn't seem too keen to let a breakaway form. Even as Brian Brian Van Goethem from Netherlands tried to go out in the front, with 206k to go, he was reeled in by a highly nervous peloton. Given the atrocious weather, 7 people already had crashed. 

At 204k to go, a local car entered the race and had to be removed. It was hilarious to see the driver trying to go around the marshal, even as he jumped over to stop the car. So next time a driver doesn't give you a 6 feet berth while overtaking you on your training ride, remember that even in a major race, drivers are capable of this moronic behaviour.

Poor guy, just wanted to be a part of the race.

As no one was allowed to breakaway, the Peloton was holding an incredible 43-44 kmph average speed even in 20 kmph crosswinds. The Belgian slab roads were becoming increasingly tricky with the rain and wind as the riders continued to suffer.

I've often wondered how retired guys must feel, seeing the current crop suffering in those conditions and the same routes. Can't wait to hear Lance's podcast on this.

Talking of retired pros, Matt Stephens from GCN fame came into the commentary box and almost willed the peloton to allow a breakaway to happen. 70k into the race, finally a 10 man group formed at the front as it continued to ride away building a 51 second lead in 3 kms.

The men at the front included Ivan Cortina(Bahrain-Merida), Ryan Gibbons(Dimension Data), Pascal Eenkhoorn (Lotto-JumboNL), Filippo Ganna (UAE Team Emirates), Aime DeGendt (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Michael Goolaerts (Verandas Willems-Crelan), Dimitri Peyskens (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic), Floris Gerts (Roomport-Nederlandse Loterij), Pim Ligthhart (Roomport-Nederlandse Loterij) & Jimmy Turgis (Cofidis).

The men continued to build on the lead as it moved above 2 minutes with 188k to go & 3 minutes with 181k, as the peloton settled down.

They hit the 1st cobbled section with 178k to go, as the peloton was being controlled by QuickStep Floors and Team Sky. For QuickStep this race is the most important one in the year, as it is a Belgian classic for a Belgian Team. The problem for QuickStep is that they are akin the Galacticos team of Real Madrid FC in the early 2000s (I dislike football, so I'll just leave it at this reference).
QuickStep has riders like Philippe Gilbert(who has won basically everything in life in terms of one day races, expect Paris-Roubaix), Zdenek Stybar( Strade Bianche champion 2015) & Niki Terpstra (Winner of Paris-Roubaix 2014) and it is fun to watch their press conferences as you can see the riders battling their egos while answering questions.

A potential threat in the form the great Tony Martin looming to attack at the front, the peloton pushed the pace cutting into the gap at the front down to 2'24" and brought it down to below 2 minutes at the Padaestat with 175k to go.

The peloton eased a little and you could see the gap grow from 2'34" at 170k to over 5 minutes at 161k to go.

Punctures and mechanicals were the order of the day, even the great Stybar has a puncture. But the biggest problems were faced by EF Education First Drapac(formerly Cannondale Drapac).

These pink and white jerseys on Green bikes, often had mechanics around them. Not a fun side for Mr. Jonathan Vaughters.

As the front bunch hit the 1st climb of the day at Oude Kwaremont, there was no real panic behind them, with the peloton cruising 4'39" behind, however the race pace seemed to be at a record high.

The Belgians from other teams also had high hopes including Tiejs Benoot(the winner of Strade Bianche 2018), who had written an essay when he was 15, hoping to win Tour of Flanders in 2018!
Also in the mix was 3 time Cyclocross World Champion, 3rd place finisher in Strade Bianche 2018 and a future legend, the 23 year old Wout Van Aert.

As the temperatures rose, Van Aert was seen demonstrating his cyclocross bike-handling skills as he climbed no-hands, trying to take off his gilet and throw it by the road.

Climbs came and went, as the conditions began to dry a bit with 134k to go. The wind however, refused to die down which made the invisibility of riders an important factor. In windy conditions, favourites like Peter Sagan and Belgian Olympic Champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) were hardly seen on camera as the remained tucked in, protected from the wind, saving the legs for the final assaults.

The reason why I watch these races on Tiz-cycling despite having Eurosport subscription is because I am in Switzerland, Eurosport assumes I can understand German commentary and gives me no option to change it to English. And no disrespect to Tiz (I am eternally grateful for all the cycling I have a been able to watch), the stream tends to go out time and again. And when it happened this time, with 99k to go, there was a crash. As the stream came back on, I was greeted to this scene:

Some major names went down including Oliver Nasen (the Belgium champion, one of the Pre-race favourties, Ag2R La-mondiale), Alexey Lutsenko & Michael Valgren (Astana). Lutsenko had to abandon and was hospitalised. And this crash happened just before the iconic Muur Kappelmuur.

One of the climbs which makes and breaks this race, the Muur is a steep section with sharp turns and cobbles. The problem is this climb starts at the end of a sharp turn, making it impossible to hit the climb with any momentum whatsoever.

Cortina rode bravely up the hill breaking away from the other 9 men, creating his own front group with Tom Devriendt (Wanty-Groupe Goubert). On the Muur, the favourites including Sagan, Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Alexander Kristoff(Katusha), Gilbert, Stybar, Tepstra, Van Avermaet and outside favourites like Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), 2018 Milan-San Remo champion Vincenzo Nibali and his team-mate Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) formed a chase group and began to push the pace.

Cortina continued to hammer ahead but the race was on. With under 55k to go attacks started as the riders climbed Paterberg.

It was at Paterbeg, that Mats Pedersen (Trek Segafredo) decided to join the front of the race and joined Cortina and Devriendt.

News came in that Luke Rowe(Team Sky) was DQ-ed for riding on the pavement after being pushed their due to the narrowness of the street. WTF? Sky is not having a great year so far.

As the riders approached the infamous "makes-you-walk" Koppenberg, Matt Stephens pointed out that he and his GCN friend, former pro, Dan Llyod had climbed Koppenberg a week back, with Dan still not having gotten his heart rate down. (Fun fact, Koppenberg has a average gradient of 9.7% and they manufacture a beer, with the same name and alcohol %age).

Before hitting the climb, Dylan Van Baarle(Team Sky), Sebastian Langerveld (EF Education) and Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana) managed to hit the front and formed a 6 man front group.

The side of the climb was wet, making it a little disastrous. The favourites in the chase group remained in the front with Mr. Sagan smiling as he successfully negotiated the climbing without walking. But behind them, disaster. One man unclipped and boom, it stopped the peloton.

Even the great Tony Martin had to unclip and walk!

Van Baarle, Langerveld and Pederson broke out at the front building a 30" lead. At Taanberg, Greg Van Avermaet (aka GVA) churned out 525 Watts pushing the front, trying to weaken the other riders. However, everyone seemed to be just fine coming off the climb.

Bora-Hansgrohe's Daniel Oss took over the packing as with 24k to go the 16th climb of the day, Kruisberg began to loom. With its proximity to the finish line, 2.5k at 5% at the ragged edge of 230k being covered at 40 kmph, Kruisberg can be a race-deciding climb.

Oss did his work to bridge the gap to the front to 37 seconds down from a minute and moved to the back, as Giani Moscon (Team Sky) took over the front. Stybar then attacked in a group with Kwiato, Sagan and Nibali, but with no will to push at the front thanks to the egos, Nibali made a go for it with Niki Terpstra and opened a significant gap,

Some angry moves were exchanged between Terpstra and Nibali and Terpstra bid ciao to Nibali and went for it making a 13 second gap between himself and the group behind which engulfed the Shark of Messina.

Terpstra looked like a man on a mission, while the group behind him thanks to the egos just tried to figure out the dynamics. As the group began to climb Oude Kwaremont, Terpstra just went for it and bridged to the front group, took a look at them and then broke them by continuing his attack.

All but Pedersen were broken as Terpstra moved into the lead of the race with 18k to go. Pedersen did his best to follow but Terpstra was in a different pincode today.

Fed up by the group dynamics, Tiejs Benoot decided to do the pacemaking as Terpstra's lead grew to 41 seconds. His teammates in the group behind refused to do the work and acted as anchors. After a while even Benoot was pissed off and asked others to share the workload. Sagan then attacked and a group was formed with Van Aert, Gilbert and Sagan, however, Terpstra's lead stabilised at 40 seconds.

With the last climb at Pattenberg, Terpstra was 35 seconds ahead with Pedersen in 2nd place. Tiejs Benoot reeled in the last of the remaining front packers. With 14k to go, Sagan attacked at the top of Pattenberg opening a 10 second advantage between himself and the people behind. Tepstra held a 12 second advantage on Pedersen and 38 seconds on Sagan.

His splittle laden chin and mud laden eyes showed the effort he was putting in as he continued to push past the pain. Sagan rejoined the group behind and when the others tried to make him to do the work, simply gestured them to go ahead. You can't make the 3 time World Champion your domestique.

With 4.2k to go, Terpstra held a 40 second advantage as the chase group tried to reel in the Danish Champion Pedersen. The pain reflected on Terpstra's face as he pushed on having a 32 second cushion at 2k to go.

As the riders went under the flame rouge, Gilbert & Valgren got into a sprint leaving Sagan's group behind trying to catch Pedersen.

But at the front, coming in home as the 1st Dutch winner of the Tour of Flanders in 32 years was Niki
Tersptra. He raised his hands in the air and while he had the time to dismount and carry his bike over the line like his teammate, he celebrated his 2nd monument in a more reserved fashion, mainly due to the extreme exhaustion, as he earned a well deserved victory in a time of 6:21:21 (41.7 kmph on this brutal 265 km course).

No one was able to catch Pedersen as he rolled in for 2nd place, while Gilbert outsprinted Valgren to make it 2 people on the podium for QuickStep Floors.

And so we come to the end of our 2nd Spring Classic. Next week is the Sunday in Hell, Paris Roubaix!

Hope you enjoyed my coverage, thanks for reading!

See you next week!


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