Tour of Flanders - a course change gone wrong
The centennial edition of the Tour of Flanders was powerfully won by Team RadioShack’s Fabian Cancellara. On the Paterberg climb Fabs had another gear and Peter Sagan (Cannondale), who was with him at that point, received a 404 Error from his legs - the power you want is not found.
With 13 kilometers remaining the Swiss rider tucked deep into his bars, lowered his back and time trialed to the victory in Ronde Van Vlaanderen 2013. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol), who had been unceremoniously dropped on the same climb, caught Sagan on the descent. The duo held off the main peloton with Sagan taking the “sprint” for second as Roelandts pretended to start his sprint, discovered he no longer had the strength to support his body out of the saddle and settled for third.
While this sounds exciting - and yes, that strong attack by Fabs on the Paterberg was one that will be on his personal “sizzle-reel” for the rest of his life - it was a rather muted race. The reason? A change in the course that eliminated the Muur and the Bosberg, the final two climbs in previous editions of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
The Muur - AKA the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Wall of Grammont, the Kapelmuur, Pagan Hill, or “the hill with the church at the summit that looks really cool in photos” - was the iconic showpiece of the race in previous years. The winning move was often made under the steeple as crazed fans screamed their lungs out while clinging to the sides of the embankment like mountain goats. The Lion of Flanders flags were so thick in that area it looked like a continuous yellow curtain alongside the road.
The facts and figures of the race-changing hill are as follows:
Length: 475 meters
Maximum percentage: 20%
Type of road: Cobbles
In past editions it was located at the 249 kilometer mark, the ideal platform to launch an attack to separate the pretenders from the contenders. Next up would be the Bosberg:
Length: 980 meters
Maximum percentage: 11%
Type of road: Starts with pavement and changes to cobbles
The Bosberg - AKA Kapellestraat and Geraardsbergen-Moerbeke - was at 252 kilometers, the place where the favorites twisted the knife a little more. The Bosberg is the elephant’s graveyard of broken dreams for those who thought a Flanders victory was possible.
However, race organizers removed both these climbs in favor of finishing in Oudenaarde, with three circuits which take in the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, with the latter being the final climb of the day before the finish line.
The reasoning for the move was that the circuits would be spectator friendly. It’s hard to set up a merchandising expo if your audience leaves after the peloton whizzes by. With circuits, fans hang out, buy frites, beer, and a heap load of cycling trinkets (Okay, that’s what I did when I was at Paris-Roubaix. I still have rider postcards, keychain, and pens).
Race organizers said this about the reason for the change, “The new course allows less movement by the spectators and hence provides possibilities for optimizing service and safety measures in the finish area.” That’s marketing speak for, “We can merchandize the heck out of this area!” Yes, there’s gold to be made in them thar hills!
Pros spoke out against the removal of these two climbs.
“But I believe that the organizers made a wrong choice by simply replacing the old finale. The Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg cannot be erased from the Ronde,” said two-time winner Stijn Devolder.
Previous winner Sylvain Chavanel told L’Equipe after the race, “The circuit is so difficult that it blocks the race. Nobody wants to take risk before the last lap.”
With the Muur and Bosberg erased from the course map it changes the dynamics of the race. We were treated to a breakaway dangling off the front with less than a minute lead and a 60 rider strong group keeping it in check. We witnessed a sight never seen before - at the 35 kilometers to go mark we still had a huge bunch.
It wasn’t until the final ascent up the Oude Kwaremont we got an inkling of drama. Finally, on the Paterberg did our heart rates jump when Fabs dropped Sagan and Roelandts with a strong in-the-saddle surge up the climb. Game over.
“Peter (Sagan) and I came up to Roelandts then and I knew I had to go again to get away from Peter. It happened like we’ve been planning for months,” Cancellara said after the race.
Spartacus won in 2010 - a Muur and Bosberg included Flanders. As of this writing I haven’t seen a comment from him referring to which victory means the most to him. I suspect that’s like asking which of your children is your favorite. Certainly having his wife at this year’s edition is always going to hold a special place in his heart.
For Belgians the Muur and Bosberg will always be a part of Ronde van Vlaanderen. Their exclusion tore out the excitement of the event and we were left with a race that was unremarkable in drama except for Fabs riding away on the Paterberg.
But maybe that’s modern cycling? Gone are the turbo-charged attacks with several bergs remaining. A “cleaner” peloton means the racing is more calculated with an attack coming closer to the finish. No more “epic” escapes from 60 plus kilometers out. No chance of sequels to Jørgen Leth’s legendary cycling films.
This new course is considered harder as was witnessed on the Kwaremont. The pack would splinter and then come back together, with no group of riders delivering the killer blow to the field. Instead the group splintered and regrouped over and over and over...
The result was a win by the strongest rider. While that sounds all fine and good, don’t we want something that will leave us guessing until the end like an Agatha Christie novel? Instead we got a Transformers movie where the strongest guy beat the crap out of everyone and won. Predictable. Sporting events aren’t supposed to be predictable. We want the underdog to win, or at least create a worthy challenge. With this current route that challenge is gone.
We need to be “catfished” and stir up the peloton to get that unpredictable result. While I know it is unlikely to ever happen I say bring back the Muur and Bosberg. Let the Decepticons win once in a while.
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