Flanders’ Finest: The Last Chance Saloon By Sadhbh O’Shea | Images by Ashley & Jered Gruber

In a region where cycling is like a religion, the Ronde van Vlaanderen holds a sacred place in the hearts of the Flemish. It’s rare to find someone in the Belgian region that doesn’t have at least a passing interest in the sport and even those with next to no knowledge will know about De Ronde. Few sporting events can compare in the way that it consumes the local consciousness.

By Sadhbh O’Shea | Images by Ashley & Jered Gruber

This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, it will be a Tour of Flanders like no other. The start line will be muted, and the climbs will be silent as large parts of the course are blocked off to the public.

Even at the smallest midweek races in Flanders, huge crowds turn out to see riders take to the start. The presentation before De Ronde is feels like a stadium concert. There’s nothing like being blasted by Eurodance music as you try to imbibe vast quantities of coffee and pastry to get you going after setting off at 6:30 a.m. to drive to the start. However, instead of Stromae, it is the riders that receive the adoration of the crowds.

I have a video I took during the presentation ahead of the 2017 race, when the start had been moved to Antwerp. It was Tom Boonen’s final Flanders and his penultimate race on Belgian soil before his retirement a week later. The atmosphere and the noise the crowd makes can still send a shiver up my spine. Along the roadsides and up the climbs, it is the same and there is this cacophony of noise that follows the riders.

“You don’t have it in any other race in the season,” says EF Pro Cycling’s Sep Vanmarcke. “Some riders can make mistakes because they get too excited and do an effort that they regret afterwards.”

It’s safe to say that Sunday won’t be the same but it feels like a minor miracle the race is even going ahead. A string of Covid-19 cases among riders over the past week have made it seem as if the wheels might be about to fall off the cycling season. Paris-Roubaix has already fallen victim to coronavirus restrictions and the Ronde van Vlaanderen will be the final shot at a cobbled victory for most of the Classics riders. Us fans must also savor what we can watch as who knows when it will all come to a juddering halt again.

If last weekend’s Gent-Wevelgem races were anything to go by, we’re in for a treat on Sunday. There will be no second chances after De Ronde, and riders will be desperate to nail down a pavé win before the dessert cart is taken away. While they’re not directly comparable, Gent-Wevelgem gave us a window into whose form is in the right place.

Wout van Aert will be one of the favorites at De Ronde this Sunday. Image: Gruber Images

In the men’s pack, last weekend showed us that Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are clearly the strongest, but it does not necessarily mean that one of them will come away with the spoils. Hopefully, Van der Poel has learned from experience and will race less defensively.  Van Aert needs to worry less about his Dutch rival, easier said than done, or he will wave goodbye to more victory opportunities than he’d care to think about.

Mads Pedersen’s Wevelgem win showed once again that he is a wise head on young shoulders. He made his name at the Tour of Flanders in 2018 and he looks like he’s in the form to move up to the top step. Defending champion Alberto Bettiol appears to be in the right shape, while Stefan Kung looks like he could be a strong bet for the podium.

Winner of Gent-Wevelgem last week, Mads Pedersen is on form. Image: Gruber Images

The women’s race has more contenders than you can shake a stick at. Trek-Segafredo comes to De Ronde with two defending champions in Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo Borghini. The pair has proved formidable this season and Deignan is in a rich vein of form.

Anna van der Breggen already has her first win in the rainbow jersey and she will be starting this race looking for another. She lines up with Jolien D’hoore, perhaps the home nation’s strongest chance at taking the title for the first time in a decade.

Winner of last week’s Gent-Wevelgem, Jolien D’hoore is perhaps Belgium’s greatest chance for a home-country winner. Image: Ashley Gruber

Annemiek van Vleuten’s season was derailed by a serious crash at the Giro Rosa, which saw her break her wrist, but in her usual indomitable style she hasn’t let that phase her. Surprisingly, she last won the race in 2011 but rule her out at your peril.

To read more long-form features, visit lacourseentete.com