Major Showdown set for Easter Sunday at Ronde van Vlaanderen Words by John Wilcockson with images from Chris Auld

Sunday, April 4, 2021
[MEN] Start: Antwerp. Finish: Oudenaarde. Distance: 254 km.
[WOMEN] Start & finish: Oudenaarde. Distance: 152 km.

HISTORY

Although the Tour of Flanders (De Ronde van Vlaanderen in Flemish) is the most prestigious of the Flanders Classics it is the youngest monument—the other four (Milan–San Remo, Paris–Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Tour of Lombardy) are all six or more years older. The Tour of Flanders started out in 1913 as a purely domestic race organized by a new Flemish language sports magazine SportWereld. The first edition was the longest at 324 kilometers, on a clockwise circuit that passed through all the major cities of East and West Flanders, starting in Ghent and finishing at a velodrome on the city outskirts. The winner, Paul Deman, out-sprinted a group of five riders after 12 hours in the saddle.

By the 1930s, the race had caught on as a national festival, with the 1933 edition contested by 164 riders, watched by what police estimated as 500,000 spectators. Of the first 30 editions, 29 were won by Belgians. The only “foreigner” to beat the locals was Swiss rider Henri Suter in 1923; but it wasn’t until the Italian Fiorenzo Magni came to the race in 1949 and took the victory three years in a row that non-Belgian teams began to see it as classic they should add to their schedules. The turning point, which truly established the Ronde as one of the very top classics, came in 1955.

Itinerary.

That year, the key breakaway was made on the old Mur de Grammont (not today’s Kappelmuur) at Geraardsbergen, 60 kilometers from the finish, by four established stars: two-time winner Rik Van Steenbergen of Belgium, 1951 Tour de France winner Hugo Koblet of Switzerland, reigning Tour and world champion Louison Bobet of France and Bobet’s French teammate Bernard Gauthier. Bobet told his French teammate to attack on the short rise before the finish, which forced the other two to chase before Bobet came through to handily take the sprint from Koblet and Van Steenbergen. Four other world champions have won the Ronde wearing the rainbow jersey: Rik Van Looy (in 1962), Eddy Merckx (1975), Tom Boonen (2006) and Peter Sagan (2016)—results that further cemented this classic as one of the true monuments.

When the women’s race was introduced in 2004, there was speculation whether the female racers would be able to cope with the steep, cobbled hills; but they soon dispelled that negative image. There has been some magnificent racing in the 17 editions, with eight world road champions among the list of winners.

Men’s course.
Women’s course.

COURSE

Knowing the course details intimately is more important at the Ronde than any other classic. That’s because, after the initial 80 kilometers from the grand start in Antwerp, the remaining five-or-so hours of racing are fought out on mostly narrow back roads, with constant turns, ups and downs, where knowing the terrain is key.

They hit the Oude Kwaremont after 121 kilometers and will hit this critical cobbled hill twice more (with 54 and 16 kilometers to go). After the first pass, the course heads on a long loop to the east, taking in eight of the race’s 19 climbs. The second passage of the Oude Kwaremont after 200 kilometers can trigger key moves because next up, only 3 kilometers away, is the race’s steepest climb, the Paterberg, followed 7 kilometers later by the next steepest, the notorious Koppenberg. Three more climbs precede the last and usually decisive passage of the Oude Kwaremont, where the winning break usually emerges prior to a final reckoning on the Paterberg with 13 kilometers to go. This year’s women’s race is 152 kilometers long, with five sectors of “flat” cobblestones and 13 climbs—but not the Koppenberg.

JOHN’S PREDICTIONS

After two second places, a third, a fourth and a fifth in his 13 participations, Greg Van Avermaet is again one of the favorites, but the veteran will have a hard time matching the big three: defending champion Mathieu van der Poel, Wout Van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe—who could become the sixth man to win the Ronde wearing the rainbow jersey. The Dutch will likely dominate the women’s race with Amy Pieters, Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten and defending champ Chantal van den Broek-Blaak all on top form.

MEN’S RECENT PODIUMS

2016 1. Peter Sagan (Svk); 2. Fabian Cancellara (Swi); 3. Sep Vanmarcke (B).
2017 1.  Philippe Gilbert (B); 2. Greg Van Avermaet (B); 3. Niki Terpstra (Nl).
2018 1. Terpstra; 2. Mads Pedersen (Dk); 3. Gilbert.
2019 1. Alberto Bettiol (B); 2. Kasper Asgreen (Dk); 3. Alexander Kristoff (N).
2020 1. Mathieu van der Poel (Nl); 2. Wout Van Aert (B); 3. Kristoff.

WOMEN’S RECENT PODIUMS

2016 1. Lizzie Armitstead (GB); 2. Emma Johansson (S); 3. Chantal Blaak (Nl).
2017 1. Coryn Rivera (USA); 2. Gracie Elvin (Aus); 3. Blaak.
2018 1. Anna van den Breggen (Nl); 2. Amy Pieters (Nl); 3. Annemiek van Vleuten (Nl).
2019 1. Marta Bastianelli (I); 2. van Vleuten; 3. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Dk).
2020 1. Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (Nl); 2. Pieters; 3. Lotte Kopecky (B).

Words: John Wilcockson