Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why not have your Pavé and eat it, too: the 2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen

There is much consternation among fans regarding the removal of the Muur de Grammont / Muur de Geraardsbergen  / Kappelmuur from the parcours of the 2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen (RvV). Race organizers cite the wish to move the finish to a more suitable location, and a more uncertain finale, as the main reasons.

Regardless, we think that this year's race is more of an attrition race, and we share our thoughts below. And while we think that wanting to have the RvV finish is Oudenaarde is a reasonable line of thinking, we can't help but suggest a few things that could be done better: why not have your pavé and eat it (or ride on it) too by including the Muur in a race that finishes in Oudenaarde.

Exhibit A: old finish of de Ronde from Bosberg to Ninove

In a previous post we examined how the past 10 editions of de Ronde played out. It can't be denied that on half the occasion the Muur played a pivotal role in re-shuffling the cards the race had dealt up to that point.

Here's our quick take on some of the last 10 editions:
  • In 2002, the elite finishing group (kopgroep) formed on the slopes of the Muur. 
  • In 2003, a regrouping as the peloton entered the town of Geraardsbergen was followed by a strong attack by Peter van Petegem that only Frank VDB was able to follow. 
  • In 2004, once again re-grouping near Geraardsbergen allowed Steffen Wesemann to bring two Flahutes to the finish line and slay them there. 
  • In 2005, Tom Boonen took his maiden victory by attacking the leading group at the steepest part of the Muur, and to outsmart them during a lull at 3 km from the finish line. 
  • In 2006, he repeated his win by being the only one to follow Leif Hoste's attack up that exact same part. 
  • In 2007, it was Ballan's turn, with Hoste reprising his role. 
  • In 2010, Fabian Cancellara attacked at the same spot right by the grassy knoll where the Iron Cross resides. 
  • In 2011, Fabian Cancellara's long-range attack with Sylvain Chavanel following on his wheel was caught just as they entered Geraardsbergen, similar to how things played out in 2003. 
So there you have it, at least 6 out of 10 editions in which we can argue the Muur re-shuffled or re-set the state of the race up to that point. We think the reason for this is that the old finale's last 10 km from the Bosberg to the finish in Ninove is really damn boring. That was a distinct impression from the time I rode the RvV sportive in 2009. Sunlight was fading away, I was exhausted, and I felt as if I were riding through a generic suburb of northern Europe with no terrain features in the last 7 km. That stretch from the Bosberg on Kapellestraat to Meidries/Heirebaan, up N255, and finally a right turn to N8 and N28 in Meerbeke, is very boring indeed.

Given that the defining image of the RvV is the cobbled climb, is it not unreasonable to ask for a finale that plays out more closely to that image? Once we have accepted this, it is hard to argue against a significant route change. Whether the new route is the best possible, we shall find out this Sunday. For one, I think that finishing in Oudenaarde is a good choice.

The bad news now is that the Muur has given the RvV such a strong unique characteristic when compared to other races such as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (OHN) and Dwars door Vlaanderen (DdV) that its removal from RvV arguably makes it less unique.

It is of course possible to still include de Muur in the race, and it may not necessarily show up too early in the race. But is this such a bad thing? After all, the Koopenberg shows up very early, too. It doesn't win the race, but it can cost the race. Back to the Muur de Grammont, it is fact that its distance to Oudenaarde is merely 27 km. Perhaps it is correct that the real reason is race fees.

A look at terrain map of the surrounding shows that indeed, Oudenaarde is in the thick of the hills while Ninove is farther from it, the closest set of humps being right near Geraardsbergen. So we think it is entirely feasible to have your pavé block and eat it, too: have the race finish in Oudenaarde but with the Muur featured in the last 50 km.

Exhibit B: Terrain map around Oudenaarde, Geraardsbergen, and Ninove.
For one, the atmosphere on the Muur is AMAZING. TV doesn't capture it. Fans from around the world mingle, talk about their favorite riders. Maybe it is like the famous Red Sox Nation friendliness, which is remarkable given how cranky Bostonians can be (from personal experience). Plus, the Muur adds a unique identity to RvV that distinguishes it from OHN, DdV and E3-Harelbeke.

So by the way, how will the 2012 edition play out?

We think that the 2012 edition will finish with one sharp force de frappe within 30 km of the finish. One sharp attack that leaves others in the front group confused. And we think this sharp downbeat attack will come on the Oude Kwaremont or on the Hoogberg. The Oude Kwaremont is long, unyielding, and saps strength slowly but surely.

Why not an attack on the Paterberg? After all, the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg is a combo that is rarely broken up, as the two sectors are very close to each other. We think the Oude Kwaremont will make the race because everybody will fear the last ascent of the Paterberg, what with gradient more than 20%. This means a lull as the peloton approaches, perfect for a rider of strength who's not afraid of muting his race radio. Plus, we think that new route points more to an attrition race in the style of Roubaix. He who dares, wins. And it helps if that rider has a strong team in the finale.

Who might be the man who can accomplish this?

How will Fabian Cancellara contend? His team Radioshack-Nissan looks anemic this year. Cancellara doesn't need teammates to win, but we think the new route is against him. We think that an enterprising rider may win this time. Dare we say Sep Vanmarcke of Garmin-Barracuda, if he can last this long? Or perhaps his teammate Heinrich Haussler, who seems interested in graduating from being  specialist in stealing the group sprint behind the kopgroep.

Tom Boonen of OmegaPharma-QuickStep is an obvious top contender. His team is looking very strong this year, with Niki Terpstra, Sylvain Chavanel, Dries Devenyns, and Gert Steegmans already showing their form. It can be argued that the route change has favored Boonen, too. However, Boonen may be watched too closely to make an attack, and then it might be up to one of his teammates to take advantage of the situation. Much like what Stijn Devolder did back-to-back in 2008 and 2009.

Is there another race that RvV has become more similar to? We think so, and there is more than one: click here to see the maps of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (OHN) and Dwars door Vlaanderen (DdV). Both feature much of the same sectors. In DdV, teammates Chavanel and Terpstra made the race for themselves, with the latter winning after blasting away on the Oude Kwaremont. So who knows, Terpstra and Chavanel have very good chances of making the RvV their own, with a cohort of OPQS riders blocking and flanking chasers.

Exhibit C: profile of the 2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen
We hold out hope that Rabobank will have a good showing on Sunday. Matti Breschel seems to be coming into top form even if Lars Boom is weak. Speaking of which, at this point we think that Phil Gilbert needs to re-think his season completely. He and his team BMC can continue to blame tooth infection, but the fact is the rhyme of March and April marches on and does not wait for unfortunates.

Regardless of the route, we agree with the Inner Ring: "[The RvV] is arguably the best one day race of the year thanks to a combination of the route, the prestige, the history and the roadside crowds."

What do you think of the new route and how will the race play out on Sunday?

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