The night before the Ronde van Vlaanderen we were as giddy as our five-year old selves were on Christmas Eve. After an entire winter of waiting, the Ronde is finally here!
In a previous post we had shared our thoughts on the new Ronde van Vlaanderen (RvV) route. Despite some misgivings, we thought that it was reasonable to ask that RvV finishes in Oudenaarde where the RvV museum is located. Among the misgivings was that removal of the Muur also removed an iconic symbol of the RvV that distinguished it from its sister races E3-Harelbeke, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
We kept an open mind about the route however, and we were excited to see what impact the Oude Kwaremont - Paterberg combo would have on the race. And boy, were we surprised. Here are some of our impressions from the race.
The Oude Kwaremont stole the show
As we had predicted in a previous post, the Oude Kwaremont was where the winning move would be made. A long climb that translates roughly to "Old Concord Road", it saps strength no matter its position in the race. It is almost always combined with the Paterberg, which features more than 20% gradient, there is another factor that makes it important: right after reaching the top of the Oude Kwaremont, riders are treated to a fast long downhill until it flattens just as the route reaches the foot of the Paterberg.
In other words, a gap made at the top of the Oude Kwaremont by a strong group will be doubled by the time they reach the Paterberg. For those with strong legs, this is perfect for making the winning move.
In this edition Alessandro Ballan (BMC)'s move on the Oude Kwaremont was followed by Pippo Pozzato (Farnese-Vini) and Tom Boonen (OmegaPharma-QuickStep/OQPS). Unlike in previous years, it was Boonen who stuck onto Pozzato's wheel. By the time the trio hit the Paterberg, they had gained valuable seconds on the chasers.
While we love the Oude Kwaremont (in fact, we love all cobbled hills), the Oude Kwaremont is downright nondescript when viewed on TV. There is no strong distinguishing feature that can easily be discerned. This leads to boring and predictable viewing to those not fortunate enough to be on course.
It's too bad that downhill off the top of the Oude Kwaremont to Paterberg is so fast; If riders had looked to their right as they turned left at the exit of Oude Kwaremont, they would see the sign "Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat" twice as they descend N36 eastbound.
Circuit racing made RvV anti-climactic
SprintingForSigns expressed it perfectly: a circuit race is very appealing for organizers and VIPs. But it made RvV felt like World Championship lite. We'll say this again, too: Flanders Classics can keep the finish in Oudenaarde, but please add the Muur de Grammont back in.
Further, the race really came alive only in the last lap of the circuit. It felt as if the previous two laps were for naught (except for Team Sky's Jaguar breaking down and a bunch of riders crashing). Could this be just because the route is new, or is there general lethargy in the peloton as radio use continues?
If the organizers really insist on the circuits, please disallow feeding in the last round. It was upsetting to see the soigneurs fight for space to hand out bottles while the elite chase group was just organizing as they crested the top of the Oude Kwaremont.
Boonen's win was very much a team victory. With teammates Sylvain Chavanel, Nikki Terpstra and Geert Steegmans always patrolling near the front, no other team could match the control that OPQS had on the race. It was striking to observe that the only time OPQS wasn't at the front was when Boonen had to drop back to lube his noisy drivetrain.
Luck matters, too
Last year the Garmin-Barracuda team was criticized for what many viewed as negative racing thanks to in-car video feed relaying the order to not work with other teams. This year it can be argued that their lackluster result was due to bad luck. We were impressed by Sep Vanmarcke's near-constant presence at the front along with luckless Johan Van Summeren. If anything, we are convinced now that Vanmarcke is ready to take a leadership role and that he has the legs to back it up.
Exit polling shows most fans are unhappy
poll shows roughly 65% of responders dislike the new route, 20% likes it, and 15% uncertain. These are not good numbers. Many of the complains had to do with the hectic nature of the course, difficult access for non-paying fans, and predictability of the first two rounds (ronde, ha!) of the circuit. We hope that Flanders Classics at least made a lot of money.
Is Cancellara's spring campaign over?
Het Nieuwsblad seems quite confident that his spring campaign is done for. Four to six weeks' recovery due to a very unlucky crash is truly sad for a rider who is clearly on form after winning Monte Paschi Strade Bianche. The choice of feed zone was very poor and once again, we think that feeding in the last round should not be allowed.
Tom Boonen has a point about Peter Sagan and Liquigas
Seeing the selection being made as the lead group enter Oude Kwaremont for the last time, one can't help but notice how isolated Peter Sagan was. His was the only Liquigas-Cannondale jersey near the front. Boonen had commented last week that Sagan needs a mentor in order to be a true classics contender. We can't help but reminisce back to 2002 when it was Johan Museeuw who said the same about a young Tom Boonen after a strong showing in Paris-Roubaix.
To the credit of Liquigas, they impressed us as the most prepared supporting team in several cobbled races. They organized their mechanics and soigneurs very well all over the race route, rivaling the organization of OPQS. Occasionally they did succeed in the cobbled races: none other than Pippo Pozzato won the Omloop Het Volk (now Het Nieuwsblad) under Liquigas colors several years ago. At the same time, this is the team that made elfin Franco Pellizoti ride Paris-Roubaix several years ago ...
Pippi Pozzato has a lot of 'splaining to do
That is, to us fans for his incredible recovery from recent injury, and to team sponsor (and we're quite sure also self-appointed spiritual advisor) Mario Cipollini. It was very sporting of Pozzato to congratulate Boonen after losing the race at the final sprint, but Cipo will surely say a word or two about Pozzato's lack of machismo. Regardless, it was good to see Pozzato back at the top ranks after a few lost seasons at Katusha. With Paris-Roubaix coming up soon, he has another chance to win and make Cipo proud.
Patrick Lefevere will wag his finger
After a trying season last year, OmegaPharma-QuickStep's infusion of cash, new talent, and new sponsors is paying off big time. Co-owner billionaire Zdenek Bakala looks positively glowing with joy. Lefevere talks a big game, and we can expect his finger wagging and boasting this season. If anything else, we think he knows he needs a succession plan for when Boonen retires or goes past his prime, and we think he'll get busy with scouting prospects this year.
What did you think of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and what do you look forward to as the classics season continues?