The last five weeks have been building towards Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen for both racers and fans for good reason: the second Monument of the season in Belgium’s biggest sporting event.
The Tour of Flanders will take the peloton over 260 kilometers that include 18 climbs (called “hellingen” in Flemish). Eleven of these climbs are cobbled. There are also two standalone cobbled sectors mid-race.
The Muur-Kappelmuur returns for the 101st running of Flanders. It was last included in 2007. The Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, back-to-back cobbled climbs, typically decide the race. Oude Kwaremont tops off 13 kilometers from the finish. From the Paterberg, it’s seven exhilarating kilometers to the line.
“Everyone in Belgium knows this race. It’s Super Bowl Sunday for bike racing even more so than the Tour de France,” said Taylor Phinney, lining up for this third Flanders start on Sunday.
“It’s bigger than the Olympic Games for the Belgians,” said sport director Andreas Klier.
“I’m a Flemish guy from here,” said Sep Vanmarcke. “It’s even more important and bigger for me than most people.”
The stature of Tour of Flanders is undeniable, but the allure is difficult to explain to those that haven’t stood roadside (or berg-side). It’s the smell of frites and beer and cigarettes. It’s the sight of fans and flags lining every inch of every cobble and every climb and packed into every bar, crowded around every TV screen.
“The first time I rode Tour of Flanders, I was in the breakaway, which was the coolest thing,” said Phinney. “Last year, we had a crash and it was racing from the back. I saw the other side of Flanders. It’s really nervous, and it can be terrifying at times, but it’s Belgium’s race. It stays true to the heart to the sport. This is where it all started.”
“The way of the race is old style,” said Vanmarcke. “It’s full gas with leaders attacking each other and not waiting for the helpers and not waiting for the last five kilometers. It can be full gas racing with still 100 kilometers to go. I think that attracts the fans. It’s small roads, hectic racing, a lot of crashes. That’s part of cycling, and it’s what makes the racing so special.”
“It’s the atmosphere,” said Klier. “As a rider, you’re already excited when you go to the start. You’re here three days, four days before for the recon. You read the newspaper, and you have the favorites – this guy has three starts, this guy has two. The day of the race itself, it’s on the front page of the newspaper.
“As a director, now, I drive the car through, and it gives the feeling that you’re in the race,” Klier added. “You’re not somewhere in the middle of the field between Point A and Point B with not even a dog standing there. You have all the supporters, and every supporter has the flag of his favorite rider. Everything and everyone is moving, and you see the same person 15 times already because he jumps from one place to the other with his car.”
Klier finished second in Flanders 12 years ago and picked up another two top tens over 13 starts in 14 years. He hopes to guide Sep Vanmarcke to a top result.
Vanmarcke has finished third twice in the last three years. Stomach issues and a crash have hampered his build-up and forced him to sit out Gent Wevelgem. Vanmarcke’s focused on his recovery, and he hopes he can factor into his country’s biggest show on Sunday.
“I’ve done everything I can, together with a medical team, to be ready,” said Vanmarcke. “It’s gotten better and I’m happy with that. We’ll have to wait until Sunday to see if the throwing up will come back or not, if I’m strong enough.”
Vanmarcke’s efforts will be buoyed by a strong contingent of riders motivated to support their leader however they can. There is Alberto Bettiol, who rounded out the Dwars door Vlaanderen top 10 and finished in a select group at Gent Wevelgem. Dylan van Baarle was ninth at E3-Harlebeke and eighth at Dwars. He finished sixth at Flanders last year.
Then there’s Phinney. The American lines up for his first classic in #GreenArgyle on Sunday.
“I haven’t done any classics this year because of my leg, because of a small re-injury,” said Phinney. “It’s nice to go into Flanders completely fresh mentally and not scarred by any of the previous classics. It’s a long stretch when you do the whole thing starting in Omloop, which was right when I had my little incident.
“I’ve been hanging out in Belgium this week,” Phinney added. “I have to do something almost every day to make sure my body responds the way I want it to, that my knee is working properly. Everything is getting better. The whole system is responding.”
The quartet will be joined by road captain Sebastian Langeveld, Ryan Mullen, Tom Scully and Tom Van Asbroeck.
“The whole group is devoted to giving Sep the best chance to succeed,” said Klier. “The plan is to protect Sep, to keep him in the right place and the right time as much as we can.”
Cannondale-Drapac for 2017 Tour of Flanders:
Alberto Bettiol (ITA)
Taylor Phinney (USA)
Ryan Mullen (IRL)
Sebastian Langeveld (NLD)
Tom Van Asbroeck (BEL)
Dyan van Baarle (NLD)
Tom Scully (NZL)
Sep Vanmarcke (BEL)