‘The’ Belgian classic is upon us as the World Tour peloton heads to cycling’s heartland for the legendary Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Traversing the farmlands of the Flemish Ardennes, the demanding 158km loop starting and finishing in Oudenaarde, features 11 bergs and 6 cobblestone sections.
Following a relatively flat opening, which includes the cobbled sectors of the Lippenhovestraat and Paddestraat, the first climb of the day – the Wolvenberg – comes at 69km. From there the peloton faces an unrelenting 30km with a further 4 climbs – the Molenberg, Marlboroughstraat, Berendries and Valkenberg – in relatively quick succession.
After heading back towards Oudenaarde via Horebeke the bunch then makes its way on to the legendary Koppenberg. A climb of mythic status, the Koppenberg is making a notable debut in the women’s ‘Ronde’ this year and 114km into the race it is likely to be pivotal. At 600m in length the iconic Flemish climb is not long, but it can feel insurmountable; the wall-like ascent has gradients of up to 22% and its gnarly, greasy cobbles jut out at irregular angles demanding every watt of power a rider can summon.
The Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg and Kruisberg quickly follow and, in keeping with tradition, the duo of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are the last two climbs of the day. Cresting the Paterberg, there are just 12, flat kilometres remaining so an exciting run in to the finish in Oudenaarde should be in store.
It will certainly be a tough day for the peloton, but it promises to be an exciting and exhilarating race for riders and fans alike.
Riders To Watch
Winner in 2011 and then again a decade later in 2021, Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), will line up with number 1 pinned to her jersey as the defending champion. In an impressive display of strength, the Dutch rider attacked a group of favourites over the top of the Paterberg and soloed to the win last year. Expect the 39 year old to use similar tactics again this Sunday in trademark ‘Annemiek’ style.
Only one Belgian rider has ever won the Ronde and that was Grace Verbeke back in 2010 so home fans will be hoping that national champion Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) can finally end this win-less run. With a victory at Strade Bianche and a 3rd at Ronde van Drenthe already this season, she’ll be hoping to continue her good run of results. That said, SD Worx do have several tactical cards to play and will look to capitalise on their strength in depth to dominate the race. Winner in 2020 Chantal van den Broek-Blaak lines up alongside last year’s fifth place finisher – Demi Vollering – as well as Christine Majerus – any of whom could take the win.
Rivalling the strength of the Dutch squad is Trek-Segafredo who are likely to be led by their Italian duo of Elisa Balsamo and Elisa Longo Borghini. World Champion, and current World Tour leader, Balsamo, is in scintillating form. The 24 year old has won three out of her last three World Tour races and as a fast finisher who thrives in races of attrition she’ll prove tough to beat. Double national champion, Longo Borghini, was fourth last year and is always a threat. Just as she did when she took the win in 2015, she’ll look to use her strength on the Flemish bergs to distance herself from the bunch. With the likes of European Champion, Ellen van Dijk, Lucinda Brand and Audrey Cordon Ragot in the squad too, Trek will also look to make the race an aggressive affair.
The French team of FDJ also line up with a strong roster. Both Grace Brown and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig have previously finished third in this race and are both likely to challenge for podium spots again this Sunday. Expect Brown to race aggressively just as she did in Gent-Wevelgem and Binda where she launched several attacks. Could we see a repeat of her 2021 De Panne success? Meanwhile Uttrup Ludwig is likely to hit the bergs hard and use her climbing prowess to distance herself from the fast finishers.
Team Jumbo Visma line up with two former winners in their squad with Coryn Labecki (2017) and Marianne Vos (2013). Both Labecki and Vos have had a relatively quiet start to the season in terms of appearances but if they can hold on over the climbs, the two riders will undoubtedly pose a threat in a bunch sprint just as Vos did last weekend in Gent-Wevelgem.
Speaking of sprinters; the peloton’s preeminent fast finisher – Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM) – will also be a rider to watch. The 22 year old has had a great start to the season and will look to add another victory to her tally of 3 wins so far this year. If she can make it over the climbs with the leaders she’ll prove hard to beat in the finale.
Another fast finisher and Classics specialist to watch is Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ). Having won this race in 2019, the former World Champion, will be looking to repeat that feat this weekend.
Other riders to watch include Movistar’s Emma Norsgaard, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon Sram), last year’s runner up – Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) – as well as Silvia Persico (Valcar – Travel & Service).
When: 3rd April
Where: Oudenaarde, Belgium
What: 158km road race
Who to watch:
Elisa Balsamo *****
Annemiek van Vleuten ****
Lotte Kopecky ****
Marianne Vos ****
Marta Bastianelli ***
Eurosport x GCN