If climate change continues at the rate it seems to be changing, we’ll have to rename the spring classics, the summer classics—either that or hold them in February rather than April! Yet again, clear skies and warm temperatures are forecast for this Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, and it’ll likely be dry for next week’s Paris-Roubaix, too. It’s not supposed to be like this.
Before global warming began, the spring classics usually contended with cold winds, rain or even snow. And that bad weather was just as important a factor in the race tactics as the number of hills or sectors of cobblestones. Whenever I went to report the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix (or even the later Ardennes classics) in the l970s and ’80s, the conditions were nearly always wet and windy. It snowed on my first visit to the Hell of the North cobbles in 1970—when Eddy Merckx made use of the horrible weather to make a solo breakaway and beat runner-up Roger “Mr. Paris-Roubaix” De Vlaeminck by more than five minutes!
Merckx knew how to handle himself in the cold. At the previous year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, he was in an 11-man breakaway after the Kwaremont and Geraardsbergen climbs when heavy rain began to fall. In that breakaway was British hope Barry Hoban, who described what happened on a long straight stretch of road before the last two climbs: “Merckx…didn’t really attack, he just rode away from us when he went to the front for his spell of pace-making…with more than 70 kilometers left.”
The Belgian’s directeur sportif, Guillaume “Lomme” Driessens, was furious that Merckx had gone away on his own so early. He drove up alongside his rider and, according Merckx, “asked me if I’d gone completely mad. I can still see it now…. ‘Go screw yourself,’ is what I screamed back in Lomme’s face.” By the finish of that Tour of Flanders, Merckx was 5:30 ahead of Italian star Felice Gimondi, who took up the chase with 30 kilometers to go, and eight minutes ahead of the rest.
An interesting footnote to that victory, which was Merckx’s first in the Ronde after placing third and ninth in his initial attempts, was the incentive he got from that morning’s race preview in Het Nieuwsblad. It said that Merckx didn’t have what was needed to win the top Belgian classic. On seeing this somewhat scathing forecast, Merckx said, “We shall see...as long as the weather is right.” In other words, as long as the weather was bitterly cold with torrential rain!
One reason Merckx went away alone so soon in that 1969 edition of the Ronde was the course layout back then: only four categorized climbs and about 50 kilometers of flat roads before the finish in the suburbs of Gent (or Ghent in English). He was in a group that featured some stronger sprinters, so attacking from a long way out was a solid tactic—at least, it was for Merckx!
The Ronde van Vlaanderen began its life in 1913 as a true Tour (or circle) of Flanders, a race with no hills. Starting in Gent, the first edition had 37 starters who raced 324 kilometers through St. Niklaas, Aalst. Oudenaarde, Kortrijk, Veurne, Oostende, Torhout, Roeselare and Brugge before finishing back in Gent. Paul Deman was the first winner after out-sprinting a breakaway group of five.
The event’s first hills, the Tiegemberg and Kwaremont, were added in 1919, and by 1930 there were four climbs on the then 227-kilometer course, which still started and finished in Gent. The first big change was moving the finish out of Gent city center into the eastern suburb of Wetteren—where it remained for the next 30 years. By then, there were six hills on a 255-kilometer loop, including the infamous Mur de Grammont, or Muur de Geraardsbergen, the steep cobbled climb in the city streets that was first used in 1950.
The last winner on that version of the Ronde’s course, in 1961, was Britain’s Tom Simpson—who lived in the Gent suburbs. He out-sprinted Italian Nino Defilippis to become only the sixth foreigner to win the Ronde; and Simpson is still the only winner from an English-speaking country. (Irishman Sean Kelly was second three times, and Australian Phil Anderson was twice runner-up, in the 1980s.)
Through the 1960s, when the finish was switched to other Gent suburbs (first to Gentbrugge, then Merelbeke), more hills were added. Eight climbs were on the agenda by 1970. But the first really major course change came in 1973. After 60 years of finishing in Gent or its suburbs (which always meant a long flat run-in to the line), the finish was moved to Meerbeke, a suburb of Ninove, a half-hour southeast of Gent and only 20 kilometers from the town of Geraardsbergen. This allowed the organizers to create the now well-known finale over two cobbled climbs: the Muur (which was made harder by its extension to the Kapelmuur in 1982) and the Bosberg.
MORE CLIMBS INCLUDED
The other significant changes over the past four decades included moving the start out of Gent to St. Niklaas in 1977, and then to Brugge (or Bruges in French) in 1998, while the finish remained in Meerbeke. The move to Brugge, a half-hour west of Gent, allowed a lot more hills (which they call hellingen in Flemish) to be included, by crisscrossing the pastoral, green ridges of the Flemish Ardennes.
By 2003, there was a maximum of 19 climbs in the Ronde—but the Meerbeke finish meant that only the last two hills, the Kappelmuur and Bosberg, really affected the outcome. The earlier climbs merely served to break down the field from 200 riders, to 50, to perhaps 20 going into Geraardsbergen—except in exceptional years when there was a long-distance solo winner such as Frenchman Jackie Durand in 1992.
Perhaps the biggest regret of the organizers was that the two steepest hills, the Paterberg and Koppenberg, had to be tackled respectively at 84 and 77 kilometers from the finish. As such, they were spectacular sideshows rather than main attractions. That has now changed. The reconfigured course for this Sunday’s Ronde, with the finish moved to Oudenaarde, has allowed three different loops to be included in the final two hours of racing, with 10 of the race’s 16 hills packed into the last 80 kilometers.
Now, the first ascent of the Paterberg comes 74 kilometers from the finish, and the Koppenberg at 67 kilometers. The Paterberg is repeated on the last two loops, with 33 and 13 kilometers to go. Each of the three loops opens with the Ronde’s longest-standing climb, the Old Kwaremont (first included in 1919), which will act as a filter (or a springboard) 4 kilometers before the shorter, steeper Paterberg.
It’s said that the 350-meter-long Paterberg, which has a main 20-percnt pitch in the middle, was made by the farmer who lives there, in 1985. He was apparently jealous of another farmer who lived alongside the ancient Koppenberg and wanted a grandstand seat himself. The Ronde began using his cobbled climb in 1986. And now it will be this monumental classic’s truly spectacular finale—rain or shine!
RONDE VAN VLAANDEEN COURSE CHANGES
1913-1930 Gent to Gent
1931-1961 Gent to Wetteren
1962-1964 Gent to Gentbrugge
1965-1972 Gent to Merelbeke
1973-1976 Gent to Meerbeke (Ninove)
1977-1997 St. Niklaas to Meerbeke (Ninove)
1998-2011 Brugge to Meerbeke (Ninove)
2012-???? Brugge to Oudenaarde
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