The Tour of Flanders is one of the most beautiful races of the year. Here, our team of writers give their impressions of the race and try to predict the outcome.

Edward Pickering
Deputy editor, Cycle Sport

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FLANDERS CLIMB?
I’ve got a real soft spot for the Molenberg. It’s not very long, but it’s got several mitigating factors which make it decisive, especially since it has been moved closer to the finish.

First, there’s a dead turn at the bottom, from a flat, wide road, right into a bumpy, steep track of cobbles. The first three or four riders, at a push, get through here OK. Everybody else is in a real fight.

Second, the cobbles are horrible here, and the camber throws the front wheel around through the S-bend. Again, any riders not in the first few wheels are hanging onto their destiny by their fingernails.

Third, there’s no descent, or not for a while. Cancellara and Boonen went away on the second half of the climb last year, but it was on the crosswind-hit flat section at the top that they looked at each other, saw some riders not far behind, and turned on the afterburners. They did some real damage on this flat section.

Fourth, there’s a chip van at the top, selling hangover-reducing hot dogs and frites. It’s a real lifesaver.

HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
Last year, his Flanders performance was a real ambush. Until he went away on the Muur, I was still wondering what he was going to do about Boonen, who in my mind remained the favourite until that point. This year, in spite of the dominance he showed at E3, it would be foolish to assume that the rest of the field are just going to allow him to make them look silly. Here’s how they are going to stop him:

Look at last year’s result: Cancellara won, Boonen second, Gilbert third, Leukemans fourth, then a 31-strong bunch. The important thing is that of those riders, apart from Cancellara, none are riding for Leopard this year. O’Grady will be a strong support rider, but Leopard doesn’t have the strength in depth in Flanders that some other teams do. If I were the Garmin or Sky manager, for example, I’d send the equivalent of Stijn Devolder up the road once the race is in its final third. If Cancellara’s isolated, he won’t want to chase, because he’ll have a procession of his rivals on his back wheel. It’s going to be tricky, though, isn’t it?

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
My head says Boonen. He’s got good form, he’ll not be watched as closely as Cancellara, and if the Swiss rider falters, he’ll be the natural favourite. My heart says Gilbert – his attacking style deserves high-profile victories. I’d love to see Flecha win, although he’s cursed by his limitations in the sprint.

But I suspect that if Boonen, Gilbert and Flecha are in the mix, Cancellara will be as well. If Cancellara is strong, the only person who can beat him is a lower-profile escapee. Someone like Nick Nuyens, or Heinrich Haussler, hanging off the front while the big favourites watch Farrar and Hushovd.

OUTSTANDING FLANDERS MEMORY
Race:
The Cancellara-Boonen two-up was an absolute treat last year. I’ve also got a fond memory of seeing the entire town of Geraardsbergen go utterly silent, when Ballan outsprinted local hero Hoste at the finish in 2007. I’ve never seen so many miserable-looking Belgians.

Sportive: Apart from an annual soaking in freezing rain, it would be closing an impossible gap in the final 10 kilometres to Ninove last year to colleague Gregor Brown, who’d unsportingly attacked me on the Muur and then followed through on the Bosberg. I rode solo in a crosswind while Brown freewheeled irritatingly along on the back of a large group of riders about 400 metres in front. He’ll tell you he won by some distance, but he didn’t. He definitely didn’t.

General Flanders culture: Getting fallen on by a fat Belgian while watching the race on the Molenberg, two years running.

WHEN DID YOU REALISE FLANDERS IS THE BEST ONE DAY RACE IN THE WORLD?
It was actually while I was riding the Ronde sportive for the first time in 2008. It was miserable, freezing cold and soaking wet, and while I rode along, I was punctuating each pedal stroke with some newly-acquired Flemish swear words. But the roads seemed alive with the history of the race; the cobbles were slick with mud that had washed down from the fields; the landscape was harsh, exposed and flat, and gave me no protection from the scouring wind. Belgium’s one of those places where the greyness of the sky seeps into the colourlessness of the soil, but it’s got a unique character. Belgium invites you, challenges you, to test yourself against it, and it doesn’t give a shit if you’re not up to it. But it will reward you with steak, frites and beer if you are.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
Cold light of day prediction
1 Cancellara
2 Boonen
3 Gilbert

Three Leffe Brunes into the evening prediction, not to be quoted back at me, under any circumstances
1 Nuyens
2 Geraint T
3 Eisel

Ellis Bacon
Writer, Cycle Sport

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FLANDERS CLIMB?
It can only be the Muur: iconic, cobbled and crazy. If you had to run the race over just one climb, this would be it.

HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
Other than removing the spark plugs from his bike, you mean? He’s said it himself: by him being under so much pressure, both from the media and the other riders, that he crumbles and opens a gap in the door wide enough for a Boonen or Devolder to slip through…

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
Stijn Devolder – coming good just when it matters, just like he has twice before.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE FLANDERS MEMORY?
It has to be poor old Jesper Skibby almost being run over on the Koppenberg in 1987. (His bike wasn’t so fortunate). It’s like watching a slow-motion hit-and-run, but seems to embody the difficulty and drama of the race: a war where it’s a case of every man for himself.

WHEN DID YOU REALISE FLANDERS IS THE BEST ONE-DAY RACE IN THE WORLD?
Sorry? Flanders is great ‘an all, but the better one-day race comes a week later, has more cobbles and, appropriately, has the word ‘Hell’ in its nickname.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
Devolder, Boonen, Cancellara

Lionel Birnie
Writer, Cycle Sport

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FLANDERS CLIMB?
Perhaps a predictable answer but it has to be the Muur at Geraardsbergen. They swoop down a descent, over the bridge and through the town before beginning the climb. The first section is on smooth paving blocks, like a patio, and it rises up through the town square, which is absolutely buzzing on race day. There’s an unmistakable smell in the air. It’s a mix of beer and hot dogs and cigarette smoke and that strange smoked fish snack they like in Flanders. The excitement is tangible. Then it is up to the Kapelmuur, which provides a fantastic natural amphitheatre. At the top, people perch on the grass banks as if they are old-fashioned terraces at a football ground. And if you wait up there all afternoon, the sense of anticipation becomes heady. As the riders approach the roar of the supporters ripples towards you like toppling dominos. Because the Muur is often such a strategically important moment in the race, there’s a good chance of seeing The Move too. There isn’t a sight like it in sport.

HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
Unfortunately, logic says that the way to beat Cancellara is to focus on him and race extremely negatively. [A reader has asked us to clarify what we mean by ‘racing negatively’ – basically, we mean that riders may prioritise following Cancellara over attacking for themselves. A team with several strong riders may assign one or two of them to simply mark Cancellara so he can’t get away on his own.] It will require the other strong teams – Quick Step, Sky, Rabobank, Garmin – to gang up on him and mark his every move. They know they cannot let him get even a five-metre gap because it is so difficult to close. So, mark him, sit on his wheel and either outsprint him at the finish or hope it comes back together for a team-mate. Of course, concentrating on Cancellara could open the door for a surprise winner.

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
Philippe Gilbert. He’s in extremely good form and he is one of the few who has the explosive ability to get a gap on the flat as well as on the climbs. Of course, there’s a chance the race will end in a group sprint of perhaps 15 to 25 riders, so if I were placing a bet, I’d put a few quid on Thor Hushovd each way.

OUTSTANDING FLANDERS MEMORY
The race:
Sitting next to the Peter Van Petegem fan club in the square at Kwaremont, watching on the big screen as Boonen attacked to win his first Ronde in 2005 and seeing for myself that there is a partisan nature to cycling fans here more than anywhere else. Once Van Petegem’s chance of winning had gone, they lost interest.

The sportive: Riding it for the first time in 2001 gave me a full appreciation of how difficult the course must be to race. Each climb poses a different challenge. Some are technical, some are steep, some have a challenging entry or exit, all sap the strength. You can be flying one minute, empty the next. I’ve seen people complain that the run-in from the Bosberg to the finish is ‘dull’ but this misses the point that it is the final test of strength. Flattish, dead roads that are difficult to get away on and very tough to chase on. A 12-second gap may as well be 12 minutes if you haven’t got the legs.

The culture: The first time I covered the Tour of Flanders in 1999, was a real eye-opener. We stayed in Bruges and the atmosphere in the town the night before the race was incredible. Bars and restaurants were full and there was a real holiday atmosphere. The crowd the following morning was enormous. You couldn’t move. But it was standing in the finish straight afterwards that made me understand that the race truly crowns the king of Belgium. Van Petegem had just won the race for the first time and was already being fêted. On the other side of the road, Frank Vandenbroucke, the runner-up, was being subjected to an inquisition. It partly explained why the vast majority of people in Flanders don’t give two hoots about doping. They just want heroes. As someone who thinks the sport needs credible heroes, that is a difficult one to square.

WHEN DID YOU REALISE FLANDERS IS THE BEST ONE-DAY RACE IN THE WORLD?
Actually, I think a great edition of Paris-Roubaix is the finest one-day race in the world. But the Ronde has more going for it from a cultural point of view. The people of Flanders really live for the race and it is they who make the day. It’s notable that the most passionate supporters at Paris-Roubaix are in fact Flandrians who have popped across the border.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
Philippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd

Simon Richardson
Deputy editor, Cycling Weekly

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FLANDERS CLIMB?
Kwaremont – it’s got got steep bits, flat bits, a tight winding start, an open section. It’s got it all.

HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
Probably only by racing negatively. He needs marking out by several riders as others go up the road. He won’t like it but it’s the only to beat him if he’s as strong as last year.

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
Boonen, after Sunday’s win at Ghent-Wevelgem.

OUTSTANDING FLANDERS MEMORY
Spending the day in the square halfway up the Kwaremont watching the race on a huge screen while drinking beer and eating hamburgers.

WHEN DID YOU REALISE FLANDERS IS THE BEST ONE-DAY RACE IN THE WORLD?
I’m still a huge fan of the World Championships road race but I realised my love for Flanders when I first went training over those roads and realised how unsuitable they were for bike racing, yet how perfect they are for bike racing.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
Cancellara, Boonen, Thomas


  • Art Gonzalez

    What does racing negatively mean? (sorry im a rookie)