Thursday, 29 March 2012

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2012

Mens's Parcours - Women's Parcours - Favourites - TV Coverage

Men's parcours - click to enlarge
(image credit: Flanders Classics)
For many fans and riders, the professional cycling calendar revolves around the Classics - even the Grand Tours are secondary in the opinions of some. The Classics revolve around the five Monuments, which means that since the Flanders Classics are often considered the most important Classics, the Ronde van Vlaanderen is the Monument of the Flanders Classics it is, for some people, the most important race of the year.

It's not hard to see why. The Ronde has history, having begun right back in 1913 and continuing through the Second World War (the only Classic to have done so on Nazi-occupied soil - see our "24 Ronde van Vlaanderen Facts" for more) and the sheer difficulty of the race has only added to its legend. This year's edition, which will take place on Sunday the 1st of April, is no different - the 255km parcours takes in some of the toughest cobbles and climbs Belgium can offer, and with the creme-de-la-creme of international cycling taking part competition will be exceptionally high.

Men's Parcours
The initial part from Brugge is relatively straight forward with a small slimb just after 30km into Torhout, this year's Dorp de Ronde - a village or town along the route, chosen to be celebrated by the race, and in this case the birthplace of Karel Van Wijnendaele who first dreamed up the Ronde and directed it for many years (Podium Cafe has a very excellent article on that). Then, the terrain settles down again until 85km, ready for a nasty little climb at Kruishoutem followed by the 1.8km Huisepontweg cobbled section. Then, almost as soon as that's over, there's another 2km of cobbles at Doorn.

(image credit: LimoWreck CC BY-SA 3.0)
The first of two feed stations comes round at 102.7km, where riders will want to load up on the energy gels because 6.6km away is the first of the big climbs: Taaienberg, which only reaches 57m above sea level and is only 0.8km long, but at its steepest part hits 18% - and it's cobbled for half a kilometre, just to prevent it being too easy. Eikenberg comes next, 6.4km up the road and just nudging 10% at the steepest part with cobbles for 1.1km. Three more sets of cobbles follow: Holleweg (117.1km), 1.5km; Ruiterstraat (18.6km), 0.8km; Kerkgate (121.9km), 1.5km. Climb 3 is the Molenberg (131.3km), a narrow cobbled lane that hits 14.2% at the toughest section. 4.7km away is Paddestraat, the longest cobbles at 2.2km and the site of a monument to the race and those who were fastest to complete the section. The name, which translates into English as Mushroom Street, suggests it can be damp; and it can be - if it's rained any time recently (which is usually has in Flanders) the stones become treacherously slippery.

9.7km from Paddestraat is Climb 4, Rekelberg (145.7km). There are no cobbles here and, reaching "only" 9%, it's a fairly easy section by the standards of this race. 3.3km away is Berendries, Climb 5 and as steep as 12.34%, partially sunken into the surrounding landscape and sometimes very slippery as a result. A much easier 7.8km leads to Climb 6, Valkenberg (156.8km), which hits 15%; then there are 20.5km in which to let the knees stop burning before arrival at Climb 7 - Oude Kwaremont which, though not too steep at 11% maximum, has 1.5km of cobbles. Paterberg, Climb 8 (183km) follows. With a maximum gradient of 20%, it's the second steepest section of the race and frequently the site of abandonments.

Just over 10km from Paterberg is the legendary, malevolent Koppenberg (Climb 9, 189.6km), one of the most feared climbs in professional cycling. Officially, the steepest part of Koppenberg is 22%, but as the riders pack themselves into the narrow 600m cobbled section between the banks either side some of them will have no choice but to take the inside line around the bend where it reaches 25%. Not all of them will make it up without having to get off and push and some won't ever make it to the top. The second feeding station at 192.2km will be a welcome sight, offering an opportunity to raise blood sugar levels and bring some relief to starved, agonised muscles.

Men's altimetry - click to enlarge
(image credit: Flanders Classics)
The riders will just have had time to gulp down an energy gel (best way - the faster you eat them, the less you taste them) by the time they arrive at the 2km Mariaborrestraat cobbles and then Climb 10, Steenbeekdries at 194.9km with a maximum gradient of 12.8%. Another 08km of cobbles lies at Donderij, then Climb 11 at 210.1km - Kruisberg, long at 1.875km but mercifully 9%.

Having looped around, the parcours makes a second ascent of Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg for Climbs 12 and 13 (220km, 223.4km) before moving on to Hoogberg-Hotond (Climb 14, 230.4km), the highest point in the race at 110m reached after a little under 3km of climbing - the gradient is low, 8% at the steepest part. Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are climbed for a third time in the final 17km (Climbs 15 and 16, 240.2km and 243.6km) before the last approach to Oudenaarde and the finish line. (Parcours details)

Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen
Women's Parcours - click to enlarge
(image credit: Flanders Classics)
The Ronde's organisers were among the first to realise that running a women's race alongside the men's would bring extra spectators and, since the infrastructure and TV crews were already in place, bring enormous benefits for women's cycling. Thus, the inaugural Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen took place in 2004 and has been held every year since, gradually becoming one of the premier events on the women's racing calendar and, as by far the most difficult of the one-day races, a much sought-after victory by the top riders.

The parcours starts and ends in Oudenaarde, following a less complex route of 127km in total. The flat initial section is shorter than the men's at 39km, then the riders arrive at Paddestraat, followed by Rekelberg (48.6km); Berendries (52.1km); Valkenberg (59.8km); Kaperij (72.1km, max. gradient 8%); Kanarieberg (79.4km, max. 14%); Kruisberg (91.2km); Oude Kwaaremont (101km); Paterberg (104.4km) and Hoogberg-Hotond (111.4km). (Parcours details)

Women's altimetry - click to enlarge
(image credit: Flanders Classics)
The Race-Losing Curse, a.k.a Cyclopunk's Top Tip
Tom Boonen
(image credit: Tete de la Course CC BY-SA 2.0)
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) is on excellent form right now and has already proved he's got the legs for Flanders this year with second place at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and stunning wins at Gent-Wevelgem and the E3 Harelbeke, making him the favourite of many fans and riders alike. However, he's not going to be allowed to simply cruise up to the finish and take the trophy - this is hard race with a hard parcours, which can easily ruin anyone's chances even without 24 other teams sending their hardest men to try to keep him from victory.

Among them are Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen, undoubtedly one of the toughest 24-year-olds cycling has ever seen and a rider who has already proved himself in the Classics on several occasions; and Fabian Cancellara, the World Time Trial Champion-turned-Classics-specialist who has twice missed out on what seemed likely triumphs in recent weeks and will want this race both to prove his detractors wrong and for psychological value in the run-up to next Sunday's Paris-Roubaix. Then there's the entire BMC team: Gilbert, Ballan, Phinney, Hincapie, Hushovd, van Avermaet, Burghardt, Quinziato - any one of them could win this race. (Start list, subject to change)

Marianne Vos
The Race-Losing Curse only applies to men's races - in any race involving the incredible 24-year-old Dutch woman Marianne Vos, simply listing her as favourite and waiting for yet another near-inevitable victory will see you through at least 99% of the time. With a very strong Rabobank team behind her and with 11 races already won since New Year she was the immediate favourite this year, despite the race having slipped her grasp in the past - however, on Saturday morning it was announced that she's ill and won't be riding, so as to recover and avoid jeopardising the rest of the season. Get well soon, Marianne!

That leaves at least 20 riders with a very real chance of reaching the top step of the podium. Marianne's team mates Sarah Duster and Annemiek van Vleuten are obvious choices, but so are Evelyn Stevens, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Trixi Worrack(Specialized-Lululemon), Emma Pooley (AA, Judith Arndt and Loes Gunnewijk (GreenEDGE), Emma Johansson (Hitec Products-Mistral Home), Nicole Cooke (Faren-Honda) and numerous others. Vos is a superstar and her absence will always detract from any race, but with less than 24 hours to go this announcement throws everything into a fascinating state of flux. (Start list subject to change)

TV coverage
In Britain, Eurosport are covering the race in two parts. The first begins at 11:45GMT, the second at 14:15, then there's highlights at 17:00 and 21:50. The broadcaster is likely to have coverage in other nations too, check local listings for details. There are likely to be numerous online streams of varying legality; as ever Sports-Livez is a good place to start with several channels, many of them non-georestricted.

Official Site
Sarah Connolly on the Women's Race
Jens (Podium Cafe) on the exclusion of the Muur
Graham Watson on Cancellara's chances

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