Of course, nothing a cycling event does can replace the lives lost in the bombings of Brussels or the tragic loss of Belgian riders Antoine Demoitie and Daan Myngheer, but the locals will be out in force to show that their spirit hasn’t been cowed and that the loss of riders will be remembered.
These testing times will be the overarching sentiment of the race, with the riders that battle it out for the win set to be remembered in that context for years to come.
The race traverses 255.9 kilometres of the Flanders region, beginning in Bruges with 100 kilometres of racing before the peloton reaches the first of the hellingen, the cobbled climbs of the Flanders region. The early climbs act as the softening-up period of the race, where the fatigue accumulates in the legs, and comes into play further down the line.
The first key segment of the race comes with 101 kilometres remaining as the riders hit the Haaghoek pave, which will line out the bunch heading into a string of climbs beginning with the Leberg and ending with the Kanarieberg with 70 kilometres left. This period of the race is a good opportunity to get riders up the road, or it can be a period where a particularly strong squad attempts to isolate the leaders of other teams.
One of the great things about the Ronde van Vlaanderen is that any point of the race can be the critical one, a split with 70km remaining can be as decisive as the final ascent of the day. Nonetheless, it looks likely that the real fireworks will begin with 55km to go as the Oude Kwaremont (2.2 km, 4.2 per cent) and Paterberg (400m, 12.5 per cent) kicks things off. A series of really tough hellingen follows, with only brief respite for the riders, before it is back to the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg double as the final scene for the strong riders to ride away from their rivals.
Formlines for the Ronde are wide and varied, with contenders coming from those who specialise entirely in the cobbled classics to potential Grand Tour stage winners.
Going in the favourite will be Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), with the three-time champion in red-hot form so far this season. He won Strade Bianche impressively and was a very strong fourth at E3 Harelbeke after a mechanical put him on the back foot. In addition he looks like he is returning to his best in the time trials, with two wins over Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) in Tirreno and Algarve. Probably the most dangerous thing about Cancellara is the number of ways that he can win the race, he can win from a long range move, a sprint finish or by an opportunistic late attack. His experience and versatility will be hard to beat here, but is his age finally catching up to his legs?
The only rider as credentialed as Cancellara present on the startline is Tom Boonen (Ettix-QuickStep), with the triple winner going in as a dark horse. It’s probably unfair to say that he’ll never win again, his form this season has been hampered by that horrific crash at Abu Dhabi last year and last year a crash derailed his classics campaign before it had really begun. Nonetheless it has been a while since he looked like a serious winning chance in the classics and it would be a major surprise if he was on the top step in Oudenaarde.
Greg van Avermaet (BMC) instead will carry the burden of being the favourite Belgian for the race, with the man renowned for so long as being the nearly man of cycling looking to have put that behind with a series of top results this season. Most significant were the wins in the Omloop and Tirreno, where he outsprinted Peter Sagan for the win, which will give him a lot of confidence if he comes to the finish with the World Champion in tow.
Speaking of Sagan, it is impossible to make up a list of contenders without including the man who wears the rainbow stripes. The Slovak is ultra consistent taking 12 top 5 placings from his 19 race days so far this season. What was troubling was the lack of a win, but he rectified that at Gent-Wevelgem, and he’s peaking at just the right time.
The trouble for the Tinkloff star will be the lack of team support, particularly if something goes wrong. Whilst others have top lieutenants, who could even challenge for the win in right circumstances, Sagan has to ply a lone hand. It will make it difficult to get the win unless he gets the tactics exactly right, but if he finds his way into the right move at the pointy end of the race, he will be very hard to hold out.
Last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) goes into the race under the radar after a below par showing this classics season. It has been far from the performance expected from him after he began the year with a string of wins in the Middle East. Since then, he has been unable to recapture that winning feeling, but it would be foolish to write off the hard man after his dominant display in this race last year. Having the pressure off could well suit the big Norwegian and he’ll be the fastest if it comes down to a sprint.
Other names that deserved to be mentioned as potential winners are Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep), Jurgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Michal Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas (all Team Sky), Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo).
With the current climate surrounding the race, it will be a memorable edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and if only for a moment the nation of Belgium can come together to celebrate what makes the country great, then it will have done its job.