• Tom Boonen accelerates up the Kapelmuur, forcing the winning selection. (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)Source: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
They said it was too far out. They said it wouldn't matter. They said it was simply to please the fans. They were all wrong, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
3 Apr 2017 - 1:45 PM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2017 - 4:57 PM

The headline on VeloNews read: "Muur doesn't matter to top pros racing Flanders".

"It's nice that people can stand on the Muur again and take nice pictures," Quick Step Floors' Tom Boonen, on the eve of riding his penultimate race as a professional, said, "but other than that, it doesn't matter.”

Echoed his team-mate Matteo Trentin: "It's too far away to be decisive, but I think it's great that it's back in the race."

"There's a certain irony that in order for the 34-year-old from Remouchamps, located in the Walloon province of Liège, who before Sunday had not ridden De Ronde since 2011, to be a leader (or even included) in the cobbled Classics, he had to join an outfit brimming with Classics talent and a proclivity towards Flandrians."

The all-knowing Inner Ring had similar sentiments about the re-inclusion, after a five-year hiatus, of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, also known as the Kapelmuur, Mur de Grammont, or just 'De Muur' (The Wall), at this year's Tour of Flanders. "The Kapelmuur comes with 95km to go, too early to be strategic but a crowd-pleaser and a leg-sapper," it said. (I use 'it' because even though I'm quite certain the Inner Ring is of male extraction, it has never been expressly stated.)

Prior to Sunday's start of De Ronde in Antwerp, pre-race favourite Greg Van Avermaet wasn't keen to see the Muur back: "It takes us a little bit out of the way. The parcours from the Muur to Oudenaarde is not really attractive. It's too early to go, for sure.

"I think that the parcours last year was really nice. Now, with adding the Muur again, I think that it is a zone where nothing is going to happen."

It seemed that Van Avermaet, and by default his BMC Racing Team, so chock-full of confidence after his hat-trick of scalps at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, had already decided where they thought the winning move would occur; as it turned out, a serious error when you consider the multitude of potential scenarios in any bike race. "I think that the second time up the Kwaremont will be where the final really starts," he said in the team's pre-race press conference.

"If you see my results, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem were always the hardest races for me to get a big result. For me, Flanders is always a bit easier. I know that it's the hardest race but it fits me better as a rider so this also gives me confidence. If you see my results of the last 10 years, I'm always top 10. If nothing happens, then Sunday will be the same, but hopefully, I will be in the first spot."

Gilbert's solo slog brings Tour of Flanders glory
Phillipe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) attacked on the Oude Kwaremont with 55km to go and never looked back. It was the first Tour of Flanders win by a Belgian since Tom Boonen's victory in 2012.

As articulated in last week's Cycling Central podcast, I always thought Quick Step Floors had by far the strongest team. Season after season, the Belgian outfit managed by Patrick Lefevre come to the Spring Classics with lofty expectations because, more often that not, they arrive with the best team. They might not always have the favourite - unsurprisingly, the majority of pre-race chatter revolved around Peter Sagan and Van Avermaet - but in terms of their entire team and the options afforded to them, perhaps BMC Racing and Bora-Hansgrohe should have been paying a little more attention to these perennial Classics protagonists.

The only comment that went against the grain of those mentioned above came from three-time champion Johan Museeuw, winner in 1993, '95 and '98 and aptly nicknamed The Lion of Flanders. Each edition he won, the Muur van Geraardsbergen was part of the parcours, albeit at a much later point, when it was the second-to-last hellingen and followed by the Bosberg before the finish in Meerbeke (Ninove). "It is necessary the Muur is back," Museeuw said last week. "Sure, it's 90km from the finish, but it's still a good moment for the big riders to make their presence known."

Whether Boonen and Trentin were bluffing, the former instrumental in creating the decisive split on the Kapelmuur that Van Avermaet and Sagan missed, is up for debate. What is undeniable, though, is that for the entire BMC Racing and Bora-Hansgrohe outfits to have missed the move, there was too much complacency on their behalves; both teams felt they could not just initiate, but dictate, the winning move. They had only a Plan A, BMC's hubris evident in this post-race remark from their sports director Fabio Baldato, referencing the pursuit of eventual winner Philippe Gilbert, who had flown the coup on the second ascension of the Oude Kwaremont, 55 kilometres from the finish in Oudenaarde: "With Sagan and (Oliver) Naesen they had a strong group and then it would have been another win."

Could've, would've, should've.

Sagan and van Avermaet's barrier to victory
Along with BMC's Greg van Avermaet, Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe) was the man to watch at the 2017 Tour of Flanders.

Towards the end, Gilbert was tiring, but he hadn't blown: from the Taaienberg, the 15th of the day's 18 climbs and the point the aforementioned trio were chasing after Sagan attacked, to the base of the final time up the Oude Kwaremont, 18.9km from Oudenaarde, the Walloon's one-minute buffer was cut by just 10 seconds. The catch was far from a fait accompli. "Many people thought I was crazy to attack 55 kilometres out, myself included, but I didn't go that hard because I was aware the final 15 kilometres were very tough," explained Gilbert. "I kept some energy, which I knew would prove very useful for that last part of the race."

There's a certain irony that in order for the 34-year-old from Remouchamps, located in the Walloon province of Liège, who before Sunday had not ridden De Ronde since 2011, to be a leader (or even included) in the cobbled Classics, he had to leave a team who preferred to place their trust in one man, and join an outfit brimming with talent and a proclivity towards Flandrians. Despite Lefevre's affection for Boonen and him being the sentimental choice, Quick Step Floors came with options - Gilbert, Boonen, Trentin and Niki Terpstra - and was prepared to employ any and every one of them.

I wonder if the events of last Sunday will lead to a rethink before this Sunday.