It’s often described as being like the FA Cup final, the boat race and Royal Ascot – or perhaps more fitting this weekend, the Grand National – all rolled into one.
Newspapers carry weighty daily supplements; TV evening news shows turn over large chunks to predictions and analysis and even those with no interest for the other 364 days of the year suddenly take every opportunity to proffer an opinion on who might have the legs to succeed.
Yep, there’s no prizes for guessing what we’re talking about – the Ronde Van Vlaanderen!
One man who knows the Ronde – and the region – as well as anyone is former three-time winner Johan Museeuw.
Allez! Allez! CC caught up with Museeuw – dubbed the Lion of Flanders – this week to try and understand what makes the Ronde so special.
“It’s the biggest race of the year for us – if you ask any young rider which race they would want to win in their career they would say the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.
“For the Flemish people it is something which is everywhere – every day the newspapers report on it, it’s on the television every night so it gets the people ready for Sunday.Embed from Getty Images
“It’s difficult to explain why it is that way. We have history, old champions but other countries have old history and champions but for the races here it is something special. Even if you don’t watch other cycling races, you’ll watch the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.”
Museeuw was on the start list of the Ronde 17 times, hit the podium eight times and found the top step three times, the last in 1998 when he rode away on Tenbossestraat and never looked back.
While many watching the Lion glide over the cobbles might be under the misapprehension that the Tour of Flanders is easy to tackle, Museeuw is quick to point out it’s anything but simple.
He said: “Eddy Merckx won all the races more than three or more times but Flanders he won just twice so it’s a difficult race to win even for big champions.
“It’s hard, it’s nervous, its long – the race happens everywhere but a crash or a puncture can happen from 265km out to the finish. That’s Flanders, that’s why it’s special.”Embed from Getty Images
A lot has been made of Team Sky’s record in the race – no wins, no podiums and just three top 10s in the last 10 years – in contrast to its overwhelming success in the Grand Tours.
But why does the richest team in the world not connect with the cobbles?
Museeuw believes you need more than just endless pots of money to triumph in the Ronde.
He said: “You need a rider that can ride on the cobbles and the hills and the small roads and when it’s bad weather. You need someone who is ready for the spring classics, not someone who has to be ready for the Tour de France like Chris Froome.
“You also need a lot of experience of those roads and hills. There is not the culture within Team Sky for the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, they have the culture for big tours and climbs, longer climbs.
“(Deceuninck) QuickStep have the atmosphere for the classics but also the riders for them. They don’t have the riders for general classification in grand tours. They are good in the tours but not as good as Team Sky and that’s the big difference.
“They also have a lot of ex-riders in the management team and Patrick Lefevere and they’ve always been good in the spring classics.”Embed from Getty Images
The last three editions of the Ronde have seen solo breaks succeed – Niki Terpestra broke free on the Kruisberg last year; Philippe Gilbert on Oude Kwaremont in 2017 and Peter Sagan saw off the last of his remaining challengers on the Paterberg in 2016.
But where might a winning move go this time around? Museeuw says it’s impossible to tell and that is what makes the race so unpredictable.
He said: “You can speak about a race and the hundreds of different tactics that teams can use but the race itself will always dictate it.
“You never know where in Flanders the race will explode or what other teams will do so maybe, for example, the team of Wout Van Aert (Jumbo Visma) will do something that we don’t yet know because the team is very strong, very young and a good rider in Van Aert.
“We don’t know what Quickstep will do – will they wait until the end or will they explode it again at the Muur? They did that two years ago with Gilbert so you can say maybe but never yes.
“You have to be clear and to be ready in the start and in the end – for the full 265km!”
People often describe Museeuw as the last true Flandrien. But who does the man himself think of the current peloton represents the true spirit of Flanders?Embed from Getty Images
He said: “It’s difficult to say who is a Flandrien these days because all the riders are very nice on the bike – nice clothing, nice helmet, nice sunglasses. You don’t really have a character on the bike who is ‘Flandrien’.
“Maybe Matteo Trentin will become a Flandrien if he wins Flanders but for the moment he isn’t because you have to win Flanders or Roubaix to become one.
“If Julian Alaphilippe rode the races like Flanders or Roubaix then he could become a Flandrien but he has a different programme. He won Strade Bianchi but that’s not really a race for Flandriens. You must be a type of climber for Strade Bianchi but that’s not the case here.
“You have to be able to tackle the bad weather we have here and the bad roads and only then can you be a Flandrien.”
Trentin will take to the start line in Antwerp tomorrow but Museeuw doesn’t see him as a potential winner. Not this year at least.
“If I get to have a vote for Sunday then I would say Zdeněk Stybar, Van Aert and Greg Van Avermaet. Stybar looks great; he’s already got two wins and he looks very strong and relaxed,” he said.
“I saw the climb on the Kemmelberg from Van Aert and that was very strong and Van Avermaet is ready. We saw him on the Tiegemberg (at the E3 BinckBank Classic) that he managed to drop a lot of good riders so he’s also ready.
“But we’ve also not yet spoken about Peter Sagan. He will be there also – we just don’t know where. Will he get out in front, will he wait until the last time on the Paterberg or will he attack. I saw a better Sagan in Ghent-Wevelgem. He is ready.”