In the second of his exclusive analysis of the Classics for Cyclingnews, former three-time World Champion Oscar Freire explains why he thinks the Tour of Flanders is the most attractive race of the entire cycling calendar.
CN: How often did you race Flanders? Was it tricky to ride in Mapei [his second professional team] when you had a lot of Belgian riders who made it their top priority of the season?
OF: It was and it wasn’t. I raced it quite a lot as a young pro and again in my final year [finishing twelfth - Ed.], but what happened inbetween was I got injured a couple of times just before Flanders when I was in good shape, and given they were back injuries riding the pave wasn’t exactly the best way to cure them!
I remember that once I was going really well, maybe in 2002, I was in very good shape for Flanders and I crashed out. But anyway, it was difficult [with Mapei] to get a spot in the Flanders line-up because I was more their rider for Milan-San Remo and they had other, much better riders for Flanders and Roubaix. I think Flanders was a race that suited me, but I lacked experience of racing it and a bit of luck, like in 2002. And apart from being in good condition, luck and experience are exactly the two ingredients you need the most to succeed there, and it’s up to you to get that experience and make that luck happen.
CN: From the moment you walk down to the start in Bruges, Flanders has an exceptional atmosphere.
OF: No other race is as attractive in cycling. It’s got so many things that are appealing about it: the weather, the course, the fans, the pave, the potential for echelons, breakaways.... Even though it looks easy to race, it’s one of the hardest races out there actually to take part in . It’s very like Milan-San Remo: there are a lot of riders out there who could win it in theory but for all bar a very few there’s always something missing in the mixture. And when it comes to watching it on telly, Flanders is the most beautiful race of all.
CN: So Flanders is more beautiful than the Worlds?
OF: In terms of its route, yes, because it’s more spectacular. The World’s is more important, but the terrain in Flanders is the best of any bike race.
Photo: Tim De Waele
CN: There has been a lot of criticism of the route, do you think it’s better that they’ve now changed it again?
OF: I don’t think that’s what really matters the most. The biggest difference is that the riders taking part in Flanders are more and more equal in terms of strength these days, everybody builds up in a similar way, and that’s why - just like in Liege-Bastogne-Liege where they also changed the route - you get a bigger bunch until much later in the race. And because the bunch as a whole is moving faster, it’s harder for breaks to stick - although again the weather is going to be what perhaps finally decides that.
CN: So do you have any particular favourites?
OF: [Peter] Sagan (Cannondale) and [Fabian] Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing). That said, a lot of other riders, particularly in Omega Pharma-Quick Step, can take advantage of them watching each other too closely, and Tom Boonen, who hasn’t won the race several times by chance, is the number one contender to do that. Then don’t forget Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory), because he’s won it twice and that’s no fluke. So Cancellara and Sagan at the top of my list, Boonen very close behind and then there’s a lot of potential outsiders.
CN: Everybody emphasises the importance of getting a good position in Flanders. Do you agree? Does anything else on the technical side stand out that makes it a special race for the riders?
OF: It’s hard to say. The last time I raced, I did well and I made sure I was always in the top 10 or 15. However, there were times when everybody from the top ten backwards fell off and you realise that even though on paper it’s better to go in in first place than second when you go into the climbs, and better in second place than third, at some points it really doesn’t matter. You’re still going to crash...Ideally, you have to be in the top three every time you start a climb, because maybe from tenth rider back if a break goes it’s impossible to get back into contact.
The media motorbikes have a big effect in that race, I remember once I got in a break in Flanders and they caught me with 30 kilometres to go, every time the bikes closed in to take pictures or tv camera shots, I managed to keep my time gap, and as soon as they went, the bunch ate into my advantage again. It’s something that can happen, though, in any race.
As for equipment, it’s all getting better but the most important thing remains the pressure in your tyres. In the last few years wider tyres with lower pressure have cut down on punctures, but if they are too wide, they can slow you down. I would say if in a normal race you have nine bars pressure, I’d stick from to 5-and-a-bit to six in Flanders, depending on your weight. I remember in the last Flanders I did I started with my tyres on five, but that raises the risk of puncturing.
People talk about getting extra protection on their gloves to avoid blisters, but I don’t think your bike jumps around enough. It’s a bit tough at the top of the cobbled climbs, but this isn’t Paris-Roubaix.
Photo: Tim De Waele
CN: Lots of top names say that the best way to race Flanders is not to go in the gutters where there’s more road debris but to head over the cobbles right in the middle. Do you agree?
OF: And it’s not just that that makes the centre of the road better, it’s the fans. The last time I did Flanders, I ended up with a massive bruise on my shoulder after I struck against somebody trying to take a photo and it hurt for nearly three weeks. That’s what causes a lot of the crashes, or it could be somebody is riding ahead of you on the edge and they see a pothole and can avoid it, but you don’t have enough time.
However, in the middle tends to be faster, but not always, because very often towards the sides there’s no cobbles, so you can go faster there. That’s why it’s so important to know the race, because at the points on the course where there aren’t so many people you can use those segments of better tarmac.
A guy like Boonen will have a big advantage there because he’ll know every metre of the race. But then there are riders who are strong, but who don’t have that experience, and that’ll often make the difference between winning and losing.
Photo: Tim De Waele
CN: So the key to success in Flanders, rather than feeling exceptionally strong, is maybe to know how best to conserve the strength you have?
OF: Exactly. There’s a section just before the first ascent of the Kwaremont [km 106], for example, which is really key. For 15 or 20 kilometres before the Kwaremont you’re all going flat out and then suddenly, just before it, the peloton slows down, maybe to 20 kmh, and then suddenly it accelerates really hard again as you go over some pave. And the guys in the middle and back of the bunch invariably have virtually no chance of getting back up to speed quick enough, so if you’re not in the front right there, or if you have a puncture there and you don’t have team staff you’ve had it, too, and that makes those few cobbled segments the first real crunch moment of the race.
CN: So you need a good sports director as well who knows the route?
OF: Yes, but they can only help a bit: it’s you, knowing the route, that makes all the difference. The distances between one obstacle and another are so short that they can warn you about a dangerous corner, you kill yourself getting all the way through the pack to make sure you’re well-placed and it turns out the dangerous corner’s another 200 metres down the road and 20 guys get past you again before you go into it.
Basically all the directors tell you the same thing anyway: if there’s a break with so many minutes margin, make sure somebody from the team’s in it. It’s up to you. The last time I did Flanders, all the way through I was making mental notes for the following year’s race about - above all - where you could get past the rest of the field. That would have been useful if it hadn’t been my last Flanders....
It’s interesting, because the important part about knowing Flanders is the first 150 kilometres, not the last part like in many other races, where the groups become smaller and it’s easier to position yourself well. But the first 150 or 170 kilometres of Flanders you have to know where to be.
Photo: Tim De Waele
CN: How long does it take to recover from Flanders? Is it as hard as Roubaix?
OF: More than physically, in terms of your head and the stress you feel, for that to go: a good week. It’s like Milan-San Remo, jt’s easy to race in terms of the route, but you don’t realise until afterwards the pressure you’ve been under for quite a while. If you’ve been a contender in Flanders, you sleep badly for about a week. I thought it only happened to me, but I talked it over with other riders and they told me exactly the same. More than physical, it’s stress and getting over stress that takes time.
CN: After Flanders you then tended to skip Roubaix but go on to the Ardennes Classics. Did racing Flanders have a negative effect on how you raced in those hilly Classics?
OF: I wouldn’t recommend it. Some ‘cobbled Classics’ specialists will go on racing as far as Amstel but I was pretty unusual in doing all of them. The most logical thing is to do the cobbled Classics and De Panne and Flanders and Roubaix, or to do the Basque Country and then the Ardennes. Mixing them up isn’t a good idea.