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Stijn Devolder on the Kapelmuur in 2009.
Defending champion Nuyens says "give course a chance"
One of the most iconic climbs of the cobbled Classics will not feature in the Tour of Flanders for the coming years, and the exclusion of the Muur van Geraardsbergen (also known as the Wall of Grammont or Kapelmuur) from the race has caused great consternation across Belgium.
Notable sports commentator Michel Wuyts told Sporza.be, "It's as if the Ronde has been decapitated."
Two-time champion Stijn Devolder was also unhappy with the changes, saying, "This is no longer the Ronde van Vlaanderen".
"Three times up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg in the finale is probably all in my favour," said Devolder to Sportwereld. "But I believe that the organizers made a wrong choice by simply replacing the old finale. The Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg cannot be erased from the Ronde."
"Besides, the finish must remain in Meerbeke. I could win ten times in Oudenaarde but this would never be the same feeling as the finish in Meerbeke."
Since 1973, the Tour of Flanders has finished on the same route which incorporated the Kapelmuur and Bosberg as the final two climbs. The new course shifts the finale to Oudenaarde, using three circuits of decreasing length, all of which take in the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, with the latter serving as the final ascent with 13.3km remaining before the finish line near the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, a museum dedicated to the history of the race.
The defending Ronde champion Nick Nuyens agreed with the race organiser Wim Van Herreweghe, who asked for people to give the new course a chance.
"It's a shame that it is changing, but we have to give it a chance anyway," Nuyens said to Sporza.
"The concept has changed little. It is still a succession of hills with little recovery time and there remains two killers in the finale, only the hills now have different names. Although I must say that the finish in Meerbeke was a beautiful place."
Nuyens added that the changes will benefit the spectators, who will no longer have to try to cut across the route to take in all of the decisive moments.
The movement of spectators was a key factor in the decision of the race organisers to alter the finale. "100,000 cycling fans make the Tour of Flanders what it is today," organisers state on the race website, rvv.be. "Vlaanderen’s Mooiste has become a massive event. That is the power but also the weak point of the race.
"The new course allows less movement by the spectators and hence provides possibilities for optimising service and safety measures in the finish area."
But will the new course ruin the racing action, which has seen devastating winning blows made on the Kapelmuur by the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Stijn Devolder in the recent editions?
Three time Ronde champion Johan Museeuw predicts, "Three times up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg can blow you away. The course didn't really need to be made harder, I think.
"It will be a rider with a big motor that will win the Ronde in 2012," he said..
At nearly 1km in length, the Kapelmuur is much longer than the Paterberg, which is 361m, and both have a maximum gradient of 20%. However, the former is only a 6.8% average gradient, while the Paterberg punishes the riders with a 13.7% average. Add in the Oude Kwaremont, which is 2.5km long, averages 3% and has a maximum gradient of 11% comes only 3km before the Paterberg, then take in both three times in the final 75km and the finish will not be any easier.
"The pair of Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg is definitely harder than the combination with the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg," said commentator and former coach Jose De Cauwer to Sportwereld. "On the Paterberg where the gradients shoot up above 16 percent, I have seen many riders 'die'. The finale will be spicier than before."
Three-time winner and the first rider to win the race in Meerbeke, Eric Leman, also won the race in its previous arrival in Merelbeke, and said the future will tell if the finish in Oudenaarde is a hit, but said, "The Tour of Flanders is and will remain a monument on any course."