By Jeff Jones
This year's Ronde Van Vlaanderen parcours is as hard on paper as most of them are. For starters, there's the distance of 258 km, which is a big distance to race a bike over. Add in cobbles - 20 km of them, all up - and climbs, of which there are 17 this year, narrow, twisting, bumpy roads, a strong wind, and probable rain shows, and you have a real hard man's race. It's not a race for a climber, but someone who can produce a lot of power in short bursts, and still have enough at the end to go hard in the final 20 km.
The Ronde starts in Brugge, near the west coast of Flanders, and one of Belgium's top tourist destinations. It huge, cobbled Grote Markt provides enough space to fit the riders, the presentation stage, and a hell of a lot of people. And you can guarantee a big crowd at Vlaanderen's mooiste.
After the gun goes off at 9:40am, the riders cruise out of Brugge to Sint-Pieters, where the race officially starts at 10:00am. Then it's almost due west out to the seaside at Oostende, before the course turns southeast towards the Vlaamse Ardennen. By this stage, the first breakaway of the day should be established, although anything can happen in the Ronde when there's a stiff crosswind blowing. After passing Ichtegem (km 38), which is the official town of the Ronde, the route goes through Torhout, Lichtervelde, Roeselare, Izegem and Kortrijk (km 82).
After 100 km, the race crosses into East Flanders, and the wind should be more at the riders' backs now. The first cobbled section comes at Wannegem (km 114), and although it's only 400m, it's a taste of the 20 km of bone jarring that is to come. A more serious cobbled section comes at Doorne, just outside Oudenaarde, after 117 km, then it's onto Zottegem and the Paddestraat at Velzeke (km 137). Another 2400m of cobbles greets the riders here, in addition to a sort of Roman tunnel of horrors, created by the cartoonist Nesten, who does interesting caricatures of the riders each year.
Click here to read the full route details.