Boonen predicts a race of attrition
By Brecht Decaluwé in Brugge, Belgium
Fans who thought that global warming had ruined the Classics and all the hard men of Flanders had grown soft, have no fear. This Sunday's 92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen is shaping up to be a race of epic proportions, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1989 edition. Instead of the nearly summer like conditions seen last year, this season's Ronde should evoke memories of the legendary 70 kilometre escape of Eddy Merckx in the wind and rain of 1969.
Riders will be chilled by temperatures between 2°C and 6°C, and with rain, hail and a possibility of even snow, Sunday's battle will provide a true Classics spectacle unlike anything the current crop of professionals has experienced in the one-day race.
Two time Ronde van Vlaanderen champion Tom Boonen feels that the foul weather will change the race, and in his view this isn't a bad thing. In the past ten years, the event has run under predominantly dry conditions, with last year's edition quite like summer. Boonen pointed out that none of the current generation of riders have ever witnessed a Ronde van Vlaanderen with the forecasted rain and cold, at least not as a rider. "I've never done a Ronde van Vlaanderen in such weather conditions. During my first Paris-Roubaix it was bad and Milano-Sanremo from last year in the rain was tough as well.
"It cuts the chances of some riders in two, but whether I can take advantage of it will be seen after the race. The winner will always be happy with the weather, while the loser will be raging about it in Meerbeke. Personally I don't think I need to be afraid of it, as I'm the type of rider that can stand the cold pretty well," the former world champion mused.
The conditions look to be a little bit more than a typical cold springtime race. "Extreme cold is something different, and 5°C combined with precipitation is extreme," Boonen remarked. "It will all depend on who can keep himself warm the most." He immediately continued to explain there wasn't much a rider can do against the precipitation, especially in a 264 kilometre-long race. "It's just not possible. You can put on what you want, but everything comes through it. You can wear clothing against the cold, but the distance makes it impossible to arm yourself against the wet.
"If you go out for a training ride of one hour then it's maybe possible to stay dry. But raincoats, gloves and all sorts of caps... moisture seeps through and it cannot get out of it, so after a while that makes it even colder," he explained. "These are just tough conditions and even in these modern times [no clothing] seems to exist [to guard] against really foul weather. It will be an experience of course as I think such weather conditions didn't occur since Edwig Van Hooydonck won for the first time [in 1989], but it's not for every year though," Boonen joked.
"Last year wasn't good either. During Paris-Nice, Milano-Sanremo and the E3 Prijs Harelbeke the conditions to ride a bike were good, but not for a Spring Classic," Boonen pointed out that he prefers some help from the weather in his Classics. "Last year in Flanders it was a fast race, but no real selection could be made. Besides that the Koppenberg wasn't featured and it turned out that a group of 50 riders arrived on the Muur [the penultimate cobbled climb in Geraardsbergen]. Everybody had suffered, but nobody had reached a moment in which they got dropped or almost got dropped. If it is bad weather and the wind is blowing out of the right direction then the gaps are automatically created."
During the races that were held in Flanders ahead of the Monuments in the past weeks, many riders have been crashing when trying to make it to the front on the footpaths, or by hitting some obstacle during the nervous build-ups towards the small cobbled climbs. Boonen felt the predicted weather conditions would make the race more stressful during the first hours. "It will be more dangerous in the run-up to the finale. Everybody knows it's going to be bad weather, and everybody knows crashes will occur, so that will be very nervous.
"But once the selection has been made the racing will be less stressful; then it'll be 'normal' suffering, and just kicking the pedals. It will certainly create an early selection as a lot of riders will be abandoning prematurely. Nobody continues for the 25th place in foul weather, so I don't expect a lot of riders will make it to the finish," the Belgian predicted.
Hoste not afraid
Three time runner-up in Meerbeke Leif Hoste reacted more laconically on the weather forecast, possibly because he is more worried about his own current health status at the moment. "It's good to have a change once in a while," he laughed. "I've never had foul weather in this race, so for me, it doesn't matter."
The Silence-Lotto rider recalled that he performed well in comparable weather conditions during Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. "That was real cold, foul weather. But ok, I've never experienced almost 270 kilometres in the rain, but that's the same for everybody. I'm not afraid of it," the Belgian stated. He did emphasize that luck had to be on his side, which is something he had during the winter and his build-up races from January until March. But that all changed this week when he was afflicted by a crash during the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. "The luck factor will be slightly more important than under normal conditions with crashes etcetera; things you can't really take in hand.
"For instance on the cobbles: the first pavé section in Wannegem-Lede [after 125km] will be extremely important right away. In dry conditions you can easily enter such a section in twentieth position and being at your leisure, but if it rains that will be completely different."
Hoste continued to stress that some riders would be de-motivated right from the start. When asked if he meant Italian glamour boy 'Pippo' Pozzato, Hoste smiled and said, "Pozzato? He will be wondering whether to get his shoes dirty or not. [I'll] watch out for anybody who is motivated to ride in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, wherever he's from."
Cancellara welcomes a 'real Ronde'
One team of foreigners who will be a threat on Sunday will be the CSC squad of Milano-Sanremo winner Fabian Cancellara and last year's Paris-Roubaix champion Stuart O'Grady. The Australian admits he prefers the summer-like weather conditions which heralded his arrival in the Roubaix velodrome. "As you saw in Paris-Roubaix last year, I think I prefer the heat over snow. Certainly some riders adapt well to colder conditions, while I'm more the heat type of person. But we'll deal with it as we've got jackets and all sorts of clothes," the sun-freckled CSC-rider said.
O'Grady will be riding in support of Cancellara and the Swiss rider seemed not to care much about the weather conditions. "In the end it doesn't matter what weather it's going to be. If you want to win, or if you want to do the best, you don't care. I can ride on my bike and know how to handle everything," Cancellara asserted.
"This year I already did some races in good weather, but also in bad weather," he continued. The time trial world champion soldiered through dismal conditions in the Tour of California. "Maybe for our team it will be easier. If it's a bad weather race, then maybe there will be an early selection," the in-form Swiss rider said. "Maybe we'll finally have a real 'Ronde' as the last few years the weather wasn't too bad and it turned out that it wasn't always the race the people wanted to see.
"Everybody, and especially me knows what to do. I'm not afraid about this," stated 'Spartacus' with confidence in both himself and his troops. "After all, we picked up a lot of things while doing the famous CSC winter camps. That experience should help us to stay warm during the race. What the trick is? That's a secret," Cancellara smiled, hoping that the team building and suffering of those camps will come in handy this weekend.
Kroon doesn't like the cold
One of the soldiers in 'Spartacus'' army is the experienced Dutchman Karsten Kroon. He told Cyclingnews that the weather conditions will be extremely important. "The last 100km in the race are so hard that you will not get really cold," Kroon joked, "but it will be more difficult to eat. Possibly you will no longer be able to move your fingers and it might get difficult to get into your pockets to grab food.
"It will be an enormously hectic, but it will be a great race, maybe not for us or the team, but certainly for the fans. And what we already accomplished as a team can't be taken away from us."
Dutchman Karsten Kroon has been going well in the Ronde van Vlaanderen during the past few years, but those races were always in reasonable weather conditions. "For me personally it isn't in my favour that it will be so cold. Rain can't do anything to me, but once I get cold, it is over. I'm very lean, so I can't stand it as well as some other riders," Kroon explained.
"On the other hand, I've got the experience of seven 'Rondes' and I know every corner, every stone, and now from which side the wind will blow on every part of the course. The form of the day is all important, but the weather will be a decisive factor." Kroon pointed out that it will be a unusual race, and strange things could happen.
"It will be ideal to be in a breakaway, although it will not be me who will be in the first escapes. It will be a war, that's for sure. It's going to be completely different to what we've seen the last couple of years and for sure there will not be a group of 50 riders going to the Muur. Anything can happen, and that's what makes this race so beautiful."
See also Cyclingnews'full coverage of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.