When the Muur van Geraardsbergen was removed from the Tour of Flanders parcours in 2012, there were cries of sacrilege. The ascent with its distinctive chapel at the top had been the scene of many a decisive moment over the years. To remove it, thought some, felt like removing the heart of the race.
As such, when it was brought back into the route for this year's race, there was delight among fans. However, pre-race favourite Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) believes that the fabled climb no longer has a place in the new course. The Belgian says that the climb is too early to have a proper impact on the race and the route taken to include it has been to the detriment of the parcours. The finale has remained much the same, and the organisers have had to go well out of their way to include it in the loop out east of Oudenaarde, meaning there will be long stretches without any climbing.
"I think it's nice to have the Muur back in the parcours, but I don't think that it will really have a decisive factor," Van Avermaet said during his pre-Tour of Flanders press conference. "It takes us a little bit out of the way. The parcours from the Muur to Oudenaarde is not really attractive. It's too early to go for sure, where are you going to go.
"For me, it is a bit hard. I liked the final how it was but, to put the Muur in this kind of parcours, it is hard to make it fit, and I think that the guy who made the parcours would say this because it's a little bit out of the action. I think that the parcours last year was really nice. Now, with adding the Muur again, I think that it is a zone where nothing is going to happen.
"I think from the second time up the Kwaremont will be the most important part and from there on the race will be on. For sure there will be some attacks earlier on, on Berendries or earlier but there is not the moment to go. I think that the second time up the Kwaremont will be where the final really starts."
As Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews on Thursday, it doesn't matter which climbs you put into the route, the strongest rider on the day will come up trumps. With three wins from four major Classics outings in Belgium, Van Avermaet has put himself forward as the strongest man out there on this type of parcours right now. Having done the rare E3 Harelbeke/Gent-Wevelgem double, Van Avermaet was ready to admit that he was the main favourite, along with two others.
"We are with three guys. There is me, Peter [Sagan] and Philippe [Gilbert], who are really in good shape and have shown really good results," he said. "There are some others who are leaders, but I think that we can say we are the three main favourites."
Van Avermaet was in strong form last year – although perhaps not as strong as he is in 2017 – on the run into the Tour of Flanders with a win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a surprise overall success at Tirreno-Adriatico. It seemed that he was destined to win his and BMC's first monument, but it wasn't to be when a crash midway through the race took him and many of his teammates out. He looks like the man to beat once again, and while he's keen to get his first Flanders win under his belt as soon as possible, he denied that it is a case of now or never at the 2017 race.
"I think that I still have a few years. Last year was a big chance, but this year I have another big chance. I'm really happy with how things are going," he said. "If you see my results, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem were always the hardest races for me to get a big result. For me, Flanders is always a bit easier. I know that it's the hardest race but it fits me better as a rider so this also gives me confidence. If you see my results of the last 10 years, I'm always top 10. If nothing happens, then Sunday will be the same, but hopefully, I will be in the first spot.
"The few goals before I have already achieved so now the biggest one is coming and I hope to do what I have done in the races before."