The Tour of Flanders is back and bigger than ever this year with a longer route and a trip up the Muur van Geraardsbergen. The fifth round of the women’s WorldTour will be a hotly contested affair if the previous four rounds are anything to go by.
Four rounds done and dusted, we are yet to see a repeat winner and no team has stamped their authority in the same way as Boels Dolmans did last season. With sprints being the order of the day in the last three rounds, the Tour of Flanders will be a chance for the climbers in the pack to show what they’ve got.
Lizzie Deignan will be back in action to defend her title. Deignan edged out Emma Johansson to take her first Tour of Flanders following a tense battle out on the bergs in 2016. Deignan hasn’t hit the ground running in the same way she did as world champion, but that was always going to be hard to do. Third place at Strade Bianche showed that she has come out of the winter in good form, but we’ve not seen her race in almost two weeks so how she’ll fair on Sunday remains to be seen. They’ve have one WorldTour win this season, but the Boels Dolmans team has been weakened by illness in the opening part of the season. However, this is an opportunity to get their season back on track.
There will be a total of five former winners on the start line, with Deignan, Elisa Longo Borghini, Marianne Vos, Ellen van Dijk and Annemiek van Vleuten. Since the race began holding a women’s event in 2004, only two riders have been able to take the title a second time. Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel did it in 2005/06 and Judith Arndt completed the double when she added her 2012 win to the one she took in 2008.
Longo Borghini looks like the favourite to add herself to that exclusive club. The Italian kick started her season with victory at Strade Bianche, which sent her straight to the top of the women’s WorldTour rankings. She’s not let go of it since, taking top 10s in the next two rounds. While she missed the cut in Gent-Wevelgem, she still holds a slim lead over Elena Cecchini and Coryn Rivera in the standings. Jolien D’hoore is a strong second option for Wiggle-High5, after finishing second to her teammate two years ago.
While Vos is the former champion in the pack for WM3 Pro Cycling, it is her teammate Kasia Niewiadoma who has been on song so far this season. Niewiadoma has had some good performances on the cobbles so far this season with 9th at Dwars door Vlaanderen and making it into the front group at Gent-Wevelgem. Niewiadoma is still just 22, but she has been improving every year at Flanders, coming 10th last year. You can’t count out Vos though, and she will certainly have an important role to play on Sunday.
Van Vleuten and her Orica-Scott team have been particularly aggressive throughout the 2017 season, and it seems like it’s just a matter of time before they break through. Flanders could be just the race to do that, with an aggressive strategy the best way forward in this race. The same can be said for Van Dijk, who had been using her sheer power to set up her teammates. She did it to perfection at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda when Rivera won, but Flanders is an opportunity for her to take the plaudits on the top step. Watch out for her teammate Lucinda Brand, who could try to throw a spanner in the works at some point.
Cervelo Bigla has enjoyed plenty of success over the last two weeks through their sprinter Lotta Lepisto. The Gent-Wevelgem winner will be in action at Flanders, but it is her teammate Ashleigh Moolman Pasio who gives the team their strongest option at a second WorldTour win. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot leads the line for Canyon-SRAM with Tiffany Cromwell and Cecchini for back-up. Other riders to keep an eye on will be Claudia Lichtenberg, Dani King, Shara Gillow and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.
The 2017 Tour of Flanders packs in two more climbs and 12 extra kilometres in comparison to last year. A few extra cobbled sectors have also been thrown into the mix early on, ensuring a challenging race from start to finish.
The extended 153km race begins again in Oudenaarde, meaning that the organisers have been able to utilise the plentiful hellingen. From the starting point on the edge of Oudenaarde, the riders head north-west towards Oosterzele and down to Zottegem, which has been playing host to the Three days of De Panne this week, and back towards Oudenaarde again. On that opening loop, the riders will take in three cobbled sectors of varying length. The Lange Munt is as the name suggests, long, at 2.4km and greets the riders after just 16 kilometres of racing. Lippenhovestraat (1.3km) and Paddestraat (1.5km) are packed tightly together just before the 40km mark.
Once back in Oudenaarde, it’s direction south-west as the course picks out the climbs. They come thick and fast following the Achterberg after 56 kilometres of racing, with the Holleweg and Haaghoek cobbled sectors thrown in for good measure.
The headline for both men’s and women’s races is the inclusion of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, but, like in the men’s race, the fabled climb comes some distance from the finish. There are still five more climbs to come as the route loops back on its self towards Ronse and then Oudenaarde for the third time.
Along the way, the riders will complete the Pottelberg, the Kanariebeg, Kruisberg, Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. It is over these climbs that the crucial selections will be made, with the last rides up the Kwaremont and the Paterberg where the basis for victory could be laid down.
The win could come just as easily from a small group or a solo win, but one thing is for sure there will be no bunch gallop here. The 2017 Tour of Flanders is a brutal affair that should set up a battle of the wits between the top climbers in the pack.