If we put aside the hand-wringing over the loss of the Muur and Bosberg, there’s a more significant change evident in this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen parcours.
Hilltops and cobbled sectors have always come and gone, and come back again: witness the legendary Koppenberg’s lengthy layoff and eventual return. The Muur and the Bosberg will be back someday, too, maybe not in the crucial final hour where they’ve sat for decades now, but somewhere. Like the Koppenberg (or the Arenberg forest, or the Cote de Stockeau), they’re ultimately irresistible to route planners. Over the Ronde's 96 editions, plenty has changed, even start and finish towns, and despite it all it's always remained the Ronde, the serpentine tour of some of cycling’s most hallowed ground.
So I don’t weep for the Muur. Not yet, anyway. The momentary absence of a few hills is not a profound change against the accumulated weight of 99 years. But with this year’s route, the Ronde breaks strongly from its already malleable mold, and from the traditional format of the super-classics. This year’s Ronde route will make it the only one of cycling's five monuments – Milan-San Remo, the Ronde, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Giro di Lombardia – to repeat a significant course feature during the race.
Gent-Wevelgem scales its signature Monteberg/Kemmelberg combination twice, Fleche Wallonne does a recon pass of the mighty Mur de Huy before the final showdown on its slopes, and the Amstel Gold Race grinds up the Cauberg twice before returning again to finish on its crest. All are formidable races, career-makers by some standards. But they are not monuments.
Monuments are, by tradition if not definition, point-to-point, through-and-gone affairs. Paris-Roubaix doesn't spin the compass needle to traverse the same cobbles twice on its way to the velodrome, and Lombardia makes only one annual pilgrimage to the Ghisallo. Liege makes a single yearly pass at La Redoute, despite the opportunities for repetition its more or less out-and-back route presents.
In contrast, this year’s Ronde has adopted, if not a literal circuit-race format, something similar in spirit. During a series of three progressively tightening loops through the Flemish Ardennes, riders will climb the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg tandem three times at ever-closer intervals before centrifugal force spins them out towards the finish in Oudenaarde.
All of that is just for the average spectator. There’s more revenue to be generated offering the hospitality services Americans typically associate with the corporate suites of large stadiums. For the VIP crowd – think race sponsors, team sponsors, corporations looking to entertain clients – there are tents to be rented, catering, wifi, and television service to be contracted and paid for. Champagne in a heated tent just feet from the storied stones of the Kwaremont, and a guaranteed spot on the fence when you hear the rotors overhead. Three times. As VIP services go, it beats sitting on metal bleachers on main street Meerbeke watching 99.9% of the race on a blurry jumbotron.
More fan engagement, increased sponsor exposure and value, better TV images, and – since we haven’t mentioned it – potentially amazing racing in the final. Aside from concerns that the brutal last hour will stifle aggression for the first 220 kilometers, it’s hard to see the downside of multiple loops over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. And unfortunately, I can’t articulate that downside very well, even though I know it's there.
The feeling isn’t rational, certainly no more rational than feeling like it’s not really the Ronde without the Muur de Geraardsbergen. But in my inner, non-objective estimation of what should and shouldn’t be in professional cycling, monuments don’t loop, don’t backtrack. They can meander, criss-cross, intersect, and even overlap a bit to get from here to there. But they don’t take a key course feature and run laps around it. Not in a monument. As I wrote in 2008, despite the name, the monuments are living organisms, not time capsules, and they've have always changed with cycling and the world around them. New hills and roads are added, others are lost to time, and some rotate in and out. But that basic, root-level format, from-A-to-B, full speed ahead? That's always been a steady undercurrent, an enduring connection to a century of road racing. It's a holdover from a time when transport and communication weren't so easy as they are now, and the races had to be taken to the people, even if only for a few minutes. That element might be missing from a lot of other races that were created in different eras or that were forced to modernize for sporting or commercial reasons, but it's always been there in the monuments. And for some reason, I’m afraid of losing that.
Don’t get me wrong. This year’s Ronde will be fine, maybe even great. The riders will always make or break the race, and there’s a showdown brewing. What I fear, I suppose, is that the Ronde's new formula may prove successful, and soon there will be finishing laps on the Via Roma and two passes of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. If, down the road, that’s what it takes to save one or all of the monuments from a financial or sporting perspective, I’m OK with that. But I don’t think we’re there yet.
- I have to admit that the aversion to the circuit-izing of the monuments might be partially out of empathy for the folks doing race coverage. Writing play-by-play of circuit races, especially those like Philadelphia International or the Univest Grand Prix in the United States, which have long laps followed by short laps composed of parts of the long lap, can be brutal. The fourth ascent of this, the fifth long lap, the eighth ascent of the same hill but on the third short lap…painful. A nice point-to-point, though? Every action has a specific place connected to it.
- The big question for Sunday, of course, is where Fabian Cancellara (RadioSchack) will make his first bike change. I think he’s averaging .76 bike swaps per classic for the last few years. Another year of that and he’ll have a smoother remount than Sven Nys.
- Want a real outside pick? Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). You have to figure Quick Step will try to make it a team battle – it’s Cancellara’s weakness, and the course cries out for it. If you figure Chavanel goes long as usual and gets brought back at the start of the finale, Terpstra’s a logical next card to play. If he’s brought back, its Boonen’s turn, if not, Terpstra has the chops to take it to the line. Lefevere’s no stranger to that sort of finale – have a look in Servais Knaven's or Stijn Devolder's trophy cabinets.
- I know a lot of you will be following the race with a Belgian ale and maybe a waffle or frites in hand. But if you lack the time, cooking skills, and/or budget for that, remember, a room temperature ham sandwich and a cold, cheap Pilsner from a can is every bit as authentic. But I covered all this in 2008. Vicarious Spectator’s Guide, Part 1 (Beer) and Part II (Frites).