Clear your schedule for tomorrow morning. Delay your group ride or training ride. Grab a cup of coffee find a way to watch the Tour of Flanders. This is a race that’s so special, and so full of history, that inside the pro peloton it’s considered by many to be the true World Championship.
Winning the actual World Championship road race in October is an incredible feat and a career-making achievement. And I certainly don’t mean to demean the rainbow jersey by saying that the Tour of Flanders is the peloton’s World Championship. The difference is that the World Championship is contested on a different every year, and some courses favor very different kinds of riders. In addition, the World Championship is raced by national teams instead of trade teams, which changes the dynamics considerably.
In contrast, the Tour of Flanders course is relatively consistent from year to year and always features some of the most brutal, narrow, and steep climbs in Belgium. At 259 kilometers (in 2014), it’s a race that wears down even the strongest of racers. The narrow cobblestone climbs make it a very difficult race for any team to control, and the combination of weather, distance, rough roads, and explosive climbs means that winning comes down being the smartest, strongest, and most fortunate rider on the day. For more on the history of the Tour of Flanders, check out this great video!
Riders know the Flanders course well, even when there are modifications to the route. These are roads and climbs that are used for a variety of races throughout a pro cyclist’s career, even riders who are new to the Tour of Flanders. As a result, riders know where the challenges are, where the attacks can be made, and what’s coming around the next corner. To win when everyone knows the playbook is even more challenging than winning on a course everyone’s racing for the first time.
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To win the Tour of Flanders, you need to have an almost perfect day. Not only do you need to have incredible form and power, but you have to avoid even the slightest setback. The speed is so high that if you have a mishap early on you can easily be 60-90 seconds behind the leaders, and from that position it becomes very difficult to make it back into the fray.
And that’s what makes the race so difficult to control. Unlike a lot of races where you’ll see a breakaway go away and a few teams organize themselves on the front to lead an orderly chase, at the Tour of Flanders teams are often blown apart. There’s often no way to organize a chase with a large contingent of your team because they’re spread over several chase groups. Instead, if you’re lucky you have a few very strong teammates who can get together at key moments.
The climbs, too, are unique. The hills are extraordinarily steep and excruciatingly narrow. On long climbs in the mountains, riders settle into rhythm, set a pace designed to wear down the opposition, and pick a place for a decisive attack. On the narrow, short, cobbled climbs of Flanders it’s explosive power that rules the day. There’s no settling in, no steady rhythm. Just brute force. And any bobble or misfortune on a grade between 14-22% sends you straight out the back.
Worse yet, because of the narrowness of the climbs, you’re fate depends greatly on the riders around you. There’s nowhere to go if someone ahead of you slips, misses a shift, or tips over. You can’t get around them. That’s why positioning is so crucial and why the battle for positioning is so fierce in the kilometers before the major climbs.
From a training perspective, what’s amazing about the Classics is the level of fitness required to be competitive. In a race that’s 160 miles, you have 100-120 miles in your legs before you face the hardest climbs and the most intense – race winning – efforts. Achieving this level of fitness requires an enormous training load, one that very few athletes – even pros – have the capacity for. I remember realizing that for the first time when I was racing. In 1986 Adri van de Poel had incredible form. He won the Tour of Flanders and finished second in Liege-Bastogn-Liege and 3rd in Paris-Roubaix. In the week leading up to the Tour of Flanders – if memory serves – he rode 250 kilometers on Wednesday, with motorpacing for the final hour. That’s a huge effort, just days before the Tour of Flanders, but that was indicative of the difference between the guys who can win Flanders and the guys who can finish it. A ride like that would have left me so fatigued I couldn’t have recovered in time to race Flanders, but it was the effort he needed in order to be ready to win it.
So when you watch the action tomorrow morning, and you’re watching someone like Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Peter Sagan, or Niki Terpstra fly up the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg in the final hour of the race, pay special attention to their speed. Even with more than 140 hard miles in their legs, they will go up those climbs faster than you or I could go up those climbs with fresh legs and four cups of coffee.
Then, when the race is over, get out there and honor their efforts with a big, hard workout of your own!
Have a Great Weekend!
Carmichael Training Systems