The Tour Of Flanders is one of cycling’s most ancient races, hurtling over Flemish hills and up treacherous, winding cobbled streets. This Monument is not one to be missed.
Intense bone-shattering cobbles, a winding route that loops over itself, and an intriguing political history ensure that there’s more to “De Rond” than meets the eye.
In this article, we’ll be covering:
- What Is “De Rond”?
- The Tour Of Flanders Route
- History Of The Tour Of Flanders
Ready for the lowdown on the thrills and spills of the Tour of Flanders?
Let’s dive in!
What Is“De Rond”?
The Tour of Flanders (“Ronde van Vlaanderen“ in Dutch) is a single-stage day race held in Flanders, Belgium, every Spring.
It’s one of the two cobbled Classics famed for their nightmarish pavé sections, alongside the “Hell of the North” that is Paris–Roubaix.
De Rond is the most important race held in Flanders. It is organized by Flanders Classics and is part of the UCI World Tour.
The Tour of Flanders For Women is a shorter race that has run every year alongside De Rond since it was launched in 2004.
A Cobbled Classic
Like the Paris-Roubaix, part of the draw of the Tour of Flanders is the brutal cobbled sections.
Cycling over cobbles affords a rider less grip and, crucially, forces a rider to battle the intense vibrations caused by traversing cobbled surfaces.
The ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation, organizers of the Tour de France and several of the Monuments) uses a category system to grade cobbled sections.
These range from two-stars (easy) to five-stars (tectonic levels of vibration) and the TV feed also includes color coding to signpost the difficulty to viewers.
According to calculations from this study, four-star cobbles produce 28m/s2 of vibrational energy at the seatpost. For reference, workplace guidelines generally designate anything over 10m/s2 as hazardous.
So on four-star cobbles, a cyclist would have to work 30% harder to overcome the corresponding level of vibration and maintain speed, according to this study.
Though the cobbles of De Rond are generally a little more forgiving than those of Paris-Roubaix – which intentionally seeks out the most hellish pavé northern France has to offer – they still offer a significant challenge, especially where they lie on Flanders’ steep, punchy climbs.
Battling the cobbles of the Tour Of Flanders is all part of the fun.
The Tour Of Flanders Route
The Tour of Flanders route is often tweaked but remains broadly the same year to year, with around 265 km (165 miles) of tarmac and cobbles starting in Antwerp (since 2017) and finishing in the hills of the Flemish Ardennes.
From the start line in Antwerp, the race follows a flat route for roughly 60km until the village of Berchem.
Next are three loops in the southern area of East Flanders in the Flemish Ardennes. Here there are a series of hills – and it’s where the real racing begins.
These hills – or hellingen in Dutch – are short and steep, offering opportunities for riders to attack. They take place mostly on narrow, cobbled streets with sharp turns which make for a tough finish to the Cobbled Classic.
There are 19 current climbs in the Tour of Flanders, and three iconic hellingen in particular that every fan should know.
The Oude Kwaremont is the first proper climb of De Rond. While it isn’t too steep, it’s the race’s longest climb at 2.2km, and its cobbled surface makes it treacherous.
Riders also have to tackle the Oude Kwaremont twice, as the final loop brings the Tour up this brutal stretch again for the race’s penultimate climb.
The scene of Jesper Skibby’s infamous crash from the lead in 1987 in which he was run down by the commissaire’s vehicle, the Koppenberg presents riders with 600m of tricky, technical climbing over cobbles.
The going is tough, and the gradient reaches a brutal 22% in places.
The Koppenberg has been historically controversial. The poorly paved trail actually becomes very dangerous in the rain and the climb was historically sometimes omitted due to poor weather.
The climb was removed from the Tour entirely for fifteen years after Skibby’s horror show during the 1987 event, before being re-added after the Koppenberg was repaved in 2002.
The Paterberg is a narrow cobbled ascent of an average 12.5% gradient. At its most extreme, the climb ramps up to 20% for a punishing 100m stretch.
The Paterberg is also tackled twice – the second pass coming 13km from the race’s finish line. It’s on this final climb that De Rond is often won and lost.
After the final climb up the Paterberg is a flat 13 km stretch which brings the race to a close in Oudenaarde, where it has finished since 2011.
Older editions of the race had two other historic climbs, the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg, but both were removed when the finish was moved from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde.
Women’s Tour of Flanders Route
The Women’s Tour Of Flanders is roughly 160 km (100 miles). Unlike the men’s Ronde, the women’s race both starts and finishes in Oudenaarde.
The Women’s Tour Of Flanders runs through the hills of the Zwarm region before tackling the Muur van Geraardsbergen climb. From there, the race finishes along the same route as the men’s race on the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg.
History of the Tour Of Flanders
Origins and Political Importance
The Tour of Flanders was launched by Sportwereld magazine in 1913. Many of the historic Monuments and multi-stage Grand Tours were founded at this time by sports newspapers to expand their readership.
Karel Van Wijnendaele was Sportwereld‘s most prominent cycling writer. He dreamed of a bike race held entirely on Flemish soil which traversed all of the great Flemish cities – and set out to make it a reality.
Around its birth, the Tour Of Flanders had a political dimension that, though not nearly as relevant to the event today, is worth learning about to fully understand the race’s history and significance.
At this time the Dutch-speaking Flemish Belgians in Flanders had an antagonistic relationship with the French speakers of Belgium’s south.
There was a popular Flemish Nationalist movement of Belgians who wanted Dutch to be granted equal legal standing to the politically dominant French language, and some who wanted self-governance for Flanders.
Van Wijnendaele himself was a Flemish Nationalist. His creation of the Tour Of Flanders as a Classic race entirely within the County of Flanders was an expression of his political ideals.
Notoriously, many elements within the Flemish Nationalist movement later collaborated with the Nazis as they occupied Belgium during WW2. The Tour Of Flanders was the only of the Classics to be held during Nazi occupation, with the Wehrmacht even helping police the route on race day, which stoked controversy during the postwar years.
After the war’s end in 1945, rival left-wing Flemish Newspaper Het Volk launched their own Flemish Classic race as an alternative to Sportwereld’s Tour of Flanders, which they considered too closely associated with the Nazis.
Het Volk‘s race Omloop Het Volk (now called Omloop Het Nieuwsblad) still runs today and is the Classic race that opens the Belgian cycling season.
Two races took place in 1913 and 1914 over poorly paved roads and up cobbled climbs. With cycle paths few and far between, the race also ended with laps of a velodrome.
The Tour of Flanders was suspended during the First World War. The interwar races of the 1920s and ’30s were characterized by even worse conditions, as the route ran through a Flanders landscape still ravaged by the war.
The event’s dreadful road conditions were all part of the challenge of the event.
Competitors were expected to manage with difficulties themselves, they had to make their own repairs to their bikes on the go, and replacing bikes during the race was forbidden unless judges deemed it absolutely necessary.
By the late 1920s, De Rond was a huge event in Belgian cycling, attracting vast crowds to the start and finish in Ghent. The 1937 edition was said to have drawn 500,000 fans.
De Rond Goes International
In 1948 the date was changed so that De Rond no longer clashed with the more popular Milan-San Remo. This attracted more international competitors, and by the 1950s it was an established international Classic.
The route underwent serious changes to accommodate the growing numbers of competitors and spectators alike.
The race was now attracting the best cyclists in the world, so to add more challenge organizers added brutal climbs up narrow cobbled roads, such as the controversial Koppenberg in 1976.
The event was included in the first UCI World Cup in 1989, the UCI Pro Tour in 2005, and the UCI World Tour in 2011.
The Women’s Tour of Flanders was launched in 2004, and the Tour of Flanders celebrated its 100th edition in 2016.
the Tour Of Flanders – Covered!
Nowadays, the Tour Of Flanders is a thrilling spectacle of athletes taking on some of the toughest conditions in professional road cycling.
On narrow cobbled hellingen, spectators chant “Allez! Allez! Allez!” at the peloton as they scramble past. Winning the day often comes down to the attack on the Paterberg and outlasting the competition on the final sprint.