“The Tour of Flanders is part of our genes, our culture, our soul,” says Geert Vandenbon, one of the event’s organisers. “Normal races attract cycling fans, but at the Tour of Flanders you see everyone: housewives, grandparents, doctors. That’s the difference.”
The 93rd Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen, takes place on Sunday, 5 April. In addition to the historic men’s competition, there is also a women’s race, which is part of their World Cup series. Races for serious amateur cyclists and mountain bikers take place the day before.
Starting in Bruges, the main 260-kilometre route will wind through the Flemish countryside, passing through Ghent and taking in 16 climbs before ending in Ninove. The race is one of the cobbled cycling classics, with cobble-stone paths making up 28 kilometres of this year’s route, a whopping seven more kilometres of bumpy terrain than last year.
The Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix (which takes place the following Sunday) are the “kings of the cobblestones,” according to Alessandro Tegner, spokesman for Belgium’s Quick Step team.
Last year’s Tour of Flanders was won by Belgium’s own Stijn Devolder, who will be defending his title this year. There will be 25 teams taking part, from countries including Spain, France, the US and Belgium.
“It’s something particularly special for the Belgian riders because it’s in their country. And they know the route and the climbs so well that they really want to be there. It is a dream to win it,” says Herman Frison from Silence-Lotto, another Belgian team.
While spectators will line the streets along the entire route, one village that will attract more than most is Wetteren, this year’s “Tour Village”, which lies on the river Scheldt about 10 kilometres east of Ghent.
Choosing one town as a focus for the tour and related celebrations started a decade ago. Wetteren has several historical links with the Tour of Flanders. It lays claim to two winners: Jef Dervaes, who took the title in 1929, and Achiel Buysse, who won the race three times in the 1940s. The finishing line was also in the village for many years.
While the Tour of Flanders started back in 1913, the women’s competition only began in 2004. The women cover a total distance of 130 kilometres, 100 kilometres of which is the same route as the men’s. This year’s women’s race starts in Oudenaarde and finishes in Ninove.
To fully appreciate how challenging the route is for the pros, many amateur cyclists try their hand at the course the day before. Last year some 3,000 riders attempted the full distance. If that sounds like a bit too much to handle, there are also 140-kilometre and 75-kilometre options – which nonetheless include many of the steep climbs and cobblestones.