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Tour of Flanders 2021: Route, start list, sportive and all you need to know

Cyclist magazine
1 Apr 2021

Key information about the men's and women's 2021 Tour of Flanders, including route, riders, live TV guide and key climbs

Tour of Flanders: All you need to know

Page 1: Essential guide and key climbs  
Page 2: History of the race  
Page 3: Top five editions  
Page 4: Sportive ride report  

Tour of Flanders sportive: Ride report

Words: Peter Stuart Photography: Geoff Waugh

The top tube of my BMC is currently obscured by a bright yellow sticker that runs along its length. It marks the 15 climbs that lie ahead of me over the 245km of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. This, the hard man event of cycling, promises not only climbs but cobbles, crazy gradients and savage winds that blast across the Flemish landscape.

It’s 6.40 am and I’m standing in a state of sleep-deprived hypnosis in a car park beside Bruges’s Jan Breydel football stadium.

A few thousand people surround me, many making last-minute adjustments to their bikes before shooting off to the start line 7km away in the centre of town.

Unlike most European sportives, the start has no loud music, shouty commentator or starting pistol – instead, participants can set off any time between 7 am and 8 am.

By the time I amble to the start line, it’s 7.30 am and all the serious riders have long since departed. I waste no time in hitting the first stretch of the infamous Flemish cobbles.

The path to Oudenaarde

The cobble is a curious little artefact. Protruding about one or two centimetres from the ground at random jagged angles, with a slippery and inconsistent surface texture, it would appear to have been designed deliberately to provide the worst possible surface for riding a bike on.

Rolling along Bruges’s cobbled city streets, I repeat to myself the advice I’ve been given time and time again: ‘Loose hands, big gear, light steering.’

It’s all going remarkably well, but I begin to suspect these neatly laid stones pale in comparison with what lies ahead. Crossing a drawbridge out of the centre, hundreds of cyclists feed onto the main road and head on the 100km journey to where the cobbles proper begin.

Interestingly, none of the routes available on this sportive replicates the precise route of the pro race of the following day. The race organisers decided in 2011 to loop over the Oude Kwaremont climb three times, offering a hub for spectators, but removing some of the classic climbs from the race’s history.

In contrast, the sportive follows a hybrid route between the old and new course. It covers 15 climbs (‘bergs’ as they’re called), and a handful of cobbled flat sections. But first comes the trek to Oudenaarde.

On seeing the route plan, I imagined we would hurtle through the first 100km on wide roads in a pack hundreds deep. But unfortunately, the organisers are quick to force us onto the cycle paths that border the roads. Little known to me is the fact that the use of cycle lanes is compulsory where they’re available in Belgium.

While the cycle paths are impressively maintained and wide, we quickly find ourselves in a thick bunch squeezing through bollards and hoping that no unseen obstacles pop up out of the mass of riders.

I get into a conversation with a pair of friendly Londoners, Ryan and Dan, who warn that the next 90km is much the same, but promise that the cobbles will be worth the wait.

Up ahead a handful of riders are powering away from the group. I seize the opportunity for a little more space and sprint my way up to them. I glance behind and see a solitary figure chasing us down. ‘That’s one match burnt,’ he exclaims in a strong Irish accent.

In our smaller group we manage to cover the first 100km in a little under three hours. Herbie, the match-burning Irishman, has pushed hard on the front at an alarming pace that means that by Oudenaarde I’m slightly worried that my own matchbox may soon be empty.

The tip of the Berg

As seemingly flat as the region of Flanders may be, it’s also home to innumerable short climbs with painfully steep gradients. It’s what makes the Tour of Flanders the domain of only the toughest riders.

What’s more, the insistence by the Flemish government to protect the cobbled road surfaces as sites of national heritage gives rise to a unique feature – the cobbled climb.

The first climb of the day is already strewn with broken spirits. The Wolvenberg, reaching only 60m of elevation at an average of 4%, looks easy on the route profile but it includes a nasty 200m stretch of 20%, and as we grind up the slope I’m painfully aware of the 130km left ahead of me. 

Having crested the Wolvenberg we hit two flat cobbled sections in quick succession that make me realise just how mild the Bruges stretch was. My hands are tightening up, I’m pushing all my effort into a big gear and maintaining a reasonable speed, but it comes at a great cost to the energy reserves in my legs. 

After our flirtation with cobbles, the road returns to glorious tarmac for a while, cutting through sunny farmlands, until I spy a cobbled path emerging from the hedgerow to our left. Looking ahead at the Molenberg snaking up into the hillside, I get my first real taste of the savagery of the Ronde.

The Molenberg is extremely difficult to climb. The cobbles give little traction and the road tilts up to a punishing 15%. More than a muscular or cardiovascular demand, the real challenge is maintaining balance. Remembering the friendly advice of fellow cyclists, I try to keep the gear high and my hands loose, but it’s easier said than done. I’m struggling to keep a decent cadence and I’m gripping my bars for dear life.

What’s more, by the time we hit the cobbled climbs, we’re arriving alongside the stragglers from the shorter routes, and I have to dart and squeeze through gaps while keeping up some reasonable pace on the climb.

The Molenberg is followed by an easy 20km on tarmac punctuated by cobbled and concreted sections. But it’s not long before the climbs are back, with the paved Valkenberg and Boigneberg striking in quick succession, and the cobbled Eikenberg following.

The gutter offers some relief from the cobbles, although I feel a little guilty for rolling along its flat surface. Herbie, who I’ve stuck with so far, looks away in disgust, opting instead for the middle of the pavé. ‘You can avoid cobbles at home, mate!’ he shouts.

Then, only a food stop separates us from the hardest climb of the day – the Koppenberg.

King of the cobbles

In the run-up to the Koppenberg, it seems that only me and a Flemish man, who must be in his late seventies, seem to be keen on doing any of the work at the front of our little chain gang, and by the time we reach the foot of the climb, it’s clear enough why – the road is crowded with walking cyclists.

On the lower slopes, the cobbles immediately drain what little reserves I have left, and I switch straight into my easiest gear – fortunately a considerate 34/32.

As the Koppenberg starts to bite, I’m juggling the quad-tearingly steep gradient with my route through the crowds and my traction on the cobbles. It was here in 1987 that Danish pro Jesper Skibby famously hit the ground while on a solo break, and was subsequently run over by the race director eager not to hold up the chasing pack. I’m hopeful not to reenact the scene.

I manage to stay upright, and just as I feel like I’m about to pop, I suddenly seem to be airborne and floating above the road. The cobbles have given way to tarmac and the relief is exquisite.

Before I have my breath back we hit the Steenbeekdries, which again mixes incline and cobbles. It’s also the only stretch of the course to offer a cobbled descent, which is a prospect that has my already aching joints twanging with trepidation. Strangely, at speed the cobbles seem barely perceptible, and I touch 45kmh on the descent (a glance at Strava afterwards shows that Nikki Terpstra hit 65kmh on this same stretch). 

Next comes the Taaienberg, followed quickly by the Kanarieberg, the Kruisberg and the Karnemelkbeekstraat. Keeping track of the climbs is almost as exhausting as riding up them, but I know we’re winding towards the finish now, with a couple of obstacles in our way – the queen climbs of the day.

The Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg are both cobbled, with the Kwaremont being the longest climb of the day, and the Paterberg the steepest. 

The Kwaremont may be long, but it’s considerate in its incline and begins with a winding 5% tarmac section (it will be here that Fabian Cancellara will make his break in following day’s pro race to win the 2014 Tour of Flanders).

When the cobbles hit, there’s no hiding as there’s not even an inch of gutter, but I’m finding my rhythm and with the sun out, and the land opening up to pleasant vistas, I’m beginning to enjoy the rattle of the cobbles.

The pavé spikes up to an aggressive 12%, but then levels off and moves to a shallower 3% stretch. I spot some flat paving in the gutter and steal a moment of relief, until Herbie’s look of disappointment pulls me back onto the cobbles. Looking over the rolling Belgian fields, I can see why, despite its desolate flatness, Flanders holds a magnetic charm over cyclists.

The Paterberg is the centrepiece of the pro race, featuring three times. The climb has an interesting history, in that it’s one of the least historical climbs of the race.

It was featured for the first time in 1986, only after local farmer, Paul Vande Walle wrote to the organisers insisting his own self-paved farm track outdid any of those currently included in the race. They repaved it to ‘regulation’ cobbles and it’s been
a central feature ever since.

Squeezing my way up, I curse Vande Walle with all my limited breath. Taking the first corner of the Paterberg, the full 400m cobbled stretch lies in view, and the summit seems desperately far away.

I’m sitting in my trusty 34/32 and trying to keep my cadence in double figures, but I do feel I’m finally learning how to handle this abominable road surface – balancing my weight evenly on the bike, I leave my hands loose and let the bike find its own way. Finally I reach the cheering crowds at the summit of the berg, and it’s all downhill from here.

What starts off as an amble, with everyone catching their breath after the Paterberg, slowly gains speed towards the finish and grows into a full-on train. With Herbie and two Flandrians taking turns on the front, I glance down to see 50kmh pop up on my Garmin on flat roads.

As the line approaches, our growing pack readies for the final sprint, even though the fastest finishers came in long ago. I fly under the banner and raise a weary arm aloft, before slamming on the brakes to avoid the hordes of riders taking selfies around the finish line.

As I settle down in a cafe, my bones simply don’t feel right. I’m dehydrated to the point of mummification and I fear it could be days before feeling returns to my perineum.

Despite the satisfaction of covering 245km in a day, I slightly resent the first 100km – it only served to dilute the charm of the cobbles, and hampered my opportunity to attack them as hard as I would have hoped. Next time, maybe I’ll choose the mid-distance event, but one thing is for certain, I know the cobbles will draw me back again.

Tour of Flanders: All you need to know

Page 1: Essential guide and key climbs  
Page 2: History of the race  
Page 3: Top five editions  
Page 4: Sportive ride report