How I won the Tour of Flanders: From the Classics Issue
In Issue 118, Edward Pickering speaks to seven riders who have won Belgium's most prestigious Classics, to find out how they did it and what the victory meant to them.
This article is an abridged version of an article published in Issue 118: the Classics Issue. To support our independent journalism and read more about the Classics subscribe to Rouleur and you'll receive your edition of 118, featuring exclusive interviews with Biniam Girmay, Liane Lippert and Imanol Erviti.
Winner, 2016 Tour of Flanders
Lizzie Deignan, (then Lizzie Armitstead), was the reigning world champion in 2016. She’d already come second in the Tour of Flanders in 2014, having to police the chase group while team-mate Ellen van Dijk escaped to victory, but went one better in 2016. As the men’s race celebrated its 100th edition, both were won by world champions, as Peter Sagan took victory later in the day.
I’d been trying to win Flanders for a few years, but it never quite came together. I was only interested in the win. I’d been on the podium [in 2014] – I was winning the World Cup and I was in great form, but then my team-mate Ellen van Dijk attacked and she won the race. That was great, but it was one of those missed opportunities. Other times I peaked too soon, because it’s a tricky weekend to get right. You want to hit the ground running at the Classics, but if you’re pinging in Nieuwsblad, it’s hard to maintain it to Flanders.
At the training camp in January, we would all say our personal goals, so nobody has a hidden agenda. And I said outright, I want this one. I need to tick the box.
On the day, I remember feeling okay, but not extraordinary. I never felt good in the race, which is probably why I won, because when you’re feeling good in a race like Flanders, you’re tempted to attack when you don’t really need to. And if you’re not feeling great, you make sure your position into the climbs is better; you don’t take anything for granted. But I was very focused and was thinking, it doesn’t matter what the sensations are, I know I’m strong enough to win it.
I wanted to thin the group on the Oude Kwaremont, which I was successful in doing, and then over the top, there’s always that moment where either the group that you’re in works together and establishes the move, or messes around. And I got co-operation from Emma Johansson.
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I wanted to win solo. I didn’t want to take anybody to the line. I thought the Paterberg would be where I would go, but I couldn’t drop Emma. She was a very difficult rider to drop, though maybe on my best day I could have.
From there, it was a question of being a bit selfish. I worked with Emma, because I didn’t want to play the game with team-mates behind. I wanted to win, and I might not have done that in any other race, but it was Flanders, the big one. If I’d been sensible I’d have sat on Emma, but then my chances of winning would go down dramatically. Luckily I had the full backing of my team-mates and nobody was pissed off, but they might have been if I’d come second. And the sprint wasn’t really a sprint. In Flanders, it’s about who can get themselves out of the saddle, and the first person to sit down is the person who loses, because by then it’s about whatever you’ve got left in you.
To win Flanders, you need a strong team, undoubtedly. And you have to be able to push capacity over climbs repeatedly, with very quick recovery. It’s a race where I like to be in the first 20 of the peloton - you save so much energy by having good positioning. And details like the travelling: for Het Nieuwsblad you fly in on the Friday and race on the Saturday, whereas with Flanders you fly in on Wednesday, to give you time to get over the travelling and get a feel for the roads. It’s not quite a World Championships or Olympics, but pretty much the next thing.
Tour of Flanders winner 2005, 2006 and 2012
Tom Boonen was the most successful cobbled classics rider in history – he holds the outright or joint record for wins in E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. In the Tour of Flanders, local knowledge, combined with a strong sprint and huge endurance made him almost the perfect rider for the race.
I liked the old parcours. You still got the same guys winning, but there were always more people, maybe 15 or 20 at the start, who you were a bit wary of - they could win, because tactics came in a little bit more. With the new parcours since 2012 it became a lot harder: the final was harder, and the top favourites are narrowed down to four or five and maybe only two real top favourites. And most of the time the favourite will win the race because it’s so hard.
To win Flanders you need big resistance, mentally as well, because Flanders is a race you have to fight in. It’s like a boxing match. You fight for every corner, you fight for every climb, you fight on top of the climb, you fight for the descent.
The first 100 kilometres were always a nightmare, and the most dangerous part of the race, because you want to save energy, so you stay away from the front, sitting in the peloton, or at the back. Then for the last 150 kilometres, you get to the front and start racing, trying to maximise everything but also trying to save as much energy as possible. And one position can make a big difference in Flanders - it doesn’t seem much but if a gap appears you can lose 10, 15, 30 seconds, and you have to close it. Every decision you make can lose you the race, and you have to stay on top of things, spending just enough energy to stay in front so that you save energy. You never know if you’ve made the right decisions until you cross the finish line.
Winning the Tour of Flanders means being aware of your own strengths and being sure that you’re able to do it, but not being too sure about it, not being cocky and being humble in the race. Maybe a little too humble, so you show less than you have.
The years when I was the best rider on the day were the most difficult, because everybody was looking at me, or following me, or blocking me. The first win was the easiest - it was of course difficult physically, but I was still a young guy and I got a bit more liberty. But I also lost a few Flanders because there were too many people on my wheel. If you have 10 or 15 world class riders following you, you’re losing the race. We had two years when we had Stijn Devolder in front, and he won. I was happy for Stijn at that moment. But when you talk about your career, those are races you lost.
You can’t specifically learn how to race Flanders. You have guys who are just good bike racers; not necessarily the strongest ones, but people who have this Flemish gene in them and they understand how the race works. They smell when they have to be in front, they always make the right decisions. You don’t always know why you are there, but you are there. And when you are good enough and are feeling good, you stop processing everything and just follow your instinct. When you start thinking about things, they go wrong. But the difference between Flanders and other races is that it forces you to race, and there’s no other way. You need to race to win the race, and race at the right time.
Do you want to read how Johan Museeuw, Grace Verbeke, Eric Vanderaerden, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Nick Nuyens won the Tour of Flanders? Subscribe to Rouleur and receive the latest magazine which is devoted to the Classics and Belgium.