What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
Amidst all the brouhaha that our favourite sport’s world class dopers-with-a-cycling-problem have brought us in recent times, has been another casualty, stacked in a body bag alongside Lance’s honesty, withered and dried up almost beyond recognition.
Except it wasn’t a man, nor a team that had fallen by the wayside, but a race.
A race indeed. One unlike any other on the calendar: none other than the hitherto veritable Tour of Flanders.
Yet what happened in 2012 and again in 2013 was – and I’m in no risk of over-exaggerating here – a travesty. A sin. It was, let us be clear, a blasphemy of the most riotous order.
When the pinch-faced Wouter Vandenhaute, head of the Flanders Classics race organisation, announced in 2011 that several of the legendary climbs that were the absolute essence of the Ronde de Vlaanderen were to be scrapped from the 2012 version, the cycling fans of Belgium – and that is more or less all of Belgium – and the rest of the world, threw their arms up in disgust.
Gone was the Mur van Geraardsbergen (known more affectionately as the ‘Kapelmur’ after the chapel situated on its summit), the most iconic of the Flanders’ climbs, situated 15km from the previous finish and the launch pad for many wins.
Gone too was the Bosberg climb, a half-cobbled climb that also had proven decisive in several editions.
Worst of all however was the fact the 2012 edition was to feature a diminishing final circuit of three rounds, taking the riders three times up Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg climbs, with a new finish in Oudenaarde, home to the Tour of Flanders museum.
The new route looked harder if anything, than the old route, but it was the finesse and subtleties of the old route that had been sacrificed.
The riders weren’t happy, though some were diplomatic, others less so. Heinrich Haussler fell into the latter category.
“Why did they have to change it?” he asked, probably not expecting an answer.
“The prestige of the race has changed. It’s just really hard. I don’t like it.
“Why do they have to change a race like Flanders? It’s like not having Roubaix finish in the velodrome – it’s just stupid.”
Even those riders the new finish suited were critical of the change, such as Stijin Devolder.
“Climbing the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg three times in the finale is probably in my favour,” Devolder told Het Laatste Nieuws in 2011 (though now he’s having trouble fighting his way out of a crisp packet).
“But I believe that the organisers made a wrong choice by simply replacing the old finish. The Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg can not be erased from the Ronde.
“Besides, the finish must remain in Meerbeke,” he added.
“I could win ten times in Oudenaarde, but it would never be the same feeling as finishing the job in Meerbeke [the previous, traditional finish].”
And the fans? Sheesh, did they lose it.
Some took to the Kapelmur in a mock funeral procession, bearing several coffins for good measure.
One group launched a Facebook page called, absolutely unwittily, ‘We hate Wouter Vandenhaute’. An online poll on the Het Niewsblad website showed the Belgian population was against the change by a 3-to-1 margin.
The message was clear – you do not mess with the best, and, along with Paris-Roubaix, Flanders is just that, one of the two best one day Classics in the world.
Why then, the change?
Yup, the moolah, the dirty greenbacks, the ka-ching ka-ching, whatever you want to call it – it was for money.
Good old miserly Wouter wanted more sponsor’s tents along the route, giving them more chances to knock back champers and stuff their prawn sarnies in as a race that most in the hospitality tents probably didn’t much care for anyway sped on by.
At the time though, race director Wim Van Herreweghe said this:
“Had we only wanted money, we would have left the course as it was. But we felt it was time for change. We wanted a new tour through the heart of the Flemish Ardennes.
“I can only ask for a chance,” Van Herreweghe added, while (probably) stuffing sponsors’ cheques into a briefcase.
“Make your opinion after the Tour, not before,” he said.
The thing is though, access to those VIP tents – which are more like cattle yards – started at US$200 a pop, and were on offer alongside other goodies, like up to $6000 for a place in a team car.
The other thing though, is this: you only mess with tradition when you can actually improve on it – and even then, you probably shouldn’t!
This was a race that featured in every riders’ wish list to ride.
Like Haussler, the peloton loved the Ronde not for each individual leg-breaker of a hill, but for the sum of those parts.
They loved it for what it meant, for what it stood for, for its brutal beauty, its feminine curves and its menacing allure.
In any case, Van Herreweghe got his chance. The Tour was run on the route and the riders hated it. The fans too. And the press.
The organisers struggled on gamely for another year but for next year, wearied by the ongoing barrage of criticism, they’ve had to make something of a climb down.
For the 2014 version, the finishing circuits have gone, as have many of the long, flat sections of the last two editions, and the Koppenberg climb, a fearsome beast, comes now just 45km from the line.
Still though, there is no place for Kapelmur nor the Bosberg, which is a shame, and the finish will again be in Oudenaarde.
The riders though seem enthused, among them one rider who has won on both the old and new routes, Fabian Cancellara.
“This is a beautiful, attractive course. It’s a parcours that’s more in line with tradition,” Cancellara told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.
“The fans will be satisfied with it. It will provide a good race.”
Belgian great (and, has to be said, doper) Johann Museeuw is also pleased.
“Riders were very hesitant on the current finale, they tended to wait and it led to a boring race,” Museeuw said.
“Now it will be completely different. Riders get the chance to blow things open from the Koppenberg on.”
The hardcore fans will no doubt still be unappeased, and in a way they are right to feel that way. But, at least we are getting back somewhat to the original spirit of this mighty Old Dame of a race.
I, for one though, am a traditionalist at heart and will still shed a tear for Old Flanders come April…
The new route, hills and cobbles
(Race total is 259km)
1. Oude Kwaremont (cobbled) 109km
2. Kortekeer (asphalt) 119km
3. Eikenberg (cobbled) 127km
4. Wolvenberg (asphalt) 130km
5. Molenberg (cobbled)142km
6. Leberg (asphalt) 163km
7. Valkenberg (asphalt) 171km
8. Kaperij (asphalt) 181km
9. Kanarieberg (asphalt) 189km
10. Oude Kwaremont (cobbled) 205km
11. Paterberg (cobbled) 208km
12. Koppenberg (cobbled) 215km
13. Steenbeekdries (cobbled) 220km
14. Taaienberg (cobbled) 222km
15. Kruisberg (Oudestraat) (cobbled) 233km
16. Oude Kwaremont (cobbled) 243km
17. Paterberg (cobbled) 246km
1. Ruiterstraat 130km
2. Kerkgate 133km
3. Holloweg 136km
4. Paddestraat 147km
5. Haaghoek 160km
6. Mariaborrestraat 219km