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88th Ronde van Vlaanderen/1st Women's Ronde van Vlaanderen - CDM

Belgium, April 4, 2004

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Will the new Muur change the Ronde?

Cyclingnews editor Jeff Jones did a quick 150km 'recce' of the RVV parcours yesterday, with the aim of seeing for himself if the changes to the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen, the penultimate climb of Flanders, will affect the outcome. Verdict? It's still steep, but much smoother and positioning may not be as critical. For that reason, some Belgian riders aren't too happy. John Stevenson reviews some historic moves on this brutal climb.

Van Petegem in 2003
Photo: © Sirotti

"The new Muur has really disappointed me," Dave Bruylandts (Chocolade Jacques) told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad this week, expressing the sentiments of many about the recent changes to the Muur van Geraardsbergen. "It has become an autostrada. As if they had laid asphalt over it. Earlier you won 10 seconds with the right line. Also the Paddestraat and the Lippenhovestraat have become main roads."

The Muur is traditionally a crucial climb in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). The race's 17th climb of 18 this year, after 242km of the epic 257km course, it was the scene of Peter van Petegem's move last year that eventually secured him the race, and it's been the venue for many crucial moments in the race.

2002: Museeuw attacks
Photo: © AFP

In 2002 Johan Museeuw attacked on the Muur, ripping the race apart and initiating the selection that eventually led to Andrea Tafi's victory and Museeuw's second place. Museeuw had tried much the same thing two years before, but his escape on approach to the Muur in 2000 was short-lived.

Jump back another year and what do we find? Another crucial move on the Muur. The 1999 edition saw Frank Vandenbroucke and Markus Zberg fall at the base of the climb. Peter Van Petegem and Johan Museeuw attacked and created a gap. Vandenbroucke recovered and caught the other two on the climb of the Bosberg, but the final sprint went to Van Petegem.

Dave Bruylandts on the Muur
Photo: © Sirotti

The Muur didn't really figure in 1998's race because by the time he reached it a super-strong Johan Museeuw had a minute on the peloton and gaining. It also wasn't a factor in 1997, but in 1996 it was once again the scene of a race-winning move as Michele Bartoli attacked out of a lead group of 11 on the Muur and went on to build a lead of 58 seconds in the final kilometers.

During the reconstruction
Photo: © Matt Conn
Digging deep
Photo: © Matt Conn

And in 1995 it was Johan Museeuw again, attacking Fabio Baldato on the Muur to get away to his second victory in Flanders.

Since last year, though, the Muur has been resurfaced, and it's just not quite what it was. It still offers a fierce 22 percent gradient in its steepest section, but the surface is not as rough as before. You don't mess with a crucial part of cycling's history without expecting some comment, though. It's not surprising that a rider like Bruylandts, steeped in the history of the belgian Classics, is unimpressed.

Cyclingnews editor Jeff Jones has also ridden the resurfaced Muur, and agrees that it's not going to be as important as in previous years - it's now definitely one of the easier climbs of the race. On the other hand, the Koppenberg has gotten a lot harder. The surface has noticeably deteriorated since it was redone, and there are now gaps appearing between the cobbles, making it a tough proposition and the hardest climb in the race.

It's in the nature of cobbled road surfaces that they change with time as the stones move and settle, so it's very likely that the Muur van Geraardsbergen will be back to its former status in a few years' time. For 2004, though, expect the Muur to be less important than in previous years. But Flanders is still the race every one-day specialist wants to win, and the Muur's traditional fireworks will just move elsewhere on the brutal parcours this year.