How I won the Tour of Flanders

Edward Pickering speaks to several 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 was originally published in Rouleur 118: Classics, now available to buy from the Rouleur Emporium

Lizzie Deignan

Tour of Flanders winner 2016 

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.

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.

Tom Boonen 

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. 

Johan Museeuw

Tour of Flanders winner 1993, 1995 and 1998

Johan Museeuw has the best record in the Tour of Flanders of any rider in cycling history. Though several riders have won the Ronde three times, Museeuw also came second three times and third twice. He tended to win with long solo attacks, though he was also a strong sprinter.

Winning the Tour of Flanders is a long story that begins when you are young, and have dreams as a racer. I was a cyclo-cross racer when I started, and that was already my starting point to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But even when I started out as a rider, I didn’t know that I would become a professional rider in the future, and from there I didn’t know that I would win the Tour of Flanders one day. You develop, you race and it is only the first time you finish on the podium, you realise that some day you can win.

I think you are born as a Tour of Flanders winner or a Tour de France winner, just as you are born a climber, or a time-trial rider. I was born a spring Classics rider. I was a good sprinter in races like the Tour de France but I wasn’t fast enough to be a sprinter like Mark Cavendish. I had good explosiveness and good power for a short time, which was okay in a sprint, but that’s what you need for Flanders. I’ve also got a big engine, which you also need for Flanders – I was better than the others after 200 kilometres of racing.

I was also good at riding on the cobblestones. I was good in bad weather. That meant I had all the elements to win Flanders, but that still wasn’t enough. Then I did more training that was specific for the Tour of Flanders – small intervals, long-distance training, riding on the cobblestones... I eventually became a three- time winner; I was three times second, two times third, 11 times in the top 15, so that means something.

You know how cycling is in Belgium – it’s huge, it’s special, it’s different than in other countries. So even the first time I finished on the podium, I was famous at home. But as a rider you don’t think about how you can become famous. You just want to win some races. Only a few professionals are winners. You have winners, and you have domestiques, and then you have riders who don’t know who they are – they try to win, and sometimes they do, but they lose more often than they win. In recent generations, Philippe Gilbert was a winner, Tom Boonen was a winner, Fabian Cancellara was a winner. Now Wout van Aert is a winner, Remco Evenepoel, and Alaphilippe also. Of course, Mark Cavendish is a winner. But you have just a few riders who can say, ‘Every year, I will win five or 10 races.’

The three times I won the Tour of Flanders, I was stronger than the rest. But I also lost some editions when I was the strongest in the race, like when I lost to Gianni Bugno in a sprint [in 1994]. That day I was the strongest, but if you don’t win, you can’t say anything. You have to come into the race in 100 per cent condition; 90 per cent isn’t enough. You have to get to the final without spending energy, but that is quite difficult. For us, the beginning was always the Oude Kwaremont – if you could get there in pole position, you could say, okay, the stress is over. Now the strongest will survive.

Grace Verbeke

Tour of Flanders winner 2010

Grace Verbeke was about as local a rider as you can get for the Tour of Flanders. She was born in Roeselare, just 25 miles from the edge of the Flemish Ardennes, and though she wasn’t one of the major stars of the sport, was able to combine local knowledge with bold and clever tactics to win in 2010.

When I started racing, I didn’t think I could win the Tour of Flanders. But as my career went on, I was already getting some good results and I felt I was making enough progress to get to the top. In 2010, my ambition was to be on the podium of a World Cup race, but to win was more than I could ever dream of. I was no sprinter, so I had to make the race hard and go on the attack. I was not really a time-triallist either – whenever I did a good time-trial it was because I was in good shape, but I was no specialist. I liked races where you had short climbs, and cobblestones, like in Omloop and the Tour of Flanders. They were the kind of races where riders would get dropped from the back of the peloton – survival races.

I ended 2009 with a good result at the World Championships, where I was ninth. That gave me good motivation during that winter. I had a good training camp before the races started, and then I already had a good start to my season at Omloop [third place]. I felt good physically and mentally, and I was ready for it. I had to win by attacking, and I was the underdog. I played on that and attacked with 50 kilometres to the finish. The other girls said, whoa, it’s too early, but I went away with one other rider, Adrie Visser, and we immediately got a big gap. I think we had two minutes.

At the Muur van Geraardsbergen, I went solo, and after that I still had a lead of a minute. I was able to hold that to the finish line. I knew from when we were away that I would drop Adrie – I knew her a little bit as a rider, and she was very strong, but at climbing I felt that I was better. Every climb I set the tempo and she sat in my wheel, and then we were good together on the flat, but I knew I would lose her on the Muur.

The last five kilometres were the hardest – the wind was on my back and a bit to the side, but it was not flat. I only believed I would win at the last corner with 400 metres to go. At that time, this was one of the only races where there were a lot of spectators – Flanders and the World Championships. That cheered me up, and they pushed me all the way to the line, really motivating me – it gave me a lot of adrenaline to make it. I did everything that winter to be there in my best shape. I trained a lot on the course and did my intervals on the climbs. I also watched the men’s race to learn more. I’d already ridden it a few times – the first time I was 19 and on a club team, but already from that first experience, it was a trigger point for me to do better in the years afterwards.

To win the Tour of Flanders, you need to be a Flandrienne. You have to be a hard one. You need character and you have to fight for every stone. No fear of bad weather. You have to like hard races. I was the first Belgian winner and I think it was important for women’s cycling in Belgium; maybe it motivated girls to get on their bicycles and realise that they can also do those races.

Eric Vanderaerden

Tour of Flanders winner 1985

When the Belgian public voted for their favourite ever edition of the Tour of Flanders, 1985 was their top choice. Terrible weather hit the race, and there were only 24 finishers. First place went to Eric Vanderaerden, what’s more, he did it wearing the Belgian champion’s jersey.

The Tour of Flanders is already one of the biggest races you can do in the whole year, and for me as a Belgian rider, it was even more important. To win it, you have to be a complete rider. You have to be good on the small climbs, you have to be not afraid of the wind, you have to be able to race on the small streets, on the cobblestones – it’s a little bit of everything. And then it depends on the race and the year. The year I won, in 1985, you also needed to be a little bit crazy. Because it was terrible, terrible cold that year. It was raining from start to finish, and it was only three or four degrees all day, so it was a very bad edition.

Already that made a difference because you can see your rivals saying, oh my god, it’s a 260 kilometre race, I have to do six or seven hours in that weather, and you know that you are already done with 20 or 25 per cent of them. It makes it easier. The other 75 per cent, you still have to beat them, but I think by the finish there were only 24 riders left in the race, and the last one was 15 minutes behind. The hardest thing was the cold, and you had to say to yourself, come on, if you’re cold, then everybody else is cold.

I had a flat tyre at the bottom of the Koppenberg. But luckily by that point the bunch was only 30 or 40 riders. It was no panic because I had a teammate close, and it was a front wheel, so we could change quickly. A lot of riders were walking on the Koppenberg so I was able to overtake them and get to the top. I came to the front of the bunch around 35 or 40 kilometres from the finish. At that point only Hennie Kuiper was ahead, maybe 30 seconds. So I crossed to him but my teammate Phil Anderson also joined us and we got to the Muur as three riders.

I attacked on the Muur, and rode alone from there for the last 20 kilometres alone to Ninove. Phil Anderson sat in Kuiper’s wheel – of course he would have liked to win himself, but you always have to be happy when the team wins. It sounds simple, but there is never a simple victory in a big race. There was a small bunch in 1985, but they were the strongest riders. It was one of the biggest wins of my career, and I think everybody wants to win Flanders. I never won it again – sometimes it was luck, and you crash at a bad moment. Maybe 30 or 40 per cent of your win is luck. It’s a very complex race.

Nick Nuyens

Tour of Flanders winner 2011

The 2011 Tour of Flanders was historic for being the last to use the infamous Muur-Bosberg finale. But it was also one of the greatest races there has ever been, as the advantage swung back and forth between the favourites, culminating in an all-out fight between the 12 survivors who made the front group. Nuyens timed his race to perfection, and beat Sylvain Chavanel and Fabian Cancellara in a three-rider sprint, just ahead of their rivals.

There are 100 different ways to win Flanders, and probably even more. But I think everybody has to use their own qualities, because what works for you won’t work for me. I knew I was not the strongest, even though when I was at 100 per cent I was one of the strongest. And I was at 100 per cent in 2011. So, you have to use your strengths, and for me, the plan was just trying to hang on as long as possible, and then play the game in the final.

That year was also a strange race, because Cancellara went from pretty far out, and the race seemed over. But one way or another, we were coming back on the Muur, and from there, the race started again. I was still feeling okay, because everybody has their own story in such races. When you win, that story matters, and when you don’t win, it doesn’t matter. I think I was always pretty cool when I was in a winning position or where there was a possibility to win. For me, it was always a matter of looking at: who’s in this group? Which teams are in the group? Which team has two riders? Which riders get along? Which riders hate each other?

We were 12 or 13 riders, and I took two or three minutes to analyse the breakaway. I tried a couple of moves, but small moves, not all-in. Trying to feel, who was reacting? It’s always a matter of feeling how the spirit is at that moment in the group. At the first attack, most of the time people react immediately, because they’re all fresh. The second and third time, also. But the 10th time, they start to think, if I close it again, there’s going to be a counter. The longer it takes, the more dangerous it gets, and to play the game you have to be ready to lose if you really want to win. Because if you look like you really want to win and you’re always the first to react, you know that’s the guy who wants to win, and actually that’s the easiest guy to beat, in my opinion. Or you have people who have already won a big Classic – it’s easier for them, because if they’re winning their eighth or ninth Classic, it’s cool. If you are on zero wins and you win one, it’s a big difference, so it’s not that easy to stay cool.

Obviously Cancellara was strong, and the moment he made his move, I knew I had to follow because once you’re 30 metres behind a guy like that, it’s very difficult to come back. And in the sprint, I used the situation really well. It was my luck that Cancellara saw Boonen coming from behind and kept the pace high, and also I think Chavanel didn’t want Boonen there. Cancellara’s acceleration was really impressive, and I lost some distance, but once I changed my gear, I really felt like the day was mine. I think if they ran that edition of the Tour of Flanders 10 times, I’d be happy with one more win, but in that sprint, I think I was going to win nine times out of 10.

Shop now