A beginner’s guide to the Tour of Flanders

All you need to know about the men’s and women’s editions of one of cycling’s biggest and toughest one-day races

Clock17:30, Monday 25th March 2024
Mathieu Van der Poel attacks the cobblestones of the Paterberg in the 2023 edition

© Getty Images

Mathieu Van der Poel attacks the cobblestones of the Paterberg in the 2023 edition

For one Sunday each Spring, the narrow roads around the sleepy towns of Flanders wake up to see one of the biggest races of the year thunder over them. Fans turn out in their thousands to line the course, flags flying in one hand and beers sloshing in the other as they cheer on their favourites during one of cycling’s most iconic events.

This race is the Tour of Flanders, or as it’s known in Flemish, ‘De Ronde van Vlaanderen’, and its men’s and women’s races will take place on Sunday 31 March.

The Tour of Flanders marks the grand finale of a series of Flandrian Classics that fall in the weeks before, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and building through the E3 Saxo Classic and Gent-Wevelgem a week before Flanders.

Read more: Spring Classics 2024: Essential guide to the races and riders

Taking on a long, winding series of laps around the Flanders region that visits multiple steep cobbled climbs – most of them more than once – over a challenging, Monument-worthy distance, Flanders is one of the toughest races on the calendar and is always won by the strongest of Classics riders.

With winners like Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen in its history books, and more recently victories for Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar and Lotte Kopecky, it’s easy to see that Flanders is a prestigious jewel in cycling’s crown, and a race steeped in legend.

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Tour of Flanders history

The inaugural edition of the men’s race took place back in 1913, making it the youngest of the five Monuments. The women’s race, on the other hand, started in 2004, which makes it one of the longest-running one-day races on the current calendar, as well as one of the most prestigious.

The fact that the men’s race is younger than the other four Monuments doesn’t make it any less respected, and it easily sits alongside Paris-Roubaix, and the World Championships in terms of racing importance. Win here even once and you’re guaranteed to earn yourself a spot in cycling’s Hall of Fame.

Unlike some of the other Monuments and Classics, the Tour of Flanders route has changed countless times throughout its history, with the start and finishing towns often changing and the roll call of climbs being tweaked slightly for each edition.

Two-time winner Peter Van Petegem famously said this about the race’s route: “It doesn’t really matter where the race goes. You have cobblestones, climbs and small roads, and that provides the character of the race.”

Read more: 66 years marshalling at the Tour of Flanders: Meet Lucien De Schepper

Tour of Flanders tactics and winners

The Tour of Flanders is ultimately a race of survival and to win, a rider must abandon all sense of foresight and attack purely on instinct. Fortune definitely favours the brave in Flanders.

The notion of a big group coming to the finish of Flanders is essentially unheard of. There will be attacks, the race will be attritional, and it almost comes down to the last rider standing, who has seen all their competitors fall away over the gruelling climbs. Any sprint at the finish will be between tired legs, as a handful of riders battle for one of cycling’s biggest prizes.

Read more: The Van der Poel rules: How to beat cycling's best Classics rider at the Tour of Flanders

Over 107 editions of the men’s race, the home nation of Belgium has taken 69 wins, the most of any country, perhaps unsurprisingly. Six riders sit on top of the individual winners list with a hat-trick of titles to their name: Belgians Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Tom Boonen and Johan Museeuw, Italian Fiorenzo Magni and Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara.

All six of these riders are Flandriens to the core, even those born outside of Belgium, and are revered as gods amongst the local people - none more so than the ‘Lion of Flanders’ himself, Johan Museeuw.

The women’s race has seen much less Belgian success, but perhaps largely to do with its relative youth. Over its 20 editions so far, two Belgian riders have taken Flandrian titles: Grace Verbeke in 2010, and Lotte Kopecky in 2022 and 2023. The nation that stands proud atop the winners' list in the women’s race is the Netherlands, who’ve won eight editions and podiumed a further 19 times.

With two wins, Lotte Kopecky is joint-top of the list of repeat winners at Flanders. Dutch women also join that list with two wins apiece, Mirjam Melchers-van Poppel and Annemiek van Vleuten. The German rider, Judith Ardnt, has also won two editions of the women’s Tour of Flanders. Both Arndt and Van Vleuten have won this race on the old finish into Ninove and the new finish into Oudenaarde.

Tour of Flanders route: Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg headline a cobbled climb-packed course

The cobbled bergs, or ‘Hellingen’, are the Tour of Flanders’ focal points and where the race is won or lost. They are steep, tricky to ride with the cobbles, and the back-to-back nature of the race’s climbs means they are severely leg-sapping. None of the climbs are particularly long, but that doesn’t matter when you’re going up and down them, constantly, at full race speed.

Read more: Average Joe vs Tour of Flanders: Can Cillian Kelly conquer the cobbles of Belgium?

The current finale of the race takes in the Kruisberg, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg before a flat finish into Oudenaarde. These climbs often prove decisive in the outcome of the race, but what comes before this final trio of bergs is just as important. Climbs like the Koppenberg, Taaienberg and Berendries all feature in this race, serving not only to chip away at a rider’s legs, but their morale too.

Tour of Flanders climbs:

  • Oude Kwaremont
  • Kapelleberg
  • Wolvenberg
  • Molenberg
  • Marlboroughstaat
  • Berendries
  • Valkenberg
  • Berg Ten Houte
  • Nieuwe Kruisberg/Hotond
  • Paterberg
  • Koppenberg
  • Steenbeekdries
  • Taaienberg
  • Oude Kruisberg/Hotond

Recent history of the Tour of Flanders

Since 2012 and the implementation of the new finish in Oudenaarde, the men’s race has seen six solo winners, with the largest group ever reaching the finish only consisting of four riders, which happened in 2014 and 2022.

The women’s race has also seen six solo winners in that time and, like the men’s, has tended to be decided by small groups of riders at the finish. One edition of the women’s race has come down to a sprint, however: the 2017 edition which was won by Coryn Rivera (now Labecki) in a reduced bunch finish between 16 riders.

In 2023, Tadej Pogačar and Lotte Kopecky were crowned champions in Oudenaarde, but only Kopecky will be back to defend her title – in fact to try to make it three in a row – whilst Pogačar is skipping Flanders with an eye towards the Giro d’Italia.

The big favourites in the men’s race will be Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, with the Belgian still chasing a maiden win here, whilst Kopecky will be up against riders like Marianne Vos, Elisa Balsamo and perhaps even her own teammate, Demi Vollering.

For the latest news, interviews and analysis from the world of professional cycling, be sure to check out the Racing tab on the GCN website and visit our essential guide to The Spring Classics to stay up to date with all of the action from cycling's most exciting season.

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