The Ronde van Vlaanderen – or Tour of Flanders – may not have the kudos over here that it does on the continent, where it is a quasi-religious experience for cycling nuts. But ask Luke Rowe what it would mean to him to win the greatest one-day classic of them all – the 101st edition of which takes place on Sunday – and you get some idea of its place in the cycling firmament.
“It’s crazy really,” Rowe reflects of the nasty, bone-juddering 158½-mile blast over rough cobbles, up steep climbs, through narrow lanes and past Belgian beer tents. “It’s a six-hour race and it can change your whole life.
“I think if you win any other race, maybe not so much. But if you win Flanders or Roubaix [Paris-Roubaix, the second of the big one-day cobbled classics, which takes place next Sunday], that stays with you forever. I could tell you who had won either of those races for the last 20 years, and how they won them.”
Rowe, of course, has already twice helped Chris Froome to Tour de France glory as a domestique. He is widely recognised as one of the finest road captains in the men’s peloton; his value to Team Sky immeasurable. But he is honest enough to admit that the chance of personal glory in a race as big as Flanders would trump everything.
“Put it this way,” he says. “If you said to me ‘You can win one of those two races, but that’s all you will win in your entire career’ I would snap your hand off. That’s how much they mean to me and that’s how big they are within the sport. That’s why I get out on my bike every morning and train on grim days in the winter. Honestly, it would be life-changing.”
Rowe is clearly capable of doing well. The Welsh rider, coming into his prime at 27, finished fifth in last year’s 100th edition of De Ronde. But after what he admits has been a “diabolical” cobbled classics season for Team Sky so far this year, not many pundits are giving him a chance.
Rowe was 15th at E3-Harelbeke last Friday but missed the key splits, and abandoned at Gent-Wevelgem. Ian Stannard, meanwhile, his joint leader at Sky, has not made much of an impact either. That’s fine with him. Rowe is well aware that double world champion Peter Sagan [Bora–Hansgrohe] and Belgian hard man Greg Van Avermaet [BMC], both of whom are “crazy strong at the moment” – are the two riders everyone will be watching.
“But that just means we can slip under the radar a bit more,” he says. “I feel in a good place. Our team is super strong. And while I always say that [the flatter] Roubaix is a little more suited to my characteristics – being one of the bigger guys – I can’t really use that as an excuse. Look at Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. They won Flanders three times each and they are 80kgs guys.
“We just have to believe, grit our teeth, follow the splits and see how it plays out.”
For Dani King, who rides in the women’s Tour of Flanders earlier on Sunday, the kudos attached to winning would not be the same as for Rowe. The women’s race only began in 2004 and does not occupy the same romantic hinterland in the minds of cycling cognoscenti. But the motivation for the 2012 Olympic champion is still huge. King only committed to the road full time last season after losing her place in the track team. But she is getting stronger and stronger with each passing week.
A switch of teams over the winter, from Wiggle-High5 where she was riding as a domestique, to the American team Cylance Pro Cycling, has afforded her more opportunities to ride for herself. And she sees no reason why, if she can stay upright and follow the breaks on Sunday, she cannot achieve a big result; one that would announce her as a real threat in the women’s peloton and another genuine British contender for the biggest races in the world, alongside Lizzie Deignan.
“Definitely,” she says. “I think top 10 is very realistic and if you are up there in a final, then who knows what might happen? I think I’ve had a really good start to the season. In terms of my form I’m really happy. I’m still learning so much, though, in terms of race craft and positioning in these big bunch races. I haven’t ridden Flanders since 2009 and it’s one of those races where I think if you know the ins and outs you definitely have an advantage.”
Rowe and King. Both outsiders on Sunday. Both well capable of crashing the greatest beer-and-frites party of them all.
But while they will ride over different distances and at different times on Sunday, they will have one common factor in their races: Matt Rowe – Luke’s brother and King’s fiancé – will be out in Flanders on a stag weekend.
A former rider himself, Matt will have ridden in Saturday’s Tour of Flanders sportif by the time the main races come around. “I’m hoping he is going to be in a fit state on the side of the road,” King laughs. “I’m not sure who will feel closer to puking. I just hope Luke and I can give him something to shout about.”