Tour of Flanders goes virtual

AP Photo

BRUSSELS — Race or no race, the 104th edition of the Tour of Flanders cobblestone cycling classic will have a winner this weekend.

The Belgian race is one of the “Monuments” of cycling – the five most prestigious one-day events in the sport. But the “Ronde” has been scrapped from this season’s calendar because of the coronavirus pandemic. All schools in the country have been shut down, only a handful of businesses remain open for essential needs and riding bikes in large groups has been forbidden.

To keep the festive event alive, organizer Flanders Classics will host a “lockdown edition” of the race on Sunday, with professional riders tackling the punishing Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs from the comfort of their houses, on home trainers.

Belgium’s big hope will be Remco Evenepoel, one of the most promising cyclists of his generation. Evenepoel, who won five races during his first pro season with the Deceuninck-Quick Step team last year, will be among the 13 professional riders taking part in the virtual race.

“I never thought I would make my Monument debut this way, but it’s still better than nothing,” he said. “I guess I’m the first rider in history to race a Monument for the first time on a smart trainer, and as strange as it may sound, I am looking forward to it. From what I understood, it will replicate the conditions of Flanders, so it should be quite a tough test.”

The race, which started in 1913, was canceled for the first time since World War I.

To make this year’s virtual race happen, Flanders Classics have teamed up with TV broadcaster Sporza and technology firms Bkool and Kiswe to develop a digital platform for the virtual route as well as a live streaming app that will allow fans to follow the race.

The event will be reserved to pros and will feature the last 32 kilometers (20 miles) of the route. Sporza said live commentary of the race will be provided by the usual duo of Michel Wuyts and José De Cauwer.

“It’s a difficult time for everyone, but we really hope this project will bring some happiness and a glimmer of hope to all the fans in Belgium and around the world, who will have the possibility to watch us live as we race the final part of Flanders,” said Yves Lampaert, who also rides for Deceuninck-Quick Step.

Along with the Ronde, four other prestigious one-day classic races scheduled this month – Paris-Roubaix, the Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Amstel Gold race – have all been called off. The Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo were previously postponed along with the Giro d’Italia, which was to start on May 9.

Tour de France organizers have yet to announce a decision on their three-week race, which is set to start in Nice on June 27.