Tuesday 10 April 2012

Brabantse Pijl

The parcours - click to enlarge
(image credit: Flanders Classics)
The last of the Flanders Classics, the 52nd edition of Brabantse Pijl takes place over 196km - starting off at Leuven before passing through Overijse, then heading west to Halle before doubling back to Overijse for a nasty little circuit made up of five  ascents of four tough hills. It's a tough race, even by the standards of the hilly Classics, with an incredible 28 climbs in total to be tackled along the way.

The Parcours
The riders set off from Sint-Pieterskerk in Leuven's Grote Markt (50°52'45.17"N 4°42'2.90"E) and head south out of the city (passing 0.76km to the west of the woodland where the Fidea CX Leuven races were held on News Year's Eve last year)  and arriving at Holstheide,the first climb after 17km (the route planner doesn't give details of gradient, but using the not-always-accurate Google Earth it looks to be 12% maximum, 5.5% average), then reach Overijse for the first time after 20.5km. The next proper hill is Rue de Hal, 48.6km away, but the parcours in between is most definitely not flat as a look at the altitude profile will reveal - there are five short-but-respectably-steep climbs in between. Arriving at Overijse again after 28.4km, the race sets out on the long 60km journey to Halle.

Climb 2 Rue de Hal is 65.6km into the parcours and again looks to be 12% max., approx. 5% average. Climb 3 Alsemberg is 22.8km further up the road (10% max., 4.2% av,); then Climb 4 Bruineput, the hardest in this section is 5.6km away ( 13.9% max., 8.3% av.). With that out of the way, there are 2.5km to Climb 5 Krabosstraat which gets to 9.5% as it climbs into forest. Climb 6 Rue de Nivelles (8.3% max., 4.4% av.) awaits 5.9km on, then there are 26.3 "flat" kilometres.

Profile - click to enlarge
(image credit: Flanders Classics)
Climb 7 Route d'Ohain lies just outside Lasne (50°41'9.32"N 4°28'58.64"E) and marks 77km to the end of the race and appears to be one of the most difficult, reaching as much as 15% maximum with an average on 9% (again according to Google Earth). Climb 8 Rue François Dubois (11.6% max., 4.9% av.), the last before we enter that very hilly Overijse circuit, is 7.3km away.

4.5km later, riders turn right off Fr. Verbeekstraat to begin their first lap of the circuit and are met almost immediately by the distinctly unpleasant Climb 9 Hagaard (A on the map) which has an average gradient of 14.6%; by far the hardest climb so far. Climb 10 (B) Hertsraat, 3.8km away, is a far more sedate affair with an average of 4.6%, though 9% at the steepest point will certainly create problems - and the psychological effect of such a straight climb can be great: it's much easier to carry on when you can't see what lies around the next corner than when there's a stiff hill rearing up right in front of your eyes. Climb 11 (C) Ijskelderlaan lies 3.1km ahead (11% max., 7.2% average), another off-puttingly straight one this time through a residential area. Climb 12 (D) Schavei (12.1% max., 6.1% av.) is the final climb on the circuit, it too is straight.

Then, having completed the 12.8km circuit, the riders set out on the first of four more laps before reaching the finish line on Brusselsesteenweg (50°46'40.05"N 4°31'23.62"E).

The Race-Losing Curse, aka Cyclopunk's Top Tip
His form hasn't been spectacular this year so far, so it seems likely that Andy Schleck is going to want to pull his finger out and show he still knows how to ride a bike in this race. The hills are steep and there's a hell of a lot of them, but we all saw what he did on the Col du Galibier at the Tour last year - if he's 50% as good as he was that day, he can win this race.

Rain is expected in Leuven all day, heaviest in the morning - and with temperatures at around 7-8C as the riders set out, there'll be some grumpy faces at the start line and possibly one or two who don't bother showing up (they'll say it because they don't want to risk catching a cold in the run-up to Sunday's Amstel Gold Race because no cyclist admits to being anything less than 100% megahard at all times). Overijse may be dry by the time they first get there, though showers are possible, and might even get some sunshine later in the day - it'll be just this side of cold at 12C. Halle looks set to be much the same as Overijse.

First live footage up at around 14:00BST (15:00 local time/CEST). Available from all the usual sources online, including here.
Route details here (.pdf)
Start list (.pdf)

Interesting Stuff
Leuven's Sint-Pieterskerk is an interesting building. Originally designed to include a 170m tower, which would have been the tallest structure in the world at the time (16th Century), ground instability forced a change in plans and it never reached more than a third that height. Two structural failures within 65 years of completion reduced its height even further and it now stands just clear of the main church roof. The church was badly damaged during both World Wars; fortunately its art treasures were saved and, after it was hit by a bomb in 1944, a previously unknown 11th Century crypt was discovered. Among the oldest artifacts is a carved wooden head, all that remains of a crucifix destroyed by a fire that caused the roof to cave in in 1914.

Until the 1970s when the brand was bought by Artois, Overijse was home to the Lootvoet brewery - producers of the cyclist's favourite Belgian beer Leffe. If you know of any better excuse to have a bottle (or three) while watching the race, don't bother emailing because no excuse for Leffe is required.

La Hulpe lies just over the border in the Walloon region, hence the French placenames in that section of the race. Inhabited for at least 10,000 years, the town's name is thought to be derived from a Celtic word meaning "silver river" - today, the river and the ponds it's formed are known as L'Argentine, itself derived from the Latin word for silver argentum. Keep an eye out for Château Solvay.

Lasne is Belgium's wealthiest area yet, perversely and as tends to be the way of things, its inhabitants pay the lowest local taxes - its name is also said to come from a Celtic word, this time meaning "slow river." Plancenoit, nearby, was the location of several incidents during the Battle of Waterloo - it was here that Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher's army engaged that of Napoleon at La Papelotte, a fortified farm; after which Blücher met the Duke of Wellington at another farm and formed an alliance. An inn near Plancenoit, La Belle Alliance, was used by Napoleon as his headquarters during the battle and holes in the church wall are said to have been made by musket fire.

Butte du Lion
The Butte du Lion can be seen from several points along the route. The 43m hill is almost perfectly conical in shape, belying the fact that it's artificial - construction was ordered by William I of the Netherlands to mark the spot where his son William II (better known as the Prince of Orange) was knocked off his horse when he was hit in the shoulder by a Napoleonic musket ball. The 4.5m tall lion on top weighs 28 tonnes and locals and tour guides will tell you it's made of bronze from melted-down French cannon, even though they probably know full well that it's made of iron cast in Liège by the English blacksmith and entrepreneur William Cockerill who, rather amusingly, had been awarded the Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur by Napoleon in 1807 as a mark of recognition for his services to manufacturing and industry. Wellington hated the lion and the butte - "They have spoiled my battlefield!" he said when he first saw it.

At Braine-le-Château, look out for the château that gave the town its name - you may recognise it from countless jigsaws.

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