Tour of Flanders – a fans perspective!
This Easter I travelled to Belgium to sample the course for what is my favourite race and what many people consider to be the greatest of the Classics. I have watched this race many times on TV and it is always won by great riders. Museeuw, Tafi, Van Petegam, and for the past two years Tom Boonen. This race is always fiercely contested by the Belgian teams and this is the one that all Belgian riders want the most. Elsewhere on the site you will see photographs and links to race reports which will tell the story of the race far better than I. We had entered the Ronde de Vlaanderen pre-race Tour which had an option of 3 distances. A short one that took in some of the hills, one with a distance of 145k which takes in all of the climbs and cobbled sections that appear in the last 80k of the race and if were entirely mad you could do the full race distance of 260k. We opted for the 145k as we wanted to be able to get up the next day to watch the race!! The first wow factor regarding the pre-race tour was the number of riders. Our race numbers we in the 22,000s and there were still people signing on on the day! The organisation was just fantastic – everything operated as a one way system through the set off point and all morning long riders set off with little or no fuss.
I had been pre-warned regarding the suddenness of the first cobbled climb which came after about 40k. You are riding along a flat road and next thing a marshal turns you a sharp right and shouts ‘change down’. A sharp shock – this was what we in Ireland would call a lane – very narrow and immediately onto a sharp cobbled climb. You just couldn’t imagine how rough these cobbles were and your front wheel bouncing from cobble to cobble with the fear that your wheel was going to get stuck between the gaps – nothing smaller than a 23 tyre here or that might just happen. This had to be climbed in the saddle to give your bike some kind of stability – but a mixture of adrenalin and fear of causing a pile up drives you on. A fantastic experience to sample these roads that the Pros whould be doing battle on the next day. The roads are much narrower than they appear on TV and the climbs are quite steep and nothing prepares you for just how rough the cobbles are.
There is a great buzz in powering across the flatter cobbled sections but obviously if they were wet it would be an entirely different matter. I did have to stop on one climb as riders came to halt in front of me, but with so many riders on the climbs this is likely to happen at some stage during the day. I might have had to stop anyway!! You have to watch about 3 riders in front to steer a course up the hills, trying to judge the speed of slower riders and best guess on who is likely to stop. Thankfully though I got a clear run on the Muur which is climb on which many a winning break is launched and would be where it would all unfold on the next day as things turned out. The hill was barriered off and there were hordes of spectators here to cheer you on and it was nearly a religious feeling when you turned and the famous chapel loomed into view at the top. This chapel looks quite large on TV but is quite small in reality. Tomorrow people would be in their spot on this hill from 7am!
Next day we were at the start in Bruges and managed to intercept the race at about 6 other locations are we chased helicopters around Belgium. All the hill sections are quite close to each other and it would be a bit like a race zig-zagging around the Naul, Ballyboughal and Stamullen to take in a many climbs as one could find. Highlight of the day was when we got a spot on one of the cobbled climbs and awaiting the race with thousands of Belgian fans. A small break was clear and we were rewarded with sight of the World Champion setting a powerful pace up the climb with teammate and pre-race favourite Boonen in his wheel. Unfortunately we just failed to get back in time for the finish but as we made our way through the crowd you could sense that Boonen hadn’t made it three in a row. We paused to watch the presentation on the big screen and saw the Lampre colours. I knew from the body language that it had been a 2-up sprint and that the 2nd placed rider had messed it up. This proved to be correct as Hoste had manoeuvred Ballan to the front from about 2k out and and then launched his sprint too early. His disappointment was compounded by the fact that he had been runner up on two previous occasions. Sean Kelly would know how this feels as this was the only classic that eluded him and he too had been pipped three times.