Recalling De Ronde: The Flanders Swisstacular

Roadside PEZ: Outside my window, it’s wet, windy, and cold. For some reason, it makes me daydream of springtime in Flanders. Today, that brought a certain article to mind from a former resident and racer in the region. It was a homecoming tour for PEZ’s Matt Conn in 2010 when he chased a Cancellara-dominated Ronde van Vlaanderen. Let’s go back…

A local hero in front, a champion on top of the podium and a race that was truly worthy of the legend of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It was Brugge to Brakel for the Pez Team at De Ronde on a day when we were glad to be roadside to witness the Swiss led spectacular.

It was an early departure for the drive to Brugge to catch the start of the 94th Ronde Van Vlaanderen and when we picked up Jaco’s dad Flor and our local expert Staf from just near the finish, the barriers were being set out and the finish line was being prepared for the arrival of the race in nine hours time.

With the car loaded up and the final planning to be done enroute, it was time to head to Brugge.

The sun came out just as the riders started the sign on formalities.

At The Start
When we arrived in Brugge for the start it was raining so after taking a couple of very dark looking pictures I headed off to the press centre to pick up a start list, grab a coffee and see who was about. Coming to cycling races, especially to Belgium, is always a good opportunity for me to have a chat with old friends and make some new ones.

While I was talking to Belgian Cycling Federation (KBWB) official Freddy van Steen, he said hello to another person I’d never met, who then promptly turned and shook hands with me and started with the small talk. I think I can be forgiven for not recognising Andrй Denys, the Governor of the province of East Flanders. For a split second, the thought crossed my mind that Sporza commentator Michel Wuyts looked a lot paler and thinner than the last time I saw him.

With the rain stopped and the weather looking to be in the up, I started walking the long stretch of barricaded street from the Grote Markt to where the team buses were at ‘t Zand. Along the way I spotted a man and his son in Livestrong clothes, waving an American flag. Making my normal mistake of assuming that people only ever wave the flag of the country they are from, I stopped for a chat.

That’s Lance. Check his birth certificate if you don’t believe me!

It turns out that they are from Belgium and the boy’s name is Lance. His father explained that his Lance was born on September 18, just like to other Lance, so it seemed like a pretty good name to choose. They also showed me a picture on their own camera of the ‘two Lances’ together that they had arranged with the help of RadioShack director, Johan Bruyneel.

One of the good things if you are a fan heading to a race in Belgium is that there never seems to be any trouble getting into the area where the team buses are. I’m not sure the riders or management would agree it’s such a great thing, but it’s another great aspect of our sport that sets us apart from so many others.

Cycling fans in this part of the world are pretty knowledgeable and can appreciate riders from any country, but when the Belgian defending champ and the top favourite (who also happens to be the national champion) are both on the same Belgian team, there will always be a few more people heading to their team bus (and hanging off the racks of their team cars) trying to get a photo.

Here’s some more proof that waving a flag, does not necessarily mean you are from a particular country or region, but Mauro Da Dalto of Lampre would one day love to be considered a real Flandrien, so getting into the spirit of the race before the start seemed like a good idea.

The cheer as Boonen rode along the road to the sign on, followed him like a wave and while he was easy to spot in his national champions jersey, listening the conversations as I walked back to the sign-on, the local crowd are pretty knowledgeable about who is who and what they have won.

Boonen was relaxed and joking on the podium. Devolder joked but was certainly not relaxed and Gilbert was looking very serious indeed.

While he was on the podium, McEwen joked that he usually watched the finish of the Ronde from the couch, thinking about the bunch sprint he would have won in Meerbeke. Being more serious, he also said that each time he watched it from home, he said to himself that he needed to come back and ride it one more time before he retired… and here he was.

Like the rest of the team, McEwen started the day with his Ronde Lazer helmet cover on.

Boonen and McEwen were the last to arrive at the back of the group of riders and as the gun went, they rolled away with a crowd of press and reporters jogging after them in what must have looked like a pretty comical scene.

Stijn Devolder sat back and watched Boonen at the start. The big question was, who would have to sit back and be watch the other going away on the run into Ninove?

To The Course
We hoped to avoided the post-start crush to get to the highway by relaxing with a coffee in Brugge. Our plan was to hit the course in Touhout and then drive the course ahead of the race and wait at the first feed. Unfortunately, with roadworks in place on the ring road around the city and our very convenient ‘press pass provided’ parking, we got into the car at about the same time all of the spectators got into theirs, following their long walk back from the sign-on.

Some re-calculating along the road had us heading instead for Roeselare, where we drove onto the race route for about 10km before being directed back off by a very ‘helpful’ official. If you have never been to Belgium, you actually have never experienced real road works. The country is a succession of small towns that have spread out over time, slowly linking up, who then seem to take turns digging up one or both lanes of the road in the main street. Off the course, we were following the detour signs or wegomlegging (If you ever come here it’s a word you need to know) through side streets and at one stage across fields in search of the first feed in Lendelede.

Landbouwkrediet’s David Boucher grabbing his lunch, with Oliver Bonnaire behind

We were keeping tabs on the racing with the radio on and the group of eight had built up a lead of nearly 14 minutes, but it had been brought back to around eightt coming into the feed.

With no barriers set up to keep the crowd back, the police were fighting a losing battle to keep the road clear for the riders. Even with sirens blaring, the motorbike outriders (at speeds you would consider crazy on an open autobahn) seemed invisible to some of the punters, keen to get a glimpse of their favourite rider getting a feed.

With the wind blowing, it was freezing in the feed waiting for the main peloton. Even if you weren’t from Italy, it was a good idea to put on every item of clothing you had to keep warm.

The craziest part of following De Ronde, or any race that follows a criss-cross course where you can see it more than once or twice, is what happens just after the riders race through. Everyone is racing to get to the next spot, so the spectators become mixed in with the team support vehicles and with some of the in-race team cars having to stop to take on supplies from those at the feed, they found themselves stuck in traffic, needing to get back to the race.

Looking at the way some of the sports directors needed (?) to drive to get through the crowd in the feed, it is a small miracle that everyone walked away in one piece.

To The Hills
We cut the course from the feed (kilometre 100), across to Anzegem (kilometre151) allowing the riders to get the first hill in their legs while we drove the climbs of the Kluisberg, Knokteberg, Oude Kwaremont.

The radio was bringing us news of crashes (Garmin’s Farrar the biggest name) and with Team Sky and Quickstep on the front, the gap was down to 7 minutes.

The first climb of the day was the Kluisberg and while the lower sections of the hill were only starting to fill up with people, close to the top of the climb, it was standing room only and the woman with the union jack on the inside of the corner, must have been one of the first to arrive.

From the Kluisberg it was off to the Kwaremont. We drove along the Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat, past the spot on the Ronse Baan (N36) we saw on Friday on where you could see the race twice and then down between the line of cars to the foot of the 1500m long Oude Kwaremont.

The crowds here were incredible. The climb itself needed first gear in the car and every time Jaco honked the horn, the fans behind the barriers waved their flags and gave a cheer. Over the top of the steepest part of the climb, the stones continue along an open section and then ramp up one more time for a tight right hander back to the big road. There’s just enough space to get the car around the right hander and the stones as uneven and rough as anywhere on the course. I couldn’t help thinking that some of the fans on the outside of the unbarricaded corner would be taking their life in their hands as the team cars race through this section to catch back up to the riders.

On the open section of the climb of the Kwaremont, there’s plenty of space to ‘express yourself’.

The Paterberg and Koppenberg are closed to cars and only limited vehicles from the race organisation are allowed to follow the riders over these tight steep climbs. We skipped the section of the course between 82 and 62km to go and found ourselves doing the traffic job with a couple of the team vehicles (although at a more sensible pace than some of the probably ex-professional drivers were doing their work).

We took the Steenbeekdries climb and its long straight cobbled descent, then it was squeeze between the police and fans on the Taaienberg and we took up our place to wait for the riders at the top.

The leading group on the descent from the Steenbeekdries, looking back from the top of the Taaienberg.

By avoiding the packed part of the climb we were able to take up a spot behind the HTC Columbia car, just before the banner signalling the top finish of the climb.

Just like in Paris-Roubaix, the teams have a lot of extra helpers out on the course handing out drinks and with spare wheels on standby. Once the race heads onto the final 60km, if there is a puncture on or just past a climb, a rider might have to wait for two or three other groups to pass before the team car can get to them for service.

As the helicopters moved in overhead and the Rodaniaaaaaaa, Rodaniaaaaa of the car signalling the beginning of the race had thankfully disappeared into the distance, the TV motorbikes arrived with the first group of riders.

We had been hearing Mathew Hayman’s name a lot on the radio and the Team Sky man was off on the attack as he passed by where we were standing.

Sky’s Matt Hayman has just gone on the attack, Quickstep’s Maarten Wynants is making his move to cover, Gilbert and Cancellara are watching from the right of the road. The HTC ‘soigneur’ at the side is Erik Zabel.

HTC’s Vicente Reynes grabs a biddon from Zabel (a technique that’s all in the way you hold your tongue) while Markus Eichler of Milram chases to close the gap back to the bunch.

Katusha’s Mikhaylo Khalilov flashes us a look at his Lazer RVV helmet cover as he looks back to check on the wherabouts of Robbie McEwen.

Once the first groups had passed we had a re-group at the car and I realised that HTC Columbia had another helper handing up bidons on the climb, with team owner Bob Stapleton lending a hand to make sure they had all bases covered. We later heard on the radio that QuickStep team boss Patrick Lefevere was also spotted out on the course handing up bidons to his riders. In a race like this, it really is all hands in deck.

While the Columbia guys slipped into the first available gap and were off to their next designeated service point, we waited for the green flag signalling the finish of the race and then joined in the convoy of followers.

We decided that following over the Eikenberg was just asking to be stuck in traffic for the rest of the day and we made our way to Brakel.

30km To Go
The bike monument in Brakel was unveiled in 2005 and there are 2005 second hand bikes in its structure. We arrived in the cafe on the same roundabout, just as Gilbert was making his move across to Millar on the slopes of the Berendries.

While it was nice to have pictures on the TV in the bar and a bit of atmosphere from the crowd, I had forgotten that smoking is still permitted in pubs in Belgium. It was a sacrifice my lungs were going to have to make.

After watching the leaders come down off the Berendries, he joined the mass exodus from the bar and headed out to see the race come past.

Rollin, leading Willems and Quinziato in the direction of Tenbosse

Cancellara and Boonen were motoring like a pair of… well… motorbikes as they came past and then as the chase group came through, Millar was showing that his form was continuing after his great Three days of DePanne. Whether it would be enough to help Gilbert and Leukemans bridge back to the leaders was decided a few kilometres later.

Back in the cafe, it was getting to the point where it wasn’t even standing room only and I sent The Pez a message to say we were in front of the TV for the finale. When the pair hit the Kapelmuur, there was the first real stirring amongst the very partisan crowd squeezed in.

When Boonen stood up on the pedals, a lot of the crowd thought they were witnessing the attack of their national champion, but when they realised it was Cancellara going away, and not the other way around a collective cheer of komaan Jongen rang out. The yelling lasted until Boonen had crossed the top of the Kapelmuur and when then camera panned across to catch the back wheel of Cancellara disappearing across the Zonnebloomenstraat on his way to the Bosberg.

The crowd, like I suspect Boonen, knew it was likely over at that point.

When Cancellara sat up on his bike to show off the good-luck charm his wife and daughter had given him especially for the race, most of the people watching gave an appreciative smile and when the Swiss champion grabbed his country’s flag and finally crossed the line, there was polite applause in the cafe for the abilities of a man who was now part of the history of their country’s most important bike race.

There was a group of guys in the pub who come and watch the race every year (and had specially printed T-shirt and jackets for their trip this year) and when I asked some of them what they thought about Cancellara winning, there was nothing but respect.

They told me that he was a true champion of cycling and to be beaten by him was no disgrace. They also shared the views of many others that he was a deserving winner. When you ride like that and you win like that, it commands respect. This was not a guy who sat on for the last 20km and then sprinted. They had wanted Boonen to win, that was natural, but they were not disappointed that after helping to make the race, Cancellara had taken the title.

Post Mortem
Normally when I cover a race for PEZ, it’s a mad dash back to the hotel to get the Roadside story filed the same day, but with The Boss instructing me to ‘take it easy’ and post on Monday, I decided (for once) to do as I was told.

The live TV coverage of cycling here in Belgium is amazing. While plenty of people in other countries would be happy with what the French language station RTBF sends out in a year, it’s the Dutch language Sporza (VRT) channel that is head and shoulders above anything I’ve even seen anywhere in the world. For anyone who has ever watched the live race feeds (most likely ‘illegally’ redirected) over the internet or visited the Sporza website to watch their online videos of interviews, race highlights or the full last kilometre of every professional race in Belgium that gets TV coverage, you will know what I mean.

After the race we came back home and sat down in front of the TV to re-watch the key parts of the race that we missed while out on the course, catch all of the post race interviews and also see the studio program with the Belgian protagonists and of course race winner Fabian Cancellara as guests.

One of the men Sporza spoke to after the finish was Garmin Transitions rider Tyler Farrar. In the language of the host broadcaster (Farrar lives in Gent and speaks Dutch) he explained that he was surprised with how he got over the hills. He was one of the riders who crashed before the first hill and while showing his badly scraped knuckles, said he was glad he listened to sports Director Matt White, who encouraged him to keep going after the crash when he was thinking about giving up.

Farrar was at the front of the group chasing Millar, Gilbert and Leukemans. Armstrong, Kroon Ballan and Hondo were all there too as they turned in Brakel and headed towards the Muur via Tenbosse.

Both Fabian Cancellara and Matti Breschel’s post race interviews revealed their frustrations with their equipment and after naming the mechanic they felt was responsible, Breschel (understandably) dropped the F-Bomb on the finish line. Because it’s Belgium, they didn’t edit it out of the replay and when they crossed back to the studio, the presented said, “There you go, some one f#cked it up.”

With all the running around, it was good to have a sit down meal and in honour of The Pez and his Italian eating snaps (and also of host Kathy who kept us fed) I offer you a pic of my post Ronde meal (just before I added the mayonnaise).

I’ve been to the Ronde four times now, but this was the first year I went to the start in Brugge. The last time I was here I watched Tom Boonen take the turn into the finish straight alone and this year I saw both him and Cancellara at the front of the race on their way to first and second on the podium.

I was hoping that Boonen was was going to win, but when a guy is on the form like Cancellara was, even Boonen said there was nothing he could do.

“I wasn’t bad, I was riding 55km per hour in the final and the group behind was coming back. Fabian still took a minute out of me so he must have been going 60!”

Cancellara said that after so many problems at this race in the past, we was really happy to have won and glad to finally be a Flandrien.

As they say in Belgium, to describe a just reward for a hard effort, he had the race niet gestolen.

A special thanks to Jaco, Sven and Kathy for their help and hospitality while we were here in Belgium chasing the Ronde van Vlaanderen. We couldn’t have done it so well without you!

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