Cobbles Revisited: Ed’s Flemish Weekend’19
2019 Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne: As Ed Hood is planning his Flemish weekend to the first of the Spring Classics in Belgium; we look back at last year’s trip to Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Don’t worry, Ed will prepare his ‘PEZ Het Nieuwsblad/Kuurne Preview’ for next Wednesday before he heads off to the land of frites and cobbles.
Ed and his gang visited the EF Education First team and the ‘Koers’ cycle racing museum on day 1 of their annual Flemish trip.
2019 Het Nieuwsblad
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the first of the early Spring Classics and where the riders want to strike the first blow. Ed on the ‘kinderkopje’:
Let’s start with a bit of culture; it’s famous Flandrian ‘luminist’ painter Emile Claus who keeps an eye on proceedings as the 2019 Gent-Gent comes to life on a chill, grey but not too savage morning.
The race begins with a presentation in the big exhibition hall adjacent to the Kuipke Velodrome; we liked it better when the buses lined up in the street across from the track – but with the race now part of ‘Flanders Classics’ package there has to be glitz.
It is pretty cool to watch the team wagons roll in, very military – but the diesel fumes aren’t so much fun. The teams do their best to keep saddos like us away from the bikes with those tapes they use outside night clubs – no creds for us for this race, we’re just fans – so you have to make do with the ‘B’ bikes on the team car roofs.
This neat rear suspension on the Direct Energie Wiliers caught our eye though.
It was nice to meet up with our old friend, former Belgian Time Trial Champion and now the face of Shimano at all the big races; Bert Roosems, seen here speaking to UAE DS and former pro, Alan Peiper. How do they keep so skinny?
From old pros to neo pro; 24 year-old Englishman Harry Tanfield started his World Tour career nicely with the best young rider jersey in the opening time trial of the Valenciana – he was also silver medallist in the Commonwealth Games TT last year – but the Opening Weekend has scant regard for chrono palmarès and our Harry had a bit of torrid time. But he’s a versatile, talented lad and will have learned a lot over the weekend.
Meanwhile the UCi guys go about their business of checking for hidden motors. . .
Swiss TT star, Stefan Kung took time out to meet his fan club – it’s a fair trail from Switzerland to Flanders. . . Let’s dash, we don’t want to get stuck in the road closures and traffic jams.
‘Break of the day’ at Oombergen some 16K in, working sweetly; Alex Howes (EF), Roy Jans (Correndon), Tom Wirtgen (Wallonie) and Tom Devriendt (Wanty) – it’s not a proper break without a Wanty guy.
The slowest moving peloton we’ve ever seen in Het Nieuwsblad followed a couple of minutes later with the ‘start of term’ chat audible from way down the road.
Eventually winner, ‘Styby’ was back among cars with no sign of anxiety.
Time to move, the top of the Leberg and the break had built such a lead – it would top out at 14 minutes – that we missed them. But we did catch the bunch; there was no chat in that peloton this time with Iljo Keisse doing what he gets paid for – hammering away at the front with another four of the windows and floors men in line astern behind him.
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) was looking as cool as ever but it wasn’t his day – or weekend.
Over the cobbles at Mater the break was still looking tidy but behind the pressure was telling with gaps in the peloton and discomfort etched on most faces.
Small wonder, that beast of a man Tim (The Tractor) De Clerq (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) had the pain dialled up to 11 as the Quick-Step purge continued.
Some 30 minutes later we were among the big bucks poseurs at the junction at the top of the Valkenberg; no Decathlon ‘sports’ bikes for these dudes.
The break was still just clear and beginning to look scrappy – dead men walking.
It was still a big bunch with eventual winner Styby looking sharp and top performers next day at Kuurne, Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana) – with beard – and Owain Doull (Sky) – with gel – all at the right end of affairs.
Not so pre-race fave ‘Big Sep’ – who would later put his below par performance down simply to a ‘bad day.’
Our final view point was at the end of the cobbled, roller coaster Haaghoek; but before we even got there the DNF’s were passing us.
Near the junction at the foot of the Leberg we spotted the ‘Stuy Van’ – do you see what they’ve done there?
The break of the day was history by now and the last man to be caught from a counter move which had gone after the Howes break was caught, Baptiste Planckaert (Wallonie) was just being absorbed as he banked left into the foot of the Leberg.
Podium finisher Wellens lead the charge just behind him looking mean.
Next day’s winner Bob Jungels was close behind Wellens and like most everyone else showing the strain a little.
Big Lars Boom (Roompot) was on the limit but it would be wrong to think he’s past ‘sell by’ – he was well to the fore in Tuesday’s Samyn.
Even tractors run out of gas and big De Clerq was quite a ways back.
It was time for us to retire to our trusted haunt ‘t Gaaike to view the finale, it wasn’t too busy and we all had good seats from which to sip our Jupilers. It distilled down to five in the finale; GVA, Wellens, Lutsenko (Astana), Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) and Styby. The first four all have wins this year and if it came to a sprint it was going to be GVA’s – but the Olympic champion had grafted hard to keep them clear and had burned maybe a few matches too many in his efforts to please his home fans and the rabid Belgian cycling media. But the Czech former World ‘cross Champion’s timing was impeccable, just as GVA snuffed a Wellens move he attacked hard, inching away as the rest looked at each other. At the red kite he had 10 seconds and it was Commodore Lefevere’s 11th win of the year.
And as the cocky soccer player who’s just scored the winner are prone tell the hapless goal keeper; ‘you’ll be able to read about it in the paper tomorrow, pal.’
Surprisingly, Quick-Step’s first win here since 2005 when Nick Nuyens did the needful. Time to head back to digs, a pizza, a beer or two and discuss tomorrow’s game plan. . .
Ed and the gang topped off their busy weekend with the cobbles and frites of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday – typical Flemish fare for a ‘race chase’. All the fun of a bike race: Bike spying, mechanic stalking, star spotting and the donkeys, but no glitzy presentation. Proper Flanders.
Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne UCi 1.1 HC is the bridesmaid to Het Nieuwsblad’s UCi WT bride but it’s a race with a long history dating back to 1946 and has some interesting winners including Roger De Vlaeminck, Patrick Sercu, Johan Museeuw, George Hincapie, Cav – and a certain Patrick Lefevere in 1978. Interestingly, it’s one of the very few cobbled races Eddy Merckx didn’t win.
And whilst Styby’s Saturday success in Het Nieuwsblad was Patrick’s team’s first success since 2005, the Deceuninck – Quick-Step boys have often gained revenge on the Sunday with Tom Boonen – three times to make him ‘recordman’ – Nick Nuyens, Steven de Jongh and Mark Cavendish all taking home the donkey trophy.
Kuurne residents are known as ‘donkeys’ but not in disparaging terms, a tribute to their work ethic and stubbornness.
KBK is much less glam than the Omloop with no glitzy presentations, the teams roll up, park the busses in the main street and pedal off to the sign on, through the crowd.
Stalking the mechanics is no problem, albeit we kept clear of the Bahrain dude with the evil eye; standing ready with the hand held compressor as his buddy smothered the chain with lube on what looked like it was going to be a wet day.
And if you thought the single ring dies with Aqua Blue – not so, Trek are experimenting with it.
And whilst you can’t get near the Deceuninck – Quick-Step or Lotto Soudal bus, Movistar’s Canyon’s sit sad and lonely – Spanish cobble guys? Nee, nee, nee – not since Flecha anyway.
And the jury is out on big Conor Dunne’s paint job over at Israel Cycling Academy.
The mood at the start is kinda chilled with Roompot DS Erik Breukink chewing the fat with old friends.
And ‘Le Gorille’ just hops on his bike right beside you to pedal up to the sign on.
Lithuanians Bagdonas (AG2R-La Mondiale) – current national champion – and former champ, Konovalovas (Groupama-FDJ) were all smiles despite the rain.
Why, even that baby faced Dutch hitman Niki (Direct Energie) had a smile.
And there’s always the crazy band at the start.
Our first sighting of the race was just 12K in at the top of the cobbled Volkegemberg – definitely no smiles and the hurt well on.
We had to watch our toes as riders kamikaze dived for the smooth concrete gutter and brief respite from the horror of the Kasseien.
We waited to see the juniors through, a huge field with an eventual Dutch winner, four Brits in the top 10 and the best home boy 11th – questions will be asked.
Out in the open country and you come across little shrines – it would nice to hear the story behind each one.
The first junior ‘hors de combats’ were soon filling the front windscreen as Dave navigated us through the network of tiny roads.
It was half distance before we caught the race again – it’s a hard race to see more than a few times due to the nature of the parcours which describe a big, flattened eastward loop. Former Dutch Elite Champion and six day man, Pim Ligthart (Direct Energie) was the most prominent name in the seven man break topping Hotard a couple of minutes clear, a long drag rather than a ‘berg.’
Silvan Dillier (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Thomas Boudat (Direct Energie) led the chase on behalf of Jurgen Roelandts and Niki respectively.
Our next sighting was up on the ridge road where bearded Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana) led the break through at warp speed.
But with Iljo and another couple of Deceuninck – Quick-Steps leading the screaming bunch you know the breakaways are living on borrowed time.
We just made it to the top of the infamous Oude Kwaremont in time to catch the break with the big Dane Nielsen still on point.
Behind, it was Belgian Champion Yves Lampaert heading the Deceuninck – Quick-Step frenzy.
We had European Champion Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) down as one of our faves for the win but he was not enjoying the Kwaremont and would eventually pack with one lap of the finishing circuit to ride following a hard chase back after a spill.
KBK is a ‘sprinters race’ – however in the last decade there have been solo winners in Bobby Traksel 2010 and Jasper Stuyven 2016 – but the pure sprinters have to suffer to get over the Kwaremont with German Champion Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and ex-French Champion Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) deep in the red at the top.
‘Smiler’ Bagdonas was wearing a very different expression from his happy Kuurne visage.
And all we could to help GB team pursuit and TT star Harry Tanfield (Katusha-Alpecin) was to give him a good shout – he was hurting bad.
Time for our KBK finale hang-out of several years, bar L’Escale in Ronse, across from the station with a big TV, cool Jupiler and an understanding owner – not much else a man can ask for. With a little over an hour to go Bob Jungels (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale), Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First), Davide Ballerini and Magnus Cort (both Astana) were clear and working smoothly with Deceuninck – Quick-Step doing their best to keep the gap for Big Bob. Unsurprisingly, Cort was first to pop, he’d been away for most of the day and just when it looked like the other four were going to get caught, Jungels attacked with 17K to go.
He’d ride those pan flat kilometres around the finish circuit like a train holding off the chasers to score a beautiful solo victory with young GB SKY man taking an excellent second place behind him, Niki was third and last year’s winner, Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) best of the pure sprinters in fourth spot and Le Gorille eighth. Let’s not forget that this is the first time in 35 years (Panasonic with Planckaert and Lammertink) that the same team has won both races.
Time for handshakes all round and to head off in search of frites – that didn’t take long – then the drive back to Gent on low adrenalin. Not long until the Belgian Champs though. . .
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,800 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.