PEZ Roadside: Aalst Post-Tour Crit
Roadside in Aalst: Ed Hood had to drag himself away from the Paris finalé of the Tour de France and where did he go? Yes, another bike race. Also on the list of participants was Tour winner Chris Froome and points winner, Peter Sagan along with some of the other Tour riders and some top Belgian riders. Aalst was the venue and it was beer and frites all the way for Ed and Callum, in the Flemish style, to beat the post-Tour blues.
It’s the same every year, the Tour finishes and then . . .
Monday morning: scan L’Equipe as you drink over-priced coffee in Montmartre, wander the book kiosks on the left bank, have a croquet monsieur among the polished timber and red leather of the Cafe de Flore?
Subject yourself to a Navy Seals initiative test to see how you can get from Paris to deepest Belgium for Monday night and then fly home from Germany, Tuesday lunch time using numerous trains, forced marches, shuttle buses and hire cars.
No contest. . .
Aalst and the annual post-Tour criterium; there are frites and tins of Jupiler within yards of the station – ahh! That’s better! Next up, find the circuit – not hard, it snakes through the heart of the town and is completely barriered.
Penny farthings? – well, it’s Belgium and you never know quite what to expect; I remember once I was at a kermis with PEZ’s cycling soothsayer, Viktor and the ‘old ordinaries’ appeared – I thought I was going to have to resuscitate him.
One of the best Classics riders who ever lived; one of the best climbers of all time (maybe the best) and a Tour green jersey; Roger De Vlaeminck, Lucien Van Impe and Frankie Hoste – we should really be on our knees in front of these men.
But no, they’re riding the “Gentlemen’s” race – to not much fanfare, it must be said.
From times more recent there’s Ronde and Roubaix winners ‘De Pete’ – Peter Van Petegem and ‘Il Gladiatore’ – Andrea Tafi, who still looks in good nick and would run out eventual winner.
But if you ask me, if it had been ‘straight’ then there would have only been one winner, ‘Rambo;’ former Belgian Elite Road Race Champion – beating Boonen and Gilbert to win that one – Niko Eeckhout, who’s back racing as an amateur and winning kermises.
But the crits are about entertainment – witness Paul De Baeremaeker, who took a lap out for a beer . . .
And Classics King, Johan Museeuw was there – on disc brakes and one of his own flax frames – must be one of the ones that didn’t break. . .
Once the ‘oldies’ had cleared the circuit it was time – about 40 minutes behind schedule – for the main event; Christopher ‘Skeletor’ Froome v. Peter ‘Hulk’ Sagan.
Christopher is many things as a bike rider – but a Crit King isn’t one of them. . .
When we spoke to the organisers about getting credentials we were told that there was already a waiting list of 15 due to the huge demand to be a photog on the circuit – and there certainly were plenty of big lenses on show.
The other man with a jersey was Topsport’s 33 year-old Belgian Elite Road Race Champion, Preben Van Hecke; never underestimate those Topsport boys – they won Paris-Tours, remember?
Best view point on the circuit was a first floor balcony with a bar on one side and frituur on the other – close to Nirvana.
And in 30 years time come the Aalst Crit, this wee chap will be dragging his kids to the barriers to watch the renners, just like his dad did with him.
It’s all a big show; entertainment – but it’s well organised, looks spectacular on the small, tight circuit and drew plenty of Media attention.
Furthest traveled spectators were Naveen John and Sarvesh Sangaraya standing to the left and right respectively of Kingsnorth Cycling Club stalwart, Ian Witehead. Kingsnorth has been the route into the Flanders scene for many years, providing accommodation at the legendary farm near Gent, advice and support – Cannondale-Garmin’s Jack Bauer is perhaps their biggest success. Naveen and Sarvesh are over from Bangalore in India to sample the joys of the cobbles and crosswinds for themselves.
And a Belgian race with no frites – unthinkable. These guys had the real deal mega mayo pumps – which look as if they were originally designed for the grease to lube a John Deere combine harvesters with.
Froome took a lap out at one stage; we’re not sure why – maybe it was for a beer, like Paul De Baeremaeker? UCi rules don’t mean much here; it’s all about spectacle and people having a great night – and it’s all free.
As the evening wore on the light started to go, the pace rose markedly and the cyclo-cross riders who had been making up the numbers quietly disappeared.
Whilst we said it’s all free, that’s except the pils; owning a bar in Aalst on this night would put you well on your way to your first million as the drinkers spilled out on to the streets.
Inside 10 laps the back straight was just one long line with Sagan usually causing the problems.
Serge Pauwels was well ‘in the mix’ off the back of a successful Tour de France for the affable Belgian and his MTN team.
Nico Roche was there too; the deal is that the Tour winner will get to bring a domestique or two with him to share in the contract fees – Nico suffered stoically in silence as he had to kick out of all those corners.
But the night belonged to Sagan, who for most of the race sat on the flat of the bars but as the night wore on got a little more serious, checking behind to see the damage he’d done – or maybe just to make sure Chris was there so he could get second spot. . .
Whichever, the Slovak won from Froome and Van Hecke – we didn’t see the finale, we had to bolt to catch our train with three or four laps to go. Next years we’ll stay in Aalst and sample the pils and frites as we hang over the barriers. There’s no finer way to beat the post-Tour blues.
It didn’t all go to plan for Peter Sagan:
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 1,100 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.