Roadside PEZ: The Championship Of Flanders
It was 1908 when Robert Wancour scored the first of his two wins in the Championship of Flanders; 102 years later the pils still flows in the square at Koolskamp as 172 ‘deelnemers’ line up for the UCI 1.1 95th edition over 15 laps of a 12 kilometre circuit – a total of 180 windy kilometres. PEZ was on hand to enjoy one of the season’s great races in Belgium.
The disparity in the race’s age and the number of editions is due to the World Wars; but even then, the race was held in 1941, ’42, ’43 and ’45.
The sun was splitting the skies, but there was an edge on the wind as we nosed the PEZ hire car into the bus park.
This is a race where very big teams – QuickStep, Omega Pharma – Lotto, Rabobank, HTC, Katusha and Radioshack compete against much smaller ones, like Team NetApp and Team Worldofbike.gr.
The buses for the Pro Tour teams were mostly parked out of town to avoid the autograph hunters and tyre pinchers.
The autograph hunters come armed with back packs full of team post cards, photos they’ve printed off the ‘net and the objective of getting the autograph of every rider in the peloton – some say it’s sad but Vik and I understand them.
Katusha’s Pro Tour and Continental teams were in the bus park as were Pro Continental squad with big ideas, Vacansoleil – looking very professional; it was lower key over at NetApp though.
Vacansoleil’s Romain Feillu -eventual third on the day – was sporting compression socks on his way to the strip – we’re not sure about the look. Meanwhile, the Skil guys were enjoying the sun.
Up at the start the fans were gathering, one old guy sporting a ‘Jempi Monsere, Leicester 1970’ black rainbow jersey in memory of the charismatic young Belgian star who died in a crash in 1971 whilst wearing the rainbow jersey he won at Mallory Park, Leicester in August 1970.
HTC Columbia’s Aleksejs Saramotins – who would win the GP Isbergues at the weekend – was looking cool in his Latvian national champion’s jersey. So was big Kiwi Clinton Avery who’s riding stagiaire for The Shack – we asked if the new kit and bike means he gets an upgrade in the female fan department but he explained to us that it doesn’t work that way. And Lars Boom towered over everyone, on the start line.
Legendary ‘programas’ seller, Freddy Mestdagh was hard at work – as was the burger guy. Not forgetting the dried fish sellers; the finned fiends smell terrible, God knows how they must taste – you tear it into lumps, chew it to a pulp then spit it out.
With the pro race watchers set up for the day, the Euro pop pumping – the sound of this Summer is ‘No parle Americano’ – the sun shining and a Ford Thunderbird for a lead car, the 95th Championship of Flanders was ‘on.’
The break went early and would stay away for most of the race, best known was big Shack German, Gregory Raast.
The bunch was chilled as the early laps clicked up; Cadel was smiling, chatting and looking like he was enjoying the sun on his skin. Skil’s ever popular Kenny Van Hummel was right at the back, laughing and joking.
With the break established at +2:25 and the peloton’s chase not too determined there was only one thing to do – go for frites.
The frites shop was doing good business and whilst the service wasn’t the quickest, we didn’t miss a lap.
Back on Koolskamp High Street the break toiled on, but the gap was coming down slowly. QIN coffee shop’s English rider, James Spragg was active in the peloton and so was tree trunk legged Belgian amateur champion, Rob Gorus (Palmans Cras))
At the half way point the break’s advantage was headed down towards one minute as BMC’s red devils organised the chase – seven of them lined out through the streets of Koolskamp with the big bunch crammed into the narrow gap behind them.
Sometimes it’s a cold life being a bookie – out of the sun it was chilly in Flanders on Friday. Bernie Eisel was favourite to win on the day at 3:1 – but if you fancied a flutter on the Worlds, the board was marked. Cav, Thor, Tyler, Pippo and Philippe Gilbert are all on short odds.
Meanwhile, BMC still drilled it, past the outdoor cafes and the ’75 years of the Championship of Flanders’ memorial.
Stijn Devolder’s Belgian elite champion’s jersey didn’t show much at the front – it’s late in the season, he’s headed for Vacansoleil in 2011 and has decided not to ride the Worlds. His QuickStep team manager Patrick Lefevere became aware of his double Belgian champion’s decision by reading about it in the paper – a state of affairs that left the usually forthright Lefevre almost lost for words – almost, that is.
As the sun lowered in the sky, the break still stuck to the job in hand as Cadel organised his troops for big finisher, Ballan. Once the race was past, Freddy had taken to his bike to try to shift the last few programmes and the marshalls were taking a firm hand down in the finish straight as the soigneurs gathered to look after their men. But if you were on the bus to Roeselare and in a hurry – forget it!
The break succumbed, QIN tried, Beppu tried but it was the Columbia machine in charge now and your money looked good on Bernie.
Cars and motorbikes hurtle past, necks crane and there they are – but no big cheer, you only get that for a Belgian win. It’s Columbia all right, but not Bernie – young Aussie, Leigh Howard.
“It was a pretty straightforward sprint with some great help from my team-mates,” Howard said afterwards. “Bernie and Marcel [Sieberg] gave me the lead out I needed and even though I went for it a bit too early myself, I was able to put my arms in the air to celebrate with 20 or 30 metres to go.”
Those young Aussies make it sound so easy.
Clinton had to drag Gert Steegmans back up after a the tall Belgian punctured; his face showed the effort. Ballan punctured too – the disappointment on his face plain to see. But QIN’s James Spragg didn’t look too stressed after his 180 K and would tell us over a pizza, later the evening that ‘it wasn’t that hard a race.’
All that remained was for PEZ to wander back down to the bus park for a final look, chat to AN Post’s Paidi Obrien then head for Gent – where are we tomorrow ?
Kermis at Eernegem ?
That’ll do nicely.