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Gent - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Peter SAGAN (Slowakia / Team Bora - Hansgrohe) - Greg VAN AVERMAET (Belgium / BMC Racing Team) - Sep VANMARCKE (Belgium / Cannondale Drapac Professsional Cycling Team) on the cobblestones of the Lange Munte pictured during Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Mannen Elite UCI World Cup Race - photo PN/Cor Vos © 2017

Kuurne & Nieuwsblad: Why We Love These Cobbled Classics

The cobble season starts on Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then rattles into Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne on Sunday. Make no mistake, these races are for the hard men of the roads and if you win one you will never have to buy a beer in Flanders for the rest of your life. As Ed Hood readies himself to fly off to Belgium, he looks back at his visits to the ‘cobbles weekend’ from 2010 to 2015.

Gent - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Greg VAN AVERMAET (Belgium / BMC Racing Team) - Sep VANMARCKE (Belgium / Cannondale Drapac Professsional Cycling Team) - Peter SAGAN (Slowakia / Team Bora - Hansgrohe) pictured during Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Mannen Elite UCI World Cup Race - photo PN/Cor Vos © 2017

There’s not a camel, sandstorm, baby kangaroo, tube of ‘factor 50’ or tiny climber in sight. However, we will be seeing, cobbles, manure, beer and maybe a little ice; and there will actually be spectators roadside – not like some races we could mention. Yes, all that’s gone before becomes incidental as the first ‘real deal’ hardcore races of season approach – Het Nieuwsblad nee Het Volk/Gent-Gent and her bridesmaid, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. I thought we’d take a wander back through my ‘Belgian weekends’ from 2010 to 2015, to give you a flavour for what they’re all about.

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‘Start’ says the Het Nieuwsblad headline – and this is indeed the start of the Classics season with the race which takes its name from the sponsoring paper, taking in many of the cobbled sections and steep ramps which the Tour of Flanders will incorporate in April. But on the 200 K mark it’s almost two hours shy of Ronde distance and a much more open race.

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And here in the Heartland, it matters; the race isn’t just a PR exercise or glorified training camp – even the builders stop what they’re doing to catch sight of the peloton in the early stages.

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It was that rare creature, a Spaniard who loves the cobbles, Juan Antonio Flecha who gave the fledgling Sky squad the best possible start to the season with a great win. But just like that Jack Nicholson movie, that was ‘As Good As It Gets’ for Rupert Murdoch’s boys in 2010.

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And if you’ve ever wanted to buy some cobbles – here’s where you apply.

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Kuurne 2010 in a word – ‘Hellish.’ Gale force winds and freezing rain were the order of the day in a race where, to quote Billy Paul; ‘Only The Strong Survive.’ When you see a man as tough as Jez Hunt slam the brakes on, whilst in a small group still racing for a top place, then jump straight in the team car – enough said.

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Kuurne is the ‘consolation’ race of the weekend; if you blow it in Het Nieuwsblad then you can salvage things on Sunday. But it’s also a race where the ‘second string’ guys have a chance, especially on a day like this where a veteran hard man like Bobby Traksel comes into his own, scoring the biggest win of his life.

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But wind, rain, cold it makes no difference to the fans, as long as they have a beer and a TV to scurry back to then all’s well.

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A year passes and we’re back in the Heartland for another wet Net Nieuwsblad; in the week when we lost Claudy Criquielion we remember the town where visited upon him the biggest disappointment of his life, rip Claudy.

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It was another ‘video nasty’ of a day; as you eat breakfast and the rain tries to hammer through the windows, one part of you thinks; ‘aw no, it’s foul out there, we’ll get soaked and frozen!’ But then another part thinks; ‘Yes! Real race!’

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But for the hard core – as we said earlier, as long as there’s pils to be drunk. . .

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Some guys love the rain and cold – Tommy Voeckler isn’t one of them – give that man a boiling hot day in the Alps any time, so as his jersey can flap, you can almost hear him thinking here; ‘what the hell am I doing here?’

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That hardy man from Argentina via Spain, Flecha was there again – but Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld was just toooo quick for him at the line.

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It was too nice a day to expect an epic Kuurne but this chap seemed to be looking forward to it. And Harold Melvin warned us about these guys; ‘the bookies get ya, for every cent you got…’

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We repaired to L’Escale in Ronse where we watched a surprising CJ Sutton take the gallop for Sky – not a vintage Kuurne…

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We had an invite to the Quick-Step press conference on the Friday; no prizes for guessing who was the main event. Tom Boonen has star quality by the kilo but is still grounded and full of fun – we love him.

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However, we wouldn’t be smiling quite so much at the finish on Saturday when Sep Vanmarcke out dragged him; we were there when the big guns got serious and the split happened.

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And when we saw Gent-Gent joint ‘recordman’ on three wins, the harder than hard ‘De Pete’ Van Petegem smiling out at us from the little caff window we knew we had our spot to watch the finale.

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Even if you’re not riding Kuurne you have to get out and get the hours in; we spied Serge Pauwels on the concrete section clocking up the K’s on a day which was too dry and calm to produce an epic edition.

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And sure enough, it came down to a sprint with Cav ‘honouring the rainbow jersey’ – we watched in our private viewing room in the back of L’Escale . . .

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The parcours for Het Nieuwsblad is real, villages, towns, woods – and farmlands where the business of tilling and tending the soil goes in right up to the morning of the race.

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And despite the aroma, the boys need their frites!

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And this really was one for the hard men with ice on the puddles endorsing that the temperature was well on the wrong side of zero with a wind that sliced through you like a knife.

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Little Italian, Luca Paolini proved that as well as being a tactical fox, he’s an Arctic fox at that, out-toughing the Belgian hard men in their own back yard.

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‘When the north wind doth blow… This was the scene at the top of the Oude Kwaremont – we had to check that the organisers had made the correct decision, didn’t we?

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But we didn’t waste the day, Callum got to meet boyhood hero, Freddy Maertens at the Ronde Museum. . .

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Whilst Dave got to reminisce about the days when he was a VC Roubaix man when we headed down there to see the new indoor track.

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There were no concerns about it being a ‘wimps race’ last year, it was freezing – again. In this shot eventual winner, Ian Stannard keeps his powder dry for that vital last hour; ‘which is the race’ as ex-Peugeot pro Billy Bilsland always says. Meanwhile, tough Aussie, recently crowned 2015 Australian Elite Road Race Champion reminds us that, ‘gloves are for girls.’

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As the day went on the rain decided to add to the pain with Greg Van Avermaet well to the fore; Stannard would join him in the lead and they’d fight out a two-up sprint that the big Englishman – perhaps surprisingly – won.

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And it wasn’t just the riders who took a battering; many a rear mech dangled in the breeze at the finish.

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It was obvious that Patrick Lefevere was not a happy Capo after Het Nieuwsblad – that would explain five Quick-Steps in the first nine behind the break on the Oude Kwaremont. And at the line honour was (almost) restored as Tom Boonen took what would be his biggest win of 2014 and made himself KBK ‘recordman’ on three victories.

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German champion, super sprinter, Andre Greipel almost landed on our amigo Callum who leapt clear as the big man proved he’s better at sprinting than he is at cyclo-cross.

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All that remained for us to do was find our last frites of the weekend . . . .

There aren’t many fairy tales in cycling; but when one rider is out numbered three to one by riders from the strongest team in professional cycling and then wins – it does have the ring of Hans Christian Andersen to it. Ian Stannard (Sky & GB) rode a terrific race to win but it has to said that the Quick-Step trio of Stijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra and Tom Boonen displayed stupefying tactical ineptitude.

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The questions Etixx – Quick-Step head honcho Patrick Lefevere would ask on Saturday night were:

* Why did they give Stannard a free ride for so long – shouldn’t some of Vandenbergh’s bestial strength been used to attack Stannard and force him to work rather than just dragging the other three across Flanders?

* Why didn’t Terpstra attack Stannard before Boonen did, again to make the Englishman work, then have Boonen go?

* Why did Terpstra lead the sprint out?

It’s not often I walk out of a bar stunned but without having touched alcohol – I did on this day. What should have be Boonen’s re-confirmation turned into a disaster. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of Patrick Lefevere’s tongue, that night.

But let’s start at the beginning – the ‘phone rings, it’s Viktor, there are no pleasantries; ‘what’s the weather like out there?’ he barks.

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‘It’s a nice day, Vik – cold but bright,’ I reply.

‘It’ll be a s***e race then!’ says PEZ’s cycling sage and Flatlands race pundit.

He did get that wrong but he did have a point, it’s the cold, wind and rain which make the difference between a hard Het Nieuwsblad and a totally savage one. Today is chilly and there’s stinging wind but you really need rain/sleet/snow to ice the cake and swing the advantage to the Hard Men. Perhaps it’s not hard enough for Stannard to win today?

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And on the subject of Het Nieuwsblad 2014, the runner up – and another of the tough guys – Greg Van Avermaet was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons, this morning. But we’ll not go into that.

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It’s business as usual at St. Pietersplein with even the heavy metal fans checking out the new hardware; and there are familiar faces from the past – Johan Museeuw still looks good but Nico Mattan always did like a beer…

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And good to see a proper retro machine with full 70’s Dura Ace and even a Flandria bottle in the cage.

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There are new allegiances on display, too; after years of loyalty to French frames, from MBK to Look, Cofidis have crossed the Pyrenees and joined force with the Spanish builder so long associated with Euskaltel – Orbea. But the 11:35 roll out is looming and if we’re to beat the traffic mayhem we best bolt. The crossroads at Oosterzele is our first vantage point, 30 minutes in, the sun is out but it’s cold and the wind sharp is as sharp as a scalpel.

Six are clear by around 1:30 with two in between; the peloton is gutter to gutter and there’s no panic back there.

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Meanwhile, Sir Brad is back at the car; “this wind is playing hell with my beard, Rod!”

The Leberg, two hours in and the six desperadoes have 6:40 on the sheriff’s men with stubborn Sean De Bie still in no man’s land betwixt break and bunch.

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Stone last, with a mechanic hanging out of the team car to tend his bike is Greg Van Avermaet – it’s not his day…

At the top of the climb there are around 100 tractors parked up; it’s a demonstration about the fact that naturalists are imposing restrictions upon the men in rubber boots to protect the flora and fauna making it ever more difficult for farmers to till the soil and make a living.

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On one banner asserts that the Flemish Ardennes without farmers would be like Gent’s red light district without, well, let’s call them… “Ladies.” A group of intrepid fans have taken to the bucket of one of the farmer’s rigs to get better pictures – it must be damn cold up there.

Next up it’s Zegelsem at the end of the Haaghoek cobbles – a roller coaster on granite sets. The first pass they go left up the Leberg but on the second it’s straight on and through Zegelsem with the third pass taking them up the Leberg, again.

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Pass two on the Haaghoek sees the break’s advantage halved as the peloton turns the knob up to 11 – Sir Brad leads a group of perhaps 30/40 riders with a single file ‘tail’ dangling behind. Desperate men are fighting for their place in the line, some are trying to sneak up the inside, out of the wind and come perilously close to our toes as carbon rims ‘clack’ on the ‘kasseien’.

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Sky’s CJ Sutton – a previous winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne calls it a day, glad to get into dry clothing and jump in to the back of the car. We follow suit and jump in the Hyundai, it’s cold out there.

The third pass with 40 K to go sees the race really take shape as they head up the Leberg again, the break has evaporated and Boonen and Vandenbergh force it at the head with Stannard well there.

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Winner from two years ago Sep Vanmarcke (Belgium & LottoNL-Jumbo) punctures going in to the corner and has to change a wheel – life is going to be difficult for him.

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The bar t’Gaalke is where we watched Ian Stannard dismantle Greg Van Avermaet last year. But with 40 K to go it looked bleak for the genial former British champion with Quick-Step holding all the cards. It did puzzle us as we watched Stijn, Niki and Tom ride themselves inside out as Ian sat quietly in the slipstream; “when are they going to start jumping him?”

And when they did, it was Boonen who went; why not test Stannard out with a Terpstra attack first Although Niki did look a tad worse for wear in the finale. As confirmed Boonen fans we had wanted him to add the only one of the cobbled races which doesn’t appear on his palmarès. But that said Stannard’s ride was about as fine a piece of bike riding as I’ve ever seen.

En route back to Gent we stopped off at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Centre shop in Oudenaarde to look at ever more over-priced goods that no one really needs – ‘Molteni’ socks? Come on!

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However, we did like the wee tribute to Claudy – rest in peace, Monsieur Criquielion.

Kuurne on Sunday and Quick-Step really have to pull the fat out of the fire – but they’ve done that before…

Ed Hood and his gang will be back in Belgium again this weekend, so keep tuned for his report and for live on-line action on Saturday and Sunday go to Steephill.tv.

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 1,600 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.

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