What's Cool In Road Cycling

Roadside PEZ: Het Nieuwsblad!

Not even the freezing temperatures nor the arctic winds could keep our man Ed Hood away from the races. Every year, as the Belgian opening weekend approaches, the tickets are booked, and he’s there, like clockwork. Let’s take a look at Ed’s day chasing this year’s particularly cold Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, or Gent-Gent as the classicists prefer.

If you had to name just one thing which best defines Gent-Gent (aka Het Nieuwsblad) it would be the ‘hillingen.’ These ancient, steep cobbled ramps take the shortest route up the wooded, elongated hump of the Flemish Ardennes – slicing straight through the contour lines in their anxiousness to leave the flatlands behind.

The actual area which the parcours of the race takes in isn’t huge but with excellent route planning and tight marshalling from an army of volunteers the organisers do a good job of preserving the race’s tough character. Between Friday and Saturday PEZ took in five of the 12 ‘hillingen’ on our travels.

Berendries features in many of the Classics; including The Ronde and De Panne – it’s long, straight and with a tarmac surface isn’t too technical. Its climb two of 12 so doesn’t play a big role – but it’s one of the early straws being piled on the camel’s back.

The break was six minutes clear when they passed us and looking more like a group out on a tough training jag rather that the escape in one of the world’s best known races; and NetApp-Endura’s Zak Dempster hadn’t forgotten his scarf.

The peloton was a long, long line with a gaggle of Sky’s bringing up the rear.

Valkenburg is the sixth climb, a steep snap up through a residential area with the break still four minutes up. But Blanco were on the move and driving things into the tight left hander over the top; with things getting pretty crowded at the back.

The Eikenberg is the ninth severe battle with gravity of the day – it’s a horror, long, cobbled and over banded with tar and with a gradient which varies all the way up. The strong men are in the big ring and wary, with 50 K to go this has been a jumping off point for the win on more than one occasion.

On Saturday the break began to collapse here and the ‘Bigs’ began to bridge up, with ‘Chava’ (Sylvain Chavanel, France) well to the fore – although difficult to recognise in his black QuickStep racing cape.

The 10th nasty of the day is the Varent, we were up there on Friday, it rises through stark open country to an old farm where the spring feed for the beasts is covered by tarpaulin held down with old tyres.

It was bitter up there, catching an evil wind with ice on the puddles – brutal.

The final climb is the Molenberg, not a mega climb but late in the day and with a bad bend at the bottom and a hideous surface. On Saturday, Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium & BMC) looked hugely impressive here in his attempts to whittle down the lead group – but he burned too many matches and was unable to respond when the winning move did go.

But whilst the ‘hillingen’ are still there and preserve the race’s character, there are aspects of the event which make us old dinosaurs wince. We’re not crazy about the start in St. Pietersplein, when the race started just up from the Kuipke six day velodrome, the buses lined up in the road and the fans had much better access to the riders and bikes.

The new start is much less inclusive with some teams tucking the bikes away so as you can’t get near them.

And the slick management of the ‘Flanders Classics’ doesn’t sit well with us – wall to wall VIPs isn’t what it’s meant to be about, in our book.

The pricing of the replica kit for young fans seems crazy to us – 50 Euros for a tiny jersey? But I guess it’s better value than the £140 I saw asked for a kiddies’ Sky jersey in Edinburgh, the other day.

But there are innovations which do lighten our heart; take the MTN-Qhubeka Pro Continental team’s acceptance for the race. One of their main goals is to get free bicycles into under-privileged communities in Africa. If MTN brought a little touch of Africa to Gent, it certainly wasn’t the weather – which was more Siberia than Somalia.

The riders who were just back from the desert races had a real shock to the system as the wind tried to strip the flesh from your bones. The temperature hardly limped above freezing all weekend. Let’s look at the check list; hills, bad weather, and yes, the other thing you need for a Spring Classic is cobbles – the dreaded ‘kassein.’

Some aren’t too savage, well laid and neat – like the switchback of Haaghoek where the peloton’s speed off the drop carries it up the other side in a symphony of clacking rims, punished transmissions and hard breathing.

Padestraat isn’t too savage either, the cobbles are flat – just don’t drop off the edge – but coming late in the day its tough after you’ve ridden the 12 hills, the cold has got to your legs and Vandenbergh has changed up when you changed down. The big Belgian broke the elastic here and took Luca Paolini (Italy & Katusha) with him – the decisive move of the day.

It may be savage for the riders, but for the fans there’s nowhere better to be than around Gent and Oudenaarde in the spring. In the UK the mainstream press is only concerned with Cav, Wiggo, the Tour and Olympics; I was reading an interview with Chris Froome in one of our top daily papers the other day and the sports writer reckoned that Chris ‘peddled’ off on a training ride . . .

Even the Lance scandal hardly dented the tabloid press’s blanket coverage of soccer.

In Belgium on Saturday you could pick up two excellent full colour guides to the races and riders of 2013 with your morning paper.

And then there’s the beer – new brands spring up all the time and you’ll find beautiful signage promoting beer brands on old buildings in the middle of nowhere.

But back in Gent some of those old bars really should try harder on the stock rotation front.

Frites and beer are the hi-lite of any trip to Belgium – you’re never far from a frituur in Flanders.

The first one we ventured into over the weekend had a picture of Eddy Merckx on the wall and cold Jupiler in the fridge – Nirvana.

But for all the beer, frites and pagan idolatry of bike riders, you’ll turn a corner in some wee village and be confronted by unexpected and striking imagery – this is still a religious country.

But back to the race, you know that it’s close when the photogs and soigneurs take up station.

And real close when course director and joint race ‘recordman’ with three wins, Peter Van Petegem’s head appears, his eyes peering intently back down the little roads he knows so well.

And then the stars come out; Bauer, Roelandts, Tomeke – inspiring huge cheers at the sight of his Belgian champion’s jersey – and Greg Van Avermaet.

But we liked this image of Greg which sits outside of our haunt, De Nieuwe Keizer better than our photograph of him.

But it’s not all beauty in the bunch – hard shell helmet covers, we say; ‘no.’ However, we said the same thing when the old leather ‘hairnet’ crash hats gave way to the current style of helmet – maybe they’ll grow on us?

And fluoro yellow leg warmers – they’re simply not correct!

At the climax of a Classic it’s useless trying to drive, the roads are clogged with people like you, thinking that they can make the last climb/finish in time – usually you don’t.
That’s where De Nieuwe Keizer comes in; on the Oudenaarde to Brakel road, the pils is good and the plasma screen is sharp. You just have to try hard to ignore the guys who chain smoke and munch sausage of really dubious origin as you think; ‘what the hell is he eating?’

But with a huge banner displaying Eddy Merckx in his prime hung over the door, let’s not get picky. The finale wasn’t one for the thrill seekers, more for those who appreciate the nuances of men having nothing left; legs being unable to do what heads want them to and dour struggles to the death – Stalingrad on tubulars.

Vandenbergh’s move wasn’t spectacular; he just laid down some more watts, took the pain and prized open a gap of a few metres.

As Boonen said; ‘Paolini is a killer’ and the little Italian’s feral instincts told him to go with the Belgian. Behind, four-and-a-half hours of pedalling in temperatures below freezing, 12 nasty climbs, misjudgement and politics all played their part as the unlikely team time trial duo eased away, millimetre by millimetre.

Realistically, there was only ever going to be one winner – Paolini has twice stood on the podium in the Primavera – and the sprint was a formality for him. There was joy, but no little relief in his victory salute. Vandenbergh was pleased enough with second, podiums don’t come around too often for work horses like him. Perhaps not a great Gent-Gent, but a damn cold and tough one – you’ll hear no complaints from us about it.

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