Flanders Week: The Viewing Guide
If you ever plan to head to Europe for a cycling related holiday and want something different from France in July, there is no better pace to be than Belgium at Easter. Along with the Vlaamse Wielerweek, taking a long weekend break around the time of the Tour of Flanders might just allow you to return home and hold court at the coffee shop, describing to your wide eyed friends about how you were riding the last section of the Koppenberg when Tom, Peter or Oscar whistled past you with their whole team on a reconnaissance ride.
By Matt Conn
Preparation is the Key
There are an increasing number of professionally organised tour companies, (one of the best is VeloClassic Tours), providing fully guided services for the Spring Classic season, but it is possible to do it alone and still get a genuine experience of following one of the most exciting one day races of the cycling calendar.
A three day break of Friday, Saturday and Sunday will allow for just about everything: on Friday you can check out the route for De Ronde at the same time some of the teams will be doing their pre-race check, you can ride the course in the cyclo-sportive event on Saturday, and then catch the race itself on the Sunday, at a few different positions that you have mapped out.
With so much racing in Belgium at this time of year, you can arrive a week early to catch the Three Days of De Panne or stay on a week after for Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. The Three Days of DePanne can be a great opportunity to check out some of the roads, hills and riders without the crush that will come all along the route of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Zottegem, which is mid way between Brussels and Gent and then south towards Geraadsbergen, is probably the best place to check out the Three days of DePanne. You can easily mingle with the riders after the finish of the stage on Tuesday or in the morning before the start of the next stage on Wednesday. Getting there is easy too, with a 40 minutes direct trip on the train line from either Gent or Brussels, with trains leaving every hour.
This isn’t exactly the map that’ll help you find your way around Flanders, but it’s a start.
Checking out the Course for De Ronde
For the Tour of Flanders, a good map of the area is must. If you are in Belgium the week of the race, fear not, as every newspaper will publish their guide to De Ronde which will include a detailed map of the Flemish Ardennes with the course marked out and every hill and cobbled section covered. The same newspapers will bombard you with stories and pictures relating to the upcoming race, recap on the best races or the closest battles from the past and carry the tips for Sunday’s race from many different sources that might range from the King of Belgium (Albert II) through to the King of Belgium (Eddy Merckx).
There are a variety of online resources, and the race’s own website, RVV.be, has information about the course, as well as maps and race history. There is an English version on offer for those to whom spoken Flemish sounds more like a person with pneumonia trying to clear their chest.
Hills…lots and lots of them.
Head Out On The Friday
The Friday before the race is the best day to head out and see the course. Either in a car or on the bike, head down to Oudenaarde where the key climbs are all within striking distance. You can make your way from the Kortekeer (climb 7) across to Brakel (where Peter van Petegem is the local boy) to the Valkenberg, Tenbosse and the new kid in town, the Eikenmolen. With the roads clogged with cyclotourists (or “psycho-terrorists” based on how some ride) on the Saturday, many of the teams head out onto the latter stages of the course on Friday.
You’re bound to run into somebody if you’re on the roads on Friday.
If you take your time to seek out the various hills in this area, chances are you will be passed by one of the squads out for their final re-con ride before Sunday’s big event.
The legendary Muur van Geraadsbergen is the second to last and probably most famous climb of the Tour of Flanders. With an average gradient of 9.3% but boasting sections as steep as 20%, with 240km already in the legs, it is here that the cream of the crop will try and make their bid for victory. From the top of the Muur it is another four or five kilometres to climb 17, The Bosberg.
There’s a good chance that if the pros are walking em, it’s going to be ridiculous.
TV and magazine pictures do not do justice to just how steep climbs like the Oude Kwaremont, Koppenberg and Muur Van Geraadsbergen are. Combine that with just how fast the professional riders can actually ride and you could be forgiven for thinking that The Muur has a bit of false flat over some quite bumpy cobbled roads. Walking or riding some of these hills will bring home just how steep and difficult these climbs are for mere mortals.
Is there any better reason to do the Cyclosportif than to ride the Muur?
Race Your Own Ronde
On the Saturday before the race is the cyclotourist Tour of Flanders. If you have your bike, you can join the 14 to 16 thousand other people who will ride between 75 and 260km over the course. As not everyone is a Tom Boonen in disguise, the organisers have three different courses that you can enter.
The 75km event starts in Ninove (where the Ronde proper finishes on Sunday) and starts with the Leberg (climb 12 in the Pro Race) and then follows the course through to the finish. The 140km event also starts in Ninove and heads towards Zottegem and Zwalm for the climb of the Molenberg, which is then followed by the same final 110km the professionals will ride the day after. For the serious cafй racer, there is the 5.00am start, the bus trip to Brugge and the full 256km race course. Of the 15,000 riders who took part in 2006, more than 2000 completed the full race distance.
THOUSANDS of cycling fans take to the tiny Flanders roads for their own bit of glory.
Amongst the starters in last year’s cyclotourist event were Sven Nijs and one J. Museeuw (possibly looking for win number four in his home town event). Now part of the UCI’s Golden Bike series, the route is well signposted and the event is well organised. If you do ride, be sure to remember that you don’t have open roads and you do have to obey the road rules. Best to stay on the correct side of the road and not charge through red lights as part of a pace line that is racing to beat the crowds to the top of the Oude Kwaremont.
With the skills of the participants ranging from absolute beginner through to wanna-be pros, it will not be everyone’s idea of fun. If it isn’t your scene, Friday may be the day to make the trip over the famous climbs on the bike and use Saturday to check out Gent, Brussles or Brugge, where the start will be on Sunday morning.
Where and How to watch Sunday’s Race
The best option really is to see the race somewhere early (eg the first feed) then go somewhere later in the race where the course winds around like a snake and there are opportunities to jump from point to point. This is possible with both a bike and a car. By car and without a really good knowledge of the local roads, it would be reasonable to see the race three or four times without risking life and limb.
Thanks to a sound knowledge of the small roads combined with a bit of recon work on the Friday with a local driver, Johan “John” Jacobs, I managed to see the peloton pass five times in 2005, beginning with the first feed at Km 88 and appropriately finishing with the final corner at 500m to go.
As with the Tour de France and all European cycling events, the Tour of Flanders gets bigger every year and more and more people turn out to try and catch the race as it flies by at as many different locations as possible. If you are joining this particular circus, a good tip is to not wait for the whole peloton to pass you buy. Watch the leaders and then hot foot it back to the car. If you hang around to enjoy the atmosphere, you will find yourself at the back of a 20 car traffic jam, trying to exit out of a small lane into traffic that has been diverted around the race.
The organisers are actively discouraging people from racing from one place to the next as it causes all sorts of congestion on minor roads, and the police have been out in force in recent years to put a stop to the “sport” of trying to beat the maximum number of viewings in one day.
If the frantic race chase is too much, settle down in a bar and watch it live – because more than likely you ain’t gonna see Boonen’s winning attack and Belgian helping hand immediately thereafter.
For a “beginner” with a car, a good plan would be the first feed and then onto one of the more famous climbs later in the race.
Geraadsbergen always have a festival atmosphere and after seeing the riders pass through the first feed zone, there is plenty of time to drive to Geraadsbergen, park the car and set yourself up in a Cafe to watch the race unfold. Just make sure that you don’t drink too much of the local brew, as you will need your wits about you as you elbow your way through the crow to see the riders pass by.
If you don’t have a car, a trip to Brugge may be a good starting point to join the crowds in the Market for the sign on. As the riders depart, a leisurely stroll to the train station and a trip to Geraadsbergen will bring you to a train station that is again within walking distance of a key point in the race.
Running around to see the race is fun, but enjoying a few of these in a cafe alongside the course isn’t such a bad option either.
With the quality of modern television coverage, having access to a television will certainly give you the best seats in the house. If you can find a cafe along the race route you will be made to feel welcome by the locals and you will be able to soak up the atmosphere of de Ronde, still see them live as they race past, but not miss any of the action as you see the faces of the riders close up, over every hill and important section of cobbles.
Now that is a story for the coffee shop!
Belangarijk Zinswendingen (Some important Phrases).
It is true that you could happily live in Belgium for years and get by speaking only English. To get the most out of your trip, however you will need to know a few words in the local lingo. Officially the Language is Nederlands (Dutch) but the people of Flanders speak their own dialect, called Flemish (or Vlaamse).
De Ronde van Vlaanderen – The Tour of Flanders (a.k.a De Ronde)
Aankomst – Arrival
Bevoorading – Feed zone
Kassein – Cobblestones (pave is French)
Hellingen – Hills (“Bergs” is an English varient of Bergen, which means mountains)
Fiets – Bike
Kop van de Wedstrijd – Head of the competition or the front group on the road.
Koplopers – the members of the front group
Achtervolgers – the chasers
Lekke Band – Flat Tire
Nog – Still or yet. Used to describe how many climbs remaining in the race or how many kilometres from the finish eg Nog twee helingen (you’re just approaching the Muur)
Ploeg – Team.
Ploegleider – DS,
Ploegwagon – Team cars
Renners – Riders
Sterk – Strong
Valpartij – A crash
Voorsprong – Advance. Eg a “Voorsprong van 30 seconden”.
Muur van Geraadsbergen – “Wall” of Geraadsbergen. No need to translate it. Don’t follow the lead of some UK magazines and refer to it as “Geraadsbergen’s Muur de Grammont”. Grammont is the name of the town in French, Geraadsbergen is the name for the same town in Felmish. Also, NEVER call the Muur “The Grammont”. No one calls the Champs Elysees “The Paris” do they?
If you can’t get your tongue around Geraadsbergen, just call it what he locals do. The “Muur”.