After attending the Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, and already booked for Gent Wevelgem on Sunday, it was always going to be doubtful that I would make the E3 – Three trips across the Channel in just one week is a bit much… But then Rigoberto went and smashed it at Catalunya and within an hour of him crossing the finishing line I was at Dover’s Eastern Docks buying tickets for another 06:00 ferry and live cycling fix!
Arriving at Harelbeke around 10:45 I followed TomTom’s directions until I was just under half a mile from the start and parked at the first available spot. A brisk walk later I found the team buses that were parked a fair distance from the course and already busy with hundreds of fans.
It was interesting to see that at this World Tour event spectators had free access to the teams and their sporting heroes whilst the organisers at the inferiorly graded Dwars door Vlaanderen denied that opportunity to anyone that didn’t, or couldn’t, pay for the privilege..!
The Sky bus was parked right at the end of the road which meant that I had to fight my way through the hoards of Lotto, Omega Pharma Quick-Step and BMC, well, Phillippe Gilbert, fans before I saw the blue Dogma’s lined up outside the Sky bus. I didn’t have to wait too long before the riders emerged from the bus and made their way to sign-in. I took a few photographs and thanked C J Sutton for re-tweeting my Dwars door Vlaanderen blog to his 11,000+ followers, one of whom might just be an editor looking to give a cycling enthusiast a break… Chris’ reply was typically Australian – “No worries mate…”
The riders made their way off to sign-in and I wandered down the road towards the start. En-route I witnessed both Tom Boonen and Phillippe Gilbert being absolutely mobbed by the locals.
I had to laugh a few minutes later. Bernie Eisel, having signed-on was making his way back to the bus when a spectator stepped right in front of him, almost causing him to crash. I so wish I had my camera at the ready as the look that Bernie gave the individual… well, it would have scared me to death… Suffice to say the miscreant swiftly disappeared into the crowd with his tail between his legs and no doubt his heart beat pounding, much to the amusement of Ian Stannard and Chris Sutton who were following behind…
I didn’t attempt to see the start. Firstly it was absolutely heaving, secondly, its only a roll-out. I made my way back to the car and set off for Kruishoutem.
At Kruishoutem I didn’t have too long to wait before the main field came through. At just 33km into the race I didn’t expect anyone to break free so early and sure enough the peloton came hurtling into the village all together. I was watching the race on a downhill stretch of road just before a roundabout. The speed that the bunch approached the roundabout was amazing, way, way faster than us mere mortals would contemplate (or at least I would), and yet as the riders flashed by I could hear them laughing and joking as if they were on a Sunday morning club run.
Towards the rear of the bunch I noticed a Euskaltel-Euskadi mechanic risking life and limb hanging out of a car doing 40mph whilst adjusting a set of brakes – respect..!
Once the field had passed I shot back to the car and made my way to a cobbled section at Paddestraat. It took around 30 minutes to drive to Velzeke-Ruddershove where I parked on the outskirts and walked to the cobbles where a healthy crowd was already waiting.
When the riders came bouncing and juddering over the cobbles there had been a split in the field. A group of 7 had got away although with respect there was no-one in the group that I recognised as a potential winner with 139 km still to go. The peloton came through a minute or so later with Sky at the front.
Having watched the race out on the road and on a section of cobbles it was now time to make for a berg, or climb. As much as I would liked to have watched events at the Muur, Paterberg or Kwaremont I reckoned they would be too busy to see the race and get back to Harelbeke for the finish, so I set off for climb no.4 on the parcours at the Boigneberg.
Because the race set off on a loop around Geraardsbergen it was only a 20 minute drive to the Boigneberg but it would be over an hour before the riders returned. I found a parking place in the middle of nowhere just at the top of the climb. According to the temperature gauge it was 21 degrees and it was certainly very pleasant sitting in the sun and making use of the wait to download the 245 photographs I had taken so far.
When the race arrived the break was still away but didn’t they look as convincing as they did earlier. The effort clearly evident on their faces as they passed.
Around 2 minutes later the main field arrived with Omega Pharma Quick-Step controlling things at the front -
There was still 69 km to go but already riders had been thrown out the back with no chance of getting back to the peloton. It took the best part of 15 minutes for the whole field to pass and the road re-open.
Having secured the hat-trick of road, cobbles and berg I wanted to get back for the finish. According to the timetable I had 90 minutes to make a journey that TomTom said would take just over 30. Initially I made good progress but as I passed Oudenaarde traffic slowed to a crawl and eventually ground to a halt. 30 minutes later I reckon I had moved 50 feet. Using TomTom I turned off and navigated the back-streets to get to the outskirts of Oudennarde where I rejoined the now slow moving queue of traffic heading for the motorway. Fortunately I rejoined the queue directly in front of a convoy of VIP buses that were obviously intent on getting their fare paying passengers back to Harelbeke in time for the finish. To assist them they had half a dozen motorcycle outriders. What happened next was surreal…
As the traffic started to move I found myself leading the convoy that had a deadline to meet. As the pace increased the motorcycles would speed ahead in order to block junctions and stop traffic at roundabouts so that the coaches, led by me, could pass through unimpeded. The next 10 minutes was laugh out loud entertainment as we flashed through towns and villages at breakneck speed, the motorcycle escort ensuring that we didn’t need to touch the brakes or slow down once. I’m not sure what we was doing was actually legal but it was bloody good fun. Turning onto the motorway I left the coaches behind and sped off in the direction of Harelbeke.
The escort had clearly worked as I soon found myself on the course that was still open to traffic. I drove under 5km to go banner, then the 4km, 3km, 2km… The closer I got to the finishing line so the spectators lining the road increased. With the 1km banner in sight I turned off and parked in a side-street. I had hoped to get back to the team buses but there was no chance of that so I walked towards the finishing line and decided to watch the finish with just 200 metres to go.
A few minutes later the road was closed and the commentary from the loudspeakers became more frantic as the riders approached. There was obviously going to be a bunch sprint, I heard Boasson-Hagen’s name being called out but also Boonen and a whole host of other sprinters. Come on Eddy…
As the leaders approached I pointed my camera down the road and could see Omega Pharma providing a perfect lead-out for Belgians number 1 sprinter -
A few seconds later the commentator who had worked himself into a frenzy announced that Boonen had crossed the line first, much to the delight of the locals. Katusha’s Óscar Freire claimed 2nd and I was pleased and surprised to hear that Bernie Eisel had snatched 3rd, I didn’t even see him when the leaders flashed by…
The E3 Harelbeke had been another excellent example of how Belgian races can be watched multiple times and done in a day. I had had a thoroughly entertaining day watching the worlds best cyclists at work and now I only have a day to wait before I can do it all over again at Gent-Wevelgem. Come on Cav..!