I would like to start this blog by thanking P&O Ferries for removing yesterday’s 04:00 departure from their schedule. The next available sailing did not allow sufficient time to drive to the start of Gent-Wevelgem and watch the riders sign-in, so it was necessary to check-in at the Port at 02:30 for the 03:05 departure, and all of this on the night when BST begins and the clocks move forward 1 hour..!
Bleary eyed, but bushy tailed, I picked Bev up from her hotel at 02:15 and we made our way to the Port. Bev and I made contact through this website shortly after it started and met briefly at the Tour of Britain last year. She had not been to a Classic or Semi-Classic before and as neither her husband or my wife are particularly interested in cycling, and I’m going to the races anyway with three spare seats, we made arrangements to go together.
After fuelling up with a full English on the ferry we arrived at a very foggy Calais at around 06:00 CET. I have to say, I didn’t particularly enjoy the 90 minute drive to Deinze along the mostly unlit and poorly marked motorways in the fog that was quite thick in places. After a relatively uneventful journey we arrived at the start town with a couple of hours to spare before anything happened, meaning we could find a parking space close to the area where the team buses parked up.
Disappointingly, access to the teams pre-race is not possible at Gent-Wevelgem without a VIP pass, in other words unless you pay for the privilege! Fortunately the buses park some distance from the start and the entire route to sign-in is barriered. By getting a good spot at the front of the barriers you are pretty much assured an opportunity to spot and photograph all the riders as they make their way to and from sign-in… in theory!
We pitched our spot shortly before the first team bus arrived. It was still foggy and bloomin’ cold, a complete contrast to the previous few days. For the next half an hour the number of spectators increased and soon the entire route to sign-in was packed. As we waited an elderly lady on our left attempted to converse with Bev – in Flemish! Bev politely pointed out that she didn’t speak the language which seemed to satisfy the woman for a few minutes before she obviously forgot their previous exchange and attempted to converse with Bev – in Flemish! I had to chuckle and would have suggested moving if it wasn’t for the convenience of the future Eurosport commentator on my right… The lad couldn’t have been more than 10 years-old but his knowledge of cycling and ability to identify riders as they approached was seriously impressive. Long before I recognised the approaching rider, if indeed I would have recognised them at all, the lad was shouting out their name in an effort to attract their attention and obtain an autograph. Sadly, no-one stopped for him but I was extremely grateful for his running commentary and early advice. I took a good few photographs as the riders made their way to sign-in.
Meanwhile, Bev was having a bit of a technical problem… As the proud new owner of an iphone I don’t think she has completely mastered the camera, and the fact that there are actually two camera’s on either side of the phone… She had a long list of riders her friends had asked her to photograph but for the first 10 minutes or so there was a serious danger of Bev’s Gent-Wevelgem Photo Gallery consisting of a photo of Bev taking a photo of Cav, followed by a photo of Bev taking a photo of Fabian etc. etc. etc. Fortunately she quickly realised what was happening and took some seriously good photographs, managing, I think, to snap most of her targets.
Most riders returned to their buses after signing-in and made their way back to the start line shortly before the race rolled-out at 11:15, meaning there was three opportunities for fans to take photographs of the riders before the race began.
Cav was one of the last to make his way to the start -
Once everyone had left the buses there was no chance of making it to the roll-out, such was the number of spectators shuffling in that general direction. We therefore made our way back to the car and set off for the iconic Kemmelberg. At last the sun had come out and it was a much more pleasant drive through the Belgian countryside.
By around 12:30 we arrived in the vicinity of the Kemmelberg. At this time there was opportunities to park closer to the climb, but I know from experience that if we did we would live to regret doing so after the race and end up spending up to an hour stuck in a grid-locked country lane. I therefore carried on and we parked in a lay-by that I usually use that is at the foot of a country trail that leads all the way to the Kemmelberg.
After a bite to eat we made our way to the Kemmelberg and walked to the top where we took up position a few feet from the summit and at the steepest part of the climb. A couple of strategically placed Union Jacks temporarily prevented any incursion from the locals and we settled down to wait. Although there was still the best part of 3 hours before the main event there is always something to look at. Amateurs tackling the climb are cheered on and encouraged, the younger they are, the louder. One nutter on a unicycle almost made it to the top but unfortunately came off right in front of us. He remounted and made the summit before turning round and incredibly started to head back down! I’m sorry, but I would have thought it was obvious that cycling down the cobbled Kemmelberg, on one wheel, without brakes is only going to end in tears. As he picked up speed there was only going to be one result and I’m afraid there was. Fortunately he didn’t appear too badly hurt…
We had a chat with a couple of locals next to us and was delighted to learn that we hadn’t missed the Womans Elite Gent-Wevelgem that was due to summit the Kemmelberg in around 30 minutes time. We had a look at the start list and was pleased to see that Lizzie Armitstead was racing. Unfortunately the pair of us forgot that she was British road race champion and would be wearing the national jersey so we decided that it would be a case of looking very closely for number 66 before cheering on our encouragement.
There was a healthy crowd at the top of the climb when the road closed and a motorcycle escort led a lone attacker powering towards us -
The rider was clearly going for a solo break and recieved great encouragement from the crowd. I would love to say that included me and Bev but sadly by the time we realised that the leading rider was number 66, and pointed this out to each other, Lizzie was over the summit and would never had heard us…
For the next 20 minutes or so the Elite Woman hauled themselves over the climb, the effort and the pain clearly evident on their faces. Each and every rider received applause and encouragement from the crowd.
For the next hour both sides of the road continued to fill and the atmosphere increased. About 10 minutes before the race arrived people that had left it too late to secure a decent spot were becoming desperate and invaders were being repelled all over the course. One couple who had literally just arrived tapped me on the shoulder and seriously said, “Sir, may we stand there?” indicating to the front of the barriers. Resisting the temptation to reply, “Thank goodness you’ve made it, I’ve been saving this spot just for you for the last three hours…” I politely suggested that they might want to try elsewhere.
Motorcycles and support vehicles started to flash by. The police helicopter flew over. The tension started to rise. The TV helicopter could be heard getting closer and everyone strains to look down the hill… You could hear and see those further down the climb cheer and applaud as the riders approached and then the leader turns the corner and the Kemmelberg becomes a cauldron of noise -
Just like the woman earlier, the men suffered and didn’t find the Kemmelberg any easier. As they passed, grimacing and straining it was a perfect example of why this sport is so hard, and in a perverse way, so beautiful…
The World Champion appeared, not too far off the front. Christian Knees was with him and they passed on my side of the road just feet in front of me. Cav was giving his all and with the summit approaching he was going to go over in touch with the leaders. I screamed my encouragement and support whilst I kept my finger firmly on my camera shooting 2 frames a second – Fantastic…
We only had to wait 25 minutes before it happened all over again, but this time there would only be 36 km to go and unlikely that anyone not up with the leaders was going to win Gent-Wevelgem.
The first bunch came through. Eddy Boss was right up there and received a cheer from me. Ominously, Mr Boonen was right up there as well…
After the first group had passed I was surprised and disappointed to see support vehicles coming through. An indication that there was a fairly big gap before the next group of riders. Sure enough it was a good 2 minutes before we saw the rest of the strung-out field struggle over the Kemmelberg for a final time. I didn’t see Cav but Bev assured me he was there. Five minutes later and riders were still passing. It looked like Cav had failed in his attempt to win Gent-Wevelgem again, but hey Eddy was still right up there…
When the road re-opened the hill emptied and everyone made there way back down the climb, many into the bars at the bottom. Bev and I made our way back to the car and set off for Calais. Normally at this point I wouldn’t have a clue how the race panned out until I got home. Today, thanks to modern technology, Twitter, and my passenger, I was kept up to date as we drove towards France and neither of us were surprised when Tom Boonen won the sprint to continue his, and his teams excellent start to the season. Eddy finished in a creditable 5th place and just to prove that neither Bev nor I know what we are talking about, our pre-race predictions came home 27th and 57th respectively.
Arriving at Calais we had a bit of luck when ours was literally the last vehicle to be directed onto an earlier ferry before the doors were closed. This meant that we arrived back in Dover not long after 6 o’clock, but still nearly 16 hours after we had left..!
Gent-Wevelgem once again didn’t fail to impress – I love the race and love watching from the Kemmelberg. I think Bev enjoyed it as well because she’s doing it all again next week at, in my opinion, the best one day race of the year – The Tour of Flanders. You’ve got exactly 6 days to master your iphone Bev…