Regular readers will have picked up that the Tour of Flanders is my favourite race of the year. Some say, ‘if it’s not broke don’t try and fix it’, so moving the finish to Oudenaarde and taking out the Muur was going to be interesting. As I write this the jury is still out as to whether or not it was a success, what I can say however, is that I have never seen crowds as large and passionate as I did on the Oude Kwaremont yesterday, the cobbled climb was absolutely packed and buzzing, but more of this later…
After last Sunday’s ridiculously early start a 06:40 ferry was a positive lay-in and unlike last week it was bright and sunny. It was good to meet fellow Sky fans Helen and her son James on the ferry who had set off from Basingstoke in the early hours. The ferry was quite busy and I’ve no doubt we wasn’t the only passengers on board that was heading for Flanders.
Following a 90 minute drive TomTom told me that I was around half a mile from Kwaremont and traffic was now stop/start and heavy. It was only 11 o’clock so we decided to pull over and park in a side street at (a village I now know to be) Berchem. There was already lots of people about and all heading in the same direction so Bev and I joined them and set off for the 2.2 km climb that was to be tackled three times. I made a mental note that the car was parked near a large orange crane for later.
Pre-race predictions… John Degenkolb would have been delighted to hear that he was not Bev’s outside bet for this race. Rumour has it that Peter Sagan was distraught..! Me, if Sky couldn’t win it I reckoned that Boonen and Cancellara would cancel each other out and allow Sylvain Chavanel to get up the road and take the win.
Turning onto the Oude Kwaremont I was pleased to see that the entire climb was barriered. It was already seriously busy and having been here just a few weeks previously at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne I was amazed at how much the landscape had changed and how much work the organisers had done to erect the barriers, several VIP areas and as we approached the top of the climb a fans zone where there was a big screen, numerous food outlets and of course bars. The whole area had the look and feel of an open-air rock concert, thank God it wasn’t raining.
I was hoping to get a bit nearer the top of the climb but it looked like this couldn’t be accessed if you approached from the bottom. As the course was filling rapidly Bev and I decided to stake our place at the barriers where it was already busy.
Whilst the vast majority of spectators were obviously Belgian, most countries were represented. On our left was a group of Brits that were making a weekend of it and no doubt partaking in a Leffe or two -
After an hour or so the VIP’s across the road emerged from their bar’s and support vehicles started to flash by ahead of the woman’s race. It was interesting to note that the VIP’s had a far worse view of the course than us minions slumming it across the road. Barriers held them back a good 15 feet from the roadside and whilst they might have access to a nice meal and a cold drink at the end of the day we were all there to watch a bike race and our view was far better – ha!
The news that Marianne Vos had withdrawn from the ladies race meant it was wide open. Hopefully Lizzie Armistead could repeat last weeks Gent-Wevelgem victory but looking at the start list it appeared to be a much stronger field for Flanders. When the race came through four girls had got away. They were led by Judith Arndt from Greenedge, but ominously the group also contained two American’s, one of whom was Kristin Armstrong.
Lizzie came through a few minutes later, and at this stage it looked like she was too far back to challenge the leaders.
Sure enough we later heard that Arndt had held off Armstrong to win the Woman’s Ronde van Vlaanderen - Chapeau to her!
Now it was a case of waiting as the Kwaremont slowly filled to capacity. Bev stepped up to the plate and obtained a Lion of Flanders flag for her son, the yellow flags were everywhere. By the time the six helicopters could be seen in the distance there wasn’t a single gap at the barriers that by now was two or three deep. There must have been at least 10,000 people lining the Kwaremont, crowds that easily match the most popular days at the Tour…
If anything it was a little too busy. The new route meant that in all likelihood the Tour of Flanders was going to be won on the Kwaremont or the Paterberg and understandably that’s where everybody wanted to be.
Once the motorcycles and police vehicles passed by a 9-man break came into view with Saxo-Bank at the front. Tyler Ferrar was second wheel and I couldn’t see anyone from Sky in the front group
As the riders flashed by two things became apparent, (a) how fast they were going and (b) decent photo’s today was going to be sheer luck. Once the leaders had passed I gave up looking through the viewfinder and watched the race, cheering any Sky rider I could see.
Meanwhile, Bev was having a technical problem (now where have I written those words before..?). Bev was busy taking photo’s as the riders flashed by, blissfully unaware that her camera was set up for video..! The end result was in excess of 20 clips of 2 or 3 seconds duration, mainly consisting of the cobbles or a fence…
After the first pass of the Kwaremont it would be just under an hour before they returned. Pressure at the front of the barrier eased as people went off to buy more beer or frites and Bev and I moved a bit further down the course to get away from the individual that pushed in front of Bev just before the riders arrived and did his level best to block our view with considerable success.
Whilst we were waiting we heard that Cancellara had crashed out at the feed zone and was seriously injured. Then we heard that Langeveld had collided with a spectator and was also out of the race. As I write this blog I am watching recorded highlights of the race. Fabian was unlucky, unfortunately Sebastian only has himself to blame.
The helicopters were coming from a different direction for the second pass. Once again the barriers were packed when the leaders appeared. Incredibly mine and Bev’s pre-race predictions flashed by as Chavanel led Sagan closely followed by Ballan and Boonen -
Flecha and EBH was not far off the leaders and received a loud cheer from me. Not much further back Bernie Eisel came powering through much to the delight of the Rugby branch of the Bernhard Eisel fan club on my right -
The second pass, whilst still fast, was noticeably slower than the first. The gaps between the riders even bigger. A good 20 minutes after the leaders a large group containing CJ Sutton took the spectators by surprise as they rolled through their work done at the beginning of the race.
It was to be just 30 minutes before the leaders returned for a final time. In all likelihood the race was going to be decided right in front of us. Whoever came through the Kwaremont with the leaders had a bloomin’ good chance of winning Flanders, anyone not in the leading group would struggle. The atmosphere was electric.
Straining to see down the road a single rider could be seen going for it on his own. The shirt was red so it wasn’t someone from Sky or Boonen. As he drew closer you could see he was a BMC rider, closer still and it was Alessandro Ballan digging deep…
A few seconds later the chasing riders came into view. Filippo Pozzato and Tom Boonen were driving hard to bring Ballan back. The Belgian crowd were ballistic as Boonen’s face clearly showed that he was on the edge. This was turning into a great race…
Technically EBH remained in touch with the leaders but in reality you couldn’t see the finish being contended by anyone other than the first three.
We remained to see the rest of the field pass through, anyone that completes Flanders deserves applause, none more so than George Hincapie who now holds the record for the most Ronde von Vlaanderen finishes.
As the tail-enders rolled through we made our way back down the Kwaremont and amazingly considering how many people were present came across Helen and James and with them, and a fair few others, stood and listened to radio commentary for the final stage of the race. When Boonen crossed the line you could hear the cheer emanating from all over. We were literally standing in a country lane in the middle of nowhere and yet we could hear cheers form the beer tents and bars that for one day scattered the countryside all around. The reaction would have been no less enthusiastic if Belgium had just scored the winner in the World Cup Final..!
As we made our way back down the hill… I decided that in order to give the traffic a chance to ease we should go for a little stroll and head back to the car later…
Alright I lie… As we made our way back down the hill… I took a wrong turn and started heading in completely the wrong direction. It didn’t help that the previously mentioned crane that I thought would mark the car’s position couldn’t be seen for houses and neither of us had thought to find out the name of the village we had parked in so asking directions was not possible as we didn’t know where we had parked in the first place…
After a very pleasant, if increasingly stressful evening stroll and absolutely more through luck than judgement we finally found somewhere we recognised and an hour later than anticipated returned to the car and headed back to Calais.
Despite the above it had been another excellent day’s racing. The Tour of Flanders is immense and in my view the best one-day race in the world. I’m not sure about the new route. Maybe one race is not enough to pass judgement. We did manage to see the race three times which would have been extremely difficult before so that worked but the way the race panned out was probably a bit predictable. I thoroughly enjoyed Bev’s company at both Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem and I’ve no doubt that the Queen of the Bike Yard and I will keep in touch and attend more races in the future. If anyone out there wants to join us they’ve only got to get in touch…