The drive to Oudenaarde was mind-numbingly boring and took around an hour and a half. Parking on the outskirts of the town it was just a few minutes walk to the Grote Markt where the start was still being assembled. I wandered around for an hour or so before the teams started to arrive and I was pleased to see that they were parking in the Square where the public had unrestricted access. I was also pleased to see that Sky’s bus was parked next to Quick-Step. Most of the local support was attracted to either Quick-Step or Omega Pharma – Lotto which meant there were less people crowding around the other teams.
Although dry the sky was overcast, it was quite cold and breezy. The riders remained on the bus until the last possible moment before heading to sign on. I managed to get Bradley to sign ‘On Tour’ and at long last Michael Barry signed my copy of ‘Le Metier’ – That will make my back-pack a bit lighter at future races! Incidentally, Michael Barry comes across as a genuinely nice, accommodating guy and ‘Le Metier’ is a really excellent read that I thoroughly recommend.
I managed to take a few photographs of the riders as they made their way to the start. Russ Downing appeared in a particularly jovial mood and for once he wasn’t poking his tongue out when I take his photograph…
I watched the roll-out and swiftly made my way back to my car. In hindsight too swiftly..! As I turned out of the car park, and there was no-one or anything there to prevent me from doing so, I had only driven about 100 yards when a car bearing a great big red flag on the roof filled my rear view mirror. Apparently, the race had circumnavigated the town and was now heading out of Oudenaarde onto the course. At this point I was the virtual leader of the race..!
A gendarme on a motorcycle flashed by and ordered that I pull over into a conveniently positioned lay-by. I didn’t need to be asked twice and a few minutes later the riders flashed by – giving me an unexpected opportunity to take a few more photo’s…
Once it was safe to proceed I continued my journey and made my way to the top of The Mesenberg, the day’s second categorised climb. This particular area is right in the heart of the WW1 battlefields and I parked adjacent to the Messine Ridge Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery, just one of many military cemeteries that are scattered around the vicinity.
The Mesenberg was neither particularly steep nor long but it did afford good views down the road and the race could be seen coming from way in the distance. I only had to wait around 40 minutes before the race arrived. Four leaders had broken away and a couple of minutes later a bigger group came past, which in turn was ahead of the remainder of the peloton by a couple more minutes. Team Sky was doing the work at the head of this third group in an effort to regain contact. After they passed I received a thumbs-up from the driver of Sky’s second support vehicle who no doubt spotted my strategically placed Union Jack flags by the roadside and it was then time to pack up and move on.
I probably could have managed another stop out on the course but I wanted to make sure I got to the finish in order to secure a decent spot as the finish consisted of three circuits around Koksijde, affording the opportunity to watch the riders four more times.
Parking in Koksijde proved to be quite difficult and I eventually parked a bit further away than I would have liked. If I had decided to try and watch the race again out on the course I may have had difficulty watching the finish.
I eventually pitched my spot on the barriers 75 meters from the line. It wasn’t long before the three leaders came through for the first time. Just over a minute later the second group that contained Russ Downing and Greg Henderson arrived, the pace of this group was noticeably higher and with three circuits to complete it appeared inevitable that the breakaway would be reeled-in. Disappointingly, seven minutes after the leaders crossed the line the third group appeared and dead last at this point was Bradley.
It took around 30 minutes before the leaders returned for a second time. This time their lead had reduced to 50 seconds. 30 minutes later, on the third lap, it was down to 30 seconds. It was clear at the bell that it was going to all come together and result in a bunch sprint.
Sure enough, another 30 minutes later the lead group came into view at the end of the road and the realtively sparse crowd could see that the winner was going to be the strongest sprinter amongst this bunch. As they approached my position everyone was ‘jockeying’ for position. A Sky rider started to sprint, the unmistakenable profile of Russell Downing – full on aggression and commitment. As they passed Russell appeared to have gone a bit too early and was not making any inroad into the leaders. From where I stood I couldn’t actually see who won but heard over the pa that it was Denis Galimzyanov from Team Katusha and that Russell had finished 7th.
After the first group that had actually contested the stage had finished, the rest of the field came through in dribs and drabs. Most chatting and joking amongst themselves as they made their way down the finishing straight. I had seen enough and started to make my way back to the car and had just walked under the last kilometer banner when the final group, still containing Bradley, meandered by.
This blog has been quite difficult to write as this race was without a doubt the most uninspiring race I have attended for some time. I try to keep upbeat, but unlike Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday when I thoroughly enjoyed my day and left the Kemmelberg buzzing, I left Koksijde feeling somewhat deflated. I’m not sure if it was the lack of atmosphere (there was none), a relatively poor performance by Team Sky (Russell and Greg being the exceptions), the weather, which was miserable all day, or just a case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ on Sunday. In reality it was probably a combination of all.
Highlights of the day – Getting my books signed by Michael and Bradley. Unfortunately that was about it…
So my first visit to the 3 Day’s of De Panne… Right now I’m in no hurry to go back. Just like football, cricket, rugby, in fact any sport, sometimes the game/match/fixture does not live up to expectations and is a bit of a let-down. That’s how I felt today. That said, I just know that this time next year I will be making the journey again.
On Sunday it’s Flanders, as disappointing as De Panne was I absolutely, totally, 100% guarantee that the Tour of Flanders will be the complete opposite and can’t wait..!