Like most people, when the alarm goes off at 0445 it’s very quickly followed by a punch on the snooze button and another 10 minutes of slumber. This morning I was lying awake waiting for it to go off! The first semi-classic of the season, a race I’ve not been to before and a chance to see the Sky boys make their debut in Belgium – Bring it on.
On day’s like this living in Dover does has a significant advantage – just an hour later, after picking up Paul, my brother-in-law who has never been to a race before, we are checking-in at the ferry terminal and soon tucking into a fat-boys breakfast as we make our way across the Channel.
Arriving at Calais TomTom told me that the drive to Gent would take around an hour and 20 minutes. As Paul had never been to a race before, and the Omloop was a new one for me, I wanted to show him the whole race experience and my intention was to go to the start to see the riders sign on, then drive out to a road section somewhere on the course, I wanted to take him to a climb in which case The Muur was definitely on the itinerary and as it was a semi-classic we had to take in a stretch of cobbles. After all this with a fair wind and a good SatNav signal we will attempt to get back to Gent for the finish. Quite a challenge…
As we entered Gent and reliance on the SatNav became imperative the bloody thing lost its signal and we had to resort to a traditional map. By the time TomTom re-booted itself we had found ourselves in a bus lane, narrowly avoided a head-on with a tram and was apparently heading for Antwerp!
Normality restored we swiftly made our way to Sint-Pietersplein and managed to park just a short walk away – result! Although overcast and a bit breezy the forecast rain held off and we made our way to the start/finish line where Paul was amazed at the number of spectators and the fact that the participants, some of the best professional bike riders in the world, were mingling freely with the crowd, signing autographs and posing for photo’s. As I searched for the Sky bus I actually felt sorry for Tom Boonen as the Quick Step bus was simply besieged by Belgian fans. As we shuffled past Tom came out of the bus to sign-in and was immediately engulfed by a sea of autograph hunters. Whilst the fortune probably comes in handy I suspect Mr Boonen could do without the fame sometimes…
The Sky bus was parked in a corner of the Square and whilst it could not compete with Quick Step for attention there were a fair few fans mingling around waiting for the riders. Just as we arrived at the bus the team started to emerge and I managed to get a few photographs. Edvald BH was last off and the subject of most attention. I had a quick word with Dave Brailsford who was present and then it was time to make our way to the start.
After the roll-out we quickly made our way back to the car and headed out of Gent with slightly less incident than when we entered.
I asked TomTom to take me to Wetteren a small town 32km into the race. We made good progress and as we approached a roundabout I could see quite a few people standing around and a couple of marshals waiting to close to road. The roundabout was clearly part of the race route and with unprecedented luck immediately on our right-hand side was a parking space. We parked up and only had a few minutes to wait before the road was closed.
I predicted that at this early stage a small break-away group would lead the race and sure enough a 4-man group consisting of Frederic Guesdon (Francasie Des Jeux), Frederik Veuchelen (Vacansoleil), Roy Curvers (Skil Shimano) and Roger Kluge (Team Milram) led the race. With no disrespect, none of these 4 were going to win the Omloop and I explained to Paul that they were doing their job by being on the front and receiving maximum TV exposure for their sponsors. The main field followed about 2 or 3 minutes later with no particular team working at the front. The Sky boys were scattered throughout the peleton that was making no effort to real-in the breakaway.
Once the road re-opened we made slow but steady progress to Geraardsbergen. The helicopter could be seen in the distance so we had a good idea where the riders were and it was obvious that we were going to reach The Muur before them. Heading into Geraardsbergen I wanted to park as close to the Muur as possible in order that we could get away quickly after the race had passed through. Unfortunately I made a major blunder, although I blame the navigator, and without realising began driving up the iconic climb. As the crowds lining the road got deeper and the road got steeper I soon realised what I was doing and had to reverse back down the hill. If you are reading this and was there, yes I was that bloody idiot in the red British registered Citroen Picasso, my face in my embarrassment matching the colour of my car…
Anyway, no harm done. Half way down the Muur was a car park. Unbelievably there was one space left! We soon claimed it and made our way, on foot this time, to the top of the climb. As usual the Muur was a sea of spectators, the bar at the top doing a roaring trade. Paul and I managed to obtain a good vantage point and we only had to wait a short time before the hum of the helicopter told us that the riders were at the foot of the climb. On climbs such as the Muur you can hear the riders coming long before you can see them, or rather you don’t hear the riders but the applause and encouragement sweeping up the hill alongside them. The atmosphere is electric and you can feel the tension rise as the riders draw closer.
The break-away still led, although as they crested the climb the Milram rider was slipping off the back. A minute or so behind was another Vacansoleil rider attempting to get onto the break and shortly behind him was the main field. The first Sky rider over the Muur was Juan Antonio Flecha, closely followed by Edvald. The field was properly strung-out and the pain of the Muur clearly etched on the face of each rider.
After the last rider has struggled over the summit it’s quite strange not to have to wait for the sea of support vehicles and team cars to follow. Together with the hundreds of spectators that had lined the hill, Paul and I made our way back down and were soon heading out of Geraardsbergen for our next destination.
The next stop was a 2,400m stretch of cobbles at Holleweg. You cant go to a Spring Classic and not see the race on a stretch of cobbles, particularly if your taking a first time spectator with you. To get off the Muur, out of Geraardsbergen and to the cobbles in time was ambitious but well worth a try. After a 30 minute drive TomTom told me to turn right and “then you have reached your destination”. I turned right and sure enough there was the pave and not for the first time today an unbelievably lucky parking space. In all my years of following races I have never had such luck in parking – Paul can come again.
After a short wait the road was closed and the first motorcycle informed the spectators that the 3-man breakaway had a 1 minute lead. With just 42km to go their valiant attempt to stay away was doomed and when they rode past a few minutes later you could see that the urgency had gone and they had accepted the inevitable.
60 seconds later the next group came through. Obviously Paul and I had no way of knowing what had happened between the Muur and Holleweg but clearly something had. The field was decimated, the peleton shattered into small groups with big gaps in between. The lead group contained Edvald and Tom Boonen, the next Sky rider was Juan Antonio Flecha who was trying to get across on his own. Team Sky were split throughout the field. A minute later Davide Vigano came past gritting his teeth in pain. A further gap and Chris Sutton shuddered over the cobbles, as did Michael Barry. Another gap and Russell Downing, his face contorted with pain, came past. 30 seconds later Matthew Hayman and Ian Stannard came through together.
Although Edvald was in the lead group that were certainly going to pull back the break, it didn’t look good for Team Sky, but then again, it also appeared that no one team was controlling the race.
The stretch of cobbles had provided me with some great photo’s. The riders facial expressions and body language made it quite clear how much they were suffering. Paul, who really had no knowledge of cycle racing, could not believe what they were expected to endure in just one race.
There must have been a good 10 minutes between the first and last rider passing us and with just 43km to go it was now touch and go as to whether or not we would make the finish. Fortuitously (another piece of luck) I had parked the car facing in the right direction and I asked TomTom to take me back to Gent.
As earlier, TomTom decided it didn’t like Gent and refused to accept a signal as we entered the city. No matter though. This time we knew where we were going and without incident drove to the start/finish. The riders hadn’t arrived yet but we didn’t know how far off they were and we had to park yet. As we turned towards Sint-Pietersplein a car pulled out of a space right in front of us – unbelievable!
As we walked to the finish the commentator announced that the leaders had entered the final kilometre. Perfect timing on our part. I couldn’t understand what the commentator was saying but I could make out the names he was announcing – Tyler Farrar and Heinrich Haussler. Oh well I thought, Haussler was probably one of the pre-race favourites, shame it doesn’t sound like Edvald is going to win. Then I heard the commentator calling out the name Juan Antonio Flecha and it became apparent that Flecha was leading and not only leading but going to win. Fantastic, bloody fantastic! I’ve had a magnificent day and it’s going to be topped by a Team Sky victory. I didn’t see this coming at the cobbles.
I just had time to point my camera through the fence to see Juan Antonio cross the line with his arms in the air before he was pounced upon and embraced by Dave Brailsford and support staff.
At the Team Sky bus, Brailsford embraced every rider as they returned. It had clearly been a team victory and team spirit was evidently high. You could see the big screen on the bus was down and live coverage of the race was being shown. When Juan Antinio stepped onto the podium and raised the trophy the cheer from the bus was as loud as that amongst the spectators.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a first for me. I got home exhausted at eleven. To see the race five times was excellent, Team Sky’s win fantastic. All in all it was a magnificent day. Will I be going again next year? Absolutely…
Next up is Gent-Wevelgem, and Paul is coming with me so it looks like Team Sky, and cycling has a new supporter.