In my Omloop Het Nieuwsblad blog I concluded the article by saying that next up was Gent-Wevelgem. I lied. This season the bug to attend races is stronger than ever. I have discovered that the semi-classics, races I have not really paid too much attention to in the past, are easily accessible from the UK, the race profiles usually allow a spectator with a car the opportunity to see the race several times during the day and the field is particularly strong, with the main players using the semi-classics to sustain and hold their form ahead of their main Spring Classic objectives.
So, having thoroughly enjoyed the Omloop, the opportunity to attend yesterday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen was too great to resist and meant another 5 o’clock start and a short hop across the Channel. Looking at the race profile I reckoned that with a bit of luck I could watch the start and then drive out and watch the race at hopefully five locations before dashing back to Waregem for the finish. Unfortunately I had not taken into account that Belgium, not renowned for it’s road infrastructure in the first place, had decided that March was the month when it would dig up the whole country and strategically impose a road closure and lengthy diversion every 20 km throughout the nation’s entire road network – I exaggerate, but that’s what it felt like…
The drive from Calais to Roselare should have taken just over an hour, because of the aforementioned diversions it took nearly two. Entering Roselare I headed to the Grote Markt for the start and as I got closer it became busier and busier. I parked about 1k from the start because I was conscious that I wanted a quick away and suspected that the closer to the town centre I parked the longer it would take to get out later.
The Grote Markt was packed. The Belgians certainly love their cycling. They also love their beer and frites, both of which were being consumed in vast quantities. As I arrived the first riders were taking to the stage to sign on. Local hero’s Lars Boom (Rabobank), Robbie McEwen (Katusha) and of course Tom Boonen (Quick Step) were all rapturously received by the crowd and said a few words to the commentator. Of the Sky boy’s both Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Juan Antonio Flecha were singled out for an interview, in English fortunately for me, and I managed to take a few photographs (see the gallery on the Home Page).
Following signing on, the riders lined up and at 11.40 on the dot began the leisurely roll-out ahead of the official start 5 minutes later. I dashed back to the car with the intention of driving to Deerlijk. Unfortunately I didn’t appear to be the only one and the aforementioned roadwork’s didn‘t help. 30 minutes later I was still in Roselare and the chance of getting to Deelijk ahead of the race almost impossible.
Never mind, for every Plan A there should always be a Plan B and today was no exception. Abandoning Deerlijk I reprogrammed TomTom to take me to Olsene and in particular the Oudenaardestraat as this was the location of the feed zone. I had well over an hour to get there and did so with ease although there was nowhere to park in the feeding station so I continued on for a couple of kilometres.
Parking up I strolled back to the course and noticed that the crowds so far at this race appeared bigger than at the Omloop a couple of weeks ago. I stood at the end of a long sweeping downhill corner where I would have a pretty good view of the riders as they approached. After a short wait the first rider came into view, David Boucher of the Landbouwrkediet Squad who was attempting to break free, he was only a few seconds ahead of the main field as they approached the corner. Over the years I have seen a fair few races now and like to think that I’ve become quite good at reading the tactics, which is why I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the bunch were going so fast, so early in the day. They were really motoring and as they turned into the corner it was only going to end in tears for someone. I’m not sure what happened but sure enough there was a coming together and a Cofidis and Katusha rider hit the deck at high speed. The field did well to avoid them as they were quite close to the front when they went down. The Sky boys, led by Geraint Thomas, Matthew Hayman and Juan Antonio Flecha were on the outside of the bunch and pretty much uneffected by the crash. After the field had disappeared up the road the Cofidis rider, Julien Fouchard, remained on the ground and it appeared that he was quite badly hurt. Fortunately after a couple of minutes he gingerly got to his feet and was attended to by medical personnel. He had sustained considerable ’road-rash’ to his shoulder, hips and buttocks, not surprising considering the speed. His kit ripped to pieces and he had to abandon. The Katusha rider, Nikolay Trusov, faired a little better and was able to continue.
Next stop was Mater where I watched the race come through a small town or large village, I’m not sure which. It was another downhill section that approached a roundabout at the bottom of the hill which meant lots of last minute heavy braking. Again I didn’t have to wait long before the riders appeared. As before, the pace was really high. I took quite a few photographs and later when I was able to view them properly on the computer I was amazed to see how relaxed the riders were. Throughout the peleton various conversations were going on, some riders were having a bite to eat and to all intents and purposes they looked like they were partaking in a Sunday afternoon meander through the countryside. In reality they were flashing past me at well over 25, probably nearer 30 mph without appearing to have a care in the world – amazing!
Back at the car more roadwork’s and heavy traffic made progress to the next stop quite slow. Nevertheless I made it to the Eikenberg in good time. I was looking forward to this section as it was a 1250m stretch of cobbles with an average gradient of 5.8%, rising to 10% in places. As I waited and the number of spectators steadily increased a number of amateur cyclists were tackling the climb. The way they were bouncing all over the road gave an indication of how difficult riding over the cobbles actually was.
After a wait of around 45 minutes the helicopter edged ever closer and a short time later a 4-man breakaway came past containing Lloyd Mondory from AG2R, Gregory Habeaux from Verandas Willems, Jean Zen from Palmans -Cras and Steven Van Vooren of Topsport Vlaanderen. These four had a least a three minute lead before eventual winner Matti Brescell (Saxo Bank) came through closely followed by Tom Boonen. Juan Antonio Flecha was in the next group, together with Fabian Cancellara. The rest of the field was properly strung out, riders gritting their teeth as they fought their bouncing bikes, the gradient and the pace being set at the front. Next through for Sky was Matthew Hayman, closely followed by Chris Sutton. Next up was Ian Stannard before the familiar profile of Russel Downing appeared, hunched over his handlebars grimacing with pain and effort. At the rear was Kurt-Asle Arveson, not surprising considering that he was recovering from his recent broken collarbone.
I had managed to see the race four times so far and whilst I could probably manage one more climb if the road closures and diversions I had experienced so far continued I might not make the finish. I therefore decided to drive straight to Waragem and find a spot on the finish line. Sure enough it did take longer than TomTom predicted but I was able to park up about 1k away from the finish with time to spare. As at the start, the finish was absolutely heaving and a full blown party was underway. One year I’m going to arrange an overnight stay and not have to worry about driving – after all Leffe Blonde is my favourite lager!
I managed to get a spot approximately 25m past the finish line and although there were several people in front of me at 6’4” I had a pretty good view. By poking my camera over peoples shoulders I managed to photograph Breschel as he crossed the line before the race for 2nd and 3rd took place a few seconds later. Matthew Hayman managed to sprint for an excellent 5th place and I then left the finish line to walk over to the Sky bus conveniently parked the other side of a hedge. As the riders returned you could see on their faces that it had been a long fast day in the saddle. Every time I saw the race the pace was frenetic. Ian Stannard was one of the last to return to the bus and as he boarded the bus I said, “The pace was a bit high today Ian..?” Now, I’m not sure if this counts as a Fan Website exclusive but his reply appears to sum up the day perfectly – “You could say that” he said, “I came to a climb and they were just, phew, away, f***ing hell!”…
The Dwars door Vlaandaren was another first for me and a race I thoroughly recommend. I will definitely go again next year. Of course the favourites have got their eye on the main events over the next three weeks but the semi-classics remain important to the sponsors, provide kudos to the winners and of course are held in high esteem by the cycling mad Belgian supporters. It really makes for an excellent day out.
Next up for me is Gent-Wevelgem and I hope to see a few of you on the Kemmelberg, I will certainly be looking out for Rusty and his wife. I can’t believe the next race is just 3 days away, it was hardly worth coming home… Now there’s a thought for 2011..!