Over the weekend, according to my trip computer, I spent 8 hours 52 minutes driving 322 miles around Belgium. Arriving home late Sunday evening I was able to reflect upon my two-day jaunt and conceded that every minute and every inch was worth it…
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
After a 4 month break it was great to get back to live road racing, although it was a bit of a shock when the alarm went off at 03:00! After an uneventful ferry crossing and drive I arrived in Ghent around 09:30, parked up and made my way to Sint-Pietersplein where the start was still being set up.
For the next hour or so the square started to fill. ‘Europop’ music blared from the speakers and even at this early hour much Leffe and Jupiter was being consumed. One by one the teams started to arrive and somehow they managed to park up within the confines of the Square. Team Sky were one of the last to arrive and I was a bit dissapointed when Slarky was directed to park his bus next to BMC which was absolutely heaving with Philippe Gilbert fans. By now the place was heaving and shortly before the official start time the riders emerged from the bus to negotiate their way through the crowd to sign-on. I was delighted when both Alex Dowsett and Bernie Eisel signed photographs I had taken of them at the Tour of Britain.
Once the riders disappeared off to the start I made my way back to the car and set off for Oosterzele for no other reason then I thought I could get there ahead of the race. I didn’t have long to wait before the road closed and a 6 man break was trying to get clear from the main field who didn’t appear particularly bothered. With just 27km gone the bunch were laughing and chatting amongst themselves, Sky were pretty much together as they flashed by with best part of 172km still to race.
It was then my intention to shoot down to the cobbled section at The Haaghoek which as last year the race was to traverse three times. Unlike last year that was wet and cold, this year it was dry and sunny and the number of people at the start and out on the road significantly greater. Unfortunately for me this meant that there was more traffic on the roads and progress to The Haaghoek so painfully slow that the race overtook me and I was forced to stop at Zottegem where the village was in total gridlock with cars abandoned everywhere. The peloton came through all together with Christian Knees well to the fore, but ominously BMC could be seen forming up behind, no doubt wanting Gilbert to be at the front when the race hits the cobbles.
Incidently, I did have to laugh at the Zottegem Traffic Marshal who I saw out of the corner of my eye very dilligently and seriously waving the riders through with his wand… Fortunately everyone complied..!
Once the road re-opened I made my way to The Haaghoek and after making sure that the car was pointing in the right direction for a swift get-away I took a pleasant stroll to the cobbles. I had missed the first pass but a healthy crowd was already in attendance many making use of the bar that probably derives most of its annual income from this race.
After a 30 minute wait the helicopter in the distance, marking the position of the race, edged ever closer and soon a 6 man break passed through to the general encouragement of the crowd. However, it was the arrival of the main field that went down well with the locals with Omega Pharma Quick Step pulling on the front and working for Boonen (although Flecha wasn’t far behind and received a cheer from me…)
It would be just over an hour before the riders returned so I made my way back to the start of the cobbles in order that I could get away quickly. Last year at this stage I was soaking wet and shivering, this year it was quite pleasant in the sun and it wasn’t too long before the race returned. The 6 man break now consisted of 2 but not far behind was the main favourites. I screamed my encouragement as Mathew Hayman lead the chase, closely followed by Flecha.
A few seconds later…
It was now going to be me verses the peloton in a race to get back to Ghent in time for the finish. Last year I failed. This year I maged to get away swiftly and despite making good progress it was going to be tight… Entering Ghent I thought I was going to make it until a policeman stepped into the road, signalled for me to stop and informed me that I would have to wait where I was because, “A very important cycle race is coming through…”. I told him I knew and had come over from England to watch the important race. I asked that I be allowed to take a side-road on the right and attempt to find a parking place. He probably shouldn’t but he let me turn right and after a few minutes I found a space that I don’t think I should have parked in but figuring that all the Ghent police and Traffic Warden equivalents were busy with a very important bike race I took a chance and left it.
I just had the time to get to within 500m of the finish line when the three leaders appeared. I was delighted to see J.A. Flecha leading the three, concerned to see Tom Boonen amongst the trio and surprised to see Sep Vanmarcke of Garmin-Barracuda in the mix. As they approached I screamed my support for Flecha whilst 99% of the spectators around me were rooting for Boonen.
After the leaders passed the main field came through and I made my way to The Square that I had left five and a half hours ago to hear via the PA, Flecha being announced as coming 3rd, and with no disrespect to the winner I was very surprised to hear that Boonen had finished 2nd. Congratulations to Vanmarcke, he would not have been one of my post race favourites. I hung around for a while and watched the Sky boy’s roll-in, clearly exhausted before making my way back to the car.
Het Nieuwsblad had once again lived up to my expectations. A thoroughly enjoyable race that can be seen muliple times during the day. Sky can not be too disappointed with 3rd and the 3rd year in a row that Flecha has stood on the podium. The big loosers appeared to be BMC who really didn’t do much all day and no doubt will be looking to perform better at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. In previous years I would be making my way home after Het Nieuwsblad but this year I was staying over in order that I could watch K-B-K the following day, I therefore made my way to Kortrijk where I was to stay overnight.
Once checked-in I took a stroll around Kortrijk and made my way to Sky’s hotel where the mechanics were hard at work. Richard and Pascale are two of the full time mechanics whose work behind the scenes often goes unnoticed. Always the last to bed and first up in the morning it is the mechanics that strip down clean, repair, replace and set-up the bikes every evening to have them looking brand-new the following day. I asked Richard what time they usually finish work, apparently their work is done when their work is finished, not dictated by time…
I was able to hang around for a while and took a numer of photographs
Also working late was Slarky the bus driver. Chris was busy cleaning out his pride and joy, topping up the water tanks and pretty much making sure that the bus was spotless for the following day. Always good for a chat with the fans I spent a good half-hour with Slarky who let me have a look around the bus, his bus..!
The following day I returned back to Sky’s hotel quite early and sure enough Richard and Pascale were up and loading the bikes onto the race cars, it was like they had never been to bed. Some of the riders came out to check their equipement and Jeremy Hunt kindly signed a photograph I had taken of him on the Kemmelberg at last year’s Gent-Wevelgem. Ian Stannard and Alex Dowsett also came out but I’m not sure if that was to check their bikes or their cars that were in the hotel car park. Alex has made no secret of his Jaguar on Twitter and I have to say it does look a beast, I can see however, why a single young man in such a ‘gangster’ car may attract the attention of the authorities at border crossings. Stan’s top of the range Range Rover is probably a bit more conservative but still a dogs gonads of a motor…
Anyway… the main purpose of going to the hotel was to see the World Champion jersey, being worn by a British rider, make its European debut. As expected there were a few fans hanging around the hotel and Mark posed for a couple of photo’s before heading for the bus. I was chuffed to bits when he signed a photograph I had taken of him winning the Olympic Test Event last year, a photograph that is special to me is it was at this race that TSF was granted media accreditation for the first time.
Objective achieved I made my way back to my car and headed out onto the course. First stop was the 1st catagorised climb of the day at Edelare. I didn’t have too long to wait before the race arrived. Five men were attempting to get away, just a few yards ahead of the main field that didn’t appear to be too bothered. Alex Dowsett was in the middle of the bunch
Once the road re-opened I made my way to the 5th climb at Oude Kwaremont and soon found myself driving the course. As I began driving up the climb I remember thinking it was steep, but not that steep… and then the cobbles kicked-in..! It was bad enough driving in the car, bouncing and shaking all over the road, to negotiate the climb on a bike must be a nightmare. As the road got steeper so the cobbles got more and more brutal. This was going to be interesting…
I parked and took up a position that afforded a good view down the road. For the next hour the area started to fill and soon there wasn’t a great deal of room on either side of the road. As the road closed and the race drew closer you could feel the atmosphere change and the sense of anticipation rise. With just a few minutes to go people were still arriving and you could see the look of horror on their faces when they realised that space was limited and they might struggle to secure a good vantage point. Now I love Belgium and the Belgians but I’ve noticed over the years that they simply have no comprehension of the unfairness of spoiling someone else’s view if it means they get to see the race. I’ve realised now that they don’t even do it deliberately or with malice, it is almost like they are completely oblivious to the fact that the person they are about to stand in front of may have been patiently waiting for hours, that was their problem, there’s a race to watch and they are going to watch it… Wise to this I made sure there was no opportunity to stand in front of me…
After the previous day’s poor show I was not surprised to see a BMC rider the first up the climb, the locals were particularly happy to see that it was a Belgian in Greg Van Avermaet. Personally I was more happy to see that Flecha and Stannard were not far behind and even more impressed when Bernie Eisel came around the corner with Cav on his wheel. The place was a cauldron of noise, and I shouted as loudly as the next man.
It probably took around 10 minutes for the entire field to pass. Originally it was my intention at this point in the day to drive back to Kuurne for the finish but as soon as the last rider passed by a funny thing happened…
Suddenly the entire crowd started running back towards and across the main road, where most of us had parked, and up a country lane. I had no idea where they were going or why but 500 people, even Belgians, can’t be wrong so I joined them. It was then surreal with the best part of 500 people, men, woman and children running, jogging or walking dependent upon their age and physical ability as fast as they can, I joined in but didn’t even know where I was going until I got there. Apparently we had around 8 minutes to get from the Oude Kwaremont to the top of the Cote Du Trieu before the riders completed a 14km loop – most of us made it, myself included.
Van Avermaet was still leading but the gap much smaller. Boonen, Flecha and Cav were still in the mix and once again I shouted my encouragement.
I hadn’t intended to watch the race at this climb but I was so glad I did. Just by looking into the eye’s of the riders as they passed it was quite apparent that they were suffering and whilst Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne may only be a semi-classic, it’s a brutal race.
Another jog back to the car and I was soon crawling in the direction of Kuurne. I had an hour to get there and find somewhere to park. TomTom said that without delays the journey will take 31 minutes, 10 minutes later I had moved around 500 yards. Slowly, very slowly, the traffic started to move. It was still painfully slow progress and I even considered abandoning the attempt and making for Calais, but I kept going and the speed eventually picked up. As I approached the outskirts of Kuurne I turned right at a roundabout and found myself on the course with spectators on either side of the road. I passed under the 3km to go banner… the road was still open but closure imminent. I could see the 2km banner in the distance when a policeman told me to turn right, the road was about to close. As I made the right hand turn vehicles were parked on either side of the road for as far as the eye could see. Initially I thought I would never be able to park and get back to the race but then I had an inspirational thought..! ‘If the roads closed there’s not going to be a bus coming along any time soon and that nearby, very handy and empty bus-stop looks a pretty good place to stop just until the road re-opens again…’ Result!
I made my way back to the course just before the 2km to go banner. A 7 man break led the race but there was no commitment from them. One minute later it became apparent why, the Sky train was coming…
There was a 22 minute wait before the riders returned for the final time. I heard on a radio that the breakaway had been caught, presumably by Sky driving the peloton, what a great end to a great day’s racing…
When the riders came into view Sky were still on the front driving a text book train – Eisel and Dowsett had dropped off having done their work, now it was Flecha, Stannard, Hayman and Sutton, in that order, bringing Cav up to the point where he lights the after-burners. Other teams were challenging but Sky was having none of it. This was brilliant racing right in front of me.
Once the riders disappeared up the road I joined a small crowd that had surrounded a camper van where the race was on the TV. I was bouncing when the Rainbow Jersey crossed the line first. Absolutely delighted! Cav made it look easy and perhaps the sprint was a bit of a formality but I assure you the race wasn’t easy, far from it. I saw first hand the suffering that went on out on the course long before the race even neared the finish line, the fact that Cav was there at the end to contest the sprint was down to a magnificent team performance that was a pleasure to watch. I have a feeling that this season is going to be immense…