After an absolutely thrilling Het Nieuwsblad / Kuurne Brussel Kuurne weekend it was fortunately only 5 day’s before I could get my next cycling fix at a race. I have not been to the 3 Day’s of west Flanders before, but as Sky were racing and at just an hours drive from Calais it had to be done…
The opening stage of the race consisted of a 7km prologue at Middelkerke, a small Belgian seaside town that is probably a lovely place to visit during the summer but on a bleak Friday in early March it was extremely foggy all day and seriously cold. After parking up I made my way to the seafront where the teams were assembling. It was interesting to note the difference between the World Tour and Continental Teams. Sky and Nissan Trek for example had their full complement of bus, equipment truck(s) and support vehicles, other lesser prestigious teams were operating out of the back of hire vans.
I spent some time hanging around the Sky camp. Kurt-Asle Arvesen signed a photograph I had taken of him at Gent-Wevelgem a couple of years ago and gave me the riders start times. Jez Hunt was to be the first Sky rider down the ramp, ex-World Champion x 3 Michael Rogers to hit the circuit a couple of hours later.
The course itself was pan flat with only a couple of corners to negotiate. It was basically a long straight out of the town, a u-turn and a mad dash back along the seafront to the finish. Not particularly technical but as I said it was cold and despite the fog there was a stiff breeze that formed a headwind on the return leg.
I hung around to watch Jeremy and Alex Dowsett warm up and then made my way onto the course.
Cycling fans have different views about prologue’s and time-trials. I happen to like them. From a spectators point of view it affords the opportunity of seeing each individual in action without trying to spot them in the middle of a fast moving bunch, and with each rider setting off at 60 second intervals there wasn’t too long to wait.
As current British Time Trial Champion, Alex was one of the pre-race favourites and didn’t disappoint, posting the fastest time that stood for most of the day.
At this point I realised that there was time to watch the riders on the outbound leg before walking back to the seafront to watch them come home. With 22 minutes between each Sky rider setting off it meant that everyone could be watched twice and a brisk walk every 10 minutes or so came in handy as well, it was bloomin’ cold!
I didn’t realise at the time but Michael was posting Sky’s best time of the day, placing him 8th and 13 seconds behind Omega Pharma Quick-Step’s Michal Kwiatkowski who rode the course in 8 minutes dead. Alex was 12th, 18 seconds off the pace although I had noticed that the wind was stronger for the earlier riders and probably at it’s strongest when Alex was out on the course. That said, OPQ-S have had a blisterring start the the season with Belgian Julien Vermote keeping the locals happy with 2nd place on the podium.
After the presentation I swiftly made my way back to the warmth of the car and after an uneventful drive back to Calais and ferry crossing I arrived home around 20:30.
Stage 1 – Bruges to Kortrijk-Bellegem
I didn’t travel to this stage – with three races, three return ferry crossings, three tanks of petrol and an overnight stay already under my belt and with the serious classics coming up I need to watch the pennies (not to mention domestic bliss at home..!). It sounds like I missed a typical early season race on Belgian roads – wind, mud, cobbles and crashes, the most serious of which appears to have involved Michael Rogers, before ending in a bunch sprint.
Stage 2 – Nieuwport to Ichtegem
Having spent the Saturday doing all those household chores that equate to brownie points on the home-front and race passes in the future (in between watching Strade Bianche) it was time to pop across the Channel for some more live cycling. This time just a 50 minute drive from Calais I arrived in Nieuwport before any of the teams. Like Middelkerke on Friday I am sure Nieuwport would be worth a visit in the summer. Today with the rain lashing down it was beak, very bleak…
Fortunately as the first teams started to arrive the rain eased and the locals ventured out. As usual Sky was one of the last teams to arrive and by then there wasn’t a great deal of parking space left. Kurt-Asle Arvesen recognised me from Friday and came over for a chat which was nice – although I am a massive Team Sky fan I will not impose and tend to keep in the background. I was sorry to hear that Michael Rogers had withdrawn following the previous day’s crash but relieved that nothing was broken. This meant that Alex Dowsett at 10th was Sky’s best placed rider going into the final stage.
The riders left it until the last minute before signing-on, and in view of the weather who could blame them? Together with a decent crowd I then watched the role-out before making my way back to the car.
Fortuitously I had parked just around the corner from the race route where the riders made their way out of the town. I hung around and took a few more photographs as the bunch, still under the red flag, meandered by.
Next stop was Eernegem where I had a good view of a 7-man group trying to break away, a solo rider trying to bridge the gap and a couple of minutes the main field passing through, apparently not too bothered by those in the break.
It was then my intention to shoot across country and watch the race tackle the iconic Kemmelberg – unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Regular visitors to Belgium will know that there are predominantly two types of driver in Belgium. The first appears out of nowhere, screams up behind you and with the width of a cigarette paper seperating his and your vehicle ignores long straight roads and patiently waits until the arrival of a blind corner before exercising an overtake. The second type of Belgian driver is apparently convinced that should they travel at anything over and above 20 mph their ears will start to bleed and their hair will fall out. Unfortunately, driving out of Eernegem I got caught behind the latter and without an opportunity to overtake for several kilometers the chances of beating the race to the Kemmelberg slowly disappeared.
I therefore programmed TomTom to take me to the finish at Ichtegem where the riders will tackle a three-lap circuit so whatever else happens I would get to see the race four more times. As I approached Ichtegem and joined the circuit I could see police and marshalls at most junctions and spectators by the roadside. It was far too early for the main event but clearly something was about to happen so at the next opportunity I parked up and walked back to the course. After a short wait it was apparent that an amateur race was taking advantage of the semi-closed roads and taking place on the course. It hadn’t really stopped raining all day and as the riders passed they looked thoroughly miserable, soaked through and splattered from head to toe with wet mud – I took a few photographs.
Back at the car I drove into Ichtegem and actually drove the course which is quite weird when yours is the only car on the road and the barriers are already lined with spectators who have nothing to look at but you… 3 km to go, 2km to go, surely I’ll be told to turn off soon? No… as I crossed the line I resisted the temptation to blast the horn and carried on looking for somewhere to park.
Parking up I had plenty of time to walk back to the finish and although busy I managed to secure a spot by the barriers just 10 yards before the finishing line, and… for the first time all day it had stopped raining – result!
The amateur race was still going on and I watched the field come through three times before a local dignatory rang the bell to indicate one lap to go. 15 minutes or so later a lone breakaway came into view clearly delighted to be winning in front of such a decent crowd. I took a couple of photographs and fair-play to him he deserved the applause.
The amateur race was followed by a junior event and the entertainment certainly passed the time before the number of motorbikes and police vehicles crossing the line indicated that the main event was not far off. Unfortunately it started to rain again, not too heavy, but hard enough to be noticeable – Now, if I could pass just one brand new law I would make it illegal to posses an umbrella at a bike race. All over the finishing straight people who had already secured the best viewing positions were opening umbrella’s the size of a family tents making it impossible for anyone on either side, or behind, to see anything… I was always told ‘a little rain wouldn’t hurt you’ – No, but I might..! What’s wrong with a hat or a hood..?
As the riders swept through for the first time, not surprisingly Omega Pharma Quick-Step were on the front protecting the leaders jersey. Sky were not too far behind. Just like the amateur riders earlier, the pros had had a tough day, cold, wet, filthy dirty and bedraggled the conditions were brutal and those who had no chance of contesting the win must have been dreaming of a long hot shower.
Up until now I hadn’t noticed but approximately 20 yards after the finish line was a traffic calming ‘speed-hump’. It was interesting, amusing and somewhat scary watching the team cars scream through the finish, bottom and in some cases literally take-off when they hit the ramp!
Lap 2 and it was a bit closer with Ben Swift right up there.
By lap 3 it had stopped raining. Unfortunately the third of spectators that was ruining the view of another third of spectators because they had their umbrellas up did not realise that it had stopped raining because they had their umbrellas up! Grrr!! At the bell It was virtually all back together and clearly going to end in another sprint… Come on Ben!
Before the riders returned for the final time the heavens opened. Everyone leans forward and strains to see the leaders, decent photographs are impossible, its a case of pointing the camera down the road and pushing the button.
Arnaud Demare of FDJ-Big Mat won the sprint ahead of a Katusha and Vaconsoleil rider. Ben Swift came 7th.
With no Sky riders making the podium and soaking wet and freezing cold there was no point hanging around so I made my way back to the car, cranked up the heater and made my way home.
I later sent a tweet to Luke Rowe, Alex Dowsett and Ben Swift pointing out that they had earned their money during stage 2 – Luke Rowe later replied, “Cheers man, it was GRIM out there today”.
Despite the rain, the temperature and missing the Kemmelberg climb I had enjoyed the day and seen some great racing. It is only March and races such as the 3 Day’s of West Flanders are always going to experience poor weather. The benefit is that riders experience the cobbles, Belgian roads and most importantly get some race mileage in their legs. The risk to this however is the possibility of crashes and injury. Sky had already lost Michael Rogers following a crash on Stage 1 and I was gutted to learn today that Alex Dowsett had crashed when another rider fell right in front of him on a cobbled section and he has subsequently fractured his elbow (rumour has it that the cobble responsible was smashed to pieces during the impact..!)
Get well soon Alex.
A little break for me now before another semi-classic that never disappoints – The Dwars door Vlanderen – lets hope its a bit warmer and umbrella free…