A Nervous wreck. The same, distant gitters are bubbling in my belly the week before I wed. The nerves portray the full excitement of Flanders week. Tomorrow at 5am, I will board a budget airlines, pay the GDP of a rebel African state for a mucky coffee and arrive in the holy land of cycling. The Ronde van Vlaanderen is THE bike race. Over the hellish, cobbled climbs of Belgium’s north, fierily independent province of Flanders. A monument of the European professional calendar. The hardest day on a bike- ever. Little, Italian professional climbers have a stomach ache this week. The French track lads slept in and the dog ate every single Spanish pro’s license. Flanders is for the real men who shave below the waist.
At my last visit to this glorious race Stijn Devolder surprised everyone by his breakaway at 25 kilometers from the finish Devolder never got more than 20 seconds lead, but held on to beat Nick Nuyens and Juan Antonio Flecha and become bronzed in the eyes of the nation. Flecha, poor Flecha.
Now new heroes grave the pave. Can Sky’s line up deliver “G” in for just rewards on his best ever season? Can Stanard power home to victory or will he break bikes and cobbles asunder? Without my hero Big Tom Boonan, Ronde van Vlaanderen is an agonizing search for a new Lion of Flanders.
For English speakers, stick to calling it the Tour of Flanders; to annunciate ‘Ronde van Vlaanderen’ correctly, you need to be born with a beer in your cot and stones in your shoes. I love it and my nervous stomach is the proof. Not only the daft language sets the Flemish apart, their passion for this day is tremendous. With 20k to go in the past events, the Muur-Kapelmuur in, Gerardsbergen would have 30,000 Flemish people in the village sounding of for their heroes. Now, the new course stabs the riders over 256kms, a slow death, rather than releasing a star on the Muur. Opinion is still divided on the better course but my love of this intense classic remains. I will see them off in Bruges with a slight hangover. I will Photograph the riders picking their noses nervously and settle down on the grass lost in the Flanders countryside with cobbles underfoot and pretend to be a local.
Twice I have ridden the course. 120 km of hard flat roads tire the legs before the first off the 19 ‘Bergs’. 19 cobbled climbs where you churn the lowest gear in the pleasure- pain happiness zone. 19 climbs over the last 140km. A massive day in the saddle. Sheer class. Talent tested to the limit.
I am nervous for the riders as well. Nervous for Greg Van Avermaet so stylish. Could it be him? I have Butterflies for Sep Vanmarcke, waiting until he will mess up again…dont do it Sep.
The strongest rider wins Flanders, not someone who just gets lucky. Peter Sagan has also finished on the podium before and can’t be discounted although Alexander Kristoff is nothing without Paolini, and Degenkolb needs a bunch to shine, so I will cheer for Thomas.
Flanders is like a dream for the winner and all of Belgium, and a nightmare for the rest of the riders. Only room for one lion of Flanders. On Sunday I will be there to hear him roar. Can’t wait.