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On any normal November day the fields and woodland on the Hotond in Belgium are deserted. Any of the little passing trade stops at the inn which butts up against the redundant stump of the whitewashed windmill here. This is the highest point in east Flanders, standing above Ronse, at the southernmost edge of a rolling area of wood and farmland known as the Flemish Ardennes.
We left London at 4am to spend the bulk of last Sunday stood on this exposed hilltop. The sun failed to make an appearance and the sky remained a complete blanket of grey. After such a balmy October in northern Europe, it felt as though autumn had been completely bypassed. But at this slight altitude, it felt like we had been plunged directly into winter.
We were not alone. Up from the village to the north, disembarking from shuttle buses, marched thousands of cycling fans. Passing the riders’ village, a temporary community of multi-coloured mobile homes in a field by the road, some stopped to see their favourite riders warming up, others continued up to the course to watch the support races.
By three o’clock in the afternoon the sideshows and beer tents had emptied and everyone was clamouring around the barriers, even on the most vertiginous slopes, for a view of the main event, round two of the season-long Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee, featuring the cyclocross glitterati: superstar Sven Nys versus Belgian Champion Niels Albert versus World Champion Zdenek Stybar.
After an hour of action on a brutal course it was the quietly-spoken Kevin Pauwels who held off Stybar for the win. The jubilant Pauwels fans were in fine (raucous) voice as we moved to the ‘back of a truck’ podium positioned opposite the inn.
The Hotond’s ancient windmill has witnessed its fair share of two-wheeled drama standing sentinel over World Championship road races (twice hosted by Ronse). The climbs of the Hotondberg and neighbouring Kruisberg are also regularly included in the parcours of both the Tour of Flanders and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (the Koppenberg lies six kilometres to the north).
There are numerous races in Flanders (and northern France) that are within a striking distance from southern England and if you are so minded some can be taken in on (long) day trips like ours. We’re now looking forward to the Rapha-Focus team’s forthcoming trip to Europe for the World Cup round on Koksijde’s famous sandy course. J-Pow and the team then return in January for more World Cup races and the World Championships at Koksijde.
• Sunday 20th November, 2011 Gavere Superprestige
• Saturday 26th November, 2011 Koksijde UCI World Cup
• Sunday 15th January, 2012 Lievin, France UCI World Cup
• 28-29th January, 2012 Koksijde UCI World Championships
• 11th February, 2012 Middelkerke Superprestige
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