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photography by Emily Maye
The Tour of Flanders is a funny race. Not funny in the way that makes you chuckle as your ride partner senselessly attacks in the same spot every time. A dip in the road, followed by a short rise and he's off. Someone chases, and you smile because, before you know it, he has called the whole thing off and is waving his hands in that way that indicates he’s no longer going for it. Not like that.
The ‘Ronde’, as it is affectionately known, is a different kind of funny, the kind that is more puzzling and that makes you screw up your eyes in bewilderment. There’s its crazy course, doubling back on itself to make sure the riders experience each and every cobble of that special parcours. Or the cobbles themselves, shipped in from nearby Poland, from Sweden, or from anywhere else that manufactures that tough, raw stoneware.
Then you have the riders, as battle-hardened as soldiers. Take Briek Schotte, whose handsomely craggy face adorns the cover of Stephen Vanfleteren’s small but striking book, Flandrien. The two-time world champion started in 20 consecutive editions of the race, winning twice, finishing 2nd twice and 3rd four times. An enigmatic personality, Schotte further advanced his own Ronde legend by passing away, at the age 84, on the very day of the 2004 Ronde.
In addition to mercurial participants, the Ronde has, over the years, developed a tough-as-nails reputation. The real race is won by winning over the hearts of the fans, for they are as twisted and crazy as the roads themselves. In the early days of the race they would come out from the mines, or illegal slaughterhouses (many of which supplied meat to the racers), to watch their countrymen thrash the competition.
Of the 96 editions of the Ronde, only 28 winners have been of non-Belgian descent.
This is exactly why the Flandrien hold the race so close to their hearts and why they fight for certain ‘bergs’, those small, native hills littered with rough stones, to be included the race. It’s the reason they stand on the Koppenberg (beneath which runs, allegedly, an underground spring that loosens the stones), to see who will be the first through the gates but to see, too, those who fall behind.
It is the bergs that garner the majority of the attention. Sure, the Bosberg is closer to the end and warrants its own nod, while Muur Kapelmuur has a US-based team named after it (Kapelmuur Independent) But it is the Koppenberg that remains king. In 2002, after an extended hiatus featuring a $500,000 renovation – including the addition of cobbles from Poland – the hill was reintroduced to the race. It is often called the ‘VDB of bergs’, after the late Frank Vandenbroucke, whose tumultuous racing career mirrored the profile of these hills.
Give the people what they want, I say.
In 2009, I was sitting in a small bar in Ghent in Belgium. It had taken us most of the day – it was Easter Sunday after all — to find one that was open and showing the race. While meandering the empty streets we had heard the cheers of fans through open windows but we feared the race itself might escape our grasp.
The only seats available in that smoky den were roughly two feet from the lone small screen. The race was well into its second half and as we settled in, the bar’s other patrons made their way over to that TV, one by one, crowding around us and uttering a Flemish vernacular that we could never hope to understand, aside from a few choice words. One of the words was “Boonen” and we quickly picked up a few other favorites, including the name of his teammate, Stijn Devolder.
Late in the game, with every competitor’s eyes trained on Tornado Tom (winner in 2005 and 2006), he went for it. Devolder that is. He attacked and never looked back. Which is when this little bar erupted. What had previously been a quiet, pool-playing, soft jazz-tinkling bar became something close to an all-out bar brawl.
A Belgian brought it home once again.
But who will take all the Easter candy this Sunday? Will Cancellara ride away from all and sundry once again? Lest we forget, this was the race that gave rise to the ‘mechanical doping’ allegations that followed him throughout the 2010 season. His similarly masterful win weeks later at Roubaix only seemed to solidify this claim in the minds of his detractors. However, he has shown us that he can still ride away from a crowd this year, but what about that bright green thorn in his side? Has the juggernaut of Peter Sagan seen the last of the front, or is this his year to shine? It is, after all, still Flanders and as we all well know (and hope) anything can happen.
A good portion of the facts and faces in this piece were brought to you by the amazing Velopress book The Spring Classics: Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races by Philippe Bouvet.
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