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The Kemmelberg: 10.00am
The Belvedere restaurant, the place to be. Pre-race bonhomie builds. Politie motos ride through. Television crews set up. Across the road, a cameraman adjusts his gantried elevating chair. A scattering of race officials. A catering truck reverses in.
East, across Flanders fields, an innocuous gun fires and the race departs. The waiting on the Kemmelberg officially begins. Time-fillers are talk, longueurs of silence, and observing the slow leach of fans up the narrow defiles behind the barriers lining the pavé from the right-hand turn below. Road now closed to all but authorised vehicles.
“What time does the television transmission start?”
Time, dismounted, trudges doggedly by with two punctures, front and rear, and no spares. Luncheoneers arrive. The crowd inside the Belvedere swells. TV trailers feature interviews with Big Tom Boonen, who won here in 2004 but hasn’t quite topped his big Flandrian wins of 2005, the year he won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Ignoring what he says, merely registering his smiling presence, the entire company of spectators goes doolally with a Flemish version of “O-way, O-way, O-way-o-way”. When Stijn Devolder appears, the winner of this year’s Tour of Flanders held the previous weekend, the entire company starts up again. Then, a reporter reflecting on the mayhem on the Kemmelberg in 2007, accompanied by grisly footage of the calamity.
The dining room of the Belvedere bulges, 140 to lunch. Rik and Sylvie, the owners, and their staff work at full tempo like the bunch in echelon against a crosswind, chasing down escapees. The television screens fill with action, like a boy’s eyes opening to a birthday surprise of a new pair of Bontragers and one of the tables launches into a sort of mindless football-crowd chant, endlessly repeated: “Nico Mattan, Nico Mattan, hey-oh, hey-oh, Nico Mattan.” The hectic enthusiasm of those rendering this monodic mantra indicates that it may actually mean something and I enquire.
Periodically (it seems) they pick a rider (Belgian) from the bunch.
“Not le top,” it is explained, “not a best one but a good rider and it helps when his name fit the la-la-la, so Nico Mattan, he’s right because he does okay in the la-la-la.” Somewhat embarrassingly, Mattan ballsed up by winning in 2005, albeit he’s reckoned to have taken a draft from the commissaire’s car near the finish to outsprint Juan Antonio Flecha. Perhaps the Spanish lobby have a rival chant:
“Flecha was robbed, Flecha was robbed, olé olé, Flecha was robbed.”
The serveurs weave through the boisterous mass of lunchers, male and female, the waitresses fielding flirtatious ribaldry with good humour. One waiter grips four large steins of Leffe in the cup of his right hand, a fifth lodged against them on his lower right forearm, a sixth in his left hand, which also steadies the cartage of the right as he shimmies through the dense scrum of boozers and bingers. The occupants of one table resolutely play cards throughout proceedings, believing perhaps that the race is not to the swiftest and that after a nice boozy lunch it’s gotta be time for a hand or two of rummy and yet more bottles.