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The Kemmelberg: 3.15pm
Time for the race to come through. Out boys. Fans line both sides of the Kemmelberg gauntlet like insulation packing in a cavity wall. They gaze back down the eel-black, lizard skin of the ascent as the publicity caravan roars by: Politie outriders; a few photographers ahead of the bunch; the Feldweg (race) car warning of imminent approach and the commissaire’s saloon. Necks stretch, bodies hunch over and a crescendo roar rolls up the slopes as a lone rider, Ermanno Capelli, breasts the empty cobbles. The spectators are mostly Belgian but about solo heroics they are unpartisan. The Italian is shaping an exploit so they cheer him to the spindly ceiling laths of the tree canopy. Hot on Capelli’s tyre, like a flotilla of motor launches following the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, comes the billowing wake of cars, motorbike-mounted shutterbugs and police. Dotted among the crowd are English club cyclists, drably dressed in pavement-pizza-patterned Lycra. Nine or so minutes into Capelli’s lead, the blaring tocsin of klaxons wells up from the valley and the pursuers are on us, out of the saddle, faces taut with effort, strung out within the strait confines of the Kemmelbergweg, the favourites identifiable to a sharp eye. There’s Cavendish, named as a possible winner (is the new team well drilled enough?), Boonen, Hincapie, the rest a blur. Another lull before the second passage.
Capelli again, still clear, just, his lead now cut to seconds as we watch the bunch speed up into the narrow, tree-lined corridor and past. They’re looking composed, flexing themselves to regroup on the flatlands below the Kemmel, the last fierce acceleration to the red kite and banderole.
We all meet up back in the beer tent in time to see Oscar Freire become the first Spanish winner and avenge Flecha. With a couple of fresh beers to round off the occasion, we observe a curious individual in conversation with some locals. He leans upon a staff whose bottom half is composed of a furled, Flandrian yellow umbrella. To its upper extension is attached, on one side, a miniature Stars and Stripes, on the other a Lion of Flanders flag and atop the whole, a double-bladed Viking axe, in chewed gum-grey plastic. This bizarre assemblage also bears a sticker with the legend: Healing Power of Beer. In the way of all cycle races, once the cataract of bikes, cars and motos has crashed by our viewing platform like an express train, the scene takes on an air of instant neglect, abandonment, purposelessness. The barriers are swiftly denuded of attendants, the dribs and drabs on the Belvedere forecourt begin to drift off and even inside there is a notable thinning. Later, as the removal men strip the Kemmelberg of all evidence that a bike race ever came through, we rumble and bump back down the unforgiving cobbles, the hard pavé of this Flandrian cycling mecca, heading for the cheerless miles back to the coast. But the sun smiles and so should we.
About the Author
Graeme Fife is the author of several best-selling cycling books including:
- Tour de France: The History, The Legends, The Riders
- Inside the Peloton
- The Beautiful Machine
Graeme has written for and ridden with Rapha on many occasions.