Cycle Sport’s deputy editor explains why the Tour of Flanders is the ultimate expression of cycling culture.
Words by Edward Pickering
I used to be a stage race man. My route into cycling as a teenager was the 1985 Tour de France, which I watched on Channel 4. Being the son of a French teacher who encouraged me early into lifelong francophilia, and keen on sports, especially athletics, I immediately became a fan. But I felt cycling began and ended in July. After a year or so, I learned that there was a Tour of Italy and a Tour of Spain – I couldn’t watch them on television, but I followed each for three weeks in the magazines in the months before the Tour. And then I discovered Paris-Nice, Critérium International, the Dauphiné and the Tour of Switzerland.
And it was only once I started buying cycling magazines that I realised there were other races. Dull-looking one-day races in flat countries, won mainly by riders whose names I could neither pronounce nor recognise, and not a yellow jersey nor an Alp in sight. The Classics. I mainly ignored them, with interest only beginning to flicker into life when Sean Yates had a good run of results in Paris-Roubaix, and Steve Bauer got pipped by Eddy Planckaert in the 1990 race.
I started noticing that the tactics in one day races were more subtle than those in stage races, which by the early 1990s basically consisted of riders winning time trials and riding up mountains in the front group day in, day out. There were more attacks in the one-day races. More finesse.
Quite a lot of stuff happened next, the ultimate conclusion of which was that I became a cycling journalist.
Even when I started working in cycling, I was still a stage race man. I enjoyed the Classics, but I’d rather have gone to Paris-Nice than the Paterberg. I covered the Dauphiné, not the Dwars door Vlaanderen. My drink of choice was vin rouge, not Leffe Brune.
All that changed in early 2007 when my colleague Lionel Birnie persuaded me to join him in a preposterous challenge – to ride the Classics in a weekend. Not the whole things, just the key points of each one. You can read about it here.
It was on the second day, as we rode up the Muur, down the other side and on to the Bosberg, in pissing, freezing rain, that I suddenly understood. By the time we rode up the Kemmelberg later that afternoon, I was hooked. I felt the same boiling excitement in my stomach as I had when I first watched the Tour live, on the Col de Manse above Gap in 1989. I booked my trip to the Tour of Flanders when I got back, and I’ve been back every time since.
The Tour of Flanders is the best race in the world. A couple of my colleagues pointed out yesterday that actually, no, Paris-Roubaix is the best race in the world, and they’ve got an extremely good argument. Paris-Roubaix is racing at its purest – a real thoroughbred’s event. And some years Paris-Roubaix does have the edge in terms of entertainment, or racing action.
But the Tour of Flanders is more than a bike race. It’s the expression of an entire culture, its geography, landscape, people, society, meteorology and passions. Only the Tour de France and Tour of Italy come close.
Cycling, both as sport and transport, is deeply ingrained in Flandrian culture. As I drove here yesterday, I gave right of way to cyclists whose bike lanes have priority on busy roundabouts. I passed shops run by Histor paints, Sigma, the Adecco temping agency, KBC bank, Landbouwkrediet, and many more names familiar to bike racing fans.
I’m staying in Oudenaarde, right in the heart of Flanders cycling country. The town is the starting point for three famous bike touring routes – the Green, Orange and Blue loops, which are fully signed and take in a variety of the cobbled climbs of Flanders. Two doors down from my hotel, there’s a museum dedicated to bike racing, the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen.
All this partly explains why the race is so important – the most durable bike races can’t be taken out of their local context, perhaps with the exception of the World Championships. The Tour of Flanders meshes perfectly over the landscape and culture of Belgium.
The Flandrian plains are wide open to the prevailing west wind, which more or less comes straight up the English Channel from the Atlantic, as often as not bringing rain and cloud along with it. The weather shapes the Tour of Flanders, just as it bends the trees alongside the cobbled lanes.
And once the riders in the race have been battered by the wind, they come head on against the geography of a small corner of Flanders called the Flemish Ardennes – a small ridge of cultivated hills and copses. The route crosses the ridge repeatedly, from north to south and back again, over a succession of steep, cobbled, pitted climbs.
And racing on the cobbles is all about the fight. Riders fight their bikes, the stones, and each other. The cobbles absorb the energy riders are putting into pushing forward, and throw it straight back at them, forcing their wheels off centre, unbalancing them. To counter the action, the riders lean, but maybe into another cyclist, who may not appreciate the invasion into his own private battle with the stones. To stand at the side of a muddy Molenberg, a wet Koppenberg and hear the slithering of wheels, and the multilingual shouting of frustrated riders, is to look into a chaotic battle that is unique in cycling.
Speak to the riders who are good at riding on the cobbles of Flanders, and you can see their eyes light up in excitement. Tyler Farrar once told me that from his first ever day of racing in Europe – the Junior Tour of Flanders – that he loved racing on the “nasty stones”. Tom Boonen told me his passion for the race and his ability to ride on cobbles were two sides of the same coin. One could not exist without the other.
Sunday’s race might continue the run of incredible races we’ve enjoyed in 2011 – Het Nieuwsblad, Milan-San Remo and Harelbeke have all been crackers. Or it might not. But that doesn’t affect its status as the best race in the world. I used to think that the ultimate expression of cycling fandom was a day under the summer sun on an Alpine climb among the French picnickers. Now I find it is standing in a muddy field on a chilly day, with the taste of frites and mayonnaise, surrounded by Flemish cycling nuts.
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