It?s been a busy week and the Tour of Flanders seems a distant memory as I write this instalment of my blog.

The Monday after Flanders I was busy in my hotel room working on my race pictures and getting them sent to the office. That done it was time to make a start on my blog. Broke off for lunch with Lionel Birnie and joined up with Steve Farrand and Alasdair Fotheringham in the main square in Kortrijk. We found a bar there for our lunch break. Steve mentioned he needed me to do some photos in the afternoon for a Cycling Weekly interview he?d arranged to do with Ian Stannard over at Ian?s Ninove base.

After lunch, I?d barely got back to composing a bit more of my blog when I got the call from Steve Farrand to say he was ready to leave for the interview. Steve was staying in another hotel in Kortrijk so arranged to pick me up in his hire car outside my Broel Hotel just by the old twin towered bridge. The Tour of Flanders race route actually passes the front door of this hotel, rumbling over the cobbled road there before turning to cross over the famous bridge that features on the hotel logo.

It was about an hours drive out to Ninove and we arrived a bit later than our planned 17:00 meeting time. All was well though as Ian invited us in to his team accommodation about 5km away from the Flanders finish line. He?d been on his own there for quite a while, then last week some Norwegian cyclists from another team turned up to use the accommodation for a while. Ian is also to be joined by team mates Ed Clancy and Paul Manning in the coming week too.

The interview was of course the day after he had completed his first Tour of Flanders. He said he?d not felt too bad after the race but the tiredness kicked in later and he?d slept in until 11:00 that morning. He seemed relaxed and in good spirits as he related his story of the race. The full interview can be seen in Thursday?s Cycling Weekly. While Ian and Steve chatted a grabbed a few pics to go with the interview. We were there about a hour in total before we headed back to Kortrijk.

It was getting on by the time we got back. Steve had other plans for the evening, so it was just Lionel and myself who dropped in on Da Franco?s Italian restaurant in the main square for our evening meal. It wasn?t long before we found ourselves in good company, as shortly after we sat down the whole of the Lampre team, including Ballan and Baldato, dropped in for their evening meal.

Tuesday morning I was up early and made sure I finished my blog and sent it along to be posted up on the website. That done and I headed off to the Kemmelberg climb to check out the new routing over this famous cobbled berg in the Ghent-Wevelgem race. Lionel wanted some pics so he could post a little piece to the website about the route changes. I?ve never photographed the Ghent-Wevelgem race, so it was my first time to this climb. It?s only a short drive away to the west of Kortrijk and I was soon there.

The weather was fabulous, sunny and very spring like. I drove up to the top of the climb and parked the car. Grabbed my cameras and had a wander back down a short way to get some pictures. I then walked over the top to go and find the new routing for the descent. For those that don?t know the climb the cobbles end at the top by the hotel and bar. The road plateaus out and is tarmac-ed up to the large white war memorial, the memorial aux Soldats Francais. It commemorate the French units that were involved in the battle for Mont Kemmel during the Great War. The road splits here.

If you go to the right it?s the 23% drop down the cobbled descent that was the scene of some bad crashes in last years race. With that in mind the route was changed for safety taking it down the narrow tarmac-ed road on the left fork I was here to investigate. It joins the foot of the cobbled descent by the Le Mont Kemmel Ossuary. I took the necessary pictures of the route change and then had a look how I would get out of the area on race day with all the different road closures.

That done I drove back to my Kortrijk hotel. Gave Lionel a call and we went out for a quick lunch in the same bar we had used on Monday before heading out to Wevelgem to pick up our race accreditation. It?s only a few minutes drive from Kortrijk, so it didn?t take long. Got back to our hotel and sorted a few pics for Lionel?s piece on the Kemmelberg route changes for the web.

I later joined up with Robert Garbutt and Simon Richardson in the square. They had driven over from the office in order to see the race on Wednesday. On our walk back from the square and after our evening meal, I stopped by the bridge to get some night shots of the twin towered bridge by the hotel. Used my G7 again with manual settings.



Wednesday and race day. The weather was good as I made the drive to Deinze just west of Ghent for the race start. I had to be there for 10:00 to collect my photographers bib for the finish line and the Kemmelberg.

Made my way over to where all the team buses were parked and started getting all the tech detail I could from the assembled bikes carefully lined up outside the team buses. Got quite a lot done . Started then to focus on getting rider pictures over by the sign on stage which was a good distance from team bus car park. Saw Ian Stannard and wished him all the best for the race. His first Ghent-Wevelgem too.

After the start it was back to the car for the drive to the Kemmelberg. Mjrka an Italian photographer joined me. He?d asked if he could have a lift to the Kemmelberg as his colleague was going straight to the finish with their car.

It?s only a short drive to Kemmel and the Kemmelberg climb just the other side of the town. Parked up near the foot of the climb and walked up the cobbles to the point where the tarmac begins. While I waited for the race to arrive I chatted to the Belgium Debergh family on the crowd line. They were really nice people. They took a picture of Mjrka and myself and have since emailed me the picture (see below). They title it ?two international photographers of cycling on the Kemmelberg, Ghent-Wevelgem 2008.? Much appreciated. Mr Debergh was tuned in to his radio and able to relay what was happening as the race approached the Kemmelberg.



First it was Saunier Duval?s Capelli that soloed up the climb with around an eight minute lead on the bunch. Finally the bunch appeared with Pozzato and a CSC rider just off the front. Flecha, Devolder, Cancellara and Boonen (below) then led the rest of the huge field up over the cobbles.



I said my quick good byes to the Debergh?s before Mjrka and I went back to the car to drive to the finish. Some other photographers in cars stayed for the second ascent of the Kemmelberg before going back for the finish. It leaves it a bit tight if you don?t quite know which way to get away, hence my departure after the first ascent. I?ll know for the next time though that if you park up in the right spot you can do the second ascent and get to the finish as Hans Roth, a German photographer, did. He arrived on the finish line with about 7km of the race to go. He?s a great guy and so calm about things.



My plan was to get a shot past the finish line with the hope that Cavendish (above) would win and go straight to the soigneurs so meaning I?d get all the reaction shots. Things obviously didn?t work out like that as Oscar Friere stormed to victory. I did get some interesting shots as to how close the finish line photographers got to the mass sprint finish (below).



Podium presentations over it was just the short drive back to the hotel in Kortrijk.

We (Cycling Weekly crew) had a meal out at Da Franco?s and found ourselves sitting next to the whole of the Liquigas team. Pozzato was just behind me and polished off two very large pizzas and a chocolate fondant dessert. ?Very hungry,? he said as he gestured to his stomach.



Thursday and I spent the morning working on pictures before checking out of the hotel. My plan then for the rest of the morning was to do a recce of the Paris-Roubaix course so I knew where to get through to the pave sectors for Sunday?s race.

Took junction 4 off the A26 and drove the short distance to the bottom of the 2.4km Forest of Arenberg pave sector. It?s a very atmospheric place even when the race isn?t passing through. You can actually see the whole length of this tree lined sector. There were a number of spectators gathered awaiting teams to ride through on their reconnaissance rides. I?d missed CSC but saw Cofidis, FDJ, Credit Agricole, Rabobank and Lotto rattle through. Lotto had a Belgium TV crew with them and I got a shot of Van Summeren and Hoiste going full tilt over the cobbles with a TV bike either side of them (below). Noted that Van Summeren was using the Campag electronic gear system.



Decided to move on and looked at some other sectors including the Brillon sector and then refreshed my memory by driving over to the Le Carrefour de l’Arbre sector.

Saw my first Swallow of the year near Bersee as I was planning my race day route.

Drove down to Cambrai to my hotel for the next three nights. It?s perfect base to be close to the pave sectors.

Friday morning and I meet up with Magnus Backstedt do some feature pictures with him. I?d arranged to see him at the first pave sector at Troisville at 10:30.

Arrived there early so as to work out where best to take the pictures. Magnus sent me a text to say he was on the way and would see me shortly. The team car appeared and Magnus leaned out of the window to say the rest of the team were meeting down the road in the village and he?d be over in 10 to 15 minutes. While I waited I watched a few Swallows and a couple of House Martins passing over. Really nice to see.

One Swallow settled on the telephone wires by the farm buildings I was waiting by. I put my converter on to my 80-200 zoom lens and grabbed a few shots. You had the sense that he/she was happy to be back in what was probably the area he/she was born. It?s incredible that they fly over to Africa for the winter and then return to the same farm buildings they were born and breed up around to breed themselves. Fluffed up against the chill of the morning, the little Swallow allowed me to get quite close as I grabbed a few shots.



Magnus arrived along with his team mates. They rode on, while Magnus and I got the pictures done quickly. I wished him all the best and he and his awaiting team car went off over the cobbles to catch up with the rest of the team. They weren?t going to go too far, probably just the first couple of sectors, as they had done a big ride the previous day.

Spent the rest of the day finishing sorting out my routes to the pave sectors I wanted to do on race day. I put it together and ended up finishing with a refresher of the route to the velodrome in Roubaix from Le Carrefour de L?Arbre. On route I?d also made a quick stop at Arenberg again. It was getting on for 14:30 but I was there to see the Caisse D?Epargne team doing their recce. They were all on Pinarello cross framed bikes, the choice for race day. Interestingly they had Shimano cantilever brakes fitted rather than their team sponsors Campagnolo type. They still had Campag Ergosystem levers though.

It was also interesting to see a very relaxed approach to their ride, almost tourist like as team members took each others photos with the Arenberg forest as the back drop. Even for them it means a lot with all it?s history. Grabbed some amusing shots of two team members hanging over the Arenberg sign looking exhausted.

Saturday and did some more work on pictures from the last couple of days before heading off to Compiegne for my accreditation. Meet up with Luke Evans and Graham Watson and had a coffee in a bar near the grand Chateau de Compiegne, the royal hunting palace, while we waited for the photographers meeting at 17:45.

Race day and I was up early. It had rained over night but the morning was fair. Drove down to Compiegne for the start.

It?s always interesting to see what teams use on the tech side of things for Paris-Roubaix. Of note was the Ridley X-Fire cross frames used by Lotto with a skeletal road brake on the front and a cantilever on the back. Noted that it appeared Van Summeren didn?t have the electronic gears fitted that I?d seen him with earlier in the week.

Steffen Wesemann?s wheels were interesting. A pair of deep section Lightweights. They were airbrushed with ?Wese, Hell?s Bells, On a Highway to Hell.? I don?t think they were used all the way to Roubaix though, just a bit of show for the start. He definitely didn?t have them on when I saw him later in pave sector 26.



Tom Boonen had a new Specialized Roubaix frame for the day.

After the start it was back to the car and up to sector 26. Thought I got there in good time. The race manual estimated a 13:30 arrival and I was there for before 13:00. Had a sandwich and started to walk to the sharp right turn in the cobbles. That was just before 13:15 and realised that the race was approaching fast judging by the TV helicopters position. Just made it to the corner to grab my first race shots of the day. Nearly caught me out. They were flying, nearly 15 minutes up on the fastest race schedule.

Made my next stop at Brillon sector 15. It worked out ok and got shots of Hammond looking battle scared along with Pozzato with ripped shorts and nasty road rash on his right hip.

Moved on to Le Carrefour de l’Arbre and made sure I was the other side of the crossing so as to get a quick getaway for the finish. The crowds are always big here and fanatical. Didn?t think I was going to get a clear shot due to fans standing in the middle of the cobbles, though it worked out and got Cancellara heading Boonen and Ballan over this famous sector. It?s just 15km to the finish from here.

Ran to the car and drove to the finish, parking behind the velodrome and ran to the back of tribunes to get to the finish line. Made it in time to get in to position.

Ballan led the trio in for the lap of the track. Boonen then came off the last bend to easily seal his second Paris-Roubaix win.



Got away fairly promptly afterwards to get up to Calais with the hope of getting an earlier ferry. Hopes were dashed really as I felt tired and had to stop for a short rest and then as I approached the docks there was a bizarre occurrence. It was in the final few kilometres to the docks that there was a rolling road block by white vans and small trucks. There were police about and orange highway vans warning of ?Bouchon? queues.

A distress flare was burning on the verge of the road, glowing red and billowing smoke across the road. The co-ordinated road blockade rolled in to the Frontier/Passport control area and blocked all the channels. The police asked that we park in the side car park while they sorted out the situation. Went in to the ticket office to ask what was happening. It turned out it was local French fisherman having a protest. It took about twenty to thirty minutes before the fishermen were persuaded to leave. They rolled away, letting off a couple of red distress flares in final defiance.

So, I got the ferry I?d booked on anyway in the end, the 21:50 local time back to Dover. While I waited to board, I downloaded pictures and started working on them. All aboard and it was up to the restaurant for a bite to eat before settling in to working on my pictures for the rest of the crossing.

Finally arrived home at 04:30! A long day.

More news and views next week.

Andy

Stop Press: Monday morning and on opening my kitchen blind to see the blackbird I?d mentioned the other week with a beak full of worms disappearing in to the Mahonia shrub below the window. I?d seen the nest building activity but then thought that the attempts to nest had been abandoned. Ten days away and things have obviously progressed rapidly. I?ve since seen both parent birds bringing in food. Hope the local ginger moggy doesn?t attempt to sabotage proceedings. Keep you posted.

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