For most English-speaking people, the Tour of Flanders is a taste that is acquired later on in the experience of cycling fandom. With its stark landscape and impenetrable names, it’s like a particularly stinky cheeseboard; offered up for enjoyment after the guests have enjoyed the more obviously palatable main course of the Tour de France and, perhaps, the uniquely sweet delights of the Giro d’Italia. Many newcomers, uncomfortably gorged on Grand Tour fare, decline this unsightly rustic offering. On the initial sighting it’s much too strong; much too gamey; much too much. Later on though, perhaps after a couple of Paris-Roubaix digestif’s have cleansed their palate, they come to savour and exalt in the unique flavours of De Ronde. Here we make the case for why Flanders is the best race of the year..
The Tour of Flanders is hard work. It’s hard for the riders who have to battle narrow farm roads, rough cobbles, sharp inclines and, more often than not, all at the same time. It’s hard for the teams as the roads cause countless punctures and mechanical problems but also hamper the ability to service riders from the team cars. So every man and his dog are sent out with a spare wheel and a bidon to strategic points along the route. It’s hard for the organisers who are essentially selling a provincial race set on totally unsuitable roads that miles from anywhere that is either easily accessible or visually pleasing. It’s hard for the fans who, knowing that the race criss-crosses a relatively small area of land a number of times, do battle with mud, wind and the increasing effects of strong Belgian beers as they dash across freshly ploughed furrows from vantage point to vantage point in the slender hope of catching sight of the race-defining move. Or at least a crash..
So what is the attraction? In short it’s all of the above. In Flanders the ‘cons’ are quickly re-cast as ‘pros’. Those narrow cobbled climbs? They make the racing ultra-selective and riveting to watch… The fight to be in the first fifteen riders on to any given cobbled climb is as fiercely contested as the bunch sprint in many races. Having a deep understanding of the twisting course and the idiosyncrasies of each of the different Hellingen is a distinct advantage, which is one reason why the locals tend to do well.
What about the mechanicals and inability of teams to instantly service their riders? Again, this adds to the fantastically selective nature of the racing but also throws other elements into the mix. For one it rewards those who are blessed with both strength AND luck, adding an extra dose of fatalism to the riders’ lot. Bike riders are a pretty superstitious bunch at the best of times and the thought that the landscape might be actively conspiring against you when you are riding the rough roads is an easy one to make. It adds to the frisson and the immersivenes of the race. You can’t beat Flanders – you have to compete with it. You almost need to become Flandrien. The other thing is that with team support being much less directly visible than in other races the competition is stripped down to an almost gladiatorial nature – on the climbs and the cobbles is just man against man; woman against woman. It’s enormously compelling.
Provincial? Hell, yeah! It’s a partisan party par excellence; with the Lion of Flanders emblem hoisted like medieval pennants upon the ramparts of old. The race is made in the image of the local culture and somehow it amplifies that sense of history and culture without it becoming a corny pastiche or a crude caricature. Locally the race is known as Vlaanderen Mooiste – “Flander’s Finest” – and it is seemingly universally followed by all; regardless of age, background or genders. By being so closely entwined with the landscape and the culture the race feels more than old – it’s positively ancient. And all the tremors of history shudder up and down the spine as the wheels start bouncing over the cobblestones.
Riding the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, Kanarieberg or Taaienberg, you can’t help but feel that you are riding the landscape rather than the road. The tracks are inseparable from their surroundings and many are lower lying than the fields on either side. They are ancient routes, worn down over the years by carts and tractors. They never stop being farm roads – even on race day with the motorcades hammering up them in advance of the riders and the helicopters clattering overhead. Unlike the great Alpine passes, they are roads to nowhere, roads for no-one. They are hard to find and harder to wax lyrical about, once the race has passed they go back to their day jobs of being cold and quiet and covered in cow shit.
And hard work for the supporters? Well, I probably exaggerated a bit there. Some people still do the old fashioned field-hopping thing but these days many more will be ensconced in the vast VIP tents on the Kwaremont or drinking in front of one of the large video screens. Rain or shine, it’s a fantastic way to experience a day of racing. The rush of the crowd away from the beer tents to the roadside as the riders approach is truly a thing to behold. It’s noisy, bawdy and rowdy for sure but without any of the implied threat that would accompany a football crowd of a similar size, or that which has built in recent years on Alpe d’Huez. It may lack the mid-summer sunshine of the South of France or the jaw-dropping peaked backdrops of the Giro but racers tackling the muck and grit of those Flemish country lanes remains one of cycling’s truly great spectacles.
Pass the cheeseboard..
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Read about The Jersey’s Pocket experience riding the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Sportive HERE