Last year I made a somewhat last-minute decision to visit the cobbled classics. You can read about our assault on the Paris-Roubaix Challenge in Issue 0 of the magazine (or here) and decide for yourself how smart a decision that turned out to be.
This year I was afforded a much more comfortable option - follow a race from the luxury of the MEDIAHUIS CONNECT VIP bus, including start and finish area passes. The contrast with last year’s escapade could hardly be greater. I did not need much encouragement when the invite dropped in to my inbox the other week. If nothing else it would give me the perfect excuse not to get roped in to ride the Flanders Sportive at the last minute.
I flew in to Brussels Airport on Saturday afternoon and as an afterthought put in a call to Matt Brammeier. I had a spare evening and I was on his manor. “I’m on my way to the airport - flying to Johannesburg tonight” came the response. So I hung around in Departures and caught-up with the Synergy Baku Cycling Project rider who recently captured the King of the Mountains jersey at this year’s Tour de Langkawi.
We put the cycling world to rights over shit coffee and overpriced fodder in a quiet corner of the airport, and then the boy headed for the departure gate. But not before I’d relieved him of a pair of his Irish National Champion special edition socks - kindly made for him by DeFeet. I felt strangely un-reassured by the revelation that my mate would be protected from the spectre of Yellow Fever whilst competing at Mzansi Tour in South Africa - but that’s another story...
Then I headed to the train station and on the way I passed what absolutely had to be Marianne Vos - pushing a trolley towards Departures with a huge GIANT bike bag. Did the greatest bike rider in the world just smile at me? Surely not - I must be dreaming . . . but that thought would keep me occupied for the duration of the train journey. And way beyond. Still.
My lodgings for the evening were a comfortable-enough “business hotel” in the middle of an industrial park west of Brussels City. I ordered a Grimbergen Blonde from the bar (that’s a Belgian beer by the way) and hit the hay - setting 3 alarms for the 06:00 start. Just before sleep I sent an SMS to Brammeier - “I’m lying in bed wearing your socks and eating cake from a vending machine - living the dream baby”. He replied “I’d give my right arm to be lying in bed eating cake right now”. He actually made me feel grateful for my ‘lonely-Saturday- night-hotel-in-the-arse-end-of-nowhere’ predicament.
As is always the case when you set twenty-seven alarms, I woke five minutes before the first one went off, and had barely slept through the night - a mix of excitement and generally being in an unusual place. It seems no amount of travel will prepare me for that. Checking out of the hotel at such an inhumane hour proved more than tricky as the “receptionist” eventually admitted he was only the night guard. After fifteen minutes I gave up waiting for him to work out how to print my receipt and headed for the meet-up point - only 200m along the road.
It was still dark - but dawn was about to break. There was a chill in the morning air, but it was calm, and smelt like a good day to watch the world’s best riders cycle their machines over some bobbly roads. My host for the day arrived and we boarded the bus. I was apparently the only native English speaker in the party, but that hardly made a difference - my Flemish hosts all spoke perfect English and didn’t seem to mind accommodating my linguistic limitations.
English club football, the Belgian National football team, beer and – of course – who were the pre-RVV favourites dominated the early conversation as we headed to our first stop of the day and breakfast in Brugge. I stared at the pictures of the Het Nieuwsblad special Flanders supplements and before I knew it we were arriving in the centre of Brugge and the bus was parked more efficiently than Jose Mourinho clinging to a faltering title chase. We headed up to the 6th floor of “a big building” which I understood to be the Concert Hall, and a spectacular view over the main square - where the team buses would later park up.
After at least four strong coffees and a couple of visits to the breakfast buffet we descended the stairs and went to meet the teams. First to arrive, and in the tiniest bus, was the local team of Topsport Vlaanderen. What a fine example of a development programme offering youngsters a robust pathway to a future at the top level of pro cycling. By far the biggest congregation was of course surrounding the Omega Pharma-Quickstep bus. It seemed some famous Belgian dude was loitering in the vicinity . . . Pro riders are fairly renowned for hiding in the safety of the team bus until the final possible moment before they have to sign on at the start line. The constant threat of light drizzle did little to entice them out of their warm, dry surroundings. And who can blame them – even the quickest of them would have well over six hours in the saddle if they were to complete the course today. A couple more circuits of the team parking area, taking in the sights, spotting famous faces from today and previous years, and we headed back to our own team bus.
And so our very own personal race was on. We needed to get out and on to the road ahead of the peloton to our first planned stop of the day at Ruddervoorde - and the start of the race proper. As we left the beautiful medieval city of Brugge, television screens flipped down from the ceiling of the bus and we were able to observe the riders rolling out of Brugge behind us. It was already past 10:00 and our first beer of the day was served - Skol!
We were soon pulling up to the roadside a few hundred meters beyond the actual race start and already there were many hundreds of people lining the streets, waiting for their heroes to arrive. We disembarked and took up a position amongst the crowds. A long straight road enabled us to see a long way back and soon the flashing lights of the lead race vehicles and police moto riders were coming in to view. They zoomed past, closely followed by the vehicle of the official timing sponsor . . . “Ro-Da-Ni- Aaaaa”. To my amusement everyone repeated the sound coming from the loudspeaker and then laughed out loud. It seems this particular watch brand is very famous in these parts, having supported bike racing for many years. Whenever you hear “Rodania” - you know the race is close.
As the riders approached we could see there were already some early skirmishes as the “smaller” teams fought to get their sponsor’s name on their jersey some camera time. But whilst there was a long string of riders, the elastic was yet to snap and all riders passed by in a single group. “Wiggo is at the back!” someone shouted - the prospect of Sir Brad competing on the cobbles appeared to hold some amusement for the locals.
We hopped back on the bus, and soon were served our second strong beer of the day. Our driver headed towards Deerlijk - the home of two-time race winner Stijn Devolder - and our third planned stop. Still before 11:00 and the course was packed with fans waiting in anticipation. The Lion of Flanders flag was evident everywhere. A few minutes later our host made an announcement: due to a major tail wind the race was progressing well ahead of schedule and we would not make it to Deerlijk in time. “Booooo” complained the occupants of the bus. “But we do have more beer available”. “Hooray!!!”. Our driver set course for Oudenaarde and beer number three of the morning was opened - pssst. “Does this bus have a toilet?” I enquired. “Come on!” came the disappointed reply “ . . . we have done this before, we know what we are doing - can’t believe you even asked . . .”
Soon we landed in the famous city of Oudenaarde in the Flemish Ardennes and we alighted only a few hundred meters from the main town market square, where the team buses had already parked, waiting for the race finish later. We crossed the course to the inner circle and took up a position inside a tight corner - anticipating a good view of some action. Opposite, the town bells were ringing loudly and at least every other person appeared to be wearing the stylish retro blue and white race cap distributed freely by the race sponsor Het Nieuwsblad. Almost everyone had the peak flipped up and I wondered what the keeper of race cap couture himself Mr Brian Holm would make of the sight.
There was no identifiable “demographic” amongst the crowd. Young and old, men and women, all shapes and sizes were everywhere. Plenty of English and US accents too. I’d read in the newspaper that morning that almost 2,000 Brits had entered the Flanders Sportive public ride the day before, and clearly many had stayed to watch the real race. This is the day that all of Flanders celebrates as its own and it appeared everyone was out in the street to enjoy the occasion.
The television helicopter became audible and the crowd anticipation went up a level. “Rodania” announced the riders were close behind and soon the break came in to view. It seemed six or so riders had slipped the pack and made modest progress up the road. They sped past us to great cheers of encouragement and over four minutes passed before the bunch arrived on scene. Already it didn’t feel like the gap would be enough to keep the big guns at bay. As the peloton flew in to the tight 90 degree corner there was that horrible squeal as dozens of pairs of brake blocks clamped on to expensive carbon rims. An audible gasp from the crowd as the group rapidly concertinaed. But thankfully it seemed all made it around the acute left-hander without major incident. No sooner had they accelerated out of the bend and our thoughts had already turned back to our bus and we quickly made our way back through the buzzing throng in order to keep to our own tight schedule.
Climbing aboard we were welcomed with hot food already laid out in anticipation of our return. And of course, beer number four was soon to follow. More chat about who could win the Ronde von Vlaanderen. General consensus was - heart says Boonen, head says Cancellara. People seemed genuinely amused at my claim Wiggins would be taking it easy today - not because he didn’t like the course - but because he was focussed on Paris-Roubaix next week. Our host Kurt made only one prediction all day: “I can’t tell you who will win, but for sure Van Amermaet will be second - I promise you that.”
Boxed lunch was distributed throughout the bus, featuring sandwiches, salad, a sausage and a little chocolate Easter egg. “you MUST eat the sausage” insisted Kurt. “It will help you drink beer all day”. We continued our journey to Kerkgate with a full belly - and another beer. “Church Gate” is an iconic feature of RVV and there was a huge crowd gathered when we arrived. The bells were again ringing from the church tower and dance music was being blasted from the pub across the road. The energy amongst the crowd made the little hairs on your arm stand up tall and I felt sure even if you hated bike racing this would be a memorable sensory assault as the whiff of BBQ wafted across the road. When we arrived the sky was grey and threatened rain, but thankfully for the riders it remained dry and the wind would soon blow the clouds away, revealing a glimpse of sunshine.
Again helicopters overhead heralded the imminent arrival of the main event. As the timing sponsor led the front of the caravan even I found myself joining in “Ro-Da-Ni-Aaaaa” as this “musical ident” had already transformed into an earworm and crawled inside my brain. The riders rocketed through this 800m stretch of cobblestone still reasonably compact. A couple of stragglers at the back were cheered as if they were 10 minutes ahead of the bunch. Chapeau . . . Courage!
Before the broom wagon was through we were already half way back to our transport and eagerly seeking an update from the TV screens to see the latest race status. “I think Cancellara was near the front”. “Did anyone see Boonen?”. “Yes, yes - he was there, don’t worry”.
Another round of five-percenters in hand, the live race coverage on screen, and the atmosphere on the bus was again building as we snaked our way across the Flemish countryside and our next planned stops - the double-header of Zegelsem-Leberg and Valkenberg. Some tasty chocolate and vanilla desserts were served and almost before we had time to finish our skilled driver again positioned our “mobile pub” within a short distance of the course and we made our way - beers still in hand - to the corner and waited amongst the team mechanics - wheels in hand. Resembling a scene from Apocalypse Now, helicopters appeared above the brow of the distant hill. Flags were waved and team mechanics jostled amongst the crowd to try to gain a visible position in case one of their riders needed a new wheel. Thankfully all passed by without stopping and we quickly sprinted from the corner of Leberg, making our way on foot to see them coming down from the Valkenberg.
We were overtaken by team cars, motorcycles and fans on bikes as we all raced to get a good vantage point before the race passed through again. It felt like we would have seconds to spare as the car horns and sirens heightened the nerves and anticipation.
In reality we had plenty of time and were able to enjoy the antics of the crowd as we waited patiently. One guy was using his Flemish flag as if he were a bullfighter - challenging passing cars by draping it over their screens. Then, the Dutch arrived. Maybe twenty or more city bikes - complete with baskets and bells - ringing. A couple of them set about painting the road - not in the customary orange, but in green and white - “Belkin” everyone assumed, although the zig-zag pattern offered few clues as to what it was supposed to represent. It amused the Dutch greatly - whatever it was.
By now the bunch was starting to look a bit ragged - not completely disintegrated but it was evident that some riders were fighting to stay connected to the back of the pack. The first few whistled past and up the hill - then there was an “oooooh” from the crowd ahead as the bigger bunch came in to sight. The riders filled the full width of the road and we all took several steps backwards on to the grass verge to afford them plenty of room to whizz by. And “whizz” is exactly what one of them did. Towards the back and evidently struggling to “multi-task” one guy had one hand on the bars, and while trying to pedal full-gas was skilfully managing his own “sprinkler” system as he distributed a long yellow line of spray within centimetres of the crowd - much to everyone’s amusement. The look on his face suggested the relief of “letting go” was more than offset by the pain of the chase. Great skills though mate.
Once again our private race was on and I realised I was alone and everyone had already gone back to the bus. I sprinted off in the direction from which we had come, only to recall that the bus had moved in the meantime. I hit the brakes and turned around - ran back the other way - past a man with an inflatable doll - and up to the VIP bus. Thankfully they had waited and we were ready to embark again - chasing the race through the fields of Flanders - with of course, another beer.
Our penultimate stop for the day was near to Koppenberg - and a pivotal moment in the race for sure. By now it was well after 3pm and it occurred to me, as I was downing my sixth brew, I hadn’t yet made any liquid deposits of my own. Along with the other male occupants of the bus we aimed for the bushes at the side of the road and made the required download. Somewhat lighter, and feeling refreshed we took up our place on another tight corner and waited for the leaders to arrive. By now the race was well and truly on, and the peloton was broken in to a number of small groups. I saw my old colleague Bernie Eisel (the nicest guy in pro cycling?) up near the front of the race and let my imagination overtake my brain for a few seconds as I thought how cool that would be for him to be involved in the decisive move of the day.
Sun now shining brightly we boarded the bus for the last leg of our marathon and raced back to Oudenaarde for the Grand Finale. As the anticipation increased while watching the race on the TV screens, there was only one way to calm the nerves - one more premium beer please. Was that seven? It was a short hop to the finish area and the bus parked close to the grandstands where many thousands of people were already watching on the giant screens. Our VIP wristbands provided access to the hospitality tent, where we were able to watch the final selection of the race, suitable refreshed with our first draught beers of the day (eight).
It seemed everyone in the marquee was praying for Tommeke to do his stuff - urging him forwards. Deep down you could really sense that everyone feared the big Swiss engine was just waiting for his moment to pounce. Various attacks tried to get away in the closing kilometers, but eventually all were covered and the final select group started to think about the finish. They had sufficient gap to play a little cat and mouse without fear of the chasers making fools of them. They passed under the kilo to go banner at what appeared to be the slowest pace of the day - everyone looking at each other, waiting for the pivotal attack. We seized our moment to run from the tent to the grandstands and battled through the crowd to somehow end up only ten metres from the finish line. The vast majority were yelling at the giant screen for the Tornado to do his thing. I looked at Kurt “what do you think?” “I can’t tell you who will win but Van Avermaert will be second” he repeated.
Leaning over the barriers we could now see the leaders come in to view. The noise was intense as the crowd roared them home. The decisive move appeared to come impossibly late, but in the end it was perfectly timed. No long one for Fabian on this occasion, as he timed his sprint to perfection and nudged himself in front with just meters to spare. Let there be no doubt - HE is Spartacus.
I looked at Kurt and blew my cheeks - phew, what a race I said. Sorry for you guys that your boy never made it. “Ahh . . .”, he said “its no surprise, the best man on the day won... but you saw who came second . . . ?” I actually felt sorry for GVA - always the bridesmaid it seems. It felt cruel, but we all laughed anyway.
We stuck around for the podium presentations and I was thrilled to see Lizzie Armitstead in her GB national champion's jersey spraying the champagne as her team took a classic 1-2 in the women’s race. Then a very muted GVA stood next to a triumphant Fabian Cancellara and we headed back to the tent for a final spot of liquid refreshment (nine).
The bus ride back to Brussels was fairly subdued by the high standards we had set throughout the day. Talk shifted to football and the big Championship games that evening in England and Belgium. Busy traffic made the dash to the airport a little more nervy than I would have liked, but in the end I made my flight in good time - and was even able to stock up on more Belgian beers at duty free - to be enjoyed during Paris-Roubaix the following week.
Well - what a day! I have to say I was not really sure what to expect when I first got the invite. The phrase “VIP” always makes me nervous. “Exclusive Experience” are words that I tend to shy away from. For me sports should not be experienced from a sanitised environment inside a glass box, whilst drinking champagne and wearing a business suit. I can’t think of a worse way to spend my time. Maybe you guessed - I’m not a fan of the “prawn sandwich brigade” - however I really had nothing to be concerned about here. It was an absolute privilege to be invited to share in this celebration of Flemish culture and heritage. The guys could not have made me felt more welcome, in fact I detected a sense of pride that an outsider such as I was so engaged and intrigued by their passion and culture. It’s easy to see why the people of Flanders are so proud of their race and zig-zagging my way from one vantage point to the next enabled me to experience the excitement first-hand on several occasions during one race. I really had the impression that the full route of the race was lined with eager fans, all keen to participate in this special day.
A truly memorable day - one of the best. A great race, great company, Belgian beer,
Belgian chocolate. Maybe a Belgian victory would have been the cherry on the icing on top of the tastiest cake you could ever wish for - but no complaints from me. Huge thanks to everyone who helped to make it such a fantastic occasion for me personally. After this experience it will be hard for me to imagine to spend the next Tour of Flanders anywhere else than there in person. Who knows - maybe I need to take my bike and tackle the cobbles myself?
Tour of Flanders - 'VIP' Style first appeared in Conquista issue 3.