As the peloton tried in vain to chase down a charging Philip Gilbert during last weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, Oli too found himself chasing the reigning Belgian Champion through the Flemish countryside.
In the Flanders region of Belgium, cycling is part and parcel of daily life. And when it comes to celebrating the sport’s heroes, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Spring classic of Ronde van Vlaanderen, a monument to the spirit of Belgian cycling.
The 2017 edition marked the 101st running of “De Ronde”, starting for the first time in Antwerp’s city centre. The 259.5km route is brutal, taking in 18 helengen – Flemish for the short sharp climbs dotted throughout the region – as well as 14 sections of kasey – the infamous yet brutally majestic cobbled roads, which have enthralled cycling fans and struck fear into the hearts of even the most powerful riders for over a century.
While the Italian, French and Spanish Grand Tours generate the most hype globally, for the Belgian riders and teams, like Quickstep and Lotto Soudal “De Ronde” is arguably their most important race of the season … to be crowned the Lion of Flanders is an honour second to none.
When it comes to bike races one can either watch the action on live TV with all the information readily at hand, or, as I discovered this past Sunday, one can experience the race where you literally feel as though you are part of an intricate orchestra that pedals to the cadence of it’s own heart!
Our hosts, Belgian bike brand Ridley, had prepared a schedule that would see us careering through quaint villages and narrow country roads (in cars!) in order to get to 11 different spots from where we could watch the riders dashing by. The chase was exhilarating.
De Ronde uses virtual rolling road closure, which allows fans ‘chasing’ the riders to cross the route and even drive along it, as long as they’re either in front of the lead car’s green flag or behind last car’s red flag. So here I was sitting in the front seat of a Mercedes Vito holding on for dear life as we hurtled from village to village, to the summit of the Oude Kwaremont and then, via police escort, to the finish line in Oudenaarde.
The chief reason people chase the race is because the iconic cobbled climbs like the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremond and the final climb, the Paterberg are reserved for ticket holders who pay as much as €250 to gain entry to sealed off areas for a chance to witness the action … within metres of the riders at these strategic points on the route.
Here, in these “VIP” areas where beer flows like a raging torrent, one is immersed in a carnival like atmosphere. With some areas having capacity for 9000 fans, you ain’t going anywhere once the racing starts. The tents are perfectly positioned alongside the climbs, which riders tackle three times, maximising the experience.
In the end, no matter how one experienced the race, there is no denying that Quickstep’s Philip Gilbert, the reigning Belgian National Champion, earned himself the title of Lion of Flanders. His emphatic 55km solo breakaway sent goose bumps down our backs as we watched him summit the Oude Kwaremont climb for the third and final time.
Crossing the finish line, photographers swarmed around Gilbert as if he were a lush Spring flower laden with nectar. Without an official photographer’s bib I found myself caged in 70 meters from the line by a human chain of stewards, whose job it was to keep ordinary journalists out of the way. As we pressed forward, they screamed at us, shouting to stand back – it was as if we were in a riot! Such is the passion and energy that lives at the finish of one of cycling’s greatest monuments.
Long live the Lion of Flanders, he who dances on cobbles!