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The Tour of Flanders

14:04 22/03/2012

It's one of the biggest and best-loved events in the Belgian sporting calendar. So what makes it so special?

“It’s the most beautiful race of the year,” says Peter Van Petegem about the Tour of Flanders. A cyclist as Flemish as the pintjes that will flow all day long at the race’s finish in Oudenaarde, he has won it twice. He’s no objective bystander, but on April 1, his point will be grandly made by 800,000 spectators tramping out to forgotten country lanes to watch one of the most physically demanding sporting tests of the year. Perversely, they’ll hope it’s raining and windy because that will make the event even harder, and the winner even more heroic. Their ranks will be swelled by the global millions who will watch on TV. This is Vlaanderens mooiste – Flanders’ finest.

The beauty Van Petegem sees in the Tour of Flanders is not in Belgium’s spring scenery, but in the simplicity of the race: the battle at 50kph to be first into a corner, to protect a teammate, to get the best run at a brutal cobbled climb. It’s a human version of the Grand National. The essence of the Tour has hardly changed since Belgian cycling’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s when evocative names were writ large in newspapers: Eddy Merckx, Roger de Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy. In Belgium, they were equivalent to George Best and Bobby Moore in the UK in the same era, or baseball legends in the US like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Cycling was already a huge sport in Belgium when Van Looy and Merckx emerged. The nation’s riders had dominated at the biggest races like the Tour de France, the World Championships and so-called Monuments like Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy. But Merckx exported Belgian success by winning every race that mattered – a feat that will never be repeated.

Like their forebears, this year’s riders will still fight for every inch on the narrow farm lanes over 16 cobbled hellingen (hills) in the Flemish Ardennes. Over the 255km – which means about six hours in the saddle at an average speed of more than 40kph – inevitable bone-breaking, skin-stripping crashes will make the crowds wince. Ultimately though, fans will marvel at the courage of the 200 riders and their supreme effort, which, as they see it, is nothing short of heroic. Just making it to the finish will be a triumph, but for the winner, the prestige and adulation will likely make it the highlight of their year – possibly of their entire career. “The day of the Tour of Flanders is just that,” says Van Petegem, who retired from racing in 2007. “As a Flemish rider, to take part was a dream and to win it was beyond that”

The first Sunday in April is the race’s permanent spot in the calendar because if it were a weekday there would be pressure to make it a public holiday. Under a waving sea of yellow and black Lion of Flanders flags, everyone – pensioners, labourers, office workers, students and children – participates in this collective national ritual of cheering the riders to wring every last drop of energy out of their exhausted bodies.

The Tour’s history dates back to 1913. And while the race has always been open to an international field, Belgians have dominated it. Great champions like Walter Godefroot, Walter Planckaert, Rik Van Steenbergen and, above all, Merckx have turned it into a legendary event. To a man they were all as tough as old boots and worthy winners of the hellish race. They acquired the epithet Flandrien or flahute – riders with a formidable durability who were able to ride fast all day, over vast distances and in all weathers. They helped cement wielrennen – bike racing – as the foremost sport in Belgian hearts. So when Van Petegem says it was a dream to ride in the race, it’s not hyperbole, and he speaks with the passion of every young boy in Belgium who grows up racing bikes.

Given the race’s tradition, its organisers, Flanders Classics, courted controversy this year by excluding the nation’s most famous hill, the Muur van Geraardsbergen, for the first time in 40 years. The organisers were determined to move the finish from Meerbeke to the bigger tourist centre of Oudenaarde, meaning the Muur was out of range for the finale. With its 18 percent cobbled slope, which reduced riders to jogging pace and allowed thousands of hysterical fans to get within centimetres of the riders, it had a spine-tingling atmosphere all of its own. Some of the race’s most famous winners expressed reservations about the move. Stijn Devolder, who won it twice in 2008 and 2009, says: “The Muur was unique – there’s never going to be a final like that without the Muur.”

The community in Geraardsbergen went further and held a mock funeral for the ‘dead’ hill last September. The protest was partly based on economic reasons – Geraardsbergen had lost its annual moment in the spotlight – but it also reflected fans’ deep attachment to the Muur and the value they place on the race’s history. Van Petegem explains: “If you had changed the route 30 years ago it would maybe not have been big news, but now the race is international – it’s shown on TV all over the world and everybody in cycling is always talking about it.”

In the Muur’s place, two other famous hills are at the heart of the race: the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, which are farther to the west. The first, the Kwaremont, is about 2km long but relatively shallow. The Paterberg is short and brutally steep with a bad, very uneven cobbled surface. This year the riders will complete three irregular laps which also take in a series of other hills in East Flanders, including the Molenberg, Eikenberg and Koppenberg. Each climb has its own characteristics that present different challenges to the riders.

“It’s probably a harder course this year than last,” says Nick Nuyens, last year’s winner, “but in reality not that much changes. It’s still got the climbs – you hit the climb, get on a big road for some recovery then you hit the next small road and climb – they’re just in a different order.”

Nuyens, from Lier, outside Antwerp, will not be there to defend his title after crashing and fracturing his hip in Paris-Nice, an eight-day race in March. So who will carry Belgian hopes this year? Among their own, the responsibility falls, yet again, to Tom Boonen of the very strong Belgian team Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Affectionately nicknamed Tommeke or Tornado Tom, he’s been the poster boy for Belgian cycling since 2005, when he first won Flanders and then Paris-Roubaix a week later. He’s been on tremendous form this year and his face is likely to be plastered all over the route from Bruges to Oudenarde. Greg Van Avermaet could be prominent too; however, it’s likely he will be subordinate to his Walloon teammate, Philippe Gilbert, ranked the best rider in the world last year. Another to watch is the Swiss, Fabian Cancellara, who won Flanders in 2010. His popularity is sky high in Belgium because the local fans love his aggressive, attacking style of riding. The title of Flandrien is bestowed on few outside Belgium, but Cancellara is one, and he’s just the type to detonate the race on the Kwaremont.

Flanders may have a new route, but the confluence of history, culture and primal competition remains the same as ever – it’s the same old Tour. As Van Petegem says, “It doesn’t really matter where it goes. You have cobblestones and climbs and small roads, and that provides the character of the race.”

 

WHERE TO WATCH THE TOUR

The change to the route’s finale won’t deter the hundreds of thousands of spectators from grabbing a six-pack (or more) of Jupiler and heading out to watch the race on its fiendishly convoluted journey from Bruges to the finish in Oudenarde. How tough the first 90km of the race are depends on the wind as it heads west, parallel to the North Sea coast.

The race will begin in earnest when it travels through Oudenarde. There, the atmosphere will be building all day since it’s also where the race finishes. The group of riders – the peloton – will be racing furiously well before it hits the first climb, the short, viciously steep Taaienberg, as they try to get their captains to the front of the peloton to avoid crashes.
The Koppenberg is the steepest hill of the race at 22 percent. It’s also extremely narrow and the high banking on either side turns it into a natural arena. If it’s raining, it will be chaos – one fall in the peloton and the riders will have to shoulder their bikes and run up the remainder of the hill.

The race takes in the Kwaremont and Paterberg three times, so this is the heart of the action. The Kwaremont is a long section of cobbles that starts sharply before gradually levelling out. It’s where the big powerful riders will probably make the race-winning move.

The Paterberg will be where the Muur’s spine-tingling atmosphere is most likely to be recreated. It’s short but, at 20 percent, incredibly steep. The cobbles are rotten, too. After 245km, the riders will be in the circle of hellish agony reserved for the strongest, hardest fastest bike riders in the world.

 

VITAL STATISTICS

LENGTH

255km

 

NUMBER OF HILLS

16

 

NUMBER OF STARTERS

200

 

NUMBER OF TEAMS

25

 

LAST WINNER

Nick Nuyens (BEL)

 

THREE-TIME WINNERS

Achiel Buysse (BEL, 1940, 1941, 1943); Fiorenzo Magni (ITA, 1949-51); Eric Leman (BEL, 1970, 1972, 1973); and most recently Johan Museeuw (BEL, 1993, 1995, 1998)

 

TRIVIA

The Paterberg is a road to nowhere – it was laid by a cycling-mad farmer 30 years ago to tempt the race on to his land

 

Photo by Tim De Waele

 

Written by Sam Dansie