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86th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) - CDM

Belgium, April 7, 2002

News for April 11

More than just a bike race

The fans' perspective

By Jeff Jones
Click for larger image
Photo © Jeff Jones

The Ronde Van Vlaanderen is considered one of the hardest one day events on the cycling calendar, perhaps less so in terms of the actual parcours than Paris-Roubaix, but harder to win in terms of the competition. More top riders race the Ronde than Paris-Roubaix, due to the latter's uncanny bone breaking ability, and a lot of riders feel they can win it.

It is the epitome of Belgian racing. It combines jarring cobblestone sections with narrow farm roads, bigger concrete slab roads and, if you're lucky, smooth tarmac. Just looking at the detailed road map (wegwijzer) is enough to make your head spin with all the corners that the riders have to negotiate. Then there is the incessant wind, which will come from all quarters during the race as it weaves backwards and forwards over the Flemish 'bergs'. It's these which shape the race perhaps the most, with 15 or more short, steep and often cobbled climbs coming in the last 120 kilometres.

The end result is a fantastic competition between the favourites and the opportunists who happen to have a good day. From a fan's perspective, this is a strong part of the attraction of the race, but by no means all of it. The Ronde is unrivalled in Flanders as a public spectacle. This year around 1.2 million people watched it on TV (in a country with around 10 million people in total), and several hundred thousand folks braved the conditions to get out on the road side and have some fun.

Click for larger image
Fans in Brugge
Photo © Jeff Jones

This year they were lucky with the weather, which was sunny and cool, with a prevailing easterly wind. That meant more yellow flags with a rampant black lion in the background, the standard of the Flemish people. There was more beer, more food, more music and more fun to be had on the side of the road and in the towns as people waited anxiously for the race to come by.

The start in Brugge was a good indication of things to come. The Grote Markt in the centre of the old city was packed with people, all straining to get a glimpse of the riders as they came to the sign on stage. If they were lucky enough to get a position on the barriers, they could beg the riders for an autograph as they did a circuit of the Markt after sign on.

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Are we all here?
Photo © Jeff Jones

The Cofidis boys had a novel approach, with Jo Planckaert riding up to the stage with three of his teammates, on a quad bike! Two wheels, four riders - it could work. Jo seemed to think so, when we asked how he would go today.

"Very good I think," he replied confidently. "Four riders with one bike. A new tactic!" I don't think he got it past the UCI commissaires though.

Once the riders had started, the crowd evaporated into the nearby bars and restaurants, or back to their cars. My plan was to spend the day in a silver van with Lawrie Cranley and the members of the Bikestyle-Sunderland Spring Classics tour, who were going to be following the race and viewing it from a number of vantage points.

The van was driven by Glen, a Zottegem local who knew how to get around. A complete genius, he ensured that we arrived at each spot in plenty of time, with enough room to get out of there and onto the next location.

Our first stop was Johan Museeuw's home town of Gistel, where we strategically parked on the outskirts of town, amidst a large throng of people who were out to cheer on Museeuw. As this was only after 35 kilometres of racing, there was not a lot happening in the race, although the early break of Alexis Rodriguez (Kelme), Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner) had already gone, with Jan Kuyckx (Vlaanderen) and Erwin Thijs (Collstrop) bridging the gap.

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Waiting in Hertsberge
Photo © Jeff Jones

They zoom past and we zoom off towards Hertsberge (65 km), another town situated on the flat part of the parcours. Here the crowds are even bigger, lining the roads six deep in some places. I'm impressed, as there's nothing happening in the race. It's definitely comparable with the crowds in the Tour de France.

The break, which now numbers four, rolls past with a big roar from the crowd, who are otherwise amused by the sausage and beer stands on the side of the road. Where is the peloton though? It's only 30 km since the last time we saw them when the gap was about 1'30. Now the minutes tick over with no signs of them.

Eventually after a quarter of an hour, two Spanish guys come by: Rafael Diaz Justo (ONCE) and Jon Odriozola (Banesto). 'Err, guys, I think you missed them. They're 10 kilometres up the road!'. The peloton follows at just under 17 minutes and there is much muttering and consulting of the time table. Yep. They're going slow.

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It's a bird...
Photo © Jeff Jones

We hop back into the van, cruise down the motorway towards Zwalm, via a roadside service station to refuel our bodies and the van. We get to Zwalm with 10 minutes in hand, pick up another member of the tour group and put his bike in the back. The local motorbikies keep themselves amused by watching the helicopters approach.

The break has 20 minutes now and it's stable, but they still have 130 km of very tough terrain to come. We choose not to wait for the peloton, which won't get going for at least another 30 km, and we duck off to the cobbles at Mater (km 153). We've got plenty of time to get a good position near the corner, as Glen parks the van a few 100m away on the main road.

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Viva VDB!
Photo © Jeff Jones

The fans here are arrayed in tiers, and there once again a lot of them. Plenty of Flemish flags here, as well as an unruly group of VDB supporters. He's got a lot of them here! Maybe one day he'll give them some joy like he did three years ago in this race.

While we wait, a kid of about 12 comes clattering along the cobbles dressed in his full club gear. He gets an enormous cheer as he makes the corner and continues towards the end of the stretch. Very impressed, as I remember how tough this section was during yesterday's tourist ride.

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Jan Kuyckx
Photo © Jeff Jones

The breakaways finally come though, still together, but looking a little worse for wear. The peloton is now a lot closer and is racing full tilt. First through is Ludo Dierckxsens (big cheer) followed by four members of US Postal, with Lance and George right up there. So is the World Cup leader Mario Cipollini - not bad going old son! Further back, Tom Steels is chasing in a second or third group after a puncture, while US Postal's Matt White is gritting his teeth just in front of the convoy. Incredibly, Matt survives and gets to the front for the next 30 km or so to get George to the foot of the Oude Kwaremont.

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The Kwaremont
Photo © Jeff Jones

It's exciting stuff now, and we switch on the TV in the van. The reception is a little dodgy, due to interference unfortunately. We can follow the race as they head over the Kluisberg and the Knokteberg, by which time we've made it to our next rendezvous on the Ronde Van Vlaanderenstraat. Big crowds, lots more traffic. We slightly mistime our walk to just catch the peloton over the Knokteberg, but we do see Erwin Thijs not long after come over the Oude Kwaremont with a clear lead on the rest of his companions.

There are still impressive numbers of people, even more on this important part of the race. A bit of paddock navigation is necessary to get down to a better position on the Oude Kwaremont, where we see the peloton led by Telekom and US Postal in several pieces. This climb tends to shake them up a bit.

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On the Berendries
Photo © Jeff Jones

By the time we get back to the van, Glen has done the calculations that will get us to the Berendries, the fourth last climb of the day and the last one that we will see. The thing that makes it easy to watch this race is the density of roads in Belgium, particularly in this area. There are any number of small back roads that slice the main arterial routes that are normally used to get from town to town. We use a lot of them to get to the Berendries, which always has a big crowd on it.

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Thijs on the Berendries
Photo © Jeff Jones

It's only a short walk and a short wait for Erwin Thijs, who has done a heroic ride today to stay away this long - it will be well over 200 km by the time he gets caught before Geraardsbergen. He has only a 2 minute lead on the next group of 8 over the Berendries, and we can see the inevitable happening.

We're just about to leave to go to the finish at Ninove when a tall guy in a Fassa Bortolo outfit rides up beside the van and asks "Arivee?" in his best French. We reply in our best English that yes, we're going to the finish and we can squeeze you in. We put his bike in the back and he takes a seat, obviously exhausted by his effort today. It turns out to be Roberto Petito, a teammate of Michele Bartoli's (who tried and failed to get across to the break).

Petito seems downcast when we tell him this, as he worked his guts out all day for Bartoli. Oh well. He looks totally shattered though, and said that the wind really made it tough today.

I don't think this was quite planned on our itinerary but we're pretty happy about it!

We make it to Ninove and bid Roberto goodbye, and attempt to get our TV working again. It does so at last and we see Tafi's final attack with 4 km to go that wins him the race. The others rush out to watch him go by with 500 metres to go, and report back with the news that there weren't many cheers for 'Tafone' by the predominantly Belgian crowd, which was hoping for a Museeuw or Van Petegem victory.

Two Italians in two years! That has to hurt, especially when this race has been won 61 out of 86 times by Belgians.

That said, today's race is certainly one for the fans. Cycling in Belgium is often seen as an excuse for a party of some sort, especially the well known Kermis races around the town (Kermis = carnival or fair). I dread to think how many glasses of beer were consumed during the 264 kilometres of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, but it's all part of the fun.

Tot volgende jaar.

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