Bert covers his long legs with a jacket, like the good pro that he is and dozes in the back seat of the car, beside me. He has to sit at an angle, because his thighs are so long. It’s 06.50 and the dawn is starting to break over Flanders as we head steadily up the E40, which I’ve just hammered down, from Brugge. It’s Sunday, and it’s time for De Ronde.
It’s hard to find a lovelier start to a harder race than Brugge.
There wasn’t a trace of light in the sky at 04.50 when my BlackBerry alarm jolted me to life at my hotel, beside one of Brugge’s lovely canals. My room mate, Greg was still asleep; 140 kilometres around Flanders on a Cervelo and keeping pace with Mr. Hewitt on the Belgian beers would certainly guarantee a sound sleep.
We were bummed that our man Bert Roesems was not riding de Ronde, but thrilled he’d be our personal guide for the day.
My car is back at Meerbeke at the finish, where I met my hosts and now we’re headed back to Brugge and the start of the 92e Ronde Van Vlaanderen – Bert’s snoring. When he wakens, I ask if his sponsor’s product actually works – ‘Silence’ is an anti-snoring product; “yes, but I’m waiting until I get free samples!”
The only way your gonna see Flanders 10 times in the day is with a driver like Andre. (And yes- we saved the beers for after the race!)
I’m a lucky PEZ guy today, I have Bert Roesems, his father-in-law, Andre and wife Inge to chaperone me around De Ronde Walking down to the start area at 07.30, my cel phone rings – it’s Viktor. I say; “I have someone to talk to you” and pass the phone to Bert, Viktor launches into a rant about Ghent-Wevelgem two years ago when Bert’s late escape cracked Petacchi’s Milram train, one by one. Bert smiles and replies; “yes but it’s a pity I was caught with one kilometre to go!”
The press room, just behind the signing on, in the Groot Markt, Brugge has a beautiful breakfast spread laid out – I knew there must be perks with this job somewhere.
Outside the band is belting out; “Wooly Bully” to an approving crowd, it’s still only 08.20.
I have to fight against a steady tide of humanity to get from the Groot Markt to the team bus parking. We need pics of the Landbou Colnagos, Astana Treks, CA Looks and Saunier Scotts. A few ‘pardons’ and ‘excusйs’ and the job is done.
Follow the numbers as you read along – most fans see the race in 2-3 places if they’re lucky.
Over at the Silence Lotto bus Bert has gone aboard to wish his team mates luck; “It was a strange atmosphere in the team bus today, very quiet, normally they are joking around and noisy, but today they are nervous, Flanders is the most important race for a Belgian team.”
Our first sight of the race is at Torhout, 20 k in, (see 2 on map) it’s together and swishing along at high speed under a cloudy but bright sky. I get a row from Andy (as he’s known) for being on the wrong side of the road – you can’t cross back after the race passes for a quick getaway, because of the convoy. Number 151 is off the back – Arvesen of CSC, he must have punctured.
• Shortly after, we get a second brief glimpse of the race at Lichtervelde, 23 k (see 3 on map). This involves running up a motorway embankment through long soaking grass; “you must run back to the car, immediately the race is past!” Andy tells me, I don’t argue. The bunch is still “compact peloton” as we say in Flanders. Stijn Devolder’s Belgian elite champion’s jersey jumps out at me, but it’s well back in the bunch.
• Lendelede at 58 k (see 4 on map) and it’s still sunny, but there’s a nip in the breeze which is more than strong enough to stir the flags. . Andy has his eye on me to make sure I don’t cross the road. It’s way too fast for an early ‘suicide’ break, but I catch sight of Hincapie and Hammond well to the fore.
After the race passes, it’s time to scramble for the car; the next stretch will be “kassel” – cobbles.
• Wannegem-Lede at 122 k, (see 5 on map) they’re charging over the Kluisberg and the Nokereberg whilst we wait at the first serious stretch of cobbles; “very nervous here” says Andy, ‘very dangerous’ replies Bert.
Barry Hoban told me that he always rode the middle ‘high’ line on the cobbles, but Bert prefers to ride on the most even part, right beside the gutter; “but you must be very precise.” You would have to be, there are longitudinal ‘kerbs’ which retain the cobbles at the edges and these have split and cracked, leaving lethally sharp shards of stone, just waiting to tear the sidewalls out of tyres.
Initially, I think we’ve got a result, the place to ourselves. No chance, within minutes our quiet little spot becomes the centre of the known universe. Meanwhile, the sun is playing hide and seek with us, and when it’s hiding – it’s cold. There’s rain on the horizon too.
Even a roadside seat can be improved with a stepladder.
Word comes through that there are four away Tombak (Jartazi), Veelers (Skil), Renders (Top Sport) and a Jerome Bouygues Telecom.
The lead break rolls through Wannegam.
They hurtle past in a cacophany of air horns and cheers; they have maybe one-and-a-half minutes. There’s a Saunier Duval rider in no-mans-land then the bunch, rather a long snaking line, with Gilbert, Boonen and Cancellara all to the fore.
We’re getting snippets on the race radio – “Poosthuma is out, a nose bleed that could not be controlled” – “49 kilometres covered in the first hour.”
”Back to the car…!”
Andy has us off and running as soon as the last team car passes – trouble is that it’s not the last team car and air horns blast at us and security motor bike marshalls wave their arms, we have to pull over as team cars scream past, sorry! And the snow has started.
Another “mad breenge'” – as we say in Scotland – and we’re at Mater on 159 kilometres, a three kilometre cobble stretch. The ‘renners’ will have thrashed up climb three – the Molenberg – by the time we see them. I nip in to a bar, just to survey the scene, but am forced out by the smoke. Talking of drinks, on the way up from the car, I pass one of the ‘ViP’ busses, they’ve been hitting that champers hard.
The lead group has split, a brace of duos rattle over the wet cobbles with a Skil rider bridging, but this isn’t serious stuff, there are 14 climbs to go. As Bert puts it; “they say that the race doesn’t begin until the Kwaremont,” that’s not for another 25 k and after that there will stil be 12 climbs. ‘Man’s race’ doesn’t do it justice – Liquigas’s cyclo-cross star, Franzoi is out with a broken leg and Saunier’s lone Frenchman, Dennis Flahaut has broken his elbow.
Andy is taking us along tiny roads through the hills and trees of these Flemish Ardennes, and still the snow flies – it’ll be a worthy winner in the 2008 Ronde.
We’re in Zulzeke now, at 192 kilometres, the spot we are at follows a very tricky section – the Paterberg climb; “its steep and technical, you’ll see a lot of small groups here – fours, fives, ones, twos,” Bert explains.
The radio tells us that Van Summeren and Hoste (Silence Lotto), Boonen (QuickStep), Vaitkus (Astana) and Flecha (Rabobank) are clear.
• As we stand waiting in the rain, Tour down Under winner Andrй Greipel calls it a day and Bert explains the least painful route to the safety of the feed zone to him – otherwise hunters would find his body in the Summer.
The lead group has swollen to maybe 20, Nuyens is in it and Cancellara; Boonen has Devolder there – this looks like the selection. “I’m surprised by the size of that group, it’ll be a massacre on the Kopppenberg!” says Bert.
We drive the Taaienberg climb – a savage, straight cobbled ramp, barriered all the way and lined with fans. There’s nowhere for us to stop and it’s well over the top before the cops direct us in to a farm road clogged with cars – they want us off the road, the race is too close and we’re at maybe 204 k.
Muddy faces; but there’s Boonen, Devolder, Ballan, Flecha, Hincapie, and – Chavanel, the last we heard he was in the second group; Boonen has Barredo too. Big Magnus Backstedt isn’t too far back, but there are still eight climbs to go. Andy has us back in the car right after the leaders pass, and we’re off again. Rolf Aldag in the High Road car is right behind us, he blasts the air horns as he passes us on the inside on a bend.
We’re on old concrete section road, the snow has stopped and the surface is drying.
The foot of the Leberg at 216 kilometres, and I don’t know if I would have bothered with that one, there was a big drama to park the car, we saw the riders over the heads of the crowd for all of three seconds and it was time to go – ah well!
At the foot of Tenbosse at 233 it’s all change, there are five clear, Hincapie (High Road), Kroon (CSC), Langeveld (Rabobank), Devolder (QuickStep) and 2007 winner, Ballan of Lampre – but he isn’t looking comfortable
Even the weather has changed, the sun has come out to play again. The main group, maybe 40 strong isn’t far behind and Tommeke looks good with his blond locks spilling out from his crash hat.
The drive to the Eikenmolen climb at 239 k isn’t too crazy and only Devolder survives from the quintet, giving what he has left, probably for Boonen, or maybe it’s the real thing?
It’s down to the tiny TV in the car now and Devolder is on the second last climb – Geraardsbergen. Flecha goes after him, behind they are still all there – Boonen, Ballan, Cancellara, Gilbert as the commentator tells us that it’s down to the Bosberg.
We’ve lost the TV picture, it’s down to the car radio – Devolder tops the Bosberg on his own and he’s in to the last 10 kilometres – it’s his day!
If it was me, I’d stop at a bar as the radio tells us that Devolder still leads with Langeveld (Rabobank) Tombak (Mitsubishi) and Flecha (Rabobank) in pursuit.
Then it’s Flecha and Nuyens (Cofidis) chasing – we need a TV! Bert takes charge and routes us to his buddy’s house in Ninove. As we storm the place, Stijn enters the finish straight and reminds everyone which laminated flooring company has the best cycling team. There’s a cheer in the room and our host makes for the beer pump – it’s a Belgian house, remember!
He pours me a Witcap Pater; “this one is for Stijn!” he tells me as we clink glasses.
With thanks to Andy, Bert, Inge and the folks in Ninove for a memorable day.
• See Bert’s website at BertRoesems.com