The Muur van Geraardsbergen has decided countless Rondes. It is the epicenter of Belgium’s biggest race, and it is the epicenter of the viewing experience. The climb seems almost designed for the race – it’s tough, it’s fairly long, and its slopes accommodate thousands of spectators. The chapel area at the top could not have been designed any better if someone tried! It’s the closest to a stadium we’ll ever get in bike racing. Let’s take a look at the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of bike racing’s biggest party.
Yesterday’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen was one of those perfect days of bike racing – it had everything, ok, maybe not the bad weather that we all love to see our favorite Gladiators slog through, but a great day of racing nonetheless. The good part about a huge race like De Ronde being raced in perfect weather? The crowds. The people come out by the village-full to get their taste of the biggest sporting event in their country. Not just the locals either – people come from all over the world to sniff about and get a little taste of the Belgian World Championships. It’s a day like no other.
Having ridden many parts of the course over the last three days, I was desperate for the full on experience. I dreamt of seeing the race in ten different places, catching every important cobbled section, berg, and corner. I wanted to enjoy the rush of the desperate chase to make it to the next climb in time.
Lucky for me, Peter and Lisa Easton of Velo Classic Tours have been doing this a little bit (ok, a lot) longer than I have, and a more sensible, better goal of three spots was decided upon: the Molenberg for the women, the Lippenhovestraat cobbles for the men, and then the Muur for both the men and women. It ain’t a whole lot, but it focuses most all of the attention on the one point that makes the Ronde, well, the Ronde. It’s impossible to realize just how important the Muur is, how incredible the atmosphere is, until you spend a couple of hours there. Peter of course, understands this, and the Muur was to be the focal point of our Ronde experience. If you ever get a chance to see the Ronde, you have to see it at the Muur at least once, which thus makes it mandatory to see it numerous times.
The women charge up the early slopes of the Muur. Ina Teutenberg would eventually take a surprising bunch sprint win.
My words can only do so much justice to the spectacle of a rather small Belgian town being overrun by thousands upon thousands of fans. I’m not talking about your typical 20-60 year old male fans that populate most sporting events either. I’m talking about infants, babies, little kids, big kids, teenagers, adults, older people, really old people, men, women, dogs, cats, ducks, signs, blowhorns, foghorns, megaphones, drunkards, water drinkers, bratwurst-eaters, vegetarians, riders, racers, non-riders, you name it, they were there. It was one of the most diverse collections of humanity that I’ve come across in a long, long while – all with one purpose: to be a part of Belgium’s biggest day and watch a bike race.
The view down into Geraardsbergen.
After chasing the race throughout its early parts at two different sections, we arrived in Geraardsbergen a solid two hours before the race was to arrive and a little over an hour ahead of the women. I’m just going to let the pictures and my running commentary take care of the rest.
We stopped first in front of the big screen along the early part of the Muur. The crowds were huge, and everyone’s eyes were cocked at about 45 degrees to follow every bit of the action on the giant monitor. Of course, massive amounts of beer were being ingested, so of course two other things were happening – urinating and brawling. What else is there to do when you get drunk? Oh yes, I remember, there’s much more to do, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Whilst watching the race explode on the early bergs, I was encountered with this priceless pairing. I’m still speechless.
After watching the women pass up the Muur, we started the slog upwards. Sometimes I think it’s easier to climb these giant, steep things on bike. Walking is hard. We were still way early, but pretty much every viewing angle was reserved with bodies at this point. I can’t believe that a parent could get their children to sit on these steps patiently for hours. That’s almost as impressive as Devolder’s second straight win…or Pippo’s wheel-sucking talents.
Relatively unknown Marco Bandiera had an army of fans waiting for him on the Muur. He answered with a great ride in the break with Daniel Lloyd during the early crucial bergs.
Our man, Medium John (he’s the big one), staked out a perfect spot. He wasn’t budging. There was a certain George Hincapie that needed cheering and a huge portion of that cheering was going to come from his cavernous chest.
And that’s the scene we were greeted to as we rounded the bend and looked up. Wow.
These guys got up a wee bit early. That must have been an uncomfortable wait for the next hour or so. But hey, everything is possible when you’re drunk, right?
Want to climb the grassy knoll for that amphitheatre like experience? Better get out your crampons and call up your favorite sherpa.
I can’t begin to start the long count of how many little kids I saw wearing Tom Boonen attire.
Okay – I can’t begin to start the long count of how many big kids I saw wearing Tom Boonen attire…and more. Anyone who thinks there is another person who rivals Tom Boonen’s popularity on a bike in Belgium – go to the Muur and find out otherwise. He’s a biking God.
Oh my, just another view of the masses.
Looking down at the humanity.
Once on the Muur in the crowd, Scott decided to practice cheering. Of course, any good fan knows that they should be stone cold before the race goes by. Scott has the stone cold look down perfectly.
But once Tommeke comes into view, the fist comes up, and the cheer must flow.
The whole Lion of Flanders thing is great. The flags were absolutely everywhere, but the wearing of the flag adds a little twist, let’s us know that you not only feel the Flandrian way, you wear it. I like it.
There are two things a drunk person should never be in control of – a car (or other moving machine) and a megaphone. The world would be a better place if another drunk person was never allowed to touch one of these. Especially this guy.
The crowds looking even bigger when we go vertical!
Ah, the kangaroo, so at home in Belgium.
I have no idea.
Yep, thumbs up all around.
These pastries looked really good. So good that I bought one. So disappointing. There wasn’t even a delicious cream filled center. It was just pastry through and through. Booo.
I can only think of Forrest Gump when I see this…if you lean against me Forrest and I lean against you, we don’t have to sleep with our heads in the mud. It’s ok if you don’t remember that line, and doesn’t take away from this picture one bit. Seeing the race is all about passing the time leading up to it. You can choose to pass your time in a number of ways. Most opt for much drinking, others go for listening to the race, others chat, others eat, and some just sort of meditate.
It’s crazy that a peaceful scene like this is only 20 meters removed from the insanity of the Muur.
The view of the top.
There was one lonely Pippo banner at the top. After the way he rode this year in Flanders, I can’t imagine that that flag will even make it back. I’m not blaming him or saying he raced poorly or anything, but that’s not the way to endear yourself to the hard ass Belgians, you know?
Bet you haven’t seen the Muur from this side! Yep, this is the seldom seen downhill side of the Muur. It’s lovely. There’s a lake with baby ducks in it!
‘Eddy Merckx’ was on the loose again, right in front of the race. He did two laps of the Muur before the race came by. The people love him. No, it never gets old. Just thinking about Eddy on the Muur gives em shivers.
And finally…the race comes. There it is – Stijn Devolder makes his winning move and starts to put cobbles between his rear wheel and Quinziato’s front. Game over.
Right behind, Gilbert is leading the charge, whilst Boonen follows. Of course, Pippo is glued to Boonen’s wheel. Where else would he be?
I had it all planned out. I was going to dupe the great photgraphers and get a totally unique view. It would be great. I was going to slide down the hill, lean against a tree, and get some great shots. I did that, but then a Belgian kid slid in behind me with a six foot Belgian flag and my best laid plan was left in the eternal mud of Flanders.
The main field followed the main field many, many minutes behind the leaders. It was impressive nonetheless.
After watching the race go by, everyone and anyone charged down the hill to watch the race finale on the big screen. It was packed.
What kind of smart remark can you make for this? I don’t need to comment on this one, do I?
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