Maybe if Flecha hadn’t made that despairing effort to drop Langeveld on the run in then he might have found those 50 mm that means the difference between deep joy and weary resignation at the post race press conference.
But our bar is happy, better that a man who speaks ‘Nederlands’ wins than someone from the ‘soft south.’
Saturday morning dawned bright in Gent; but with half an hour to the start the rain began, soft to start with, but soon finding it’s rhythm of incessant cold drizzle with long bursts of stinging, freezing droplets the size of peas.
The start area has gone a little too ‘corporate’ for us.
In the ‘old days’ the buses used to line up in the street opposite the SMAK art gallery and the fans could wander around, poking at tyres, asking stupid questions, taking bad pictures – like it should be.
But now there’s ‘Flanders Classics’ hospitality, ViP lounges, barriers, ‘crime scene’ tapes – all very Pro Tour.
It wasn’t a good morning for ‘sound bites’ with riders and staff; on days like these everyone stays on the bus as long as possible – the mechanics and soigneurs get left out in the rain.
And don’t get me started about the umbrellas.
PEZ friend, Dirk Van Hove very kindly agreed to take us round the route.
The opening kilometres through the streets of Gent are dangerous enough in the dry, never mind with a film of water covering the diesel; there are tram lines, parked cars, bollards and speed bumps by the score.
Here they come!
Destelbergen at 14 K and a sodden break splashes past us – the bunch around a minute back, gasping in the spray off the tyres in front of them.
Dirk then broke 23 rules of the Belgian Highway Code to get us to Elene at 41 K.
He has an impressive technique with policemen which wears them down, finally they say; ‘OK, OK, go, go, but just don’t come back to my patch, please !’
It was hideously cold at Elene; we tried to shelter behind a road sign but the rain was falling like frozen pebbles, stinging the skin.
Dan pays a visit to his team car.
The break was eight minutes clear of a frozen, miserable bunch – Dan Lloyd was back at the Garmin car; ‘are you sure you want me to ride tempo at the front, boss ?’
Our next glance was at 67.6 K at an anonymous crossroads somewhere; and despite the weather being no better, the break of eight was spelling smoothly and the bunch looking just a little more interested.
We made the eight escapees Sebastian Chavanel (France & Europcar), Ronan Zandbeek (Holland & Skil), Matthieu Ladagnous (France & FDJ), Alekseijs Saramontins (Lithuania & Cofidis), Bram Schmitz (Holland & Verandas Willems), Sebastien Delfosse (Belgium & Landbouwkrediet), Steven Van Vooren (Belgium & Topsport Vlaanderen) – and a man who was once the ‘next big thing’ in Belgian Cycling – Steven Caethoven (Topsort Vlaanderen ), a few years ago, coming in to the Belgian Elite Championships, he knocked out eight wins in short order but has never been able to take the next step up.
Haeghoek, second passage at 88 K to go; a 2,500 metre cobbled roller coaster through the muddy fields to be tackled three times; the first camper vans were here yesterday.
The rain has a comfort break but just as the lead car appears, the downpour begins again.
The break on the Haeghoek cobbles.
The break is strung out but moving well over the cobbles – the bunch is serious now with SKY well to the fore.
The Andalouse sauce from last night’s frites is now the least of my worries as mud from a couple of hundred Conti’s, Michelins and Vittorias splatters my trousers.
The last climb is the Molenberg with 35 K to go. We’re there early to guarantee our spot, despite the fact that Dave and I have lost all feeling from the ankles down, the locals are banging down the cold Jupilers.
The cobbles of the Molenberg.
It’s a nasty little beast of a climb, steep, kicking hard to the right over horrible, distorted ‘kasseien’ that look like they fell at random, with the rain.
One fan’s pooch refuses on the apex of the bend and has to be carried to the summit – there’ll be a few guys in the peloton wishing they could get the same.
He looks cool, smooth; the big advantage of riding ‘le course en tete’ is that you can chose the best line over the evil granite that rears in front of you.
The World Champion, Thor Hushovd.
A dozen or so thunder round the bend; like a cattle stampede, snorting stamping, pushing – Hayman, Hushovd, Tomeke, Flecha . .
Then there’s a group of maybe 30 and after that there are only survivors.
We start to walk off the hill but our legs have seized – the car is warm, though.
Bar Den Nieuwe Osse is cosy, I order coffees for the boys and a Cognac for me; the barmaid looks at the gantry, takes down a bottle of Johny Walker and pours me around a half pint – I’m about to mention that ‘c’est n’est pas Cognac, madame !’ but am so desperate for something warm that I glug the Scotch.
There’s no such thing as a ‘short measure’ in Belgium.
The big screen TV is just about visible through the cigarette smoke – those European Union rules take a little longer to catch on in Belgium, and besides, there’s no Government, there hasn’t been since last June.
It’s still Langeveld but Flecha is brutalising that Pinarello along the Lang Munte cobbles; ‘Deja vu !’ cries the commentator, referring to the fact that this was where Flecha went for victory in 2010.
Langeveld decides to wait, he’s smoother and on a much lower gear than the man from Buenos Aires who’s never read any of those coaching tips about ‘high cadence.’
Behind the chasers know that they can’t bridge two minutes; and anyway Hayman is blocking for Flecha and Boom is doing the same for Langeveld.
Flecha is hard core, huge gear, no over shoes, mitts, no gloves – you have to respect the man.
Offredo slips the chasers, Hayman is on him, Offredo flicks his elbow and looks back, Hayman shakes his head; ‘no dice, mon ami!’
The last K and the two leaders are down to walking pace, Flecha ends up on the pavement – I don’t know how, someone was sticking an elbow in my ear at the time but I’d mellowed out with all that Johny Walker.
The Dutchman goes first and for a moment it looks like Flecha will match him but the younger man has just that little bit more gas left.
Hayman is ruthless with Offredo – there’s no honour among thieves; and it’s two out of three on the podium for the Squadra Rupert Murdoch.
Dirk drops us back at the hotel, we dive under the covers for 30 minutes to warm up.
It’s too wet to walk far, we settle for Pharaohs and it’s collection of assorted dubious looking ne’er do wells – but if Tom had won we’d have done a Gene Kelly and sung in the rain all the way to the Vivaldi.
Never mind, we’re sure QuickStep will make amends, tomorrow at Kuurne.