Sunday marked the apex of our time here in Oudenaarde. We’ve been here since the day before the Omloop, and we’ve had the unbelievable chance, perhaps a once in a lifetime chance for us, to be a part of the entire Spring Classics campaign in Flanders.
Sure, there are still three big races remaining – tomorrow’s Scheldeprijs, Roubaix, and the Brabantse Pijl, but they’re nowhere near the heartland of the Vlaamse Ardennen, which welcomes races like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Nokere Koerse, Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen with open arms each spring.
I’ve had the opportunity to be in the area for four years in a row now, but it was only in this trip that it all just started to come together, make a little more sense for me. The scary part is that I realize that I’ll hopefully spend the rest of my life trying to learn ever more about an area so filled with everything that I love about bikes – great roads, hard roads, insane roads, hills, tiny roads, roads upon roads upon roads, the history, the racing, the happily obvious popularity of the bike in the area, the people, everything. I’m in love.
There’s nothing worse than when I fall in love with a place, because that means I start to take it more seriously – planning out our chase for Sunday’s Ronde was something that has been on my mind for weeks, but it wasn’t until two in the morning on Sunday, that I finally finalized it. It was solid – eleven locations in the span of 140 kilometers, plus the start in Brugge.
If the day weren’t already special enough – it is Christmas in April after all – my family were in Brugge visiting, so I had the chance to give them a little peek into our peculiar little existence for a morning. I didn’t realize how happy it would make me to share with them what it is that we do, but it was. I can’t wait for the next time.
NetApp riders look through the team bus window.
As far as Brugge goes – it’s great fun. Brugge is a beautiful city. As it’s said in the film, In Brugge – “It’s like a $%$@# fairy tale.” I’ve never run into another place like it, and it feels like the perfect jumping off point for the biggest day in Belgian cycling each year.
Heading out for a long day.
Getting out, however, is a nightmare. Actually, keeping our press passes on the car was also a nightmare. I thought I’d be smart and forward thinking, so I put the stickers on the car before heading to the start area in the morning – when we got back, they were gone. If this were any other day of the year, it would have been a disaster, but! Thank the heavens, we were chasing by bike, so all was well. Still…wow…I can’t believe, I mean, I can believe, but it’s just so mean. Conclusion – lesson learned. We won’t make that mistake again: the sticker stays in the car and gets taped from the inside.
There goes Chavanel.
Traffic was horrible back to Oudenaarde for us – if it weren’t for some excellent navigating from Ashley, I don’t think we would have made it back in time to start the chase proper. We got back just in time, and then the fun began.
Ashley headed for the Taaienberg, while I went to the Ruiterstraat – the third punch in a nasty 1-2-3-4 that goes Eikenberg, Holleweg, Ruiterstraat, and Kerkgate. That might not mean anything to you, because the latter three are not famous cobbled climbs, but they are tough, they are cobbled, and they all come moments after the last.
Normally, the Taaienberg makes for great theater, as it’s Tom Boonen’s happy place, but as the first climb in this year’s Ronde, it was lacking a bit. Unfortunately, Ashley didn’t quite make it either. No big deal. While trying to frantically make it though, she ended up riding her bike WITH the race for half a second. It’s typical for everyone and their Uncle Johan to tell you to get off the road, even with a press pass, so it’s normal to listen to them as little as possible. Extremely important rule of race chasing: don’t take no for an answer – unless forced to. So, Ashley kept moving (good), unfortunately, they were actually right this time, and the race really was coming, and suddenly, the break was passing her on the other side of the road (bad). It wasn’t a big deal in the slightest – just another small tale of how crazy this day is.
Heading into Oudenaarde.
I didn’t make it to the Ruiterstraat section of cobbles before we ran into the bike race. They were just cresting the small hill from Volkegem to get on the N8 to head down into Oudenaarde. Nice! It wasn’t anything special, but it’s never bad to run into the race in a surprise location, is it?
My fun started as I left the N8 and headed for the official first spot on my list. The chaos of the Ronde struck again. While descending, an older gentleman didn’t look left (or right, or anywhere in general), and walked out right in front of me. I went from smugly enjoying my good luck of getting that bonus spot to flat on my back before I even had a chance to hit my brakes. Luckily, he was ok, I was ok, and my camera gear was just fine. Another important rule for everyone involved with anything in Flanders on the day of the Ronde: before moving, look left, right, center, and probably up. There’s no telling what’s going to happen at any given moment. It’s nutty. Really.
Here comes the break!
Tom Boonen rides alongside Martijn Maaskant on the Ruiterstraat.
It’s a race for the whole family.
I got to Ruiterstraat in time to set up nicely – break, then field, then back to the bike to make the quick jump to the Kerkgate.
By far the biggest crowds I saw all day were in the tiny little town of Mater. There was no room for me whatsoever. Hmmm… There’s a nicely trimmed hedge – that should be able to support my sprawled out body, right? Sure did. Nothing special again, but at least I was able to get a shot before heading back to the N8 to hang out for a few minutes with Ashley.
Almost done with the nasty cobbles of Kerkgate.
We sat down at the top of Edelareberg and shared our already entertaining stories – happy for a break after a frenetic opening. I don’t know how we didn’t see Pez and the VeloClassic crew…booooo.
Unsurprisingly, the break was still plowing its way through the Vlaamse Ardennen, the field was still chasing gamely, and our fingers were still clicking madly whenever bike riders appeared.
After that, Ashley and I parted ways again. She headed for the Mariaborrestraat (another VeloClassic stop and another near miss!), and I went for the Koppenberg. This would be my first ever attempt at Flanders’ most feared climb.
Remember that don’t take no for an answer rule? Here’s another good example – while riding to the Koppenberg via the descent, I was told that bikes weren’t allowed past a specific point far, far from the climb itself – but, there was a bike parking lot where I could leave my bike and walk. Hmmm, no, that’s not going to work. I left the descent proper and pedaled over to another road that connects to the top of the Koppenberg – there wasn’t a soul on that road, so I was able to ride almost to the point where the Koppenberg’s cobbles end. Eureka!
The latter part of the field with only a few seconds until blissful pavement at the top of the Koppenberg.
It was at this point that I pulled out my photo bib for the first time and proudly walked up to the police who patrolled the cobbles. I showed one my pass and bib, but he was still unimpressed…no idea why…isn’t it normal for race photographers to show up in cycling kit with a backpack, helmet, and cycling shoes on? I showed him my camera in the bag, he smiled, and let me by.
Manuel Quinziato nears the top of the Koppenberg, far behind, after a hard 180 kilometers in the service of his BMC team.
I haven’t been that excited for a section of cobbles since, well, a week or so ago when I got the chance to shoot on the Paterberg for the first time. Unfortunately for me and my first experience on the Koppenberg, the typical throwdown on its 20+% slopes did not materialize. Not a problem – I mean, really, it’s still the Koppenberg!
The peloton bears down on the Mariaborrestraat.
Moments later, the race was in Ashley’s lens on the Mariaborrestraat, just a few pedal strokes beyond the feedzone.
Approaching the next cobbled climb – Steenbeekdries.
From there, it was off to the Hoogberg for me and to the Paterberg for Ashley. The Koppenberg and Mariaborrestraat were part of the large first circuit, and the Kwaremont, Paterberg, and Hoogberg/Hotond made up the second of three laps. The finale was comprised of only the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
The Paterberg was a definite goodie, but I wondered if maybe the Hoogberg might play a surprise role in the finale. I was wrong. There was drama and suffering a’plenty on the Paterberg…
Niki Terpstra suffers…
…while Tom Boonen smiles and licks his lips.
…but on the Hoogberg, sure, there was a small attack, but Omega Pharma-QuickStep had the race locked up heading back around for the final lap. While it wasn’t the most thrilling of race passages, the difficulty of the race was extremely clear at this point. There was a select group at the front, and behind, there were bits and pieces of legs and dreams strewn across every part of the road.
Sylvain Chavanel at the head of affairs in the select front group.
Behind the OPQS-led group up front, the field chases.
No time to analyze – back on the bike. Ashley went for the Kwaremont on the final lap, while I took over her spot on the Paterberg.
Ashley encountered another no, no, no policeman on the Kwaremont, but with the help of photographer, Kristof Ramon, and a pair of faux-deaf ears, she got herself a solid spot on the Kwaremont just in time to see the race materializing.
Terpstra hurting some more.
Terpstra was off the front, but the clouds were swirling as the favorites were about to slam their cards on the table. It would only be a minute or so later when Terpstra would return to the fold, Ballan would go, and Pozzato would bridge with Boonen on his wheel. Winning break complete.
Boonen preparing for the effort that would see him into the winning break and consequently, his third Ronde title.
Over on the Paterberg, I of course had no idea what was going on. I was happy to be in the barriers with a pretty view of the climb…ready for one last spot (at least for me).
Filippo Pozzato leads the break over the top of the Paterberg.
The trio climbed and rounded the turn with Boonen a couple wheel lengths back. He closed that little hole with five hard pedal strokes over the top. Behind, the chasers were led by an attacking Peter Sagan, but his move was too late – he’d have to wait another year.
The field crests the Paterberg in tatters.
Since this was my last spot, I stuck around and watched as riders heaved their bodies over one last berg en route to Oudenaarde. Some were smashed beyond all recognition, while others were sprightly and almost happy.
The view from the top of the Paterberg.
Andreas Klier gave me a thumb’s up after another hard day shepherding the Garmin-Barracuda leaders around.
A little ways behind him – the show of the day – Tomas Vaitkus rode a wheelie up the latter part of the beast, much to the delight of the packed fans.
Tomas Vaitkus’s wheelie!
Ashley made the mad dash from the Kwaremont back to the main road to hopefully catch the leaders before they crossed the Schelde, but just missed them. She did catch a nice shot of Gilbert and a small group working their way to the line though.
Gilbert looked better, but there’s still a little ways to go for him…
Back on the Paterberg, I packed my bag and started to head back to my bike to go and meet Ashley. That’s when I looked back and finally realized that there was a giant screen showing the race on the Paterberg. I had been at the top, so I didn’t actually see it until I went to leave. It was small from this distance, but it was more than big enough to see what was going on. If I hadn’t been able to see the screen, the result would have been plainly obvious when the crowd roared and the collective fist pump from an entire hillside went up, from an entire nation, as Boonen crossed the line first, a bike length ahead of Pozzato.
It was a special moment, a special time to be here.
We finished the day as we finish seemingly all of our race chases here – trading stories about our separate chases on the bike path back to Oudenaarde, passing the already quiet Koppenberg along the way…
Thanks for reading!
For lots more images from Sunday, please head over to Flickr.
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