“Do you want to meet Johan?” asked the beautiful podium girl. “Uh, yeah, sure,” I replied, thinking to myself, ‘Surely she can’t mean the Johan.’
“I’ll be right back,” she said. A few seconds later I turned around and there he was, the triple winner of both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.
After almost breaking my hand with his grip of iron, we started talking about cycling.
“You ride?” he asked.
“Yes, I heard you used to ride too and you were not bad.”
Yep, that Johan guy used to ride a bit…
“Yeah I still ride almost every day but I’m not as fast as I used to be,” he said.
“You might be the same speed on the downhills,” I ventured, nodding at his little pot belly. He looked at me for a second and I thought I might be about to get a smack, but finally he laughed.
“Yeah maybe,” he said with a chuckle.
This is the kind of mad encounter that has defined this week in Belgium with Velo Classic Tours, run by Peter Easton and his wife Lisa, backed up by the ridiculously nice Asier Ruiz de Eguino.
Amazing food, legendary roads, top-notch hotels, and, though Peter claims he didn’t order it, fantastic and very un-Belgian weather, are all topped off by VIP access to the start and finish areas of the races.
Yesterday’s encounter with Mr. Museeuw came at the end of Scheldeprijs (‘Schelde’ is the name of a local river and ‘prijs’ means prize) as I was happily ensconced in the impressive VIP area sipping sparkling water (a little too much wine-tasting the night before had me avoiding the free beer on offer). What is really very special about this whole experience at these races is the access that the general public have to the riders.
Boonen works his way through the crowd.
At a big race like Flanders it’s a little tighter but even there you can literally walk right up to any of the riders and start a conversation – some may reply and some might not (Cancellara by the way has yet to be seen to acknowledge the huge crowds that wait for up to thirty minutes outside the Trek bus to catch a glimpse of him, bit surprising that). Yet I can’t think of any other top sporting event where it’s possible to get so close to the athletes.
The crowd awaits Spartacus
“What constantly blows me away is access the fans have to the riders,” said Jake Powers, one of the guys here on the trip. “After having watched it for twelve years on television, finally I’m here and it continues to amaze me that we can get so close to them.”
Lars Boom on his way to sign on
Another happy fan and his son revel in the atmosphere
After wolfing down a couple of chocolate croissants and some coffee in the VIP tent in the morning, I walked around the team buses and was just in time to catch the neo-pro Lasse Norman Hansen of Garmin Sharp as he came back from the signing on. Lasse, 3rd in the Tour of Dubai earlier in the year, is the nephew of a friend of mine.
“Are you nervous?” I asked.
“Nervous is for when you are underprepared,” he said. “But I am excited!”
‘Garmin-Sharp’s exciting new professional, Lasse Norman Hansen
And that is the overwhelming impression I get from hanging around the start of races like Scheldeprijs and Flanders, it’s this massive carnival atmosphere and though the riders do their best to look ubercool and unaffected by it all, I sense that the majority are secretly having a blast. The crowd certainly is. In the VIP tent everyone has their best clothes on like they’re attending church (which maybe they are, in a way) and the wide-eyed look in the fans’ faces, kids and adults alike, is great to see.
No other sport in the world comes close to this. That’s just a fact, plain and simple. You can’t get this close to any NBA of NFL star, and you certainly can’t go play a game of tennis on Wimbledon’s Centre Court or kick a kick a soccer ball around a World Cup stadium.
But you can climb the Mur de Huy, batter yourself over the Arenberg Forest’s cobbles and rip it up the Kemmelberg, as we did two days ago. Brilliant.
“I’m in good shape,” said Lasse, “and we’ll be working for Tyler [Farrar], he’s flying.”
2nd place for Farrar at the end of a long day was proof of that statement, though Kittel was just too strong for everyone in the finale.
Two hours of hanging out around the team buses flew by in no time and then we were off, roaring once again through the streets (this time Antwerp’s) right behind the convoy that was following the race. After things calmed down and I’d extracted my fingernails from the back of Peter’s seat, he told me that he’d just bumped into these two Francaise Des Jeux riders near the signing on area.
These were Mickaël Delage and David Boucher, the very same riders that he picked up last year after they’d had mechanical trouble in Paris-Roubaix last year and found themselves stranded in No Man’s Land. He offered them a lift in the van alongside his clients, they accepted, took a ham and cheese sandwich each and were happy to sit in the van and wait as Peter stopped to let his customers see the race at the next view point.
“Do you want me to call Marc Madiot and tell him that you’re here?” asked Peter.
“Um, no, better not!” came the reply from one of the riders. They were obviously happier munching away in the warm van than getting a dressing down from their DS.
Later on they spotted the FDJ team car by the road and both of them ducked down in the back seat, even though up on the roof were two very distinctive FDJ Lapierre bikes!
The FDJ riders catch up with Lisa and Peter for a laugh
Back to the finish line and the VIP area, I was still doing unnervingly well avoiding the free beer, though I was enjoying myself checking out the assorted well-heeled women strolling around in the unseasonal sunshine.
John Toor enjoys the hospitality in the VIP area
Every 20 minutes or so the race leaders and the peloton whizzed by, the main pack being greeted by a skin-tingling roar. Ten feet from the finish line and at road level, I felt the surge of air blasting over me each time the pack flew by, hitting the upper 50’s with the help of the tail wind.
It was a little scary, the velocity of that two-wheeled organism. Watching on the big screens by the finish line we knew the pack had reeled in the leaders and it was show time. The sprint was on. I was hanging over the barrier and slapping the panels with one hand, camera in the other, just like the idiots you see on tv, grinning from ear to ear.
Kittle came into sight and everyone else was out of sight – at least in sprinter’s terms. He was just too good on the day. And my day? Also too good. Amazing, in fact.
This one will be hard to top, but I think Paris-Roubaix on Sunday might just do it. We will see.