The morning dawns wet, windy and inimitably Flemish. I find myself rushing through the cobbled streets of Brugge trying to track down the office where I am to pick up my press accreditation. It was a fitting start to a day that would be characterized by mad dashes around the roads of Belgium on the hunt for the best spots to see the Tour of Flanders. However, this was no typical trip to see a bike race. We were being escorted by Andy Deschuyffeleer, Bert Roesem’s father in law, a true Flemand, road racing fanatic and expert in the art of locating the climbs and cobbled roads that make the Ronde van Vlaanderen so distinctive and notoriously difficult.
We met Andy (left) at the Davitamon-Lotto team bus. Always prepared, he even had a giant umbrella.
Press Pass Privileges
I collect my press pass and sticker accreditation for the car and feel smug as I breeze past the stewards, wolf down breakfast and check the batteries on my camera before making my way to the rendezvous with Dave the cameraman back at the hotel. Dave and I would be filming the day’s proceedings with Cycling.TV. I grab a cafй and head out into the rain to meet Andy at the Davitamon Lotto team bus.
We arrive in the riders’ paddock a few hundred metres from the start in Brugge centre. Throngs of staff, riders and sponsors congeal around the various team’s vehicles. Mechanics make last minute checks, click gears nervously and lubricate chains with bikes on workshop stands to reduce the chance of a failure. The machines will take a beating on the hard roads today. I give Andy a call on my mobile as I suddenly realize that I don’t actually know what he looks like. It turns out that he’s standing right next to me and we both share the first of many laughs that day. We also meet Inge, Bert’s wife who will be joining us on the adventure. I’m immediately struck by the warmth of their greeting, and the twinkle in their eyes as Andy maps out the days agenda hints at the enthusiasm they share for bike racing. Andy wastes no time in introducing me to the team’s staff and the managing director of Omega-pharma, one of the biggest sponsors of the team. He is an avid fan “maybe too much” observes Inge. We look for Bert but he is encased in the team bus behind tinted glass for the top secret team meeting. I ask Inge how Bert is riding. “He is riding well” she says. “but today everything is for Peter van Petegem.”
Andy gave us the lowdown on our itinerary for the day.
Time to go. We sprint to the car as the riders make their way to the start so we can get to our first observation point on the course. Andy gives a quick overview on the map. “We’ll try to see the race 9 times” he says. “A few years ago watching the Ronde was like a race. We used to be able to see it 15 times but we had to drive really fast.” “Now..” he says with a defeated wave of his hand “we have watch out for the police because they are really watching for fans speeding to see the race.”
It’s Only Illegal If They Catch You
Despite Andy’s point about the strong arm of the law he still seems to have a liberal approach to speed limits. After darting through side streets we pass through a barrier with a nod of the head from the steward onto the race route. Speeding ahead of the race we pull off to make our first stop. A wide road intersection. “You have to make sure you stop on the right side of the road” says Bert. “If you don’t, you’ll get blocked off after the race passes.” The publicity caravan speeds by soon followed by the race. The peloton is together but there are a few stragglers. We learn from the CB radio that Inge carries that they are survivors of an earlier crash. That same crash saw the end of the race for Discovery’s Michael Barry. As soon as the riders have sped by in a flurry of colour and raucous support from the fans lining the road we jump back into the Peugeot to continue the race of our own.
Make way for the marching band!
Back onto the course. We negotiate with a roadside steward. Well actually, Andy negotiates as we listen to his authoritative Flemish tone. Before we know it we are back on the race route and dash through on our way to Ichtegem, our next port of call. “You can’t hesitate” says Andy of his exchange with the steward. It’s not that we aren’t exactly allowed on the route, just probably not quite so close in front of the race. However, in this instance we are in good time. Suddenly we spot a flash of red around the corner. Andy brakes and we come to a quick stop. A marching band is making it’s way through the town. We let it pass, stopped by the side of the road and take the opportunity to snap a few frames before we accelerate off to Ichtegem. The whole of Flanders is partying.
Another one of Andy and Inge’s contacts… the T-Mob soigneurs gave us their top tips.
At Ichtegem we find a place to park and watch the race pass. Before the next shot of cycling action we get the chance to chat with a couple of T-Mobile soigneurs. Not surprisingly the talk was is Ullrich’s legs and who is on form for the win. Whilst we heard yesterday that Andreas Klier was strong, the Germans still back Boonen. Before we know it the peloton passes again and the crowd goes mad shouting support for their local heros van Petegem, Boonen and of course Bert Roesems. By now the race is nearing ‘the stones’ so we head off in pursuit of a vantage point to see the riders tackle the feared cobbles. Before the race I asked Inge if she was nervous about the cobbled section of the race. “Yes” she said. “Especially if they are wet.” By this point in the day the rain has passed but the roads still retain a sheen of moisture.
Mud Caked Cobbles And Belgian Beer
We reach the cobbles but already the publicity caravan is hot on our tail. The escort motorbikes are sitting on the bumper of the car with sirens blaring so we pull the side of the road and persuade a group of fans to let us use their driveway for a temporary parking lot. It seems we’re not the only ones with that idea as a VIP car squeezes in front of us. It turns out that one of the passengers is the former editor of the race’s organizer, the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. I grabbed a few moments of his time. He tells me how important the Ronde is to Belgium. “Everybody comes to watch the race, old and young. It’s an important part of the culture.” he said. The stop also provides a good opportunity to sample another Belgian tradition: Beer drinking. Andy knows how to come prepared and it isn’t long before he distributes a couple of cold ones from a freezer bag.
A day at the Ronde just wouldn’t be complete with a real Belgian beer. Thanks Andy and Inge!
The circling helicopter signals the approach of the race and we lean out into the road to see the approaching riders. By now a small break has formed and the crowd goes crazy as they pass. The group benefits from being able to ride on the crest of the cobbles but the peloton aren’t so fortunate and the riders jostle for position splashing mud on the spectators as the riders on the outside speed past in the gutter.
Here’s mud in your face: You can get right up to the action in the Ronde as long as you don’t mind getting dirty.
To The BERGS!
Once again we hop back into the car for our first rendezvous with the bergs. A cobbled climb, not too steep but enough to drain the legs of the riders after more than 100km of racing. We drive up the Wolvenberg and Dave hangs precariously out the window to record the waves and shouts of the fans pinned against the barriers. On the way I ask Andy what makes the Belgian fans special. “They really know racing” he says. “In France they cheer for everyone but in Belgium they support the strong riders. They understand what is happening.” When we arrive the next stop the crowds are dense and we push through to the front.
Before the race arrives I grab a few comments from some spectators. “We love this race!” says one fan with slurred speech probably more related to the half empty beer in his hand than the language barrier; and who will win? “Boonen!” says one, “No, Peter van Petegem!” I ask a couple of female fans what they think. Boonen again? He is reportedly popular with the ladies. “No” they reply. “Everyone likes Boonen, he’s too popular.” A couple of free thinkers then. We lean out into the road again and I narrowly miss getting my face rearranged by a motorbike as it accelerates up the hill. The riders pass close to the fans and Inge spots Bert. We’ve heard that he’s been working hard for van Petegem all day and he sits in a good position in the peloton. After the riders have passed we have to push our way back through the crowds to the car to get to out next stop in time.
Not everyone in Belgium loves Boonen, as a couple of real Flemish girls pointed out!
On the way we turn off on to a tiny road barely wide enough for the car and Andy speeds up so we are bouncing over the bumps and lumps. Inge acts as a navigator and I have a sneaking suspicion that the two harbour hopes of setting up a rally team. How they find the route I will never know. The next location, the Oude Kwaremont. Andy pulls the car onto the verge by the side of the road whilst we cheer on the riders once again. Bettini leads the group looking strong with Zabel close behind. Andy stops to chat with a Davitamon mechanic who is waiting with some spare wheels. We’re disappointed to hear him report that Roger Hammond has crashed and injured his knee. Back into the car we try to pull back onto the road but it’s clear that the wheels have sunk into the mud. Not to worry, Inge and I helped by a couple of spectators give it a push and we’re soon on our way but not before a few people are sprayed with a mist of ‘Belgian toothpaste’. That’s known as mud to everyone else.
Bettini leads the pack resplendent in gold shoes and helmet.
Seas Of Flemish Fans
Another stop on a false flat. It’s not so inspiring to watch but we get another opportunity to support Bert before we race to get to the Eikenberg before the riders. By now we can see the fatigue in the riders eyes and legs. Pedalling has lost its fluidity and their mouths hang open. I’m beginning to get used to the routine. Jump out, watch the race, run back to the car, jump in and speed to our next appointment. Last stop, the Valkenberg. We manage to stop the car at the summit. It seems like Inge and Andy know everyone on the course. We stand opposite van Petegem’s mother on the climb. She talks animatedly in Flemish with Inge about her son’s exploits that day. By this time the break has gone so the shouts are even louder by the time the chasers arrive. Hope is not lost. See the race, jump in the car and speed to the finish.
Peter Van Petegem’s mum waits for her ‘little boy’ with Andy.
Andy’s gift of the gab bagged us a parking space next to the team buses. We arrive just as Boonen and Hoste are coming into the closing kilometre but by this point there was no way we can get to the barriers. A sea of people were massed across the railings. However, Andy isn’t going to let a few thousand fans stop his seeing his son finish. He wastes no time in scaling a nearby scaffolding to see the riders cross the line. So the favourite takes it and the finish sounds like a rock concert. Hoste a close second and George Hincapie takes the third step of the podium for Discovery. Bert’s team mate Peter Van Petegem finishes a disappointing fourth. Bert himself comes in twenty third. A good result considering the massive amount of work he contributed for his team leader.
Andy has a no holes barred approach to spectating!
We’re on the run again. This time back to the Davitamon team bus. We arrive to see Peter Van Petegem’s wife in tears. It seems families have a real vested interest in their relatives racing. Bert pulls in covered in mud and tired. He’s greeted by Andy who congratulates him on a good ride. I don’t want to keep Bert long after his day in the saddle. I ask him about the race and the consummate professional he seems happy to speak to me. It was a hard day but Bert had good legs. Boonen was just too strong. It was just a shame that Peter Van Petegem could not get the result the team was hoping for. We left Bert to get cleaned up and we have our final rendezvous of the day; the train home. No time to post a story, we have two hours to get from the finish in Ninove to Calais.
Bert had an ample coating of Belgian toothpaste after the race.
Opportunity Of A Lifetime
So as I sit in the car watching the kilometres speed by I’m struck by the fact that there was no way I could have seen so much of the race without our expert guide. We managed to catch the passing Ronde at nine different points along the route not including the finish! It was a unique insight into the lengths which some fans will go to in following their favourite sport and to see this from the perspective the father and the wife of one of the competitors made it all the more special. If you make the trip to Flanders next year you probably won’t see quite as much of the race as we did but it is a great life experience nonetheless. You’ll also be able to live our trip vicariously on Cycling.TV so stay tuned for the schedule information in the coming days. Thanks again to Andy and Inge for giving us the opportunity of a lifetime.