Today is your chance to ride 140 kilometres of tomorrow’s Tour of Flanders route, starting and finishing in Ninove. It comes complete with ‘bergs,’ cobbles and a nice chilling drizzle – perfect! The highest handlebar number I saw at the start was 17997, but they were still arriving when I left. If you’re a really serious masochist, you can go the whole hog and ride all 264 kilometres of the route, starting in Brugge, taking in all 17 climbs and finishing in Ninove.
We passed some of these ‘hard core’ guys when we left our hotel in Brugge at 06.30 this morning, to drive to Ninove. They were small, wiry, suspicious men, with serious haircuts; my cheery “morgen” got a grunt in reply. Life wasn’t meant to be fun for these guys – if it was, why did God invent cobbles and the Kappelmuur?
My interest in all this is that I’d been enlisted to give my countryman, Greg King and his Cervelo, a lift to Ninove for the 140 K event – he was concerned that if he rode the full distance he’d “only manage one beer at night” – Peter Van Petegem never had that problem, Greg.
I got the job done and I’m in Brakel waiting on the rest of the Scottish contingent, we plan a trip to see Astana’s ace, English spanner man, Alan Buttler. Astana are getting spolied this weekend – they are actually getting to ride a big race.
I arrived yesterday, I flew into Charleroi, collected my hire car and hit the E40 motorway north to Flanders. Vans tail gate you mercilessly, only millimetres away; indicating just isn’t done and blue rinsed matrons hurl big Merc saloons past you at Lewis Hamilton speeds. But the sun was out, I had my Ray Bans on, the Ford was running sweet at 150 kph and the oldies on Radio Nostalgie were cool – Human League, Ricky Martin, Golden Earring and Rick Astley telling me he was, ‘never gonna give me up.’
The hotel is good (except the wi-fi), Brugge is beautiful and Bert Roesems is my chauffeur for Sunday’s Ronde, maybe we’ll even get that snow the weatherman has been talking about!
It’s noon now and we’re in Black Beards treasure cave, just outside Brakel – also known as the Astana service course. Our old buddy, Alan Buttler has invited us in for a look. As well as the current Trek road and tt goodies, piles of tyres, boxes of Lightweight wheels, stems by the dozen, forks by the score – it’s a cycling historian’s dream.
Just about every tt bike that US Postal and Discovery Channel ever rode is here, including a certain Mr. Armstrong’s Litespeed from way back. And there’s the interesting little snippets, like the fact that even though the Treks are one of the lightest tt bikes out there, the steerers are steel. We leave with the rain pouring down, Al’s heading for Geraardsbergen and I’m off to Brugges for my credentials.
I take the Oudenaard road out of Brakel – there’s the bar where Peter Van Petegem used to return to meet his adoring fans after his Het Volk, Flanders and Roubaix triumphs. The only thing about watching a race on the TV in there, was the searing heat generated by the wood burning stove and the fact that every customer was a confirmed chain smoker.
The Sunweb continental team are having a pit stop from a training run at the bar, to fill bottles and snatch energy bars, their faces tell me it’s no leisure ride.
Oudenaard and the Tour of Flanders Museum, I’ve stopped off to see if they have the 2008 ‘Velo’ cycling reference book in stock yet; I feel naked until I get my hands on it! They don’t have it, but hey! I recognise that dude on the cell phone – it’s Johan Museeuw. When he comes off his call, I ask; ‘who will win tomorrow, Johan?’ He does a bit of typical Belgian face pulling, then says; “we hope for Boonen, but a lot depends on the weather, if it’s not Boonen – Cancellara.”
Back to lovely Brugges to pick up the credentials for us and the car; “Ed who? We have no record of you!” I used to get really nervous when this kicked off but it’s just par for the course and in five minutes we’re sorted – badges for me, Bert Roesems (the PEZ race guide tomorrow) plus his mother-in-law and father-in-law; our car sticker plus start and finish car park passes.
In press rooms across Europe, the tradition is to have a chest fridge full of water, not in Brugge, no sir, it’s full of tins of “Primus premium lager” – file under; ‘only in Belgium!’
So, who’s gonna win?
Het Nieuwsbald’s sports section gives five stars to Ballan, Boonen, Cancellara and Hoste; four to Devolder, Gilbert, Nuyens, Pozzato and Flecha with Chavanel, Hincapie, Kroon, Van Avermaet and Vaitkus on three. Viktor is going for Nuyens – I could live with that.
My heart says Boonen, but my head says Cancellara with Gasparotto my dark horse.
But tomorrow at this time, there’ll be no need to speculate.