Just writing that introduction gets me giddy. I stand before you a confessed Flanders addict, and the only treatment for me and the rest of the world’s afflicted is riding, writing, watching, learning, and pictures. Today just solidified my feelings even more.
The Oude Kwaremont.
I’m actually just back from a couple hours of riding, which included the Knokteberg and the Kwaremont. It’s special. That’s all I can come up with right now. To know about the riders that have crossed the cobbles of the Kwaremont en route to lasting Flandrian glory throughout time is humbling. It’s not a normal thing for me, and I think it’s safe to say most people, to share the road with history. My cup never overflows. I can’t get enough.
Sylvain Chavanel starts his bid for the 2011 Ronde van Vlaanderen title.
Can you say ice cold?
Back to the matter at hand though – the race. After the riders passed, the flying team cars were next on the list, so like any good race watcher, we darted between the cars and dashed across the main road to the end of the Kwaremont. A quick summary of the Kwaremont: narrow, twisty run-in; uphill for a couple hundred meters; then the cobbles start – the steepest part comes early on in a typical Belgian cobbled trough – then you arrive into the town of Kwaremont proper (still all cobbled mind you) – through Kwaremont, out into a beautiful expanse of fields on more or less flat cobbles at this point; out of the field into some houses and trees for the last uphill kick; a sharp right hander, then a few more meters until you arrive on the main road…thoroughly rattled and panting from over two kilometers of legendary pounding.
If you love cobbles, the Kwaremont is for you. It’s a climb that can’t be missed, and it’s a climb that lends itself to the frantic race viewing adventure that was April 3rd in Flanders this year – you can get in and out quickly and efficiently, opening up the possibilities for the next stop. This isn’t always the case; to see the race at a climb like the Paterberg, Koppenberg, or the Muur, you have to commit 100%, and you’re not going to see much else…unless you’re on a motorbike.
The eventual winner, Nick Nuyens, was quietly placed to the fore.
A couple minutes passed, then the remnants of the break led by Garmin-Cervelo’s tough Roger Hammond. Right behind the break and charging by the dropped riders from the break was a rider that would define every kilometer from here to the finish: Sylvain Chavanel.
Thor Hushovd has never fared terribly well in Flanders – despite high hopes, Sunday was no different.
Chavanel was in complete control, smooth, solid, not even breathing through his mouth yet. Chavanel had attacked earlier in the climb and had already put major distance into the hard working peloton. Patrick Lefevere wasn’t grandstanding when he picked Chavanel, not Boonen, as his man for Flanders. It’s unfortunate that the Frenchman didn’t get a chance to ride for the win later on down the road, but that’s another story, best sorted out with a few beers with Ed, Matt, Al, and the rest of the PEZ crew in some mythical bar.
Stijn Devolder came into Sunday’s race as a two-time winner and an outside favorite once again. He didn’t have it.
Behind, the favorites were all massed toward the front. No one appeared to be in any great duress, but right behind them, the little tears in the fabric of the race had ripped wide open in the two kilometers of cobbles that preceded our viewing point. The race was over for many, and for those that it wasn’t over for just yet, it was clear in their eyes and their grimacing faces, that the end wasn’t far off – the Paterberg and Koppenberg were up next. There would be no respite from here to Meerbeke.
As the field passed, the strained looks increased exponentially. Danilo Hondo and Manuel Quinziato were still looking solid, but were showing the effort.
With the race gone, we ran back to the car, jumped in, and headed for two cobbled sections: the first in Mater, the second at the end of the Haaghoek cobbles and just meters before the start of a climb we’ve all heard a fair bit of following Cancellara’s theatrics on Sunday: the Leberg.
From smooth to jackhammer. I can’t imagine the feeling after over 200 kilometers of full-on racing.
The turn on to the cobbles to Mater from the main N8 thoroughfare is a pretty one. Solid, stalwart Belgian brick houses, built to withstand centuries, line the turn, and immediately, it’s on to the pave yet another time. Sylvain Chavanel led the way on to the cobbles, whilst behind, the race was taking shape.
Chavanel, still looking crisp.
Behind him, Lars Boom and Edvald Boasson Hagen had escaped and were doing everything they could to get as far away from Fabian Cancellara as possible, and in so doing, perhaps get across to the soon to be long ranger, Sylvain Chavanel.
Unfortunately for Boasson Hagen and Boom, there just wasn’t enough cylinders between them (and there are a LOT) to do anything but set up the fireworks that were about to go off.
The leaders followed soon after, and they were in full flight. Nick Nuyens was close to the front, as were the rest of the favorites.
Nuyens, with Flecha and Paolini just behind.
Boonen showing some wear.
Former Amstel Gold winner, Sergei Ivanov, takes on supplies, as the race heads into its decisive moments.
Andreas Klier off the back a bit after a long day of taking care of Garmin-Cervelo’s stars: Haussler, Hushovd, and Farrar. Behind him, a promising Cavendish, who looks to be coming around nicely.
This section of the race is debilitating – there are no major climbs, but a series of flat cobbles hammer the riders still further into the ground, until finally, the Molenberg, with its vicious turn off the main road and on to a narrow climb punctuated by arguably the worst stones on the route of the Tour of Flanders. Last year, that was enough to see the winning break clear; this year, we had to wait seven more kilometers for the race to take its decisive turn – the cobbled Haaghoek, followed immediately by the Leberg. At a certain point, the glue comes completely undone and the proverbial tubular detaches – the never-ending, eternal battering is a slow burning fuse, that has ignited in a very specific section over the past two years. It seems to make sense considering the menu of horrors the favorites have to digest just to get this far.
Chavanel all alone at the front of the race on the Haaghoek.
Boom and Boasson Hagen gamely chase, but their time is nearly up.
Details. Whatever. All that mattered once the field had passed was yet another mad dash to the car, a quick acceleration to cruising speed, and the next stop: the Haaghoek. We got in front of the race quickly, then hopped on the course, after yet another brilliant piece of Andy diplomacy. At one point, Andy turned to us and said with a completely straight face, “I never feel more alive than when I’m chasing a race.”
Here come the big boys: Cancellara and Boonen, tailed, as always, by Pozzato.
Hushovd is left scratching his head. His acceleration earlier on the Haaghoek instigated Boonen’s attack, which then led to Cancellara going over the top of that = bye bye Hushovd.
We parked up on the side of a grassy embankment lining the cobbles of the Haaghoek, just a hundred meters or so from the end. If you watch the race footage, you’ll see our car in the helicopter view as the favorites head for the Leberg. In fact, you’ll see our little red wagon in a lot of the footage from Sunday. There’s nothing like watching race footage, pointing at the screen and saying – hey look, that’s our car!
Fabian leads the way.
Ashley stayed up a little ways down the Haaghoek, while I hurried to the section’s final corner. I crouched down underneath screaming fans, chanting, ranting, raving for their Belgian heroes to come by.
And then they did.
Fans jump for joy as Leukemans passes.
The screams and howls of delight, passion, and drunkenness were goosebump inducing. It was amazing. And through it all, I was there, at the turn’s apex, with knees, bodies, and elbows brushing my camera and shoulder, clicking frantically, hoping something came out ok.
Moments later, Fabian Cancellara would bid the rest of the favorites adieu, and set about his rampage.
After recovering from that moment of emotion from several hundred people all around me, it was back to the car, and a decision was made – we’d eschew the Muur in favor of the Bosberg. I had been to the Muur the two years before – why not try something different? And so it was.
When a rider emerged first over the Bosberg, I, like everyone else on the planet assumed it would be Cancellara, but no, it was Philippe Gilbert! Then it was Ballan. Where was Cancellara? What had happened? We had no idea that BMC had put their whole team on the front, no idea that Cancellara had cracked, no idea about anything, and suddenly, there was Gilbert.
Leukemans and Chavanel – no more faces of calm for Chava.
Finally, Cancellara came. His face was contorted, his massive frame pounded onward, but this was a different Cancellara from just a few minutes before. This was a human, a suffering one at that.
Behind him, came the rest of the favorites, and the faces were stretched into all manner of awkward positions. Everything they had left from nearly six hours of a bloc racing was being poured forward.
And then they were gone. We ran straight for a tv in some friendly stranger’s van and absorbed the finale, cheered with everyone else as Nuyens pulled out a victory that surprise doesn’t even do justice to. It was perfect, beautiful, it was fitting of Vlaanderens Mooiste.
And as we watched, riders continued to pass, trudging onward for home.
It was a day I’ll never forget. I love this sport, I love this country. I feel fortunate.
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