The Belgian National Championships are special – as with the Worlds, there’s just such a sense of occasion and expectation.
There are a lot of ladies present, all immaculately presented. This is on the principle of, ‘go to the race, or sit in the hoose!’ The organisers are expecting 30-40,000 fans today…the bar-owners are rubbing their hands.
There’s only one man going to win the right to wear that red, yellow and black jersey for the next twelve months.
It will mean a pay rise, better start money, ‘sound-bites’ for Belgian TV and radio at every race, plus he can trim his jersey sleeves with those legendary colours for the rest of his career. For Tom Boonen’s palmares to be complete he has to wear that jersey one day – today?
The old press card got us into the VIP car park and saved us a route march under a hot sun; made more dangerous by a strong breeze which disguises the fact you are frying.
Like Viktor says; “it’s never too early for frites in Flanders”. Leading by example is Tom Boonen’s mum, dad and wee brother, sitting outside the same cafe as us and attacking the chips with a vengeance.
Tom’s wee bruv is the dead-spit of his more famous sibling, but may just shade Tomeke on the trendy sideburn front.
The race starts in the town of Ronse, famous in Belgian cycling folklore as the place where, in 1988, Belgian hero Claude Criquelion was denied a second world pro road race title by the actions of Canada’s Steve Bauer – ‘Claudy’ ended-up on the tar and young Italian Maurizio Fondriest floated-into the title, scarcely able to believe his luck.
Bauer was disqualified and had to get a police escort away from the scene. Vik was there and reckons it was the Belgian’s own fault for trying to go between Bauer and the fence – but I wouldn’t repeat that in Ronse, If I were you.
The first break went on lap two, just a few seconds at first but then QuickStep let it go and the gap zoomed-up to five minutes. There were some handy guys in there, including evergreen ex-Belgian champion, Gert Omloop (Jartazzi), a bear-of-a-man; one of our heroes Bert Roesems (Predictor/Lotto); and QuickStep’s Kevin Hulsmans.
Roesems has three team mates with him and they all drive – this is setting things up nicely for their ‘five star favourite’ team-leader, Leif Hoste.
Hulsmans sits-on; there’s only one of Patrick Lefevre’s squad meant to win today, but his name isn’t, Kevin.
The previous day we popped into Chris Peers’ cafe in Kruishoutem for a coffee and he told us that Specialized had announced to the Belgian press that they had sprayed-up a frame in Belgian champion’s colours ready for Tom’s win – I think that’s called, tempting providence.
QuickStep take-up the chase; lap after lap they toil away at the front under the sun in those cross-winds, chipping-away at the break’s advantage.
Meanwhile, in the break, former cyclo-cross world champion, Bart Wellens drifts back to the Fidea team car; “can I give this a rest now, boss?”
Soon after, Bart disappears – job done.
On laps 10 and 11 it’s Evan Oliphant’s DFL neebz, Robby Meul and Nico Mattan helping QuickStep do the galley slave thing; could there be collusion, even money changing hands? Surely not!
Lap 11 and Disco’s Jurgen Van Goolen attacks the break – quite why, we can’t figure-out and he’s soon back. A dozen laps done and the QuickStep echelon is perfect – but using up a lot of gas.
Unlucky 13 and it’s over for the break, Tom’s near the front and looking good. Six-day man, Iljo Keisse is one of four to go clear on lap 14 but Landboukrediet chase it down.
The last two laps are a frenzy; attacks come and go with a surprising Cofidis team doing a lot of the damage – Verbrugge, Scheirlinckx and Nuyens all ride extremely well.
The move Belgium is wating for finally comes, as Tomeke goes across to a break of four – two Predictors and two Cofidis – like he’s turned-on the nitrous oxide. It’s not ideal, they are guaranteed to ‘one-two’ him, but he looks very strong.
We’ve been watching the race on telly in a bar at the foot of the finishing straight then dashing-out to watch ‘live’ as it passes.
I nearly choke on my Diet Coke (sorry, but I was driving) – Boonen is sliding backwards, off the back of the break – wow!
It’s a mess, and Boonen’s team mates have to dig deep to get things back in-hand.
The last climb, and there are riders all over the place as Gilbert tries to go – but not today.
Then it’s Devolder, we’re not fans, but you have to respect the man.
Riders like Gilbert and Boonen are wasted, but Stijn is rocketing clear and looks full of riding.
Over the top and he still looks strong. We saw him win the time trial at De Panne, so there’s no doubting his solo riding abilities.
Second by second he prizes himself clear; into the last kilometre – he’s not coming-back.
Stijn Devolder wins the 2007 Belgian elite road race championships in the grand style.
Boonen takes the uphiill sprint for second by a street, Gilbert is third.
Meanwhile at Specialized service course, they kindle-up the spray gun. “Who’s idea was that?”