Continental TV may be dire, but there’s a good choice of radio stations; Percy Sledge is telling us about “When a man loves a woman”, as we jump back into the VW after paying homage at the Karl Buyse monument in sleepy Wontergem, heading for the Under-23 Het Volk 2007.

Buyse was a son of the Flanders sod who won the Tour de France in 1926. A long time ago maybe, but not forgotten here in the heartland.

Het Volk
The Karl Buyse monument in Wontergem.

The destination is Zottegem and the Under-23 Het Volk 2007.

In days gone by, this was run on the same day as the pro semi-classic of the same name, on the first weekend of the Belgian season, but now it’s held in sunny June.

A win or a podium place here goes a long way to securing a pro contract, so it’s a ‘death race’.

The roll of honour is impressive; Freddy Maertens, Eddy Planckaert, Paul Wellens, Andre Dierickx; or take a more recent edition – 2001, first: Gert Steegmans, second: Tom Boonen. Enough said.

Het Volk
The rollout.

To the uninitiated onlooker, this could be a pro race, only the team coaches and trucks are missing. There are swarms of professionally-liveried team cars; mechanics working on rows of gleaming, identical machines; masseurs applying exotic compounds to ripped, prominently-veined, tanned young legs, and cigar-smoking managers strutting their stuff.

Unibet and QuickStep have immaculately turned-out ‘feeder’ squads here, and it would be difficult to tell the U23 bikes and riders from their elite counterparts.

Het Volk
The Quick-Step HQ.

It’s one of the Unibet lads – managed by former Tour winner, Lucien Van Impe – who is leading the season-long Belgian U23 series; Kenny Van Der Schueren, and he’s already proficient at striking poses for the camera.

Het Volk
Kenny Van Der Schueren (Unibet).

It’s a huge field – 186 young men, all desperate for glory – which lines up in the main street, protected by barriers and a police presence which would do justice to Paris-Roubaix. The armada which roars-out behind them is pro-sized too.

It’s a complex parcours to follow, so we elect just to watch the start, and have a peek at it on the roads up on the ridge above Oudenaarde where so many of the world’s great races are contested – Het Volk, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, De Panne and the Tour of Flanders all use the network of roads up there.

Het Volk
Big bunch, gutter to gutter.

We catch the bunch just after the Eikenberg climb, a huge mass of riders, gutter to gutter. It has split already though, and there’s a big group chasing furiously as that chat with the Predictor/Lotto talent-scout disappears up the road.

It would be Monday before we confirmed that 18 year-old Gert Dockx (Beveren 2000) took the honours in his first season – remember the name.