The Tour of Flanders 2008… When I was young (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) I read and re-read Tom Simpson’s autobiography, ‘Cycling is my Life.‘ The races that he won seemed so tough and so glamorous; I idolised him – still do.

But it wasn’t until I actually saw The Worlds, Milan – San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy in the flesh, that I realised how good the man actually was. I’m reminded again today, when I look at the parcours of ‘The Ronde’ what a bike rider he really was.

Tomorrow’s race is 264 kilometres, with 17 of Flander’s toughest ‘bergs.’

Only a Boonen, Cancellara or Ballan can win; but Tom Simpson as a member of a French team won it – an amazing bike rider.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Scuse me mate – who do you think’s gonna win tomorrow?

The flight from Prestwick was uneventful, albeit I had to sit beside a clutch of Lisbon fans, Portugese but living in Amsterdam; let’s just say that they weren’t the friendliest of guys.

Alan Hewitt organised the hotel, he had someone drop out of his Flanders trip, so I got the place. Finding it wasn’t too much drama and it has a nice, quiet location beside a canal, not far from the city square – which is really lovely. According to Viktor, much of the city was badly bombed in world war two and most of what you see has been painstakingly reconstructed.

I’m sharing a room with Greg King who was here a day before Alan, so as he could ride this morning’s 140 kilometre randoneé – is that the right word? – around part of the Flanders route.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Greg King rode this morning’s 140 kilometre randoneé.

I said I’d take him down and it was still dark when we found the E40 and headed for Ninove. I was surprised by the sheer scale of the thing, there were competitor’s cars parked on the hard shoulder for kilometre after kilometre. I saw a handlebar number up in the high 17,000’s – a huge event.

Bert Roesems would tell me later that by the time you add riders who ride the course, but don’t officially register, there are more than 20.000 people riding bikes around Flanders.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
You need to look twice – all the Team Issue gear, but actually riding the randoneé.

However, it didn’t seem to be run along the lines of the Sportiv and Fondo events that Paul Coates rides. In those, the field is seeded, the best riders going off first, so as they don’t have to fight their way through the traffic. At Ninove it seemed altogether more relaxed, riders just slipping away once they had registered.

The bulk of the field were what we call “clubby boys” but in among the scrap metal and beer bellies are a few serious guys – 140 kilometres around an organised route with plenty of wheels to chase and fans by the road side will pass much faster than 140 k spent looking at your own front wheel. Bert told me that he ridden it in the past, for training.

There was a rider in full Rabobank kit – he was past too quick to get a pic – but he looked the part, complete with Colnago C 50 and SRM cranks – he was probably one of their continental team, getting some work done.

After I left Glen to his fate, I headed up to Brakel to wait on Al Hewitt and the rest of the crew. We were supposed to meet at 10.00, but it was after 11.00 when he appeared. I took up station in a café and for the duration of my stay, riders from the 140 k event streamed past.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Last year’s Treks… just waiting to go up on Ebay to help pay for, er…. important stuff.

Next up was a trip to Astana service course, just up the road from Brakel. Alan Buttler was holding court and let us look at the goodies. I’ve never been a Trek man, but they are nice machines and the attention to detail is as you would expect from a company who supplied Lance the Perfectionist.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Funny seeing Tour winning bikes chucked in the corner of the room.

There are dozens upon dozens of ex-USPS and Disco bikes. It’s not until you look at a service course that you realise the scale of the financial undertaking a Pro Tour team is.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Geraardsbergen’s monument to cycling.

Al and the gang headed off to have a look at the monument at Geraardsbergen, while I had to head for Brugge to get those precious gems, known as “credentials” – passes for the four of us, car park passes and ‘press’ stickers for the car.

As I passed the roundabout at Brakel, the two wheeled tide from the randoneé still flowed, as did the rain water.

Just up the road is the bar where De Pete’s fan club is – Peter Van Petegem is still a hero in these parts; with Het Volk, Flanders and Roubaix on his palmares, he couldn’t be anything else. He also liked a beer – all proper Flandrians do, tee totallers are viewed with deep suspicion.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
The Sunweb team didn’t look like they were having a nice time.

The Sunweb continental team – brief home to surprise 2007 Worlds ‘cross medallist, American Jonathan Page – had stopped at the bar to take on bottles, gels and energy bars. Even the little teams look the part here and 140 k in the rain with your DS running a watch on you is no randoneé.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
The Flanders museum at Oudenaard.

I popped into the Flanders museum at Oudenaard to see if they had the 2008 ‘Velo’ reference book and bumped into Johan Museeuw, he still looks great and is, despite having confessed to doping in his career, to use the word correctly – a ‘legend.’

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Johan Museeuw, haning out at the Museum.

Mums and dads point in the street, vans slow, toot the horn and wave, it’s as if Elvis was walking along the streets of Oudenaard. ‘Doper?’ or man ‘who did what he had to do?’ – you decide for yourself.

I had the road to the hotel in Brugge sussed and was there in no time. The press room was on the Groot Markt, right behind where the sign on would be in the morning. It wasn’t too much drama to get the precious pieces of cardboard and vinyl.

The press room was cosy and friendlier than usual with lots of local journalists to dilute the “I’m to sexy for my job” crew.

There were smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches on offer and the fridge was full of Pepsi Max and Primus beer – they get these things right in Flanders.

I strolled back to the hotel and had a bath before striking out for a bite to eat, then back for an early bed.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Messers Hewitt and Buttler didn’t return Ed’s calls for “a” beer.

Team Aldo? (as Mr. Hewitt is referred to). They didn’t want an amateur drinker, early bedder like me in tow – their hotline was switched off. I was aware of Greg stumbling in not too long before my alarm rang at 04.45, however. I could have taken pictures Greg, but I didn’t.