Another beautiful day; I like the drive to Kuurne Brussels Kuurne, if the weather is nice.

The fields, the canals, the rows of poplars, the old brick farm houses, counter posed by flat roof modernist houses.

The routine is well rehearsed at Kuurne – check the ‘B’ team car park at the sports centre, then up to the ‘A’ team car park at the start.

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This weekend is just the start of the classic season.

It never feels the same at Kuurne now, knowing that the late Flanders boss, Frans Assez won’t pop up – we miss you, Frans.

The smaller teams – and the French – are at the sports centre, the public mingle freely among the team vehicles and riders.

This is at the heart of Belgian cycle sport – except at the big Pro Tour races – the public can see the riders up close, get autographs, touch the five grand bikes and get their pictures taken with their heroes.

It’s “the peoples sport;” the parcours comes past folks front doors – there’s no other sport like it.

I was on Pez duty again, so it was ‘sound bite’ time.

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The An-Post team looking very well setup.

I had a chat with Kurt Bogaerts from AN Post at the sports centre, but kicked myself later because I didn’t ask if I could have a word with Matt Brammeier, who would have been in the camper van; I’d forgotten how chaotic it is at the start and never even saw Matt.

We exchanged emails on Monday and he told me that ‘Rambo’ Eeckhout, ‘the Boss’ as Matt calls him, has been sick with flu since he pulled out of stage one of the Tour of the Algarve and had toiled on the recce run round the Kuurne parcours on the Wednesday prior to the race.

Rambo Eckhout.
Rambo Eckhout.

Matt reckons he’ll be back with a vengeance for the Three Days of West Flanders, this weekend.

I hope so, I think there are still a few good rides in a man who represents – along with Bert Roesems – the end of an era; the last of the Flemish Hardmen – “if it snows, we only do three hours.”

Up the big compound I had to flash my press card to get in, security was tighter than last year; but the crowd just mobbed at the gate and fell upon the riders as they emerged.

Very rarely do you see an autograph or photo request refused; the riders know who ultimately pays their wages.

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The Katyusha ensemble.

The Katyusha set up draws a lot of attention; I had a chat with Bart Leysens, ex-pro and former spanner man with Lotto – now DS with the Russians.

As well as Bart, Ridley and Robbie McEwen went the wrong way over the Berlin Wall as well.

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Robbie is preparing quietly but thoroughly – watch this space.
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Young Roelandts in his champ’s jersey.

The Ridley colour scheme at Katyusha is just a little too fussy for me – I’m not a stripes man – but the team is well presented and colourful.

They’ve had a good start to the season, but were nowhere over this weekend – albeit Pozzato hit the deck in the Gent finalé whilst well in the mix.

Marc Sargeant, the Lotto boss still looks in good shape – Dave raced against him, back in the 80’s – and gave me a couple of minutes of his time.

He told me that he couldn’t understand the Rabobank tactics on Saturday – I was glad about that; I thought that maybe I missed something!

There was Alex Rasmussen, resplendent in Saxo Bank strip, the last time I saw him on a road bike was at the Tour of Britain a few years ago as a member of the Danish amateur squad – he’s come a long way.

His six day partner and ‘Riis Cycling’ team mate, Michael Mørkøv is down in Spain, to ride the Tour of Murcia.

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The juniors have to sprint to cross the start line!

Rather than just bolt after the roll out, we watched the start of the junior race, 150 starters and the same level of organisation as the pro race.

The Oude Kwaremont was as crowded as usual; Ivanov was first over, then the remains of a break, but it was apparent it was crumbling.

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Chava leads Tomeke.

The bunch was in hot pursuit with Chavanel on ‘super domestique’ duties for Big Tom. There was only one way they were going to remove that grim post Gent-Gent look from Big Boss Lefevre’s face. Incidentally, Patrick won here, back in the mists of time; rather difficult to argue with him about this one, then!

I saw him interviewed after Kuurne, no big smiles or extravagant gestures, more an air of, ‘business as usual.’

To catch the leaders at the top of the Cote de Trieu, you have to walk the kilometre-or-so pretty smartish.

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Napolitano on the Cote de Trieu.

The riders do a loop round by Ronse and the Cote – or ‘Phil’s Hill,’ where Aussie Anderson used to do his IT [interval training], as Dave Duffield never tired of telling us – is ridden at warp speed.

There’s a right hander at the very top and those not right at the front have to give it ‘full gas’ out of it, to keep in contention.

The break was just a scribbled page in the reporters’ notebooks, now.

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Haussler was one of the men of the weekend.

After we’d seen all the riders through, we headed for Ronse.

It’s best days are past, but Bar L’Escale was warm, clean, had a big screen TV tuned to the race and the Kriek was perfect.

At the bar, a heavily pregnant Belgian lass was enjoying the same Kriek – and a fag; them EU regs and health advice campaigns aren’t really hitting the target in these parts.

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A couple of right dodgy-looking characters.

On the screen, the poker game played out, Jez Hunt was hugely impressive; Flecha was strong but tactically inept, just like the day before; QuickStep, for the fourth year in a row had fat to pull from the fire and at the end of 193 tough K’s around Flanders who’s going to beat Tom?

It sounds ridiculous, but I felt a weight lifted from me when the handsome big Boonen soared in; these races need home winners.

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Booooo-nen.

3rd for Jez – respect!

The next Diary for us will be Milan – San Remo; it’s beautiful, but it’s not Flanders, not the Heartland.

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Funny how we know the Bavik brewery is just down the road from Kuurne.