We’re in Flanders for Het Nieuwsblad 2011 and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but first there are mechanics to annoy, bars to visit and bergs to climb. Donna Summer, Barry White, The Real Thing – and even a bit of Joe South; three pils for €5.40 and all the smoke you can handle – cigarettes and cigars – The Vivaldi, it’s a proper bar.

We won’t kick the backside out of it, tonight,‘ says Dave on Thursday; but the pils was cold and smooth, the soul and disco flowed… we got to bed at 03:45 with all of Scottish Cycling and the UCI’s problems sorted out.

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The VeloVeritas party discuss the best way to move up the bunch on a berg.

Given the Jupiler we put away, we felt not too bad the next day; probably the excitement of being in the flat lands on a Friday.

The Hotel Adoma breakfast helped and soon we were over at the Holiday Inn to see how many mechanics we could pester – AG2R, Cofidis, FDJ and Rabobank were all in residence but there were few bikes on show – the boys were all out for an easy pedal.

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The mechanics are around, but most of the bikes are being used.

We decided to have a look at the Het Nieuwsblad 2011 parcours; even although we’ve been at the race many times we’ve never really explored the route – rather, sticking to our favourite spots.

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Posters outside the bars.

Although it’s not on the race route, we’ve never climbed the legendary Kapelmuur (where Cancellara switched on the motor in the Tour of Flanders – or did he?).

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The Kapelmuur entrance.
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The Kapelmuur surface isn’t easy.

It’s one savage beast, the gradient is steep, the turns tight and the surface grim; but on days when there aren’t thousands of screaming fans it’s a nice spot.

There’s a restaurant near the top, just below the chapel, and it’s all very well manicured and quiet.

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Dave and Callum ponder a visit inside the Kapelmuur chapel.

It was a dour day in Flanders, the sky was sullen and low, a perfect canvass for the maize rotting back into the muddy soil.

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Rotting maize.

On the subject of maize and mud we headed over to Haaghoek, a new section of ‘kasseien‘ (cobbles) to be covered three times in Het Nieuwsblad 2011, or Gent-Gent – as the locals still refer to it – courtesy of Peter Van Petegem who worked with the organisers to revamp the route.

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Haaghoek is a roller coaster, dropping down, rising up then dipping and rising, again.

James Spragg would tell us later that if you hit the rises at full tilt then it’s OK but if you get held up at the bottom of one of the dips then it’s brutal trying to regain momentum.

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Campers on the Haaghoek.

Ronse was our next port of call, scene of the 1988 Worlds where Steve Bauer tangled with Claude Criquielion tangled in the final sprint – the Belgian sued and the legal case dragged on for years before it was finally thrown out of court.

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Welcome to Ronse.

Most observers that agree that it was Criquielion’s own fault for trying to sneak between Bauer and the barriers, through a gap which didn’t exist – but just don’t say that out loud in Ronse.

There are cool cycling murals on the wall in Ronse; plus frituurs, and all the bars have live cycling on TV – there’s nothing else you need, really.

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The house murals in Ronse.

The thing that struck us about the parcours was how narrow the roads are leading into and out of the ‘bergs‘ – more like farm tracks.

We hunted down the Taaienberg, short but steep, cobbled, narrow and brutal – in countryside that’s not unlike Central Fife.

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This way to pain.
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The Taaienberg. You’ll see the riders’ skill as they climb in the smooth guttering.

The Eikenberg is one of our favourite haunts, but near the top – we drove the whole hill, on Friday.

It’s a killer, long, steep, cobbled and at the top firing the riders onto the ridge road – and often brutal cross winds.

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The Eikenberg.

Oudenaarde was next on our tour, and a visit to the Tour of Flanders museum to buy the ‘Velo‘ – the journalists’ ‘bible’ which contains just about all the information you need on every race and rider – no dice; I’ll have to try and get one from the publishers. Never mind.

Oudenaarde is also home to the Flanders bike shop; they ran a good low budget pro team for many years but the heart was knocked out of everyone when ‘patron’ Frans Assez died a year or two ago – RIP Frans, we miss you.

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The Asfra Flanders shop window.

His son Ronny now runs the show with his uncle and is happy to tell you about the day he was fourth in the Scheldeprijs – ahead of Zabel.

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Ronny’s Hero Card from his Pro days.
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When Leone won the Scheldeprijs. Ronny points himself out, in 4th place.

Hayden Roulston is someone I’ve been chasing for an interview for a while and we finally caught up with him at the HTC hotel, near Gent.

He has that skinny but radiant look that the best pros have; he took the New Zealand Elite road title back in January.

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Hayden Roulston staying snug.

But going from NZ to the heat of Oman to the temperate climbs of his home in Gerona then to icy chill of Flanders in February is a recipe for illness if ever there was one – despite being in a cosy hotel meeting room he had a ‘bubble’ jacket on the whole time.

Words and pix ‘in the can’ we headed back to Oudenaarde for a pizza with James Spragg; one of British cycling’s ‘forgotten men’ – if you’ve never been on ‘The Plan’ then you’re a ‘non-person.’

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James Spragg.

Despite this, he’s moved up a notch this year, his 2010 team, QIN coffee has become Donckers Koffie – Jelly Belly with a much bigger budget and some tasty riders, like ex-QuickStep, Kevin Hulsmans.

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Kevin Hulsmans came from QuickStep.

Last year we watched James get round the Championship of Flanders without too much stress and he’s already got the Tour of Reggio Calabria under his belt in 2011.

He was telling us that it’s tough in Belgium; riders he knows who were on €60,000 in 2010 are on €20,000 in 2011 – and riders who were on €20,000 are on nada.

Tough times, indeed.

All that remained was for us to take in a few tunes, and a pils or two at the De Karper (Iljo Keisse’s dad’s bar) where the music was grim; then the good grooves at the Vivaldi before heading back to the Adoma – just one sleep ’til Het Nieuwsblad.