The first classic weekend of the year has been and gone and safely back in a rather snowy Scotland I’ve got time to reflect on the Classic season opener. The glorious Belgian sunshine all weekend could not lift the thermometer and the riders endured bitterly cold conditions for both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad or Kuurne Brussels Kuurne.
Riders faced just under 200 kilometres each day and whilst the temperature had us looking for our thermals some hardy riders were glove free, presumably generating enough body heat from the effort.
Grass track legend John “Jock” Hardie, Dave, Ed and I left Edinburgh on Friday bound for Brussels Charleroi, catching up with Stuart Anthony and John Young who were also heading to Gent for the racing. We picked up the rental car, an Opel Meriva with suicide doors, something I thought had been consigned to history, but apparently not.
A weekend of philosophical debate and pondering life’s mysteries beckoned, our musings would probably be helped by a few beers.
Gent is a university city and there are students everywhere, bikes seem to be the primary mode of transport evidenced by the thousands of parked all over town.
Aside from driving on the other side of the road visitors must stay alert for the cyclists in the cycle lane that is often on the inside of the parking space.
Saturday dawns and after a hearty breakfast we head for the 73rd edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad which is run off in beautiful sunshine, but we were not fooled, the cold is biting with the wind chill reducing the temperature further.
The Omloop Gent Gent as it was once named is becoming more commercial and the team presentation in the Kuipke is evidence of the changes; stage, presenters and bright lights is a far cry from the turn-up-sign-on of yesteryear.
The glitz of the presentation was sharply contrasted with the gloom of the vaulted garage.
The team buses line up and the fans star spot as riders venture from the warmth of team buses to sign on and head for the team presentation.
Ed and Dave chew the fat with former classics man and top -tech guy with Shimano nowadays, Bert Roesems, winner of amongst other things the Nokere Koerse in 2006. Jock and I circulate checking out bikes whilst rider-spotting, UAE’s Ben Swift has a nice Colnago with detailed breakdown of what to expect on his stem. Preparation is all.
We have a quick word with Rob Palmer soigneur at ES Drapac and former teammate of mine at Bicycleworks, we leave Rob to get organised for what will I’m sure be a busy day.
Dave has us intersecting the race at no less than five different points. The course has changed this year but it’s still going to be tough.
The early break is working well and the bunch is cruising with Wout Van Aert last man in the bunch. The chaos and carnage commences on the pave sections, the climbs add to the cumulative effect of wearing guys down.
The early break with AG2R La Mondiale’s Gediminas Bagdonas pushes on eventually to succumb to the pressure from Quickstep with Iljo Keisse prominent at the front, putting in a good day’s work which unfortunately his teammates couldn’t capitalise on. Patrick won’t be a happy man.
We see the riders one final time on the Haaghoek stretch of cobbles before we happily retire to the heat and warmth of the crowded Weilercafe Sportsbar; we’ve been here before but our usual haunt was mobbed with fans who like us had decided the warmth of the bar was more appealing than the cold of the roadside today.
The audible deflation in the room when the Belgian fans realise that the rider attacking is not their man Van Aert, cyclocross world champion indeed the bar empties rapidly when the dreams of a Belgian victory slip away as Michael Valgren Anderson settles in to an impressively strong final five kilometres alone.
Van Aert is impressive none the less and his result at the Strada Bianche confirms he has a big future on the road. More impressive results on the road will no doubt follow.
Saturday night and after pizza in The Lounge and a chat with Iljo’s dad Ronie in De Karper we head for the Vivaldi. The owner bartender confirms the bar will close its doors for the last time in September. We discuss the need to be here for the final weekend and agree we will have to try to be the last men standing. Ronie had told us earlier it’s not unknown for the bar to stay open ’til 10.00am so I’m thinking we might not manage that.
Sunday dawns cold and bright again. No frozen windscreens here, the atmosphere is so dry the cars are completely frost free.
The drive to Kuurne gives us the opportunity to ponder riders form and debate the potential podium. Dave is disappointed to see that Caleb Ewan isn’t riding, the Mitchelton-Scott rider would be amongst the favourites but having opted for some desert sun rather that Belgian wind chill we’re hoping for Belgian success to keep the home fans happy.
Kuurne offers better access for the fans to the riders and the team buses and we see Dylan Groenewegen and Bernhard Eisel happy to sign autographs.
Matt Hayman is doing his best to get wrapped up in preparation for the freezing conditions.
The race itself is more difficult to see more than two or three times due to the out and back route. The Oude Kwaremont is our spot and always where the race is full gas although with still some distance to the finish it rarely proves decisive.
The bunch has exploded and is spread over several minutes by the time the stragglers appear. That man Bagdonas is ripping it up and clearly has great legs for the second day.
The heat of our favoured bar in Ronse and the owners warm welcome see’s us settle down for the last sixty kilometres with a couple of beers. The result is ignored by the locals playing the incomprehensible Belgian version of pool.
We agree it’s not been a great weekend for the Belgian teams, Quickstep being conspicuously absent at the finale today.
So the racing over we pop in to what was the BMC Concept store now named Velo Loft by Rik Verbruggen and Greg Van Avermaet, before heading to hotel to thaw out and plan our Monday.
With the flight not ’til late evening we know Mondays in Belgium can often be a quiet day but we head for the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen museum after first visiting the pop up shop Quickstep have set up in the shopping centre in Kortrijk; it’s impressive with lots of bikes from their most famous victories. It’s interesting and surprisingly inexpensive, free entry and cheap coffee. The Lidl influence, we think.
There’s an amazing cable free S Works Venge showing the way ahead.
From there it’s a flying visit to worship at the alter of the Mur de Grammont or the Kapelmuur in Flemish, located on the edge of Geraardsbergen. It’s holy cobbled ground and and the sense of history hangs in the air.
The Ronde museum is impressive with the countdown clock reminding you just how serious the Ronde is in the psyche of the Belgian people.
The café is shut for refurbishment but a pop up bar provides the required sustenance.
The day gets better when Johan Museeuw appears, John gets his photo taken with the legend and Johan exchanges a few words before heading on to his meeting.
Our time in the heartland is nearing an end and the trip to the airport gives us time to consider our rider of the weekend, from Iljo Keisse working like a Trojan to Wout Van Aert making his presence felt.
There were certainly some young guys pushing through and all agreed that the biggest surprise was the lacklustre performances by Greg Van Avermaet, but who would bet against him in the races to come?
Soul nourished from our time in the heartland we head for the airport, reality beckons once more. But we’ll be back.