It was a tad savage when the alarm blasted at 03:10 on Friday but on the other side of the scales we were on Belgian soil bright and early.
First up was the Biznis Hotel in Lokeren, home to World Tour team Education First for the ‘Opening Weekend.’
The pink armada was easy to spot from the road and our first sighting of a rider was Aussie Mitch Docker spinning away in solitary penance on the turbo.
Meanwhile Taylor Phinney did his turbo tuning behind the french doors of the hotel conference room.
We gave Mitch his peace and wandered over to check out the Cannondales which were one by one getting spring cleaned for their big day tomorrow from team mechanic, Geoff Brown.
At this level image is everything, cars, buses, trucks and especially bikes all have to be immaculate – we like the new more aero team machines with their ‘tie dye’ finish.
Our perusing was interrupted by Messrs Breschel, Langeveld and Vanmarcke sweeping in from their leg-loosening ride.
It was nice to get a friendly greeting from all three as their machines were passed straight to Geoff to wash away that road grit from a grey, chilly Flanders day.
But not before big Sep had checked and double checked his saddle height.
We had a 12:30 rendez-vous with Mitch, Seb, Sep and Taylor in the conference room and the Belgian Media already had Sep on the witness stand by the time we arrived.
Mitch let Sep keep talking to the local press and gave us his attention, telling us that he felt the little roads on the run in to the Ninove finish tomorrow made for a trickier finale than the previous long, non-technical previous run-in to Gent – but it would still be the same guys at the head of affairs.
(He was right on that one – Styby, GVA and Tim Wellens)
On the subject of tyres he told us that for the cobbled races 28mm tubulars are pretty much standard and that whilst disc brakes were very effective, he preferred the ‘feel’ of rim brakes.
At this point Taylor interrupted to say that he liked discs best because you can brake later and harder.
Mitch heads into a little break from racing after Het Nieuwsblad but is back for Paris-Nice, a week hence; he’s been racing since the Australian Nationals by way of events like The Tour Down Under, Cadel’s Race and the Herald Sun Tour.
Taylor was looking forward to the next day although he knew it would blow to pieces on the climbs and felt that as a ‘Big Daddy’ on the bergs it wasn’t really going to be his day albeit he loved the idea of such a race over tiny roads in front of fanatical fans.
As for the race it was going to be the usual process of attrition with each hill reducing the lead group so that only the best are left.
He explained that perhaps there was some sort of masochistic element to it but he loved racing in Belgium.
Next up for him is a break back in Spain – he’s forsaken Lucca in Tuscany for Girona in Catalonia, where 14 of the EF team live – before he tackles Tirreno-Adriatico but no Milan-Sanremo for him.
He’s quite happy with that but looking forward to his cobbled classics campaign, particularly Paris-Roubaix, a race he loves and in which he was top 10, last year.
When we asked about training for the ‘Hell of the North’ he explained his fondness for ‘tickle rides’ – 220 Km, seven hour epics at steady state with five riders rotating, with sprints for the town signs.
He holds the record with 15 town sprint wins.
He also reckons that three, four, five hour training runs just aren’t long enough to ‘empty’ yourself so that’s why he needs to do these 200 K plus rides.
As well as Roubaix he rides De Panne, Flanders, the E3, Wevelgem and Scheldeprijs before heading back across the Atlantic to ride ‘Dirty Kanza’ a 200 mile gravel race in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
The race website says;
“This is an extremely remote area.
You will likely not pass through any towns, and therefore no convenience stores between checkpoints.
Always be aware of the distance to the next checkpoint, and be prepared to travel that distance with the supplies you carry.”
Ted King won last year in 10 hours 44 minutes in case you were wondering.
We asked about his recovery from his terrible crash in the US Road Champs in 2014; there are still twinges but yoga and stretching help and training is much more on ‘feel’ now rather than being a slave to numbers.
Having taken enough the man’s time we left to let him have his lunch.
I’m not sure what we expected of our interview with Taylor; but found him polite, thoughtful and with a nice sense of humour – an ideal interview subject.
Next stop Roeselare and the ‘Koers’ Flanders cycle racing museum, newly refurbished after it’s temporary sojourn in a local church.
The building was the old town fire station and has beautiful stonework and glorious tiled ceilings from which all manner of hardware dangle – we liked the Colnago ‘cross bike.
Race posters abound – we liked these two for tomorrow’s race for ‘Het Volk’ as it was then, from 1955 and 1992.
And there’s the late, great Tom Simpson with fellow champion du monde – amateur that is, Jacques Botherel – both on Peugeots.
The French didn’t worry too much about that amateurs not being tainted by advertising thing…
There’s every manner of media on display, including the newspaper coverage of that fateful day in 1988 when home boy Claude Criquielion clashed with Canada’s Steve Bauer at the finish of the World Professional Road race Championships in nearby Ronse, came down and lost the chance of a second world title.
Bauer was DQ-ed and Maurizio Fondriest took the rainbow home.
Lately there’s been controversy about the GP E3’s promotional posters for their race – we won’t get into that but would say that those E3 boys have always been a tad left field when it come to their poster imagery.
Sven Nys Worlds ‘cross winning skinsuit still has the mud on it.
And Scotland doesn’t get neglected with Robert Millar’s Giro and Tour King of the Mountains maillots on display.
The trophy display is vast and wide ranging, we particularly liked this one which was awarded to world champion sprinter Louis ‘Toto’ Gerardin who competed in the ‘Golden Age’ for professional track sprinting of Harris, Plattner, van Vliet and Scherens in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.
There’s also a magnificent photograph exhibition by photographer Sigfrid Eggers who followed the QuickStep team for a year – the result is some of the finest race photography we’ve seen.
Perhaps our favourite exhibit?
Mr. and Mrs. Merckx advertising washing powder on a tiny retro Sony TV – now we know how he always looked so cool.
There was still daylight enough to go and bug the AG2R and Jumbo mechanics at the Ghent Holiday Inn.
We like the new Rotor four point attachment chainset on AG2R’s Merckx machines.
And you can’t go far wrong with a Bianchi in ‘Celeste’ – lovely.
And just in case we’d forgotten why we were really in the Flatlands, the AG2R frame numbers reminded us…