The portents for Sunday were better: we weren’t hung-over; the sun was out; and we got up to the start at Kuurne without one wrong turning. The chemists were shut though, so Pozzato couldn’t buy his hair gel.
The start at Kuurne is always a real, “organised chaos” job, there’s a riders enclosure but somehow, some riders get mixed up with the crowd and can’t get back in to the start enclosure, so have to wait on the roll-out beginning, then cajole their way through the sea of people so as they can go to work.
It’s all pretty good-natured stuff though, and the race has much of the character of a kermesse in the “sticks”. Yesterday’s Het Volk is altogether more aware of its own importance.
There are frites stands, burger bars, bars aplenty and dried fish stalls — buy it, break bits off, stick them in your mouth, chew to a mush then gob ’em out; it’s not unusual to see some well-dressed Flandrian lady with the pavement around her covered in gob-splats of the horrific pulp. File under “only in Belgium.”
Leif Hoste munched chocolate biscuits beside us as New Zealand champion Julian Dean explained the finer points of his Look bike to Het Volk break hero, Jez Hunt.
Jez is a nice guy and always has time to talk, and despite his years on the continent he still has his West Country burr – and don’t forget, this is a man who has won the GP Plouay and beaten Cipollini in sprints.
The roll-out was crazy, but fun, accompanied by a brass band whose members were all totally off their heads — great.
Tradition dictates that we head straight for the Kwaremont; it’s a beast of a climb: cobbled, steep, and narrowing at the top with a twisty bit to make the fight for position even more desperate.
The crowd up there is always huge and unlike many other sports, it really is a family affair with every one from granny to toddlers craning their necks for first sight of the riders. If you run, you can then catch the race again at the top of the Cote du Trieu too. Meanwhile, the riders do a loop round by Ronse, and so you just have time.
The Cote du Trieu is what Dave Duffield refers to as ‘Phil’s Hill’. It’s where Aussie star, Phil Anderson used to do his interval training. It has a poor tarmac surface, but the cobbles are still under that and there’s talk of the original surface being restored — that would be brutal.
The pace over both climbs was ferocious, Matt White of Discovery, in particular looked like some one was applying red-hot pokers to him.
Unless you have good local knowledge and are prepared to flaunt the traffic laws, it’s difficult to catch the race more than a few times and we always opt to watch the finale in the comfort of a bar, the boys with a pils and me with a coffee; yes, I have become slightly more sensible in my old age.
Our traditional spot to catch the Kuurne finish was the Bar Sporting in Avelgem, the proprietor was an ancient guy, whilst the oldest dog in the world shuffled around his feet — we loved the place, the old guy and the dog. We were upset to discover that the place had been sold, let’s hope that man and dog are in good health.
The TV was gone so we had to make alternative plans — quickly! A café was duly found just along the road, and we tuned-in just as Eeckhout was being interviewed by a commentator on a motor bike. It transpired that he’d taken a tow from a car on a hill and had been “declassed”.
There was a group of nine away, however they were absorbed inside the last hour, but not before Matte Pronk (Unibet & Holland) and Preben Van Hecke (Predictor Lotto & Belgium) had jumped clear.
The finale at Kuurne is on a circuit, two laps of around 10 K, and at the start of the last lap we all shifted on our seats in anticipation — QuickStep massed at the front and began to chase, albeit aided and abetted by AG2R and Skil (if euros didn’t change hands then next time you see QuickStep giving either team a punt, then you’ll know why).
The guys at Cycling Weekly must have been watching a different race to the one I saw; “Boonen’s win at K-B-K was not plain sailing on Sunday as his QuickStep team almost misjudged their effort in chasing down the remnants of a nine-man break.”
Any lead-out train guy worth his salt will explain to you that you the perfect timing for hauling the last break back is just as the sprint starts. If you pull it back too quickly then someone will use the inevitable lull as the groups merge, and will counter.
If you wanted a real indicator of how professional and confident QuickStep were, then look to the fact that big strong-man Gert Steegmans was not used at all in the chase; he sat just behind the train with Boonen tucked-in behind him.
The extended sprint started just as the two breakaways were caught, Hoste tried to get clear but it was just to get a mention on TV.
Steegmans started his lead-out quite a way out, and his arms went skyward as he swung over to let the boss through. His confidence wasn’t misplaced and seconds later, Boonens arms went high in the air too — result!
Marcel Sieberg (Germany & Milram) took second and Iljo Keisse (Belgium & Chocolade Jacques) took the best road result of his life to complete the podium. We were happy boys; Tom has stubble and Iljo is growing a mullet, but there were no curls or gel at all.
By the time we got back to Kuurne, most of the teams were on the move and there wasn’t much to see. Undeterred, we headed for the team hotels back at Ghent to see if there was anything happening. Our sad devotion to pestering mechanics into the darkness was rewarded by happening upon Japanese technicians fitting “just off the milling machine” Shimano electronic gears to two of the Rabobank team Colnagos.
I was just about to get Stuart to lift one up so as I could get shots of the wiring under the bracket when one of the sons of Nippon asking me what I thought I was doing; my joke about working for Campag didn’t go down well, and we had to move-on — I got some good pics though.
Around the corner was the QuickStep bus, James Alexander, the driver, comes from Forfar (aye, Forfar, Scotland, sir!) and we finished our day aboard the bus with our coffees – after we’d had a tamper with Boonen’s bikes of course.