You know you’re in Belgium at the Kuurne Brussels Kuurne when the barman is Iljo Keisse’s dad – and when there are posters for bike races in the loo!
But I’m getting ahead of myself; “live cargo”, that’s how the airlines refer to their passengers.
And that’s how we feel: the flight is two hours late and we’re sitting on the floor at Prestwick Airport, or ‘Glasgow South‘ as Ryanair would have it, despite the fact that we’re 50 kilometres from the city on the Clyde.
Eventually we board, running across the tarmac through sheets of freezing rain blasting in from the Atlantic.
Ryanair, we love them, you have to pay to check-in, there’s no place to put your newspaper and the value for money on the in-flight refreshments is outstanding – four euros for a small tin of beer and five euros for a sandwich.
As the French pilot tells us, it’s “bompee, in zee cloudz.”
Charleroi Airport, and there’s a shiny new terminal building; Ryanair’s cheap flights from the airport have breathed new life into a run-down part of the Belgium.
But there’s really no such place as Belgium: there’s the French speaking south, Wallonia, where we are now; the cosmopolitan and elegant French-speaking capital city of Brussels, and then there’s Flanders to the north. Up there, you don’t hear much French spoken; Flemish is a harsh language, difficult to learn; similar, but not exactly the same as Dutch.
Until the demise of heavy industry in the the south – coal mining and steel making – the south was where the money was.
Fortunes are reversed now and there’s a mood in prosperous Flanders that their impoverished southern brothers and sisters should be cut loose.
This winter has seen crisis after crisis in the Belgian parliament and for a long spell, the country was without leadership, leading to inflation in the economy. There’s talk of Wallonia becoming part of France; Brussels becoming a city state like Luxembourg or Monaco and Flanders becoming a nation in its own right.
Hertz supplied the hire car and Ryanair’s delay was perfect to drop us into the Brussels rush hour.
Viktor was in the back seat checking-out the newspapers; big Gert Steegmans is the name at the end of most journalist’s pens along with ‘Tomeke’ or ‘Tornado Tom.’
With Bettini and Devolder also in the team, QuickStep are the big favourites, only a win will do Patrick Lefevre on Saturday.
The big teams stay at the Gent Holiday Inn for the Het Volk / Kuurne weekend and we always head there first to pester the mechanics, but we were too late, with just the AG2R spanner men still at work.
Being a Pro Tour mechanic seems like a pretty glamorous gig, until you see them on a night like this, washing bikes in the dark with a cold wind driving the rain off the North Sea.
Frittes were required, then pils; not just in any bar though – Iljo Keisse’s dad’s Café de Karper.
The service is good, the pils is cold, there’s 70’s disco on the PA and there are framed cycling prints around the walls.
We met-up with Dirk Van Hove at the de Karper; he was a close friend of the late Gary Wiggins and as the pils flowed, so did the ‘Doc’ (Gary’s nickname) stories.
Ronnie Keisse joined us and told us that Iljo is in South Africa, training for the Track Worlds where he’s riding the madison (with Kenny De Ketele), points and perhaps the scratch race.
Ronnie’s bar is hard-core, even when you go to the toilet, you can’t get away from cycling – there’s a poster for the Deinze-Ypres amateur classic right in front of you!
As Friday became Saturday we decided we better get at least some sleep and be fresh for taking you to the races.