The Tour of Flanders 2008. What does the ‘oh’ stand for in oh, four, forty five ? “Oh my God it’s early!”  That’s an old Robin Williams joke, from Good Morning Vietnam, but I like it.

I managed a shave without removing any skin, packed my case and stumbled out of the room, all the while making a mental note that when I met Big Bert, I’d get some free samples of his sponsor’s ‘Silence’ anti-snoring preparation for Greg.

I was on station at Ninove bang on 06.15, helped by a jumbo tin of Red Bull and the excellent tunes on Radio Nostalgie – pronounced Nostal-hee.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Bert, Andre and Inge, nice folk, and my hosts for the day.

Bert, his wife Inge and father-in-law Andy arrived at about twenty five past six and we headed back up to Brugge, much slower than I had come down the same road.

It was chilly, but bright in Brugge and even at 07.30, there were a lot of fans out and about. Once again the organisers had it right, and there was a beautiful breakfast spread laid out for the journos and VIP’s.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
That’s what we call a buffet!

One ancient Italian photographer attacked it like he hadn’t “seen meat for a week,” as my dad used to say.

Outside, the crowds were gathering for the sign on and the band was giving it laldie; despite having great oldie radio stations, the Flemish taste in music does worry me a wee bit, but I digress.

After breakfast, I made my way up to the bus park and got to work snapping bikes – Colnago CLX’s at Landbou’; Treks at Astana; Scotts at Saunier and Looks at CA.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Leif Hoste’s Ridley.

I also snapped Leif Hoste’s Ridley Helium – just in case he won. I thought I’d take a pic of Cancellara’s Cervelo, but there were ‘crime scene’ tapes round his team cars and bus so I thought better of it.

Part of our sport’s appeal is its accessability; the smart DS’s understand this and leave the bikes on show, with a junior mechanic on hand to admonish anyone who takes the examination too far. CSC are just a bit too inscrutable for me, but I’m sure Bjarne won’t loose any sleep over my opinions.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Bert keeps track of the race on the wee telly.

The Tour of Flanders 2008

This is what it’s all about!But a day later, there’s even less doubt in my mind about the fact that there’s no sport which can compare to professional road cycle racing.

Six-and-a-half hours in all conditions from spring sunshine to rain, snow and bouncing hail.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
The Wannegem Lede cobbles close up.

Seventeen evil climbs, cobbles, that you’d be careful riding your mountain bilke across, narrow lanes, concrete sections – 264 kilometres that twist and weave from Brygge to Ninove.

The riders have to eat, drink and answer the call of nature as the hours, kilometres and cobbles chip away at them.

And all this happens on someone’s doorstep, nt on some football pitch with high priced turnstyles, security and coconed athletes; or on a glamorous race circuit that only sees competition once or twice a year. It passes pastry shops and petrol stations; chemists and coal yards; your house and your pal’s house. Tractors and kids on BMX’s travel the same roads, every day.

It’s unique, bizarre, wonderful and part of the culture and fabric of Flanders.

There’s nothing like it in any other sport.

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Spectating – Belgian style.

As I rattled my flight case down the road, away from the press room at Ninove and back to the car, I could hear what I thought was a PA.

A Flemish gentleman, lovingly carrying a Lenny the Lion puppet – which was wearing a QuickStep jersey – had a loud hailer in his other hand; “where is Cancellara? where is Cancellara?” he was enquiring at max volume.

Hardly anyone glanced twice at him, and any looks he did get were of glowing approval.

I love it here!

The Tour of Flanders 2008
Ed and Andrew enjoy the, er, sunshine.