Thursday, January 27, 2022
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Belgian Opening Weekend Ramblings

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It’s the ‘Belgian Opening Weekend’; Het Volk used to be a cult race, the teams would line up in the street just up from the Kuipke velodrome.

The first team to set up would be the late Frans Assez’s Flanders squad — no flash bus or trucks, just a ‘Luton’ style van.

But his red Flanders bikes always looked the part, neatly arranged on their stands — and as first team there they caught a lot of public attention.

Belgian Opening Weekend
The usual scrum around Tom’s team bus.

As carbon came in his frames had the ‘lumps and bumps’ in the right places — just like the Treks, but which cost so much more money.

It was all a bit chaotic but I loved it — if you were patient you’d get your bike pics and ‘sound bites.’

Belgian Opening Weekend
It’s pretty open countryside here.

It’s all so different now, not least the change of name: Het Nieuwsblad — it’s definitely been warmer the last few years, it always used to be freezing.

And there are no low budget Continental teams in the mix these days.

But many of the Pro Tour teams are there; complete with space ship buses and nylon ‘VIP’ lines to prevent folks getting too close to the bikes and riders.

Belgian Opening Weekend
Stu and John head off to use their zoom.

But the biggest change is that the race has been ‘rolled up’ with Dwars Door, Gent-Wevelgem, the Ronde, Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl to form the ‘Flanders Classics’ package complete with VIP viewing galleries, lounges and the inevitable merchandising.

The moment something sells itself as ‘cool’ or ‘cult’ it ceases to be so.

I don’t agree with all of our friend Vik’s views and originally I did think he was being extreme when he vetoed Het Nieuwsblad, but now I’m beginning to see his point.

All of that said – once you’re out amongst the hellingen and kassein, it’s the same old Het Volk.

But it’s not only the racing; it’s just being in the flatlands.

Belgian Opening Weekend
The lads meet up for a wee jar or two.

Gent is a beautiful city, there’s architectural history all around — from medieval to ultra modern and all styles in between.

My favourites are the Arte Nouveau merchants’ town houses with their amazing brickwork, balconies and great windows.

As you’d expect of a university city there are bars aplenty — we tend to shun the city centre bars which feature in the guide books, attract the tourists and charge accordingly.

Belgian Opening Weekend
When he’s not racing, Iljo can often be found in here, helping behind the bar!

Iljo Keisse’s dad’s bar, De Karper is cool, the walls and ceiling have all manner of great Gent six day and Iljo memorabilia.

There’s a good buzz in there but the music can be dubious — Flemish and French ballads are OK in ones and twos but half a dozen on the trot can be sore.

Belgian Opening Weekend
Thomas goes for the schoolboy look.

Our fave is the Vivaldi; the clientele is middle aged and serious about their drinking – whilst the juke box is simply the best.

Out of town the hellingen country is beautiful — all of the climbs in Het Nieuwsblad ascend the huge, rutted ridge above Oudenaarde.