“Ooooohhhhhhh!” The moan echoes around the bar; these boys are aficionados, they all know that solid Astana Dane, Michael Valgren Andersen isn’t coming back – he timed his jump to perfection, there was that fatal second or two of hesitation among the frozen men behind him and he was gone, en route to win Het Nieuwsblad 2018.
Big Pole Lukasz Wisniowski (Sky) takes second with the only Belgian who properly ‘honoured the race,’ big Sep Vanmarcke (EF) taking third place.
Viktor the VeloVeritas soothe sayer is on the phone from Scotland not long after, he brands this edition of Het Nieuwsblad, ‘diabolic‘ and he doesn’t mean just the weather.
He has a point, QuickStep and Lotto-Soudal with Gilbert (5th) ‘Stybie’ (20th) for the flooring team and Benoot (59th) Wellens (69th) for the lottery boys made no headlines.
Nor did BMC’s Olympic champion, GVA, winner for the last two years, who could do no better than 50th place.
We arrived on Friday night in time to see the mechanics washing the buses in freezing conditions it’s not all glam tinkering with Di 2 in the sun for these guys.
It was no warmer next morning, with the ponds around the Kuipke velodrome frozen solid.
For the second year the race was World Tour with the glitzy presentation held in the Kuipke and the big space next door which housed a great exposition back in the 30’s.
The production is too ‘blingy’ for us, we liked it better when the busses lined up in the street just down the road.
Now, the teams enter on to a stage in the track centre to theme music.
Bahrain come in to the Miami Vice tune, ‘Crockett’s Theme‘ – in honour of the desert team’s other ‘Sonny,’ as in Colbrelli.
But it’s a wee bit before young Mr. Colbrelli’s time and rather zoomed over his head.
We’re soon bored and head back outside.
Out in the bus park the Wout Van Aert (Verandas Willems) fan club were full of expectation for the World ‘cross champ in the biggest road race of his career, thus far.
Albeit last year he won the GP Pino Cerami, Ronde van Limburg and Bruges Cycling Classic.
He rode creditably, making the big break in the finale and would end in 32nd spot – already the Belgian Media are tipping him for Paris-Roubaix.
The ladies race starts at the same place and local heroine, Belgian National Champion, Jolien D’hoore was happy to pose for pictures, she’d end the day in eighth spot behind Danish girl, Christina Siggaard.
She’d do better next day in the Omloop Van Het Hageland where she finished third behind Dutch star Ellen Van Dijk.
We saw the race for the first time at Oombergen with 10 clear in bitter conditions, 3:50 the gap.
The peloton wasn’t panicking but grafters supreme, Fran Ventoso (BMC & Spain) and Iljo Keisse (QuickStep & Belgian) were on point and making sure things didn’t get out of hand.
We managed to catch the ladies’ race early too, with the big peloton splitting round a traffic island; and a few girls who were off the back taking full advantage of the team cars.
Next time we caught the bunch Ventoso and Keisse were still leading a strung out, freezing peloton.
The third time we caught them saw Iljo still at the front with team mate Stybie looking sharp and the speed definitely stepped up.
Phil Gil didn’t look to be enjoying it but then very few were, least of all the soigneurs, who had to hang around in the cold.
The Katterberg, long straight, cobbled and horrible with the break still clear by 3:10 but having shed a couple.
The peloton wasn’t full gas but neither was there any banter.
Faces picked out as the tightly packed, chilled, unhappy phalanx trundled past included Danish Champion, Mads Pedersen and tough Kazakh, Lutsenko.
It wasn’t too long before we caught the race again, near Schorisse with their lead almost gone and peloton volume turned up to nine.
The end of the Haaghoek cobbles is always a good spot; the soigneurs chat to kill time and our old chum Dirk Dekeyser, the Trek mechanic tries to keep warm in the icy blast.
Oliver Naesen keeps an eye on us as we await the race.
There’s just one, ‘dead man walking,’ big Lithuanian, Saramontins surviving from the break – but they’ll nail him on the next climb, the Leberg.
The shadows are lengthening as the peloton screams by in line astern with old warhorse and twice Flanders winner Stijn Devolder easily identifiable by his Belgian champion’s stripes.
We find our bar for the finale, the ‘Wheeler Cafe’ it’s rammed and loud but at least it’s warm – but the coffee is really bad.
There are splits and big Sep Vanmarcke launches a huge attack on the Kappelmuur but coming into the red kite it looks like it’s gelling for a bunch split with the last split set to be absorbed.
But as we said at the start, Valgren times it just right.
Initially there’s a huge roar of approval in our bar, it’s home to one of Wout Van Aert’s fan clubs and from the helicopter shot the pale blue of Astana can be mistaken for the pale blue of Crelan, the young Belgian’s team.
But the roar soon turns to the despairing moan we mentioned earlier.
Despite his earlier efforts, Big Sep reacts as does Wisniowski, who not so long ago was off the back; the lanky Sky man steals second with Sep third with the breath of a blanket finish hot on their collars.
But it’s Astana’s day.
Not one of the greatest Het Nieuwsblads we’ve witnessed but it was a horrible day, way below zero with the wind chill, all day.
Then there was that headwind finish and the inclusion of the Kapelmuur and Bosberg late in the day – everyone was frozen and wasted so these two famous climbs were far from decisive.
Kuurne tomorrow, if nothing else we’ll get a much better look at the bikes before the race with the teams parking up in the start/finish straight.
The cold is even more intense as the shadows lengthen even further but our fave bar, the Vivaldi is always cosy…