At this time of year, I get asked quite often for tips on how to watch the spring Classics. I’ve been travelling to Belgium and northern France for twenty years now so I’ve accumulated a bit of experience and my advice is usually the same so I thought I’d post the answers to some of the most common questions here for anyone who is visiting the cobbled Classics this spring.
The first question is, where to stay?
I’ve stayed in Bruges (when the Tour of Flanders started there), Gent and Oudenaarde, but the most convenient base for all of the cobbled Classics is Kortrijk. It’s within perfect reach of many of the races – Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the E3 BinckBank Classic, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders and even the Three Days of Bruges-De Panne (which is, naturally, a one day race now). It’s even easy to reach the back end of the Paris-Roubaix route and, without disparaging the north-eastern corner of France too much, is far more pleasant a place to use as a base than Lille, which is big, bland and sprawling, or Valenciennes. There are some great bars and restaurants in Kortrijk too, although a favourite, De Dingen (which has a cat that lives in the bar), was closed for a refurb when we visited for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier this month. We tried instead the cosy Gainsbar, which was recommended by Harry Pearson (whose book The Beast, The Emporer and the Milkman: A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands is out now). As for eating, I used to really like the Beethoven for its chateaubriand but it has started to feel old-fashioned lately. De Heeren van Groeninghe is not immediately obvious from the street (it’s at 36 Groeningestraat) but it’s a smart place for consistently excellent steak and beer.
Don’t try to do too much
My days of extreme hill-hopping and cobble-hunting are over. Ten or fifteen years ago it was still possible to criss-cross the countryside and see the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix half a dozen or so times, but the crowds are bigger, the traffic is worse and, frankly, my attitude to risk is more conservative. Dumping the car on a grass verge and running across a field was fun in my 20s but these days I prefer to prioritise fewer but better sightings of the race. If you’re a first-time visitor it’s far better to scale back your ambition and see the race well twice or three times on a famous hill or stretch of cobblestones.
Skip the start of the biggest races
If you want to go to the start of a race and wander round the team buses, go to one of the smaller events. Antwerp on the morning of the Tour of Flanders attracts huge crowds and it’s difficult to get close to the riders. The same goes for Compiègne on the morning of Paris-Roubaix. But Harelbeke for the start of the E3 BinckBank Classic Prix and Roeselare for the start of Dwars Door Vlaanderen are far less busy.
Apart from Paris-Roubaix, don’t bother with the finish either
The finish lines are dominated by barriers and grandstands for VIPs and, generally, not a great place to watch the race. The exception is Paris-Roubaix. Access to the André-Pétrieux velodrome is free and there’ll be a big screen in the track centre.
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a whiff of frites or hot dogs on the wind, patting your pockets, searching your wallet, and realising you don’t have any cash. Ditto if you pass a bar selling great Belgian beers.
Pick two or three vantage points in advance, but where?
The course at the Tour of Flanders tempts everyone to go to either the Oude Kwaremont (where the race passes three times) or Paterberg (twice). Of course, lots of other people have the same idea and in recent years the police have stopped public cars from getting much closer to the Oude Kwaremont than the village of Kluisbergen. It’s quite a hike from there to the hill but once you’re there you can settle in for the afternoon. The Oude Kwaremont is a great place to watch because it’s a long climb by Flanders standards and the bunch spreads out into a line. If you’ve never been to the Tour of Flanders before this will give you an idea of what it’s all about.
At Paris-Roubaix, it’s possible to see the race at Troisville (the first section of cobbles (Sector 29 – after 93 kilometres), then at the famous Arenberg forest (Sector 20 after 161 kilometres) and then make it to a third spot (I’d either Sector 5 at Camphin-en-Pévèle or Carrefour de l’Arbre) or make it to the velodrome in Roubaix to enjoy the atmosphere and watch the race unfold on the big screen. In recent years it’s become harder to chase Paris-Roubaix by car because several of the key motorway junctions are closed off. My advice is to see it well fewer times rather than attempt too much. A wrong turn at the wrong time can lead to missing the race altogether.
The E3 BinckBank Classic starts and finishes in Harelbeke, just up the road from Kortrijk and so it’s easy to go to the start, watch the riders roll out and then head down to the hills to watch the action on either the Taaienberg or Paterberg.
There are two obvious places to see Gent-Wevelgem but the timetable makes it very difficult to see both. They climb the Kemmelberg from one side (Belvedère approach) and then the other (Ossuaire approach), visiting the gravel Plugstreets in between. The Plugstreets are only ten or so kilometres away but by the time you’ve got back to the car and navigated your way between the two places (avoiding the race route) it’s likely you’ll have missed them. If you’ve never been before, the Kemmelberg is the place to go. Save the Plugstreets for a second visit.
Dwars Door Vlaanderen takes place on a weekday afternoon and, like the E3 BinckBank Classic and Three Days of De Panne, offers a chance to see some of the less well-known things Flanders has to offer. The Knokteberg (also known as the Côte de Trieu) is not cobbled but is tackled twice and the long Mariaborrestraat section of cobbles, which morphs into Steenbeekdries, is also a good place to see.
What else is there to do?
Take your bike. Riding the roads gives a deeper appreciation and understanding of the region and the place cycling plays in the culture. The bike paths and canal towpaths mean you can ride for hours segregated from the traffic. There are signposted cycle routes everywhere – so much so that it’s actually trickier to follow a set route than just decide where to go yourself. With a GPS or smartphone it’s never been easier to find where you want to go. I still remember the day 15 or so years ago when I rode up and down a main road and its tributaries for about an hour and a half looking for the Koppenberg, not realising it was just off a smaller adjacent road.
From Kortrijk it’s easy to ride across to the velodrome in Roubaix (although the suburbs of Roubaix and Lille are not the greatest cycling country because there’s a fair bit of traffic). From Kortrijk, the Kemmelberg is only 40 kilometres away (plan to have lunch iin Ypres). Likewise, Kluisbergen (25 kilometres) and Oudenaarde (33 kilometres) are within easy reach and form two points of the golden triangle that includes so many of the famous climbs. Even Geraardsbergen is only 60 or so kilometres from Kortrijk so it’s possible to ride out to the Muur and back without biting off more than you can chew. (Be wary of the wind direction though – I’ve flown in one direction only to blow up grinding back into the headwind later on many times, but that’s all part of riding in this region).
If you’re heading to Oudenaarde, check out the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen – a museum and cafe dedicated to the Tour of Flanders.
Have fun – a weekend (or longer) following races in Flanders is to be enjoyed. I’ve always found the rhythm and pace of the Classics preferable to the grand tours. It’s all about the anticipation, the build-up and the moment. People live and breathe cycling until the broomwagon has passed and then normal life takes over and everyone potters to the nearest bar or back home. It really, really matters, the passion is real, but there’s also a sense of perspective. Perhaps it’s because everyone knows there's another race next week, or next year, I don’t know.
The Lionel of Flanders, my podcast series for Friends of The Cycling Podcast, covers a week-long trip to Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the E3 Classic and Gent-Wevelgem in 2017.
The Ronde, Inside the world’s toughest bike race is Edward Pickering’s book on the history and culture of the Tour of Flanders.
The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman, A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands by Harry Pearson is also recommended. Both Edward and Harry made an appearance in The Lionel of Flanders.