Flanders – not quite love at first sight

I wish I could say that the beauty of the Flemish Classics was a case of love at first sight for me but I don’t think it was.

The first bike race I covered as a journalist was the 1999 Het Volk [now Het Nieuwsblad] and the things that stick in my mind are, in no particular order, that it was freezing cold; the fact the farm roads smelled of manure; the way the Belgian fans stood uncomfortably close to the riders at the start in Ghent, almost as if they were exhibits in a museum; the cold again, this time with added wind; and the fact everyone seemed to smoke, which made entering the cafés a test of endurance.

We saw the race a few times, including on the Oude Kwaremont, and I remember the rattling of the bikes, the shouts when someone stalled or missed half a pedal stroke, causing a ripple in the bunch, the steaming breath the riders left in the air, and the cigarette smoke from the spectators. The bunch seemed to take an age to pass, and it struck me that the riders at the back of the bunch were effectively riding a different race to those at the front. It might take them 20 kilometres and a race-ending effort to move up to the head of the bunch. Then there was the dash across the muddy field back to the car to join the convoy of cars racing to see it at the next spot on the road.

The press room that day was in a suite in Sporting Lokeren’s football stadium and I was quite excited because in the 1980s Watford had signed a player called Jan Lohman from Lokeren and it was as if my sporting worlds were colliding. I remember doing a double-take when I saw that in the next room there were free beers and sandwiches for the journalists. I abstained from the beers but the sandwiches were so moreish. There was a choice between a rubbery cheese with holes in it, ham, a pinkish fish pate and a grey-brown meat paste that I wouldn’t have been able to identify if my life depended on it but which was strangely delicious. The sandwiches on offer at the Flemish Classics have barely changed in the two decades since, and in fact, probably haven’t changed in more than a century.

As Frank Vandenbroucke ploughed on in the big ring through the icy rain, towing Wilfried Peeters along in the spray behind him, the pair of them lit by the headlamps of the team cars and motorbikes following, I watched on television in the warmth of the press room, chomped through the sandwiches and slowly started to get it.

A few weeks later I was back with the photographer Phil O’Connor. The day before the race the weather was filthy. We stopped at a petrol station and, clocking that I spoke English, the man at the till asked if we were here for the bike race. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Perfect weather for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen,’ he said, looking out at the dark sky and pea-sized blobs of rain.

That evening, over a Belgian beer, Phil unfolded a road map on the table. He’d marked the climbs and cobbles with a highlighter pen. We compared it to the route in the official roadbook and Phil plotted a route for Sunday’s race. The idea was to criss-cross the countryside in the car to see the riders several times. In the days before GPS units and mobile phones, this was quite an operation. Mistakes made in the planning could cost him a sighting of the race the following day. He made his plan, drew up his contingencies if anything went wrong and I went to bed with the butterfiles building because I knew I’d be doing the driving the next day.

It all passed in a blur. Everywhere we went the countryside looked the same and the sense of déjà-vu was overwhelming. Sometimes we actually were on the same stretch of road we’d been on earlier, just travelling in the opposite direction. It was then that I began to understand why the race is woven into the fabric of the region’s culture because it went within a few kilometres of just about everywhere in the Flemish Ardennes. Almost a century of the Ronde’s history had played out on those farm roads and the memories had seeped into the soil.

Two years later, I rode the sportive for the first time and my understanding of the race increased a little bit more. I’d not appreciated fully the sapping quality of the dead concrete roads, or the way the constant b-dum, b-dum, b-dum of riding over the ridged sections messed with your mind. I suddenly appreciated the true meaning of the phrase ‘false flat’, because Flanders was made up of roads that seemed to be flat yet felt like they were working against you. The wind, too, was an invisible and unpredictable enemy. And that’s before we even got to the cobbled climbs, each of them posing a different type of challenge depending on the stones and the camber.

Reaching Geraardsbergen, swooping over the bridge and down into the town before climbing up to the Muur I felt euphoric. I’ve ridden those roads many times since but nothing quite seems to match that first time.

Having said that, none of it felt terribly cool back then, not that it mattered. The cool came later, perhaps much later, but if any race was made for Instagram it's the Tour of Flanders. The cobbles, the little chapel at the top of the Muur, the Koppenberg, the beers and plates of frites, the uniquely Flandrian take on spaghetti bolognese (a personal favourite of mine), the unconventional glamour of it all makes it, for me, the best weekend of the cycling season.

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