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Tour of Flanders: A Perspective

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The Tour of Flanders  starts this Sunday.  A classic among classics, set in one of cycling’s most obsessed of cities, located in one of cycling’s most obsessed countries, is full of heartbreaking climbs and mobs of born-and-bred fans.  In other words…it’s awesome.  Television coverage stateside starts at 5pm Sunday on Versus.  Offering a nice perspective on a visit to the race is Myles from BikePure.org:

I am a nervous wreck. The full jitters I had the week before my wedding, times ten. My wedding was a given. The detailed planning my wife indulged in, meant only the second bottle of cheap red, given free to my greedy uncle, could upset the big day.

Now my nerves portray full, real excitement of Flanders week. Today at 5am, I will board a budget airlines, pay the GDP of a rebel African state for a mucky coffee and arrive in the holy land of cycling. The Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is the bike race around the hellish cobbled climbs of Belgium’s north, fierily independent province of Flanders. A monument of the European professional calendar. The hardest day on a bike- ever. The little Italian professional climbers have a stomach ache this week. The English track lads slept in and the dog ate every single French pro’s license. Flanders is for the real men who shave below the waist.

Stijn Devolder surprised everyone by his breakaway at 25 kilometers from the finish last year. Devolder never got more than 20 seconds lead, but held on to beat Nick Nuyens and Juan Antonio Flecha and become bronzed in the eyes of the nation. Flecha, poor Flecha, regardless of how many times he reaches the last 10k in the leading group of gods, no one ever rates his chances. Could this be his year? His year to survive 7 hours over farm tracks and holes in the Pave designed to destroy carbon rims. Could it be the turn of Silence-Lotto captain Leif Hoste? Finished second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen an agonizing three times in his career, Or can Big Tom Boonan show the world he is the Lion of Flanders once again.

For us English speakers, we stick to calling it the Tour of Flanders, to annunciate the Ronde van Vlaanderen correctly you need to be born with a beer in your cot and stones in your shoes. Yet I love it and my nervous stomach is the proof. Not only the daft language sets the Flemish apart, their passion for this day is tremendous. With 20k to go on Sunday the Muur-Kapelmuur in, Gerardsbergen will have 30,000 Flemish people in the village sounding of for their heroes, and me. I will have seen them off in Bruges, 6 hours previously. Interviewed all the riders who will speak to me. Photograph all the riders picking their noses that won’t and settle down on the grass in front of the big screen and pretend to be a local.

Twice I have ridden the course. 120 km of hard flat roads tire the legs before the first off the 19 ‘Bergs’. 19 cobbled climbs where you churn the lowest gear in the pleasure- pain happiness zone. 19 climbs over the last 140km. A massive day in the saddle. Sheer class. Talent tested to the limit.

I am nervous for the riders as well. Nervous for Filippo Pozzato, winner of the first stage in De Panne as well as the E3 Prijs. Could it be him? Butterflies for Heinrich Haussler of the Cervélo Test Team. HH has already chalked up four wins as well a close second place at Milano-Sanremo this year. The strongest rider wins Flanders, not someone who just gets lucky. Soo exciting.

Flanders is like a dream for the winner and all of Belgium and a nightmare for the rest of the riders. Only room for one lion of Flanders. On Sunday I will be there to hear him roar. Can’t wait.

Editor’s Note:  I’ve been to Belgium twice.  Not for the race, sadly, though I did get to watch a local bicycle festival featuring original HighWheelers (Penny Farthing’s, etc.), which was awesome.  So is their bicycle museum.  Here’s my advice if you’re going:  Learn French or Flemish.  Very few people there speak English.  And for all the talk of “ugly Americans” abroad, our quaint term “restroom” means nothing there.  It’s “toilet.”  If you need to whizz, just say “toilet” in an inquisitive tone and have some change ready if it’s a public restroom…they tend to charge for the privilege.  That said, some of the coolest toilets I’ve ever seen were in Belgium, too.

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