Spring in Cycling Mecca

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Many of you Aussie cycling fans will know of Bethany Keats. Hailing from Geelong, she did a sensational job at covering the World Championships and earned a good name for herself in the cycling media. If you haven’t already, tune into her weekly Bicycle Show on 94.7 The Pulse on Saturday mornings (more info here).  You can also listen to the podcasts here.

Bethany has been lucky enough to be over in Belgium and France covering the races and has gained a good appreciation for how big the sport cycling is over there. Here’s a taste of what it’s like to travel to the Mecca of Cycling during the Spring Classics.

Enjoy your weekend and don’t forget to catch Amstel Gold Race on Sunday evening!

Spring in Cycling Mecca

by Bethany Keats

The man who lives and breathes his team. You know the one. As soon as you enter the property he’s enthusiastically showing you a photo of when he met his favourite team member. His grandson, only two years old and in his highchair, happily repeating the name over and over. Inside the house there’s memorabilia stashed in every corner; caps, kit, drink bottles, even a collared shirt with the team logo for those slightly more special occasions. He has the team postcards which he insists he go through with you as he tells anecdotes from each and every one. He even knows their family history and pulls out a box of much older cards, yellowing and faded, “see this man? This man is his father…” as he begins to tell you the stories of heroes of yesteryear without needing to read the details on the back. He sees you don’t have a cap and insists that you take one from his collection.

He’s a man like you could find in any number of suburban Melbourne houses. But he’s not a Magpie, a Hawk or a Cat. He’s a cycling fan.

Open the paper and cycling is news and news is cycling. Comment, analysis, previews, predictions. With Belgians winning the three cobbled classics the talk is rivalry and national pride; Belgian names written in bold on the results pages. The front page of today’s Het Nieuwsblad shows Philippe Gilbert receiving podium kisses after yesterday’s Brabantse Pijl – a race you may have missed in Australia, but it’s one that saw the local café fill with people. All eyes on the TV, people were eager for yet another Belgian victory this season. Tom Boonen is the favourite but when he’s not there, they will cheer on the next red, yellow and black rider there is. A victory for a Belgian seems to be a victory for Belgium, regardless of the team they ride for.

When Johan Van Summeren broke away from the lead group at Paris Roubaix the crowd in the velodrome went wild. Unable to understand the French commentary, I knew a Belgian was making a move because the flags suddenly started being waved. Where was I, France or Belgium? There were certainly more Flanders Lions fluttering in the breeze than anything else and if Boonen was out of contention then the crowd would take Van Summeren.

I had been told a few days earlier while out doing cobblestone reconnaissance that Paris Roubaix may be in France but “it is really Belgian” and despite the protest I received when I asked a former French Paris Roubaix contender, I feel I must agree with the Belgians.  It was Belgian motorhomes that lined the road leading into the Arenberg Forest and Flemish I heard from the diehard fans who’d gone to watch training in the days before. I actually had to remind myself that I was in France.

But while back in Australia we go crazy for Paris Roubaix, the bees knees of racing here is the Tour of Flanders. It’s their pride and joy and it’s blasphemy for me to even suggest that Paris Roubaix might be a rival to De Ronde. (Because you know it’s important when it’s referred to as just The Tour…)

On announcing that I was here to experience cycling in Belgium, I had people left, right and centre lining up to showcase the event to me. They will spend days carefully studying a map to maximise race viewing; which sectors? How to get there? Where to park to maximise the getaway? And of course, a television in the car to watch the race while you’re racing yourself through country back roads avoiding Sunday afternoon traffic jams.

I was in the backseat of a car belonging to someone a mutual friend had described as “the ground zero of cycling fandom.” The kind of hardcore fan who buys team bikes second hand at the end of the season and procures himself VIP passes into the rider area at the start. However it seemed that half the country had also managed to get their hands on passes and while on the hunt for the authentic experience, I found myself at the front of the Quickstep Crush. There must have been over a hundred people trying to get a glimpse of Tom Boonen:  jostling, straining and wide eyed. And then he appeared. A hush came over the crowd for a second except for one woman who breathed “voila!” When he left to sign on, the crowd just vanished. One second they were there and the next they were satisfied having seen what they came to see and they’d gone. Off to their first sector where they’d see him next, no doubt. Because at every location you could be sure of spotting him in the peloton as the locals pointed him out.

Following the race is an event in itself. Small villages in the Flemish countryside experienced traffic jams as those caught in them hastily keyed new options into the GPS. But traffic or no traffic, once the riders were on the way, cars were stopped and people got out. Someone was trying to drive the other way? It’s their bad luck when someone trying to overtake traffic just parks there while the race goes past.

I was fortunate enough to find myself a prime location on a steep embankment at Paterberg, surrounded by Belgians who had been drinking in the sun for the last few hours (a few entrepreneurial lads had been walking up and down the road selling beer). Someone gave a cry as the riders appeared in the distance and people strained on their toes to have a look. As the time car came past, the crowd sang “Rodania” in time with the recording and when the riders appeared they leaned over barriers calling, cheering and pointing out Tom Boonen. But it wasn’t just Boonen the calls were for. As the stragglers made their way up, struggling with not only the climb and cobblestones but dodging team cars as well, the crowd cheered for every rider; Hup, hup hup! until the last one had made the climb and the broom wagon came through.

Where was I the moment Nick Nuyens crossed the line? I was sitting in the car watching it on TV. At the sprint for the line the commentator sounded as though he was going to hyperventilate and the car I was in was felt void of air as the Belgians held their breath waiting, hoping for the moment. “JA!” and fist-pumps followed as they looked at one another with huge grins and only one word: Nuyens.

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