Chasing the Ronde

by CyclingTips

Most of you have probably never chased a bike race before trying to bring home the best photographs you can which will ultimately put food on the table. It can be quite the adrenaline rush in a race like the Tour of Flanders, but also extremely tricky and exhausting. Jered Gruber tells the story of his and Ashley’s day chasing the Ronde and shares a selection of their photos. Enjoy.

I always feel empty when the Ronde is over. It’s my favorite race of the year. I can’t help with the question of – now what? It feels more like Christmas to me than Easter. It’s months of anticipation and now I’m already excited about 2014. If we get completely shut out of cycling photography between now and next season, I like to think that I’ll still be here next year, because this is the one day that keeps me up late over many, many nights.

Despite this feeling of disappointment of it being all over, I love the quiet trip back to Oudenaarde on the bike path after a wild day chasing, far removed from the traffic jams on the main roads. This year, I got to make the trip back to town with Ashley holding on behind me on the scooter. The stinging cold of this spring tickled us every second of the way home. We howled at how cold our hands and faces were, laughed at our day’s good and bad luck, told stories, but mainly looked around. We looked around and saw familiar roads, stories of old rides, favorite roads, not so favorite roads, a life together shared on the roads we whizzed by.

I love Flanders. I love it because I can cycle 250 kilometers of roads and never get more than 15k from home while never riding the same road twice. The Koppenberg is close by and it isn’t nearly as hard as it is beautiful – because every time I turn that corner on the Muur, I’m taken aback at how gorgeous those final few meters to the top are. I love Flanders, because the cobbled descent of the Stationsberg is silly, because I never get tired of rice tarts, because that bakery in Ellezelles really does have the best waffles in the World, because the weather is often less than ideal, because of the forever views in spring when the fallow fields wait for inspiration, because of the corn tunnels in summer. I love the farm fields, I love the little roads that meander through them. I love Flanders for what feels like a thousand reasons (maybe I’ll list them all someday), but most of all, I love it because it’s home.

Not home in the way you generally think of home, but for two transients, it’s about as close as we can get. We spend about three months a year here. We feel at home here, we have friends here, and I ride my bike a lot here. There’s no better way for me to get that home feeling than to spend months exploring, learning, searching for new roads.

While lying in bed thinking about this piece last night, I realized a scary fact: Sunday was my fifth straight Ronde van Vlaanderen. I came the first time as a lucky journalist/tourist on a great tour group (VeloClassic Tours) – the second time was again as a lucky journalist/tourist (Specialized junket). The first two times were great, but their real effect was in making me want more, to do it on my own. So the third, fourth, and fifth times, were all for me.

When the Ronde finished last year for me with the assembled masses on the Paterberg erupting in joy with Tom Boonen’s third victory, followed by a quiet ride home on the bike path, I was already thinking about 2014. I thought we did ok last year, but I knew we could do better. We had to. This wasn’t just some random race.

I think about it constantly. I think about how I might be able to get to a different spot, maybe fit another spot in where I otherwise thought it was impossible. What if there’s a better spot? I’ve become obsessed with this area for selfish reasons.

Kwaremont becomes a real city the day of the Ronde.

The semi-Classics came and went. They were fun romps through the Vlaamse Ardennen, low-key tune-ups. Then there was the big day. Normally, I swear up and down to anyone that will listen that I love the E3 and Dwars door Vlaanderen way more than the Ronde. The Ronde is too big, I say. I don’t like the circuits. Bla bla bla.

I found differently on Sunday though. The day surprised me. While freezing my hands off on The ChainStay’s scooter, skidding through loose gravel, bouncing through fields (the actual fields), and trying desperately to make it to my next spot, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was tearing across roads that have come to be a part of our story, shooting what I’d happily argue is the greatest one day race of the year…in my backyard. This wasn’t work. This wasn’t a job. This was a gift – like I said before, Christmas morning. Some days, what we do is hard. Some days, we fail miserably. Some days, we’d rather be doing anything else other than this. On Sunday though, next to racing the thing (if I could do one race and one race only – this would be it), there’s nothing I would rather have been doing.

In 2012, the plan of chasing the race on bike had gone well. Between Ashley and I, we caught the race about a dozen times. For 2013, however, I made the big leap – to a motorized bike (insert Cancellara joke here). Gregg and Holly Germer, proprietors of the ChainStay in Oudenaarde – our home of sorts – got a scooter for motorpacing this year. Fortunately, it wasn’t in use the day of the Ronde, so I had my wheels. We tried to find a scooter for Ashley, but a couple of calls to different places that rent scooters revealed an unsurprising fact – they were all rented for the Ronde.

In short – if you’d like to see the race a fair many times with as little stress as possible, there’s nothing better than a scooter. It’s easy. It’s fun.

I had been working on my Flanders plan for a long time. Some recent events made me take a harder look at it though. Originally, I wanted quantity – lots and lots of it. As much as possible. Doesn’t it sound great to say – I saw the Ronde 20 times? I didn’t manage 20, but I did do 12 in the last 130k or so. That comes out to about one every ten-ish kilometers. The best part – I was happy with my spots. They were meaningful spots to me. Most were relatively pretty, but they were all spots that I wanted to shoot.

I wasn’t sure if the grand plan would work, but it did. It flowed surprisingly well. I say surprisingly, because I always assume that it will be a disaster. At least when disaster happens, it doesn’t catch me blind-sided. Even Ashley’s early tough goings with a psychotic police officer and getting caught behind a wreck yielded a solid day’s work. It wasn’t perfect by any means – it never will be or can be – by definition, because I care about it too much, but I’m happy. I already have a hundred different ideas for next year, and that will definitely mean renting a scooter well in advance for Ashley. If we can get on two scooters…ah! I love the thought.

Who needs a big motorbike, a driver, and real race access? Not for Flanders. I’d happily take one for Roubaix though…

It was a good day. I’m proud of our pictures, not because there was one stunner, but because I know we did better than last year, better than the year before that. We even have a picture in the running for a cover right now, which means that we had our first ever picture quarantine. I wish I could share it. It really is nice.

At this point, I’m becoming more relaxed about the hunt for the elusive wow shot. It’s like fishing – some days you get a lot, some days you don’t get anything, but only rarely do you get a whopper.

For me, it has become a story of searching: searching for the perfect spot, the perfect moment; rarely do I find it, so I search more and more and more – on my bike, in races, on the internet, in my dreams. Some places and races are worth it – this is one of them.

(NOTE: Oudenaarde is our home in Belgium. Most of our interactions here occur in Flanders, but that imaginary line between Flanders and Wallonia is quite close, so when I say Ellezelles as part of my love of Flanders, yes, I know it’s in Wallonia, but only just.)

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