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By 8am on the morning of the Tour of Flanders, the Grote Markt in Bruges is already filled to bursting point. The sun slowly emerges above the medieval belfry, though most have already been warmed by heated discussion over who will win De Ronde.
Lien Crapoen and Maja Leye survey the Markt with pride. In just over nine hours, they will do their duty as podium hosts to present that winner with a bouquet and an oversized bottle of champagne. Millions will witness the moment Alexander Kristoff accepts kisses from them, but few will realise that 12 months of hard work from these two women have played a major role in the very running of the race itself.
Flanders Classics is the company tasked with managing some of Belgium’s biggest cycling races each year. Lien and Maja are two of eight full-time staff members dedicated to organise Omloop Het Niewsblad, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders, Scheldeprijs, and Brabantse Pijl. It’s no small feat. These six races attract millions of spectators and the best riders from the World Tour and Women’s World Cup. Everything must be considered – and it’s astounding what everything includes: accreditation for hundreds of journalists, riders and staff right down to the positioning of sponsors logos on the podium.
There’s a hierarchy in place at Flanders Classics; yet, it’s clearly evident that they’re a tight-knit team. Responsibility is shared and trust in one another to get the job done is paramount. Lien’s main role sees her coordinate sales and operation of VIP areas at each of the races. Throughout the Classics season, some 25,000 people rub shoulders with legends like Eddy Merckx whilst enjoying gourmet food, abundant drink and prime viewing position to watch the riders slog their way across Belgium.
Maja has been overseeing the advertising campaign for all six races. Additionally, she’s spent months ensuring that riders, team staff and some 160-odd vehicles that make up the race convey have the accreditation required to do their jobs on race day. She’s also coordinated the printing of thousands of items including passes, race handbooks, and even the finishing banners.
The entire Flanders Classics team works closely with over 1,800 volunteers. Of these, 1,500 work as course marshals to ensure the safety of the peloton and spectators across the 1,300km of roads the races will cover. The marshals are paid a traditional token of 10 Euros, though as Maja points out the primary motivation is pride in what they consider their race. Even the man who organises the marshals, Jean Pierre De Frenne, volunteers his own time to the immense task.
“Without those volunteers, the races don’t happen,” explained Maja. “Jean-Pierre has to make sure the marshals are in all the right places, and all the danger spots are marked. It’s a huge job.”
For all its challenges, it’s interesting work that they throw themselves into and clearly enjoy. Like most people involved in cycling, passion for the sport itself fuels their dedication. On their first day off of the Classics season, Lien and Maja could be found chasing the peloton between cobbled sectors at Paris-Roubaix.
“I don’t get sick of cycling,” explained Maja. “Of course there’s some days that are challenging, but on the other hand, I can’t live without it.”
For both of them, cycling is in their blood. Lien grew up watching her brother compete in local races. These days, it’s possible you’ll bump into her on the roads of European cyclo sportif events. For Maja, the seed had been sown in her formative years spent absorbing racing alongside her grandparents.
“When my mum began working, I’d spend time with my grandfather. We’d watch the Tour de France together,” Maja said. “Later on, my grandma and grandpa would pack the car. We’d visit the bakery and drive down and setup by the roadside for the day at Paris-Roubaix.
“My grandfather’s so proud of the job I’m doing,” Maja added. “He gets so excited he even takes photos of the TV with his old film camera when he sees me.”
The face of cycling
For most fans, our love of cycling is galvanised by an affection for its rich traditions. For some, podium attendants are a seen as a sexist relic of the past. Two years ago, Maja found herself inadvertently thrust into the centre of the debate, when she was pinched on the bottom by Peter Sagan as he stood next to her on the podium. It made news around the world and resulted in thousands of column inches in fierce debate.
Sagan made a public apology, Maja took a long break from podium duties. Her return to the podium this year is a triumph of sorts. Both Lien and Maja enjoy having a role the ceremonies. After all it’s a proud moment of celebration of a special achievement, both for the winner as well the race itself.
“It’s a privilege. There’s only a handful of people on the Tour of Flanders stage. That’s exciting,” said Maja.
The frivolity of the podium is in contrast to the hard graft everyone upon it has done to make it there. The reality is that the number of people involved in cycling remains skewed towards men; yet, with so much of cycling being about just ‘getting the job done’, the opportunity exists to make gender an irrelevance.
“When I started [working in cycling] I expected there to be a sense of ‘Oh, here’s another blonde. What does she know?’,” said Maja. “But I’ve found that there’s an openness to change. I’ve never felt like I’ve been treated differently because I’m a woman. It’s been up to me to prove myself and I feel that I’ve done that.”
“It’s getting better,” Maja added. “More and more teams have women working in organisational roles, and people have respect for them. There’s a lot of interests in cyclosportifs, and even by the roadside there’s men and women both enjoying the racing.”
Last week’s Brabantse Pijl marked the transition from the cobbled Classics to those of the Ardennes. For Lien, Maja and the Flanders Classics team, its moment to celebrate, relax and catch up on some sleep. At least for a few days anyway, planning for the 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders has already begun.