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It might seem like an age ago now, but the bomb blasts in Brussels on March 22 threatened the running of the Belgian Classics. CyclingTips’ Shane Stokes covered the Ronde Van Vlaanderen/Tour of Flanders and Scheldeprijs and writes about the mood in the country and at those events.
When the news came through of the terror attacks in Brussels, two thoughts came to mind. Firstly, most importantly, I thought of the victims, people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps arriving back from a foreign destination or waiting for loved ones in Brussels airport. Perhaps travelling to work via the Maelbeek metro station.
The second thought was this one: there go the Classics.
It was hard to see how the races could go ahead. The news seemed so big, the implications so serious that a mass gathering of people at bike races seemed inconceivable.
But Belgium marches on. Just one day later the Dwars Door Vlaanderen was due to be held. Despite a security alert level of four, which some claimed on social media would lead to the mandatory cancelling of all public events, the riders rolled out and the race took place.
Ten days later on the eve of the Tour of Flanders, a team press officer articulated the spirit shown by organisers, riders and fans.
“There are actually five terror alert levels in this country,” the Belgian said. “The fourth one is the most serious, but there’s actually a fifth one people don’t know about: when they cancel bike races.”
It was said with a smile, but it illustrated how important cycling is to this country, and also how resilient the people are.
I arrived into Belgium on Thursday, three days before Flanders. My original flight was supposed to be to Brussels airport, but that had to be changed to Amsterdam. No problem: the train service is so good in the Benelux area that getting from there to Bruges was a doddle.
Any sense of trepidation about the trip faded away with each smile, each pleasant exchange along the way.
Whether it was the server in the sandwich shop, the security guard in the train station or, once in Bruges, the shop assistant in the huge chocolate store still open at 9.30 pm, everyone was helpful and warm. If people were nervous, it certainly wasn’t showing.
The only sign that something had happened were the guards in the Bruxelles-Midi train station, three of whom were walking around with machine guns.
Other than that, things seemed normal.
One day before Flanders, I went to the race headquarters in Bruges’ historic market square to pick up accreditation. While there, I spoke briefly to race organiser Wim Van Herreweghe, who was between briefings with team managers and others.
He said that the issue of safety was “of course” the talk of the day. However he stated that there was a good collaboration with the police and whilst there was some danger, that it was deemed possible to go ahead and organise the race.
“We have to manage some things. We have to have a lot of stewards to see that there are no security risks,” he explained.
Those checks would see backpacks searched at the start and the finish, and also on some of the crowded hills. There would also be uniformed and plain-clothes police at the race.
“It’s been a bit stressful, but it always is,” he said. “But Flanders is cycling and cycling is Flanders. It is our culture … we don’t want the culture to disappear.
“We have to live today with the problems of today. You have to manage. That is what we are doing with the collaboration of the police.”
Van Herreweghe added that attitude was also shared by the Belgian public. That they too wanted to push on.
“There is a certain character. We have to go for it. We have to stay in our culture with our sports, music festivals and so on, even if we have to check more than in the past.”
“We cannot be defeated by threats”
On race day, large crowds gathered at the sign in area, at the team buses and on the long cobbled street in between. I’d been sitting in a Bruges café finishing a story before heading to the bus area for quotes, and needed to get through barriers to access the roadway.
Spotting two overlapping barriers which weren’t connected together, I opened the gap and squeezed through, accreditation at the ready to show if I was challenged. I then followed the road under the inflatable arch and into the team bus area.
Right away a policewoman ran over and told a marshal that I hadn’t been screened; another hurriedly brought me back the way I came, then through the barrier on the opposite side of the road. From there I was escorted over to the official entrance to the area where my backpack was searched.
“Sorry about this,” said the person doing the checks. “I know it slows things down.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I responded. “Safety first, it’s no problem.”
Bag checked and waved through, I wandered around taking photos and looking for riders to interview. After several minutes, I spotted UCI president Brian Cookson speaking to people near one of the team buses.
Once he was free, I asked him for his thoughts. What does he think about the security situation?
He responded by saying that in a public place, the local authorities, the government and the police are those with the most important responsibilities. That said, he also said that race organisers, teams, riders, national federations and the UCI also all needed to play a part.
“When you have events in a public place, everybody has a responsibility for security. And I guess the fans, the spectators, they have a responsibility to look out for anything suspicious as well.”
Cookson echoed the race organiser in saying that pushing on with regular life was crucial.
“At the end of the day, my view is that we cannot allow ourselves to be defeated by threats,” he said. “We have to go ahead and live life as normally as we can. It is great to be here in the 100th edition of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, and I am sure we are going to have a great day.”
Fifty metres away, the Orica GreenEdge riders and staff were getting ready for their race. They were missing a rider who could potentially contend for the win in future years, Michael Matthews, and would instead rely on Luke Durbridge and Jens Keukeleire.
Team manager Shayne Bannan was completely focussed on that goal, and on what is one of the very top races in the world.
That tunnel vision was briefly interrupted when he was asked about the Brussels attacks.
Bannan said that security was something that is applicable everywhere, and not just at races. In fact, he said that he would support measures to increase checks across the board.
“It is not just security at races. It is security when you go to the airport, to train stations.
“It is something that is on everybody’s mind in Europe, whether they are at races or anywhere they are at.”
Cycling photographer Kristof Ramon is Belgian and understands the culture of the country. He saw details of the attacks in media reports and said that his worry then and now was more about flying and perhaps being in Brussels, and less so at races.
The issue wasn’t on his mind the morning of Flanders. “I don’t think too many people are thinking about it right now,” he explained. “This is the big party …”
Embracing life, not fear
That big party played out over the next few hours, with Peter Sagan attacking just over 30 kilometres from the end and soloing to a superb win. He’s not Belgian, and home favourites Tom Boonen and Greg Van Avermaet weren’t in the final hunt for the victory, but the mood was still celebratory at the finish.
Even if their countrymen aren’t winning, the Belgians love bike racing and were in a boisterous mood. Fans watched the action on screens in local pubs and, once the race was over, many thronged around the team buses to get autographs, photographs and, if possible, selfies.
The Ronde happens once a year and it was a joyous occasion.
The mood was a little more subdued three days later at Scheldeprijs, but that was down to three things. Firstly, the weather; the day was overcast and cold. It was a workday, with many having commitments and thus being unable to head to Antwerp for the start.
The third reason was the nature of the race itself; it’s an important event, and had a solid lineup of sprinters, but the stakes weren’t as high.
As a result some of the Flanders buzz was missing.
Things were certainly livelier at the finish, though. A big crowd gathered in Schoten and with three massive screens in the vicinity of the line, those present were able to follow the action as it unfolded.
The final battle between Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel was feted, and the riders were cheered home with enthusiasm. Once again, the lack of a Belgian challenger in the finale didn’t appear to matter.
Shortly after the race, I spoke to a home fan who had watched the finale with a friend. His name was John and he said that he was relaxed amongst the crowd.
Did he have concerns when the attacks happened? “Just for a little while,” he replied. “But I think we are not threatened. My son was nervous, but that’s a special case. Most people don’t have concerns.
“I wasn’t worried at all about coming today.”
Of course, speaking to those in the crowd is not representative of the whole public: if anyone was nervous and didn’t attend the race as a result, then their opinion can’t be ascertained.
The general mood, though, was that everyone must push on. The crowd turnout for the Tour of Flanders was as big as ever, and by attending in droves the spectators showed that they would not be bullied.
After all, as the term suggests, the major goal of terrorism is to cause fear. Resisting that instinct is important, even if it is prudent to remain vigilant.
The potential chaos that panic and suspicion can cause is far greater than the immediate impact of an attack.
Race winner Kittel echoed the sentiments voiced by Van Herreweghe and Cookson. He soaked up the atmosphere at the finish, gave a relaxed press conference, and afterwards told CyclingTips that he too wanted to continue on as normal.
“Of course it is terrible to see stuff like this happening, especially in the heart of Europe. But to change your way of living [is not the answer] … Of course, it is always good to be a bit more extra careful, but I am not scared about racing here in Belgium in the big races. I don’t have that thought in my mind, as I trust the authorities that they do their best.”
Like the fans, he said that races such as Flanders and Scheldeprijs should continue as usual.
“I think that is the only thing you can do … to keep doing what you did before. To concentrate on not having an influence from those terror attacks in your own life.”
In other words, not overreacting is in itself a reaction. “That is a sort of protest that you can also show against those actions,” he said.