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It’s Monday morning and I am sat behind my computer figuring out how to write a piece about nothing. The idea was to share the emptiness of the Tour of Flanders; a Tour of Flanders without crowds. But it was far from empty, at least on television. Did you miss the people on the Paterberg cheering? Did you miss the people lining the Lippenhovestraat? I am sure most of you didn’t.
The race was just as awesome as it always is. It’s the Tour of Flanders after all. On the ground, however, it was empty. There was literally no one there. I must admit that it was an amazing experience to be part of. It was like my own private Tour of Flanders where nobody was watching but me. A privileged experience I would like to share with you here.
The Lippenhovestraat was the first of the cobbled sectors and my first stop. It was cold. Flanders was covered in a thick cover of clouds. The sun was trying to break through but to no avail. The policeman saw my press stickers and waved me through. To create some atmosphere there were small flags lining the road. No spectators were allowed on the cobbles or the climbs. The police announced strict measures and high fines. The family living at Lippenhovestraat 128 had a first-row seat.
“Normally there are two, three lines of people here,” the mother explained to me. “They are here hours before the first riders pass, having fun. The atmosphere is amazing. Today is of course completely different. The police are very strict and people seem to have listened to the instructions from the organizers really well.”
The organizer is Tomas Van Den Spiegel, CEO of Flanders Classics. He and his team had the task of organizing a race in a time where events are largely forbidden, to avoid the spread of coronavirus. Belgium is currently one of the European hotspots when it comes to infections and despite the measures getting stricter every week, Flanders Classics managed to get Belgium’s most iconic race on the road.
“I think we had a very successful event and we are satisfied with how everything went,” Van Den Spiegel said. “The Belgian cycling fans are crazy about cycling but on Sunday they showed their love for the race by staying at home. The police were out there in force but have not handed out one single fine. This race was so important for the teams, the sponsors but also the riders who are still hunting for a new contract.
“Today makes for a great blueprint for the Spring Classics of 2021. Cycling is like religion in Flanders and in a time where so little is possible and there are so few things to look forward to [in terms of entertainment] this was important. Maybe there are fewer restrictions by the time of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Ronde van Vlaanderen next year but for now we have shown what can be done in these times.”
My journey through Flanders went on. From the Lippenhovestraat to the Kanarieberg, from the Oude Kwaremont to the Valkenberg, from the Edelareberg and the Mariaborrestraat/Steenbeekdries back to the Oude Kwaremont for the last time.
To minimize risks – the Dutch government states I can’t travel to Belgium unless strictly necessary – I brought my own lunch. I had hand sanitizer at the ready and wore a mask every time I exited the car. The first car in the convoy was not blaring out the Rodania tune this time but a message about masks and fighting COVID-19 together.
Meanwhile, a friend texted me updates. He was at home watching the race on television and saw so much more than I did out there. My car entertainment system read out the messages while I drove from one cobbled street to another climb. Another friend, Fabienne, sent me a message wishing me a lovely day. That must not have been easy to do for her. She is a super fan and visits races whenever she can. She would love to have been here but for the love of the race she stayed home. She watched TV like almost one in three inhabitants of Flanders did, according to stats from Belgian channel Sporza.
“I was ready and in front of the TV at 9am with some coffee and a croissant,” she told me. “My race buddy Luc and I were texting. The Belgian government asks everybody to stay in their own bubble and minimize contact with people outside of your own household. The phone is the closest Luc and I will be today.
“I miss the stress of driving through Flanders and catching the race as much as we can. I miss the ambience out on the course, the friends we meet, the riders who already recognize us and greet us. It was hard staying at home but this is the only way we can now help and make these races happen. But you can be sure that from the first moment it’s allowed and safe again we will be out there again to support all the riders and Greg Van Avermaet in particular.”
The sun that came out in the afternoon disappeared between the clouds again. On the Valkenberg I caught up with the women’s race. I recognized the familiar faces. Some of them recognized me as well. The raindrops started falling and the light started fading as I drove to the Oude Kwaremont again, my last stop for the day.
It was the most iconic of climbs in this year’s Tour of Flanders. It’s a narrow, cobbled road in the heart of the Flemish Ardennes. On 364 days of the year the birds sing and life is quiet. There is hardly any traffic because the bigger Ronsebaan lies parallel to it. But on one day a year this is the center of the cycling universe — big, white tents are filled with VIP guests savoring the food, the drinks, and the ambiance. Groups of friends drink beer at a staggering speed, passionately cheering on the riders as they pass. The heroes they know from TV are right in front of their eyes.
On Sunday the Oude Kwaremont was empty. A policeman, two cameramen, two stewards and me. I could hear my footsteps on the infamous cobbles. The rain had made them slippery. The birds were singing. It was a surreal experience.
I witnessed the decisive attack by Chantal van der Broek-Blaak. Just me and her, on the Oude Kwaremont. After the last rider passed and the broom wagon rattled over the cobbles, I decided to walk back to the warmth of my car. Just before the top of the Oude Kwaremont a family had a TV outside in their garden. They had some beers and a coffee machine. They had blankets and were watching the race. I asked if I could join them to watch the final.
I watched Chantal van der Broek-Blaak realize a life-long dream. As she was being interviewed, I heard two riders on the cobbles behind the rusty garden gate. Out of the race but still riding on: Sara Poidevin in her first Tour of Flanders and Gracie Elvin in her eighth and last.
“I wanted to finish the entire race course even though I was out of the race,” Elvin said later. “I had some bad luck earlier but I wanted to ride all the sections for that very last time. It was strange without all the people but in the race, you don’t notice because you are just so focused. The crowds help you through the pain on those last hills though. Today I wanted to finish Flanders on my own terms and was grateful Sara was there to keep me company in those final 60 kilometers.”
As always, the Tour of Flanders is full of stories: big ones and small ones. It’s very true you see so much more on TV but nothing beats the anticipation of waiting for the riders, hearing the sound of wheels on cobbles, the wind of the peloton as it passes you. For now, an empty Flanders will be the likely scenario for spring 2021 but let’s hope the Oude Kwaremont will be buzzing again in 2022. There is nothing like bike racing in Flanders.