It's a freezing cold morning in Antwerp and the spire of its great cathedral looms over me, and the riders waiting to start. Those who are ready are corralled in a narrow channel between two crowd barriers, while others feverishly scurry around in search of bag drops and last-minute toilet stops.
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At 7am the starting gun is fired, and the sportive of the Tour of Flanders, possibly the world's toughest one-day event for amateur riders, is underway. And, just as the final reverberations of the shot cease to bounce from the walls of the Groot Markt, it begins to rain.
For three hours it rains like divorcing couples fight: bitterly and cold. It rains how Hollywood contract killers kill; disinterested and remorseless. It rains like Ed Sheeran releases chart-topping singles; grimly, steadily and without relent.
The Tour of Flanders is a one-day classic cycle race, probably the most prestigious on the professional calendar. The day before, the course is open to amateurs who wish to test themselves on its infamously steep, cobbled climbs – known as ‘bergs’ or collectively as ‘the hellingen’. The full course is 237km (147 miles), but there are shorter versions that feature a selection of the more famous hills. Then, with bodies bruised and mental reserves depleted, those same amateur fans can take in the following day’s racing while gorging guiltlessly on frites, beer and oompah music.
The best advice anyone gave me for the sportive was to get in a group early on and ride the first 80-or-so kilometres of flat tarmaced roads in the protection of a peloton. With 4,000 riders on the course, there are plenty of big groups to chug along on the back of – with English, French and German cycling clubs all represented – but ideally you’ll find a group of Belgians. These big ox-like men hit the cobbles with gleeful abandon. They seem to float over the pavé, like spandexed hovercraft. Have they not elbows and necks? Do the nerves in their hands not jangle with every rut and furrow? Hard bastards is what they are.
After a while I feel a little bit guilty for sitting on and not contributing – it is bad etiquette in cycling to do this for too long – so I chug my way to the front and start setting the pace. Then we approach a roundabout and I get my technique all wrong. Carrying too much speed, I feather the brakes as I lean into the turn and instantly the bike disappears from beneath me. It is like the road surface has been coated in hot, runny waffle syrup. The Flandriens are not above deliberately sabotaging the course to make it more difficult – there are many stories of locals raking leaves into the gutters that run alongside the cobbled climbs to prevent riders using them to avoid the cobbles – but coming out early and daubing Candico all over the road is probably a bit too ‘Wacky Races’ even for them.
Unscathed, but feeling a little sheepish, I pick myself up and straighten all the bits of my bike that have been bent out of shape. In the time it takes me to do this, three more people fall off in exactly the same fashion. I feel less embarrassed.
Pressing on, the weather finally starts to clear. We reach the hellingen and mercifully the cobbles here are dry. We head up the Muur van Geraardsbergen – a mythical climb reintroduced to the race route this year after an unpopular absence. You can see why it is so beloved – even on sportive day there are crowds thronging its slopes, waiting to cheer or jeer whenever a rider is defeated by its punishing combination of gradient and cobblestone.
The Koppenberg is the hardest to get up without putting a foot down. The combination of shaded cobbles that stay muddy and wet all year round with the large number of riders already walking up and blocking the road make it as much about luck as leg strength. The big Belgian boys brook no nonsense, yelling in Flemish for walkers to keep right.
The Oude Kwaremont, ridden three times by the pros but only once by the amateurs, is described by one participant as ‘like a mini Glastonbury’. It is lined with hospitality tents and massive jumbotrons to watch the race the following day. It has a festival atmosphere. It also goes on for bloody miles.
Finally, after 15 bergs comes the Paterberg. It is the steepest average gradient of the lot, and, maliciously, it starts after a 90 degree right turn, so you carry no speed whatsoever into the foot of it. After that it’s the small matter of 12 flat kilometres into the finish at Oudenaarde and its blessed frites.
The next day, we take a shuttle out to the Oude Kwaremont from Oudenaarde, after watching the women’s race start from there. Another stark reminder of how fiercely the Belgians love their cycling; the start of the women’s race is mobbed – in a way you wouldn’t see at many other races around Europe. Perhaps only the Aviva Women’s Tour in Britain could match it for size and enthusiasm of the crowds.
The Kwaremont is as crazy as expected. The best plan of attack is to choose a spot where the race will pass more than once – to maximise your number of seconds of ‘live’ viewing. Bike races, after all, are a notoriously poor spectacle when couched in terms of ‘total time spent vs time watching the action’. Typically a race is past you in seconds – maybe longer on an Alpine mountain climb – but the Ronde is so attritional that even the pros go slowly up the climbs and hit the summits gasping for breath. When Belgian cycling legend Tom Boonen comes past on the wheel of eventual winner, his compatriot Philippe Gilbert, he looks as though he’s about to cough up a lung.
The other advantage of watching Flanders vs the Grand Tours is that the bergs are so close together it is possible to run across farmers’ fields from one roadside spot to the next – thus doubling your viewing time. it’s a time-honoured tradition and one I indulge in gleefully. On the first pass, the leading group is compact and descending at speeds in excess of 70km/h (43mp/h). When I see them two minutes later across the field, Philippe Gilbert has escaped in what would become a race-winning move.
His victory sends the Belgians into raptures. The shuttle back into Oudenaarde is rowdy, full of Flemish songs, intermingled with the drunken chatter of Brits and Germans. However, unlike after a football match, everything is good natured – the lack of any real team loyalties in cycling means there’s no tribalism.
And perhaps that’s the most remarkable thing about a trip to watch a bike race in Belgium. It’s so unlike sports travel of any other kind, offering an unparalleled sense of participation (what soccer fan has ever played on the turf of Old Trafford the day before Man Utd?), free access to the competition itself (you try charging a Flandrien to stand at the side of the Paterberg and see what happens), and perhaps most importantly, a sense of fellowship between fans that exists in few other sports.
Later, after the race, I am buying my second sausage in a bun within a 20-minute period. The woman working on the stall hands it to me, and I reach for the ketchup to add a little bit more. Her husband, manning the barbecue behind her, calls out in English.
"He is American, remember they have a lot of sauce."
"I’m English, actually."
"It is the same," he retorts, quick as a flash. Then adding, "You all speak not-French."
How to do it
Tom Owen travelled as a guest of Sports Tours International, one of the UK’s largest specialist sports travel companies. A three-night stay in Ghent with coach travel from the UK costs from £419pp, based on two people sharing. Entry into the Tour of Flanders Cyclo Sportive starts from £40. Sports Tours International takes thousands of participants and spectators to sports events around the world.
They have a very small amount of places left for this weekend's Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the other Belgian monument of cycling.
For more information visit www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk.