Spending An April Afternoon In Flanders

April 10, 2015

 

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Last week, I made a 9,000-mile trip for the chance to stand for five hours on the edge of a muddy farm field in the Flanders region of Belgium. And it was amazing. Once-in-a-lifetime kind of stuff.

Of course, the trip involved a few other activities, but the main reason was to visit the rural countryside to watch Belgium’s biggest sporting event—De Ronde van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders).

Despite the lack of popularity in the U.S., I’ve grown to love professional road cycling over the past six or seven years. So, when a friend asked me to meet him in Belgium to watch one of the most important races on the pro cycling calendar, I jumped at the opportunity. (This was also due in no small part to strong encouragement from my wife, who readily admitted she’s glad there’s someone in my life who actually wants to do this kind of stuff with me.)

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A close-up of the cobbles on the Oude Kwaremont.  How the hell do you ride on these things?

So what the hell is the Tour of Flanders? Well . . . fair enough. Here’s a quick primer. Most Americans’ familiarity with pro cycling starts and ends with the Tour de France, which spans three and a half weeks in July and involves some guy wearing a yellow jersey. But the pro season is also filled with one-day races known as “classics,” most of which are in Belgium, northern France, the Netherlands and Italy. That’s where the Tour of Flanders falls. In its 99th edition this year, the race is considered one of cycling’s “monuments,” which are the five most revered and storied of the classics races. Essentially, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Tour of Flanders in pro cycling; winning this race can make a rider’s career.

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Riders on the Oude Kwaremont.

This year’s race followed a 264-kilometer route from the medieval city of Bruges to the village of Oudenaarde in east Flanders. Part of what makes this race particularly special is that it includes 19 climbs up historic cobblestone farming roads in rural Flanders. They’re typically only wide enough for a single car, in relatively poor condition, and often slick and covered in mud from rainy and cold spring weather in Flanders. It may not sound like a big deal, but seeing the cobbles in person and watching the riders trudge up them is truly impressive. Check out this example from a few years ago if you’re so inclined.

We saw the start of the race in Bruges, and then scurried by train and bus to the Oude Kwaremont, one of Belgium’s most famous cobbled climbs and where thousands of fans line the road each year to watch the race. The thing that became immediately apparent — and what sets the Tour of Flanders apart from any sporting event I’ve seen — is fans’ devotion to the race itself. It felt like the race was more about national pride and identity than any specific rider or team (though rest assured things would have been out of hand if a Belgian had won). I’m not sure if I’ll make it back to Belgium to see another race, but standing in that field among thousands of rabid cycling fans and being part of an event like that was worth all the effort and every single penny.