As the 2004 Tour of Flanders exploded on the left hand bend that leads to the steepest grade of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, Lotto-Domo domestique Leif Hoste stole a quick glance back to locate his captain. Hoste, eyes bulging with opportunity, locked into the hollow stare of Peter Van Petegem. In an instant, the two-time champion snapped his head left to right, a smoke signal as clear and crisp as a white flag of surrender, a moment of panic crumbling under the pain in his legs and the inextinguishable fire in his lungs, only he knowing which came first. What was ten meters grew to twenty, and Hoste grabbed the torch, igniting his chance of stealing the prize every Belgian boy dreams of.
Stefan Wesseman led the fractured group of leaders towards the Kapelmuur, the strained faces of the crowd, men and women who moments ago laughed in between gulps of beer and bites of sausages, produced a deafening roar as they pleaded with Hoste, Van Petegem, Johan Museeuw, blindly believing their screams would propel this trio in their pursuit of the crown every Belgian rightfully feels is theirs, and reluctantly, hesitantly bestows on any other. The race had swelled, ignited and exploded and in an instant, one favorite was dead. For Hoste, it went from a race of teamwork to a race to win. For Van Petegem, it took 242 kilometers to kill him, but the sword Wesseman wielded had pierced his will, paralyzed his body, and stolen his victory. His day was over. There was still some 23 minutes of racing left. This all happened in less than 6 seconds.
Each of the great races that are so accurately labeled “The Five Monuments of Cycling”- Milan-Sanremo, The Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Giro di Lombardia- has its icon, the centerpiece that captures the spectator’s imaginations, solicits the expectations, instills confidence in the strongest, fear in the weakest, and produces the theater and drama of anticipation that cycling’s biggest figures willingly tend to annually, battling for the honor to place this centerpiece squarely on their mantle of success.
First appearing for a trio of years from 1950-52 as the first climb installed in Van Wijnendaele’s growing masterpiece, the Muur van Geraardsbergen has rightfully defined the Tour of Flanders every year since 1970, when Belgian Eric Leman ushered in a new decade with his first of three Ronde victories. Simply known as the Muur, or the Muur/Kapelmuur, it is a 1075 meter stretch of cobbled theater that is perfectly designed for the organized chaos that fills its rows of seats, its balconies, its orchestra pit and its backstage, and once the stage is set, it showcases the intimacy and pure beauty of bike racing.
In the center of Geraardsbergen, there is a wide, cobbled plaza that connects perpendicularly to the steeper, lower main street that leads away from the Schelde River. As the plaza ends, there is a sharp right turn onto a narrow residential alley that any other day of the year is a dead end. The cobbles are rougher and the pitch a bit steeper. As the climb of the Muur approaches the narrowest portion-the equivalent of a glorified foot path-the landscape takes over. Tall trees, not yet budding leaves, arch blank branches over the pitching road, which is carved out of the rock, bending upward and to the left to connect to the Kapelmuur- Flemish for chapel hill. On race day, there are few barricades, advertising banners, and race motos and no neutral support or team vehicles. The focus is the riders and their fans, who have turned this natural amphitheater into a heaving mass of humanity, its acoustics designed perfectly to announce the start of the show.
The drama and intensity that is played out on the Muur is skillfully crafted over the preceding 240+ kilometers, rolling along timelessly, full of focus and concentration, a lapse of either that can turn potential victory to certain defeat in the blink of an eye. As the countdown of the climbs progresses, the crowds thicken, the noise rises, the pressure increases and the tension mounts. This is where the hope of Flanders will be thrust onto the shoulders of one rider, a weighty burden to carry to the finale, and one that is light as a feather if first across the line. As the lead group thins, it’s as if riders are swallowed up into the sidelines, some cradled and warmed, others cursed at and buried. It all depends on whose side you’re on. Only the most deserving will advance.
The physical barrier that separates the riders from the spectators, the mud and dirt of the gutter from the cobbles, is symbolic of the opposite paths riders and spectators travel on their pilgrimage to the Muur. The tension surrounding the start in Bruges emanates profusely from the riders, adding to the morning chill. In Geraardsbergen, clusters of people engage with each other, some dressed in colorful regalia, some carrying flags and banners, neatly dressed older men with portable radios glued to their ears, all intent on enjoying their day of celebration. The rider’s morning is consumed with intensity, speed and aggression against the isolation of 6+ hours, their only companions their devout concentration, the relentless noise of the crowd, pounding of one’s heart and wheezing of ones breathe. For the spectators, there is a slow magnetism that develops from the early hours of Sunday morning and lingers throughout the day. Emerging from Sunday mass, meeting at their local bar, all polarized in their destination, filled with anticipation, their chatter not dissimilar to daily life. While the peloton traces its way magnetically, an amoebic formation pushed and pulled through the increasing maze of hysteria, the spectators sing their celebratory purpose, accenting their devotion to the hours ahead. What will unfold on this holy ground, that of the sacred ascension, is what earns the Muur its rightful position in the pantheon of cycling, of Flanders.
There is a wonderful transference that occurs on the Muur. The nervousness, the concentration, the burden of expectation is handed-off one by one by the lead riders as they pass, a release of their strain from the previous 242 kilometers, and is willfully consumed by the spectators, grabbed for, lunged at, swallowed. The relaxed anticipation that drifted across the cobbles for most of their Sunday has dissipated, replaced by a vise like grip of nervous anticipation left behind by the riders. A day’s wait is consumed in a flash of brilliance fueled by a maniacal grin that speaks of victory. As the bulging eyes of opportunity give way to the hollow stares of defeat, the processional that is the peloton methodically weaves its way up the Muur, the shrill sounds of the crowd replaced now with proud applause, a standing ovation if you will.
In 2008, as the Tour of Flanders approached the left hand bend towards the steepest pitches of the Muur, Quick Step rider Stijn Devolder devoured the impossibly narrow stretch of cobbles. Parading elegantly in his Sunday best- the colors of the Belgian national champion- his eyes bulged with anticipation, hovering over a fearsomely maniacal grin that spoke of the pleasure that shakes hands with the pain. It was as if he was actually chasing an ignited fuse, taunting it to explode under him. The jesters in the audience, the men and women, old and young erupted in a choreographed howl, showering him with encouragement, filling him with rage and inspiring him to victory. It would be 23 minutes before he would be crowned the king of Belgium. This all happened in less than 6 seconds.
Photo Courtesy: Jered Gruber