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.
Unless you’re going uphill, 25.8 kilometers is not a very long distance in the world of cycling, especially when it makes up a small portion of a 262 kilometer race. While each of the monuments of cycling can be defined by its age, the true spirit of a classic for me is that one section of the race course that forces a selection, elicits a response from the contenders, speaks to us in that recognizable language with all the familiar vocabulary that says this is why I watch; this is what I wait all winter for; these are the visions I have when I close my eyes on those long, lonely rides in the cold, the wet, the days that hurt, that I am unaware of the reasons why I am a cyclist. And it is these very same roads, these locations that welcome me when I arrive, when there is that memory recall of those months before.
For cycling’s monuments, there is a soundtrack in my mind that animates the visual. For Milan-Sanremo, the critical section of the race is the climb of the Poggio and the Cipressa that leads to the sprint, that brief moment when nearly 300 kilometers is condensed into 200 meters of speed and fury. It is during this section the chorus of one’s heart pounds so loudly it drowns out the tifosi. Desperation comes in two forms here, one from the bravest who attempts to steal the race as he launches himself off the front, the other from the favorite wrinkling under the intensity, giving one last desperate attempt to stay in contact, to keep pace. Sean Kelly and Moreno Argentin have each written their own music to this, and one has the lyrics of a triumphant fight song, the other a single word to accompany Taps.
Anyone can tell you Paris-Roubaix begins in earnest at the entry to the Arenberg Forest. The hell that is unleashed in 2,400 meters is a cacophony of noise unheard anywhere else. The rest mimics the fiercest sounds of battle that ravaged the landscape so many decades ago. Liège-Bastogne-Liège- a race that no man has ever won on luck- elicits the sound of a man’s will slowly crumbling under the constant pressure, until it has dissolved into dust. The winner has succeeded in turning this dust into gold. And while the Giro di Lombardia closes the fall classics season, its sound is as definitive and haunting as the fallen leaves that cover the roads. The church bells at the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel ring as the first rider crests the climb, announcing the commencement of service that will last 70 kilometers. I’ve heard the bells of Saint Peter’s announce the Pope and I’ve attended Easter mass at the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. I’ve been woken many mornings from the sound of small town church bells. The ring from the Ghisallo is as beautiful a sound as I’ve ever heard from a church steeple.
As March ushers in the beginning of the Classics season, there is a beautiful parallel that I embrace that can be drawn between the sounds that accompany the races and the sounds that emanate from nature. Nature’s sheet music is perfectly written with the operatic songs of birds, their stage decorated with the perfume aromas of budding flowers. Opening the curtains on spring, there is an awakening from an insulated slumber whose last remnant is the dwindling smell of a smoldering fire. The sounds and senses of winter turning into spring is triggered by nature’s alarm clock, and brings forth the races that have come to define the term Spring Classics. Each great race has its own title track. For some it is masterfully crafted music, for others it’s the spine shattering sound of scratching fingernails on a blackboard. There is an emotional orchestration that is scripted to match the physical composition. Each piece is played to its own rhythm, and played with a vision of the overall.
For me, the beauty of the Tour of Flanders lies in a 25.8 kilometer stretch that has as much in its orchestration as there is in the improvisation provided by the riders. I have no idea if Karel Van Wijnendaele, the creator of the Tour of Flanders, was a listener of great music, but he has his box seat for a one man audience of his composition, played in front of him on the same stage, with different animators each year. The gently arched monument bearing his bust sits on a perch on the Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat, close to the Flanders/Wallonia border, with open arms embracing his riders and his countryside, and its solid, unscripted stone back defiantly defining the boundary of what is purely Flemish and what is clearly not.
If the first 160 kilometers of this race is the opening set, then the second set begins with six climbs that are introduced with the Oude Kwaremont, and followed in rapid succession by the Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg and Eikenberg. This six song set, a bridge, a transition that takes the show, the music, the players, from the orchestrated to the improvised, the best of the musicians confidently taking turns at the front, firmly embedding the viewers, the listeners onto the edge of their seats. It is during these six climbs that the race transitions from a show to a concert, from a celebration to a ritual, from an event that will be to a race that is. There are the highs and lows, the rhythmic pieces, the powerful pieces, the transitional moments that take this from one stage in the composition to the next.
The Oude Kwaremont is first, as it reaches to touch the monument of Van Wijnendaele. 2,516 meters of asphalt and cobbles, and its pace is never hurried, but always with a strong start as the approval of Van Wijnendaele is sought. It’s as if the race and its riders are performing in his shadow, paying homage to its creator with their first effort before moving forward to script their own version. The sound of speed defines the next two kilometers to the Paterberg. A short burst of power, condensed to 360 meters rising sharply over bone rattling cobbles. The next six kilometers sees moderation, a chance for the players to put their instruments down for a few minutes while the background tempo resonates. The surge of intensity returns as the 2,100 meter Mariaborrestraat introduces to the crowd the Steenbeekdries, a 761 meter cobbled ensemble whose lively chorus is the clattering descent of the Stationsberg. The 533 meters of the Taaienberg is stretched for maximum effect, its slowly dissolving grade keeps the intensity of the pace flowing. The Eikenberg, at 1,252 meters, reminds me of that song that is minutes longer when performed live than on the studio version. No it is not the finale, only the final piece that has set the stage for the performers to shine. From here, some will step aside, others will fall away, and one will step up, for the finale. He will perform the encore, and embrace the reception of a standing ovation.
It is the sound that goes with the relentless fury that animates the emotions I feel as these races finally arrive and when I experience them live. And this is what animates my emotions each time I straddle my bike, sink onto my saddle and enter the timeless realm that is this wonderful sensation I know to be cycling.
In 1980, Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle finished 2nd to former World Champion Francesco Moser in Paris-Roubaix. The 25 year old Duclos-Lasalle withstood constant attacks from the Italian in the closing stages before finally conceding. Sometimes steely resolve alone cannot change the course of history. While Moser went on to win his third consecutive Queen of the Classics by nearly two minutes, Duclos-Lasalle would come up empty as a Paris-Roubaix favorite for another eleven years. While each year his target was victory, what he did not plan was how his destiny would be written, from being second best in his youth to the oldest winner in history. While one victory is enough for many, Duclos-Lasalle said he still felt the desire to race, and to win, and to prove his point, he defended his title in 1993. The man he beat that April Sunday was Franco Ballerini. Clearly the stronger rider, the 27 year old Ballerini was outwitted in the sprint by the more experienced Frenchman. The photo finish declared Duclos-Lasalle a winner by eight centimeters. After having raised his arms in triumph, Ballerini was inconsolable as second best. When asked by a reporter if he had made any errors, a distraught Ballerini replied “yes, I made the mistake of becoming a bike racer.”
In the 1990 Paris-Roubaix, Steve Bauer lost to Eddy Planckaert in a photo finish. He never came close to winning Paris-Roubaix again. Each year is a new opportunity for a rider to start with a clean slate, to change their history, to rewrite their fate in the record books. A rider can cement his legacy, or create one, with one historic ride across the stones that connect Compiegne to Roubaix. Paris-Roubaix does not need to rely on poetry to market itself. It lays dormant all but one day a year, rising up the second Sunday of every April to mock those riders who avoid it, and unleash a storm of brutality on those who dare tread on it. It is often said that to win Paris-Roubaix you need to rely on good luck and pray you don’t suffer from bad luck. But what of the man who is unsatisfied with his legacy? What if he consciously decides it is up to him to change his destiny, luck or not, and redefine his place in history?
After his narrow defeat, how many nights did Franco Ballerini lay in bed staring at the ceiling, wondering if he had what it took to face Roubaix again, and would he ever have another shot at victory. He could hear the demons whispering, asking him what he would do the next time he flats at a crucial moment, or finds himself in the winning break. What if you have to sprint for victory again, Franco? Is luck, good and bad, just a part of Roubaix, or do the real champions develop a mindful approach and create that winning scenario in their head, turning disaster into victory? How many times can tactics be second guessed, strength analyzed, and weaknesses criticized when missing out on what at the time may seem like your one chance at etching your name into history. Would the sport forever remember Franco Ballerini’s 2nd place photo finish as his almost moment?
In 1995, the Mapei-GB team had an all-star roster at the start of Paris-Roubaix that included Johan Museeuw, fresh off his second win in the Tour of Flanders and the undisputed captain; Andrea Tafi was beginning to show signs of strength that would net him victories in Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, the Giro di Lombardia and Paris-Tours over the next eight seasons; Gianluca Bortolami was the defending World Cup champion and Wilfried Peeters was the ever faithful lieutenant. Ballerini had woken from his nightmare and managed to finish 3rd in the 1994 Paris-Roubaix, and was again looking for his shot at redemption. He seized his moment on this day, and rose above the mental blocks and the nightmares of two years earlier. He took control of the race, and his destiny. I remember receiving the first issue of VeloNews following his victory. A glorious photo of Ballerini graced the cover, alone in the dust and on the cobbles, on his way to cementing his legacy in a race he had dreamt of winning since he watched Francesco Moser on TV in 1980.
Perhaps there is some analogy to be taken from this, some higher meaning. Can riding this course that we know as l’Enfer du Nord be considered a redemptive pilgrimage, an annual penance through purgatory? Each sector methodically removes more sin, the suffering across the minefields slowly purifying the rider until reaching the holy waters of the Roubaix velodrome, the vestige of its winners glistening from the stalls where the finishers weep. After this symbolic cleansing, are we not now ready to face any challenge? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Even the devil has a hard time glorifying hell.
When Ballerini rode his final race in 2001, it was fittingly Paris-Roubaix, and it was for Mapei. He finished 32nd, 8:13 behind winner Servais Knaven. As he crossed the finish line in the Roubaix velodrome, he unzipped his jersey to reveal his undershirt that read “Merci Roubaix”. This was his chance to say goodbye, to thank his supporters, those who never lost faith that he would return and win, to those who felt the heartbreak of those eight centimeters. He had been to hell and back, had felt the heartbreak of losing, and ultimately seized the chance at rewriting history in the race that would ultimately come to define his career as a rider. His untimely death has taken away the opportunity to say goodbye to him, to thank him and to let him know we never lost faith in him. For me, the legacy is Franco Ballerini, 2-time winner of Paris-Roubaix. And that is forever. Merci, Franco.
In discussing our affection for and dedication to the Spring Classics, I shared with Radio Freddy how my local winter can so easily keep me inside, but when it comes to Belgium, there is no combination of weather patterns that can keep me from attending the Classics, with 2010 being my 8th consecutive year. Each December every effort is made to wade through the constant deluge of meaningless newsflashes to find something, however minute it may be, to catch my attention. Pure speculation does not make for worthwhile reading. Fortunately, amidst the mind-numbing reality of facing a cold New York winter, I didn’t have to search far for something to grasp onto.
While the heavy rain slashed against my window for a second consecutive day, I received an email from my friend at the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad with details on the 2010 Tour of Flanders and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (formerly and still known to me as Het Volk). The course map looked like a first graders art project-complete with numbered and colored triangles. During an interview with Het Nieuwsblad before last year’s Tour of Flanders, I was asked what motivates me to come to Belgium each spring for an event that is so nationalistically Belgian. I explained that for me, the Tour of Flanders is the most beautiful of the Classics. While Paris-Roubaix is unmatched in its uniqueness, the Tour of Flanders certainly, in so many aspects, stands alone.
The 94th Tour of Flanders is 255 kilometers and includes 15 climbs, 9 of which are cobbled and an additional 13.6 kilometers of kasseien- Flemish for cobbles. In 2009, the race was 260.7 kilometers and included 16 climbs (9 cobbled) and covered 21.6 kilometers of cobbles. Sure, less pavé is disappointing, but unlike Roubaix, Flanders is not won on the cobbles. Victory comes on the hills, and the ability to endure the pain it requires to conquer them in rapid succession.
This year the race action begins after the Dorp van De Ronde in Desselgem, the ceremonial village of the race that is awarded to a different town each year. First comes the 1800 meter cobbles of the Huisepontweg, and the climb of the Den Ast, before heading to Zingem, and then towards Oudenaarde. But this is where the race takes a different twist. Instead of its usual route to the Molenberg, which is sometimes preceded by the Lippenhoevenstraat, Paddestraat and Kerkgate cobbles and then the Wolvenberg, this year’s route skips this processional and heads far to the southwest across the 2000 meter Varentstraat cobbles to the edge of Flanders and Wallonia and the Kluisberg and Knokteberg climbs. It then reconnects to the familiar route from the Oude Kwaremont to the Eikenberg. This includes the Paterberg, Koppenberg, Mariaborrestraat, Steenbeekdries and Taaienberg, and is as beautiful a stretch of road as exists in bike racing. Traditionally, the race will next climb the Boigneberg or Varentberg, before the Haeghoek cobbles, which leads to the Leberg. Sometimes the Steenberg and Foreest climbs are included here, but not since 2005. Instead, following the Eikenberg, the race will head onto the Holleweg cobbles (which is typically ridden at the end of the Kerkgate cobbles, which typically comes after the Molenberg and before the Wolvenberg- got all that?)
From here, the race will follow the narrow undulating roads that criss cross the Flemish Ardennes, where the riders will cover the first half of the Kerkgate cobbles in the slightly uphill direction to the village of Mater, before heading to the Molenberg.
The Molenberg traditionally causes a panic in the peloton. The sharp turn to enter the narrow cobble track benefits those who get there first, and penalizes those who don’t. At this point in the race-208 kilometers- it will be even more important to stay at the front, and any correction that is made over the Molenberg may cause a permanent split. At the top of the Molenberg, the race goes right instead of left, twists and climbs past Peter Van Petegem’s house, and enters the Haeghoek cobbles. This is the same approach as the Middelkerke-Zottegem stage of the 3 Days of De Panne.
The village of Brakel is the fourth in a series of important centers that links the race, following Bruges, Desselgem and Oudenaarde, and preceding Geraardsbergen. The Valkenberg was reintroduced in 2005 after an eight year hiatus, sandwiched between the Berendries/Tenbosse duo, which has been paired since 1997. This year, the course will bypass the Valkenberg and the Eikenmolen, which has played into the strengths of Stijn Devolder each of the past two years. This has been replaced with the traditional route through Parike on the way to Geraardsbergen and the Muur, the Bosberg and the final 10 kilometers to Meerbeke.
So what does all this mean? The inclusion of the Kluisberg and Knokteberg before the Oude Kwaremont will loosen the legs before the succession of cobbled climbs. The twist after the Eikenberg is interesting, as it places more significance on the Molenberg, and a faster execution across the Holleweg/Kerkgate cobbles. A flat or mechanical on either of these two sections and it could be too difficult to reconnect. The other major change is the exclusion of the Valkenberg and the Eikenmolen. The combination of climbs provides just the right amount of tricky terrain to keep the pace high and the race interesting. Too many climbs and the middle ones are neutralized. Too few, and the race isn’t hard enough for the top riders to show their strength and force a selection. The finale now places more weight on the Tenbosse, the scene of Johan Museeuw’s blistering attack in 1998. By eliminating the Eikenmolen it places more attention on the race’s centerpiece, the Muur. My guess is we will see a dozen riders enter Geraardsbergen together, and half that will regroup by the Bosberg. Perhaps an attack on the run in to Meerbeke, ala Tafi in 2002 or Boonen in 2005, or we may be treated to a 3-up sprint, like 1999 with Museeuw, Van Petegem and Vandenbroucke.
Thinking about the noise that builds in the village of Geraardsbergen, the crazed excitement of the fans as the first riders appear and the ensuing cheers for any Belgian rider, all helps to motivate me through the following months. As for the promoter’s intention, and the possibilities that it presents, for me, this is speculation well worth thinking about. Next up, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.