When the now defunct Belgian newspaper Het Volk first organized Omloop Het Volk in 1945 to capitalize on the growing popularity of bicycling racing in Belgium, and the Tour of Flanders specifically- started by rival sports daily SportsWereld-it did not intend its image to develop into that of a preparatory race for the more famous Ronde. But it has successfully established itself as De Ronde’s little brother, and proudly opens the race calendar in Belgium, and the classics season, at the end of every February.
While the region of Flanders is approximately 30,000 square kilometers, the heart of cycling in the Flemish Ardennes comprises a considerably smaller area. Inside the natural and man made borders- the E40 highway on the northern edge, the E429 on the southern edge, the Dender River to the East and the Schelde River to the West-one can draw a rectangle connecting the towns of Zottegem, Oudenaarde, Ronse and Geraardsbergen. This tiny area of 240 square kilometers is the beating heart of all things cycling in Belgium. If a bike race wants to amount to anything in Flanders, it will lead its riders on a chase across and over the most demanding terrain inside these boundaries, and the 2010 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad does exactly that.
Partnered with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the final weekend of February doesn’t as much ease into the classics racing season as it slams head first into it. Over the next five weeks, every race is in preparation for the biggest races in April, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Very few riders have found success in the April monuments without having suffered through the cold, rain and snow of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Dwars door Vlaanderen, de Vlaamse Pijl, Gent-Wevelgem and the 3 Days of de Panne. While there is no direct formula to predict what races provide the best preparation, what it does show is that in order to excel, one must be wholly committed to racing the northern spring classics.
The early season form needed to race well in the Omloop can translate into a successful spring campaign for the most ambitious, and hardened, specialists. While no rider has ever won the Tour of Flanders and Het Volk in the same year, of the eight times the same rider has finished second in the Omloop and then gone on to finish on the podium in the Ronde, five of those have been winners, including Dutchman Jan Raas twice, in 1979 and 1983. Coming into form too quickly, however, seems to be a jinx. Of the six times a rider has won the Omloop and done the podium of the Ronde, he has failed to do the double. Eddy Merckx, Peter Van Petegem and Johan Museeuw are the only riders to win each multiple times. A wholly Belgian affair? Consider this: only eight non-Belgian riders have won the Omloop- three Italian, three Dutch, one Irish and one Norwegian. For some, the cobbles are in their blood.
When the Belgian daily newspaper Het Nieuwsblad assumed control of Het Volk in 2008, and hence the organization of the race, it brought the finish back to Gent, where it has started every year, and where it finished until 1995. From 1996-2007, the race finished in Lokeren, and typically created a less than exciting finish. With 12 climbs and six sections of cobbles packed into 110 of the final 129 kilometers, the race now dares those with aspirations in April to come to Gent prepared. Some will hold form, others will flame out. The best will animate the Classics looking to etch their names into the history books.
The 65th Omloop is 204 kilometers with five of its 12 climbs on cobbles with an additional 12.3 kilometers of cobbled roads. With the most exciting part of the race coming over 110 kilometers, the final 60 kilometers will be explosive. The race also runs in a different sequence than the Ronde. While the typical procession in the Tour of Flanders that is the Haeghoek cobbles (2000 meters), Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg (absent in the 2010 RVV) Tenbosse, Eikenmolen (also absent from the RVV) and the Muur van Geraardsbergen is its finale, for the Omloop this represents climbs 1-6 with the Muur coming with 95 kilometers remaining. Where the cobbled sections are spread throughout the Ronde, five of the seven sections in the Omloop come in the final 50 kilometers. The Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Wolvenberg and Molenberg come over 16 kilometers and also includes the Donderij (1100 meters) and Holleweg cobbles (2400 meters). The riders then have the Paddestraat (2400 m) and Lippenhoevenstraat (1300 m) in the slightly uphill, more difficult direction followed by the Lange Munte (2500 m) with 20 kilometers to go. While Flanders forces the strongest riders to explode on the final hills to make their decisive move stick, the Omloop is not all about the hills, and this is a pleasant change to the parcours.
Another crucial factor is the weather. The race was cancelled in 1996 and 2004 due to bad weather. Wind, cold, wet and snow are always part of the race, and always a threat to dictate the outcome. The list of hard men who have won the Omloop is a testament to that notion. I asked Peter Van Petegem if it was difficult getting motivated to race such a difficult course so early in the season. “I’m Flemish, so no, it was not difficult. I dreamt of these races growing up in Brakel, and I am proud to have won it three times. But you’ve got to love the stones, eh?”
While a race of 200 kilometers is considered a semi classic, the Omloop breaks down pretty simply- 75 kilometers to warm up and get into the heart of the Flemish Ardennes. 12 climbs and 11.5 kilometers of cobbles over 110 kilometers to wear down your opponents, reel in the break, then launch an attack. Then a final 20 kilometers to make it stick. It’s a wise to move to bet against a group hitting the Sint-Pietersplein together.
I remember buying a copy of VeloNews in early March in 1996. Tom Steels was on the cover after winning Het Volk in atrocious conditions. The start of the Spring Classics had been won by a Belgian hard man. This represented to me a passage from winter to spring, and the early beginnings of another glorious season of cycling. These images have inspired me to ride during the cold winters that have followed since and push my tolerance for harsh conditions to higher levels. There is no better place to be than Belgium in the spring time, even when spring comes early.
The Climbs of the 2010 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Climb Length Avg. Max Surface
1. Leberg 1130 meters 3% 13% paved
2. Berendries 936 meters 7% 12% paved
3. Valkenberg 537 meters 8% 12% paved
4. Tenbosse 453 meters 6% 8% paved
5. Eikenmolen 610 meters 5% 12% paved
6. Muur van Geraardsbergen 1075 meters 9% 20% cobbles
7. Pottelberg 1300 meters 6.5% 7.5% paved
8. Kruisberg 1875 meters 4% 9% cobbles
9. Taaienberg 530 meters 6% 15% cobbles
10. Eikenberg 1252 meters 5% 9% cobbles
11. Wolvenberg 800 meters 4% 17% paved
12. Molenberg 462 meters 7% 14% cobbles
Peter Easton has attended the Spring Classics every year since 2003. Catch up with him on the road with Velo Classic Tours and one of his ten itineraries to the Classics: www.veloclassic.com
Photo Courtesy: Cor Vos ©2000 via Sabine Sunderland
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.
The Climbs of the 2010 Tour of Flanders
Climb Length Avg. Max Surface
1. Den Ast 450 meters 5% 11% paved
2. Kluisberg 925 meters 7% 14% paved
3. Knokteberg 1260 meters 7% 13% paved
4. Oude Kwaremont 2500 meters 3% 11% cobbles
5. Paterberg 361 meters 12% 20% cobbles
6. Koppenberg 682 meters 9% 22% cobbles
7. Steenbeekdries 700 meters 5% 9% cobbles
8. Taaienberg 530 meters 6% 15% cobbles
9. Eikenberg 1252 meters 5% 9% cobbles
10. Molenberg 462 meters 7% 14% cobbles
11. Leberg 1130 meters 3% 13% paved
12. Berendries 936 meters 7% 12% paved
13. Tenbosse 453 meters 6% 8% paved
14. Muur van Geraardsbergen 1075 meters 9% 20% cobbles
15. Bosberg 986 meters 5% 10% cobbles
Mons-en-Pevele is listed as sector 10 on the race map of Paris-Roubaix. The 3,000 meters of pavé begins after 210.5 kilometers of racing. From the end, 45 kilometers remain to the velodrome in Roubaix. It is rated five stars, but don’t let the star rating fool you, all the sectors are difficult. It is here, across the repetitive and barren fields of this sector that my feeling of solitude sinks to one of isolation and loneliness. The fatigue that dissipated temporarily on the paved roads is gnawing at me constantly. My helmet feels too tight, and my shoes feel too small. I’ve anticipated this moment since my ride began 40 kilometers before the Arenberg Forest. I locate the barn near the end of the track, but no farmer. Bales of hay litter the field, but there are no tractors. A dog barks behind a fence, but I don’t see any people.
There is a distinct difference between solitude and loneliness. I enjoy the feelings that accompany my solitude when I choose to ride alone. Even during the long and difficult ascents of the Alps and the Dolomites, I can calculate my effort and ration my resources. There is a certain comfort that comes with finding a level of pain that is manageable and when the pain increases, I always have the scenery to distract me from my senses. But this calculation of effort, rationing of resources and strength, the distractions, this is not part of riding Paris-Roubaix. It’s just not possible.
Riding the pavé is lonely. There is no warning, and the loneliness arrives at the most inopportune moments. I’ve hallucinated, bit my tongue and ridden so slow my speed can only be described as a crawl. I’ve spewed unimaginable curses from my blood stained lips, barely audible above the chattering and clanging of my bike. I’ve shivered uncontrollably at being too cold, and sweated profusely at being too hot. I can’t satiate my hunger or quench my thirst. This ride mocks my cycling skills; it dares me to go faster then rewards me by thrusting more pain through my body. The start list is reserved for 192 riders, some who live for this race, many who would rather be somewhere else. If riding in the Tour de France is a badge of courage, then riding Paris-Roubaix is the Purple Heart.
Many of the well-known cobbled sectors of Flanders -the Paddestraat, Lippenhoeventsraat and the Haeghoek to name a few- all serve local traffic on a daily basis. The Lange Munte is a national road. These cobbles are difficult, but their size and pattern are contiguous. They are laid in a repetitive pattern, each stone cut and sized precisely so it can be hand set by a mason. The stones that make up the sectors of pavé of Paris-Roubaix are large and rough cut, laid randomly across a path to provide traction for farm equipment. There are large areas where some stones have sunken inches, while others have heaved. There are gutters, swales, uneven crowns, enormous gaps and gaping holes. It feels like at any moment something evil is going to spring from its underworld, grab hold of my front wheel and drag me under. Once on the stones of Roubaix, you wish you were back on the cobbles of Flanders.
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.
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. I regularly ask myself what is the attraction? What is the reason behind my choosing loneliness and isolation? I’m both blessed and cursed with an innate desire to equate my own abilities with the numerous single day race courses of the Classics and at my own mental and physical level, understand the pain that is inflicted across, in this case, 257 kilometers that purposefully look for the most demented roads of Northern France. After all, there are dozens of mountain passes to climb, but there is only one Paris-Roubaix.
It is this singularity, this oddity that I believe is its allure. The majestic mountain peaks of the Pyrénées or the Alps are the attraction of the L’Etape, for instance, and of course, the Tour de France. Locals and tourists alike, wiling away their time on a hot summer day, enjoying a French tradition that is as important as the wine and cheese they make. Much like the biggest tour stages, these days are transient, and only relate to the mountain tops they finish on for that day. Next year the story will be some other peak, and after so many years, I do not remember what stage was won by whom atop which mountain. But Paris-Roubaix remains unchanged. Riding the course always remains an option. There is no hype; no one will exclude you; there is no deadline for registration; no training weekends to prepare for it, and no vintage bike or retro wool clothing to wear. Come as you are, when you want, good luck and Godspeed; you’re going to need it.
I’ve had the fortune of lifting the Paris-Roubaix trophy over my head. It weighs 33 kilograms. I commented to 2003 winner Peter Van Petegem that there is a certain indignity in making the winner lift a 33 kilogram stone after having just spent hours riding over thousands of them. “Ah, but when you win, you feel nothing” was his response. To feel nothing. Maybe that is why I ride it.
In the summer of 2008, BKW had the opportunity to sit down with the 2004 Australian Road Racing Champion and cobbles fanatic, Matthew “Matty” Wilson, to talk about his career and his love for the Spring Classics. Matty has raced for a wide range of teams, including Mercury-Viatel, Francaise des Jeux, Unibet, and the U.S. Domestic team Team Type 1. Matty has seen his share of high profile victories over the course of his career, but his biggest win to-date may be his most recent offer from the boys in argyle to return to the cobbles after a two-year stint racing in the U.S. Matty’s specific role will be to support the Garmin-Transitions Classics squad.
During our interview with Matty, his passion for the Spring Classics was as obvious as his desire to return to a European race schedule. Matty’s descriptions of life as a Classics racer were deep and insightful, serving up an even greater appreciation for life in Belgium during Springtime and what it means to be an opportunist.
BKW: You have raced both Grand Tours (Tour, Giro) and the Spring Classics. Which do you prefer?
MW: The Classics, for sure. The Belgian Spring Classics have always been fascinating to me, since I was a little kid. If I were to make a career for me in the U.S., the Spring Classics are the thing I would miss most.
BKW: What was a typical spring campaign like for you?
MW: It started with Dwars door Vlaanderen, a sort of kick-off race. I will head to Belgium and spend 6-8 weeks riding the roads. In Belgium, the fans are different. There cycling is the hugest sport; it’s in the papers and on the television and the fans want to come up and talk with you. It’s a great feeling being a cyclist during that time of year.
BKW: Is it tough to make the transition from the summer warmth of Australia to the early spring cold of Belgium?
MW: For me, it’s tough…the change in the time zones, the change in temperature, and always within two weeks of arriving, I get sick. I know it will happen, it is just a matter of time. I get sick once, then right before the Classics again; it’s a running thing of sickness for me during that time of year. I guess it’s the cold weather, something in the air. A lot of guys have trouble like that.
BKW: What are your favorite Classics?
MW: Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I think Flanders is my favorite, but Paris-Roubaix is a very close second.
BKW: Which suits you better?
MW: Probably, Flanders.
BKW: What factors make it better for you?
MW: I like the atmosphere and the little climbs. For me, it’s more of an opportunist ride, one where I can ride in a good position and get over the toughest parts. You don’t necessarily have to be the strongest guy. Roubaix is similar, but you need a lot of horse power to get over the cobbled sections, which if you’re not naturally born with it, then your really at a disadvantage.
BKW: You always hear people talk about the physique and metal toughness that are key for a Roubaix winner. Everyone always says, “He’s got the build,” but few ever say what it is. What does the Roubaix build look like?
MW: People say you need to be a big guy to ride the pave, but that’s not necessarily true. I think you need to be able to put out the horse power for 5-6 minutes over pave. Small guys can do it, but typically that’s better-suited to a big, heavy rider—more like a Cancellara, Boonen, Museeuw, Backstedt—big guys with a lot of horse power on the flats.
BKW: Do you prefer hot and sunny conditions, like the most recent conditions of Paris Roubaix, or the nasty, 1994-like conditions?
MW: It’s love-hate. It’s better for me if the conditions are nasty, you lose half the field right away because they don’t like it, then another half to crashes, which can be an advantage. As an opportunist, the only chance I have is if others fall off…if you sit back a bit and take a better line, you can survive. But you never wake up hoping it’s raining. Some guys might, but I’m hoping it’s going to be nice weather. You don’t want to crash, but everyone is in the same position.
BKW: When you line up for a race and there are clear favorites, what is your strategy and what are you looking for? Do you mark those riders who are favorites? How does the race play out and how do you identify when a move will stick?
MW: You need to look at your team. If you’re in a strong team with 1 or 2 guys who can stay with the favorites when the hammer goes down, then those guys are the guys to protect and they will mark the good guys. Once it goes full-gas, there are only 8-10 guys who can go that speed. But from an opportunist point of view, it does not make sense to mark Tom Boonen or Ballan because when they go, I can’t go with them. But as an opportunist, it is key to get into an early move or a break and try to get away from them.
BKW: Over your years in cycling, have you looked up to anyone as a role model or had any mentors?
MW: While at Française des Jeux I rode with Frédéric Guesdon and Christophe Mengin, two french riders who are specialists in those types of races. Guesdon won Roubaix in ’97; but the pair of them have always been in the Top 20. They are so crafty and I learned a lot from them. When I was younger, Johan Museuew was the rider everyone wanted to be and the rider you tried to emulate. But it’s not good trying to emulate riders if you don’t have that ability because you can’t win the race in the same way, you have find your own way to win. Jacky Durand was a rider who never had any special abilities, but he knew what he could do and he took his chances and when I see a guy like that win, I say if he can do it so can I. He’s a smart rider and he takes his chances on the long breakaways. I learned from him how to ride a breakaway, he would attack in the beginning and get a gap then sit up and let the teams work at the front to bring him back. The teams would take 2-3 minutes out of his lead and then let off because they were bringing him back too fast. He would literally play with them, staying in reserve until the final kilometers and letting the teams think they had him under control. Then, when he takes off, the teams realize they have made a mistake and it’s too late.
BKW: How many Flanders have you started?
BKW: In the prep before the race, do you follow any special routines?
MW: Every rider has routines. Cyclists are very habitual; you’re always in different environments and different hotels so you try to create a system where you do the sames things every day, even though you’re in a different place. It’s nothing scientific; it’s more habit and head games.
MW: I am addicted to eye masks and ear plugs. People are always snoring and there are so many different noises in hotel rooms, so I use them so the environment is always the same.
BKW: What special gear do you use when the conditions are cold and wet?
MW: I use woolen socks and rubber shoe covers. I have a great pair of Nalini covers from years ago and I’ve worn them in all the Classics because they keep my feet warm and dry. You get tricks from other riders. You see someone do something and you say that’s a great idea, and you begin to use it. I remember Frank Vandenbroucke used to use knee warmers and he’d cut them off shorter because your knees were not cold, but your quads were, so he’d have an extra layer over the quads.
The time we spent with Matty flew by and during our discussion, he was putting away bowl after of bowl of pasta in prep for the day’s race. Aside from Matty’s victories and love for the Classics, he is also a Hodgkins Disease survivor. Following his diagnosis and recovery, Matty’s career took off. Matty was a joy to speak with and, although only a portion of the interview is presented here, his passion for the Spring Classics and cycling was emphatic.
A special thank you goes out to D.R. for his assistance in lining up this interview and for use of his space to make it happen.