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
I remember the day I first saw a pair of Spooky brakes: the place was Amsterdam, I had a layover coming back from France and some time to do some exploring. Tucked away in the corner of the market square was a small shop. Entering the shop was quite memorable: the shop was tiny and dirty with the usual inventory you would find in the states. But hanging on a hook near the rear of the shop was a used set of Mafac-looking cantilever brakes. I asked the Dutch shop keeper if he was selling them. The shop keeper smiled and said, “cross is good ya!” Smiling, I said, “yea, it’s good,” as I headed out the door clutching a used set of the unique Spooky brakes paying 25 euro.
Since that day, I have often wondered where these great cross brakes were made, and who made them. We are all familair with the usual cross brakes out there, Empella Frog legs, SRP Mr. Grumpy, and the newer TRP brakes. but for some mysterious reason, my curiosity for Spooky never waned. After I all this time, I decided to do a little research and contact Vladimir from Tufo North America, the distributor for Spooky in the States. Vladimir was garcious enough to give me the contact info for the man who came up with the brand. I fired off an email to Harrie and the result: a rare interview and some great insight into Harrie Van Der Burgt, the inventor of Spooky brand brakes.
TK: Harrie, how did you come up with the name Spooky?
Harrie: The name Spooky came up after I designed the logo.
I just put together two brakes and we had a logo. We are self-made men at Spooky brakes.
TK: Who were the founders of Spooky? What is the history of Spooky?
Harrie: Dick van der Bruggen and I were, and are, the only two people that make Spooky brakes. I am in cyclo-cross for more than 25 year as a rider; Dick is my best friend and also a rider. I had the idea after reading about pro riders that had a very expensive bike with polished old Mafac brakes that they used every year again.
We contacted Richard Groenendaal and he used them from day one of Spooky brakes. We also worked together with Empella on the early frog leg brakes, which we also produced. After two seasons, Empella went to Taiwan without telling us. We decided not to put negative energy in fighting them, but put all positive energy in Spooky.
In the first season of SPOOKY 1999/2000 Richard Groenendaal won the world championship here in the Netherlands. Many riders, shops, and pro teams used the brakes in the years after that victory. A few years ago more and more copies appeared on the market and we lost the market to cheap produced Asian brake sets. Still in the Netherlands, we are the guys that started up all brakes after the Mafacs. The carbon brakes were the last item they copied; now we only supply some teams and friends. Richard Groenendaal is our all time favorite in cyclo-cross and we see him often at the races.
TK: How are they made and where are they produced?
Harrie: We make the brakes ourselves after getting the separate parts together from specific suppliers we work together with.
All Brake sets are made in the Netherlands, and all parts designed by Dick.
TK: How did you come up with such a unique design for the straddle cable hangar?
Harrie: The straddle carrier was a design from me, as there was a request from our distributor to include it in a set of brakes. It needed to be simple to make and give an own look to our brakes, I think that has worked, I called it LEA Light Eccentric Adaptor, but LEA is the name of my sister that died in 2000 of cancer and I took her name and tried to find logical words for the letters L E and A. She was always there when I was doing the cyclo-cross races and I still miss her. This way I see her name everywhere on the internet and other places where the Spooky brakes are.
TK: What PRO teams are riding them?
Harrie: At the moment, Rabobank and AA Drink teams use the brakes.
Thanks to Vladimir and Harrie for taking the time to speak with BKW, and for the kind words and the photos!
Spooky brakes are available through Vladimir at Tufo North America:
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