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My Tour of the Belgian and French countryside

Before I get into my recent trip across the pond to view Flanders, Gent Wevelgem, and Paris Roubaix, I apologize for not posting during or after the races. Without laptop access and with the time crunch of riding, sightseeing, and generally soaking up the local scene, I miscalculated what it would really take to cover these races in detail. But, if you care to read further I'll give you a summary of our adventures and post some photos later this week.

Without further adieu.................

I touched down in Paris on Saturday morning and was dutifully picked up by my friend Paul (old friend and local resident). After spending the night in Paris it was off to Gent, Belgium first thing Sunday morning. We dropped of our stuff at the hotel and inquired of the manager "is the weather going to be good today?". His reply (with raised eyebrows)"In Belgium?" Right, stupid question. Carry on.

We decided to go to Geraardsbergen to the legendary Muur, a 1.5K cobbled monster with a 20% pitch near the top. We staked out our position on the hill opposite the 20% grade and settled in, 3 hours before the race was due to come past. I won't boor you with the details, but cycling fans over there treat this like Super Bowl Sunday - but more so. As the race got closer we heard through our neighbors that Boonen (pronounced like 'Bonen') and Hoste (pronounced like 'host') had broken away. As they approached the crowd absolutely roared, I can't put it any better than that. We roared too (for Hoste). Supposedly Boonen was riding in the 53, and while I can't confirm that, the speed that they went up the climb was otherworldly. I mean they just blew past us probably at around 15-16 mph. Paul and I climbed it the next day at around 6-7. And were not complete muppets either.

The next group lead by Hincapie came through, also recieving a huge roar. Then it was the dribs and drabs of whichever poor bastards were left over, each group getting their own salute from the crowd. It kind of gave me chills to be honest. As we were making our way down the hill to watch the final in the town square on a big board tv, the last group of guys went through on their way up to the tough part of the Muur. These guys were dead on their bikes, and still climbing faster than I could do it fresh. And they'd already been out for 224K.

The crowd in the square was probably about 5-6000 people, and I'm sure 90% of them were pulling for Tommy. They still cheered when Leif made his bid for glory from the ridiculous distance of 350 meters. I guess the thinking was Boonen could dislocate his hip with his inital jump to catch him. Nice thought anyhow. Boonen's hip stayed in place and he cruised home with ease. Fantastic result no matter how you slice it.

Wednesday saw us drive to Wevelgem for the finish of GW. Neither of us had ever seen a pro finish so it seemed like the thing to do. We got there a bit late but still had time to grab a sausage and a spot at the 100 meter sign on the finishing straight. Again, mobs of people, both on the fences and in the bars (too many to count by the way. Belgium has lots of 3 things: wind, churches, and bars. And not necessarily in that order). When Pozzato passed us, the pack was 20 meters behind him, baring down like a pack of dogs after a rabbit. The effort was just pouring off of him, and if the Milram boys had fangs they would have been nashing them. It must have been incredibly disappointing for all their work, to have the God of Thunder steal the win. But, that's racing. The crowd loved it, we loved it, and probably everyone but Petacchi loved it. Miss Belgium 2004 showed up on the podium to do her thing, Thor smiled and waved, and I took pictures of what I think were both of them.

Sunday saw us back in Paris and deciding to take in the start (about an hour's drive away) and then watch the rest of the race on French telly (4 hours of live coverage, including Laurent Jalabert commentating. Could it get any better?). The start was a mob scene, with riders only popping out of their mansion sized busses when it was time to sign in. The big guys (Boonen, Hincapie, PVP, etc) got big rounds of applause, but even the little guys got recognized. If you're good enough to be selected for any of these races, you deserve that much, cause god knows you're going to earn it. The riders rolled out slowly, the team cars ripped out like they were themselves sprinting for the line, and we drove back to the apartment. French tv is made for this event, with cameras everywhere, reporters everywhere, and commentary everywhere. The only thing missing was commercial interuptions. I decided I could live with that, as long as Jaja kept saying ex-racer type observations (ride loose up top on the pave, all the work should be done from the waist down) and I had Paul or Anne Marie (his wife) to translate.

Things were going along splendidly until George's crash, but we all agreed that's racing. Cancelara's brilliant attack was just that, and the Hoste and PVP counter to bridge up to Gusev was equally brilliant. The whole train incident has been well documented, but Jaja immediately said they shouldn't have been disqualified because when you're racing you're basically out of your head, and since the confusion was great and the danger pretty remote, the rule should have been 'bent'. I couldn't agree more.

I have only covered about 10% of what the live experience is like, but if you want specifics I'll be happy to provide them in follow up comments. The biggest thing I took away from it all is if you ever wanted to be a pro bike racer, you might want to think again. These guys work so incredibly hard to just get into a position to win, let alone finish with the pack, it's mind boggling. When you consider that in one week they had to do it 3 times.......well, it just makes me exhausted to think about.