De Ronde van Vlaanderen... I just love saying those words. My favorite race of the year is upon us again, and while people will point out that Dreidaagse de Panne, a VDS race, is happening starting tomorrow, I personally have had enough of the hors d'oeuvres. It's time for the main course. The Tour of Flanders is Sunday. It's Ronde Week.
The reason I put this number one: first, it's a classic, and I just prefer the urgency of one-day races over the calculating rhythms of stage racing. Second, it's a Northern Classic, that mini-season of grey clouds and wet farm roads where the race battles all obstacles: rough roads, crap weather, vicious crosswinds, long courses, and competition that includes a whole lot of riders for whom this is their season. As well as anything and in a unique way, these races encapsulate the simultaneous beauty and horror that is Cycling.
As Northern Classics go, de Ronde is it for me. The Monuments of Cycling have an undeniable significance above all else -- sort of like the Super Bowl, only with the assurance that you're getting the best matchup too. Liege-Bastogne-Liege could easily top my list, and for a few years it did. But in choosing between two works of art, I'll take the one that's a bit more... strange. The Ardennes races look a bit more like races you see in Italy or France. The Flemish classics are like nothing else.
That narrows it down to de Ronde and Paris-Roubaix... and while I truly love Paris-Roubaix, and not for the bloodsport either, I just think it plays to a narrower skillset than Flanders. I will not knock it at all; I will simply point out that a number of P-R winners like Tafi or Backstedt find the hills of Flanders too selective, whereas I don't think you could argue that many Ronde winners are aced out of Paris-Roubaix.
The final reason why I so love this race is the Flemish people. I don't know how you can measure the passion of sports fans, and I certainly would never question the devotion of cycling fans in France, Italy, Holland, the Basque region, or right here at the Cafe. I would simply point out that Belgian fans -- especially in Flanders -- have made Cycling their national sport from the get-go, and really have not wavered. This is high school football in Texas, or hockey in rural Ontario, not the only place you can find it, but as reliable and authentic as it gets. De Ronde is their national race.
This is not dogma, just one fan's personal preference. I don't expect anyone to agree with me, but I'm pretty sure that next Sunday, a million fans along the roads from Brugge to Ninove will.