The Cobbles Season is slogging along, past the 200km mark and the Kanarieberg. The peloton slogs wearily along the roads of Markedal, knowing that coming up is one warm-up lap of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, after which there is no more screwing around, no turning back, nothing left but to reach all the way into your soul, empty the contents onto the cold, wet, slippery cobblestones, and get to Oudenaarde as fast as humanly possible. The bell hasn't rung yet -- not with Three Days of Four Stages of De Panne for those who need to keep moving to stave off the doom -- but they've located it, dusted it off, and given it to the race official.
This is a special time of year. The High Holidays of Cycling.
I know I exaggerate my love of Flanders at times, but only slightly, and when history corrects itself and brings back the Muur I will not cop to exaggerating at all. To show you how reasonable I can be, I am not going to call Rondeism the world's one true religion. People who prefer the ancient mass religions, or the Tour de France, are not infidels in my book. But I believe firmly in my practice of Rondeism. And you know who else believes in it? The Buddha, that's who. Because this is what he came up with in his first sermon after achieving enlightenment, and how the Tour of Flanders explains what he was really getting at.
All Life Is Suffering
Over the course of 250km, with all its inherent challenges, everyone experiences physical suffering. The riders suffer. The fans by the road suffer as they stand in the rain and wind. Those of us at home suffer, waking up at 2am to cook frites. It's a long day.
The Cause of Suffering Is Craving
Riders crave victory. Fans on hand crave the perfect view. We crave FSA DS points. All of these factors contribute to our suffering, when time and again we cannot have what we want.
Take the riders, for example. Who doesn't crave a place atop the podium? Who does not dream of raising their arms in Oudenaarde to the screams of cycling's most adoring fans? And yet only one of the day's 220 starters can have that experience each year -- often the same guy. Many will come close, perhaps again and again, and never achieve this goal. Those who seem primed to make it must overcome all manner of unfairness, from flat tires to leg cramps to tactical treachery. They give so much of themselves that day, and in the preceding weeks, months, years to reach a goal that probably isn't waiting for them, no matter how strong they are. It's a terrible burden.
The End of Suffering is the End of Craving
What is winning? A distraction, that's what. Pounding over the stones, making it up the Koppenberg, delivering bottles to the front, surviving to the finish -- that is the saintly work awaiting riders of de Ronde van Vlaanderen. Taking it in, and enjoying it. Sitting with the experience, being present when bounding over the Holleweg, all of this can bring an end to the suffering.
The Way to End Suffering is To Follow the Eightfold Training Plan:
- Right miles
- Right effort level
- Right intervals
- Right data
- Right nutrition
- Right rest
- Right psychology
- Right gear
Or for the viewer: Right internet connection, right content access, right charge on your laptop, right beer choice, right frites cooking method, right mayo choice, right focus, and right Podium Cafe login for joining in the commentary.
OK, before I totally lose coherence, here's your three up and down for the last week...
1. Old Age. Let's bring in a guest commentator.
"Hey ragazzi! You thinka you canna beat the old man? I say you non capisci. To win on il giorno brutto, you must have skin made of the leather, come una scarpa veneziana. If you no like the rain, I have for you a red nose you can wear, to have the fun on the team bus. You stay there, don't come out for the race."
2. Shoulder Rolls. Everybody falls. It's more a question of, will you get up? Two guys showed how to make sure you get up -- by falling like a boss.
Greg Van Avermaet:
One is clearly superior to the other. Thomas mostly got lucky, though he did manage a decent roll, just barely. Van Avermaet went down far faster and more brutally than Thomas, and executed a perfect somersault which I still can't believe I saw. And I bet you anything that wasn't by accident. A pro's pro knows that you can't instinctively stick out your arm, the natural reaction against taking a header. Accept the header, accelerate it, and you can keep riding that season. Maybe even that day. Thomas wins for outcome -- I thought for sure he was going to win in Wevelgem. I guess he'll have to be happy with being the #1 scorer of the week.
3. Unsung Heroes. Does it ruin things if we sing them? Well, too bad I guess. Topsport Vlaanderen contribute more to the sport than you'd think if you just experienced cycling via the palmares list. So it was quite cathartic to sing praise for Jelle Wallays and Edward Theuns, particularly the former since it was he who did that most Belgian of maneuvers, striking out alone in Dwars door Vlaanderen and seeing if the peloton would get its shit together enough to chase. They sorta did, but only well enough to send him three others for company, including a teammate. The resulting 1-2 was TSV's best output in the big races since 2010 when they scored second in Gent-Wevelgem. Some guy named Vanmarcke.
Tiesj Benoot was another type of unsung hero, seemingly fighting alone among the entire peloton against the four leaders that day. And while everyone who made it to Wevelgem on their bikes yesterday had an ounce of heroism in them, nobody topped the quotient of Jurgen Roelandts, suffering alone out front for so long, with the Cycling Gods dangling glory in front of his nose. Lotto Soudal remain somewhat unsung after all their efforts, so we must tip our cap to them for trying.
1. "It's a sprinter's race." In Flanders, every race, even de Ronde, can be a sprinter's race on a pleasant sunny day. And no race is reserved for them when the parcours is engulfed by whatever madness the North Sea just coughed up. It's been since 2009 that we could point to Gent-Wevelgem and say "sometimes it's for sprinters, perhaps, but don't count your chickens." Well, now do you understand?
2. Predictions, generally. Especially predictions of epic showdowns among all-time great cycling heroes. Do I have the power to write posts that send innocent cyclists to the orthopedic surgeon? I thought only my FSA DS team could do that.
3. EU Farming Rules. This is a photo from a different event, but if you saw the tractors lined up yesterday, whatever side you may be on, you have to admit they got their point across.
Philippe Huguen, Getty/AFP