I have helpfully numbered some of the more interesting elements of this picture. Here's the full image (click here to embiggen), with explanations below.
1. First, the star of our show at the moment is the Koppenberg. The date on this photo is 2006, as anyone with a catalogue of World Champions in his or her head can tell you (more on that in a moment). This is as well-known a slope anywhere outside Alpe d'Huez, and interestingly enough this photo is taken during its second (of three, so far) iteration. The original Koppenberg, which only appeared in the race beginning in 1976 (after however many hundreds of years of existence), was the high-crowned, guttered disaster where Jesper Skibby almost lost a leg.
Nearly unrideable. So prior to 2002 (after being left out of the race for 15 years), the road was re-graded so that it was at least level horizontally, if not vertically. But the stones were packed in dirt, which made for a greasy ascent under typical spring conditions. In this photo up top, it's a lovely spring day, and the riders have little excuse for not making it up.
Iteration #3, the current Koppenberg, happened around 2008, when the middle portion -- shown in the horrible old Kopp photo -- was re-set in concrete... not because it helped the riders keep slippery mud off their tires (it doesn't) but because people like you and me were stealing too many of the stones.
2. World Champion Tom Boonen, as recognizable a person as you'll find anywhere on Google Street View. Boonen is sporting the rainbow stripes after his triumph in Madrid, as well as a tan that makes it look like he's just come back from Madrid. Boonen likes to take his horrible hellingen from the front of the field, and this is no exception. A few hours later this approach (to the Valkenberg) will leave him raising his arms again in Ninove, champion of de Ronde for a second time, and in the world's other most famous jersey as well. Belgian Nirvana.
3. This loose tongue is attached to American star George Hincapie. By 2006 Lance was gone, as was the US Postal Service, and the team, under Belgian manager Johan Bruyneel, began devoting more and more of its focus to the classics, to Hincapie's delight. However, the team's methodical, conservative tactical style translated poorly to de Ronde and the classics in general, and Postal/Discovery never scored a classic victory -- to the relief of people in charge of scrubbing the palmares for history's sake. Maybe they should have hung on to that Boonen kid? [OK, no thank you.]
4. Back in 2006, the Koppenberg was not a VIP area; fans could just show up and crawl their way into position along the side of the hill, sometimes falling off and onto the race course. I particularly like this scene, with its Grassy Knoll-style conspicuously misdirected arm. Tom Boonen just passed by you half a second ago. What the hell are you pointing at?!? Is that your cousin in the Bweeg Telecom kit? Are you pointing out the nearest porta-jon? Like any great riddle, I suppose we will never know.
5. I see you there, Peter Van Petegem. The Old Master is shown here having his last hurrah, leading Belgium's Other Team (now Lotto - Soudal, then Davitamon - Lotto) to a fourth place on the day. At this stage of his career, he is a double Ronde winner (1999, 2003) as well as winner of the Double (2003) including Paris-Roubaix. It is altogether fitting to find him here, since at this stage of his career he rarely raced outside of Belgium. He would retire after 2007. Oh, and while I'm not certain, I believe he had just shaved at the previous feed stop, judging by the light stubble he's sporting here.
6. I see you there, Paolo Bettini. Not that I have any choice. Thanks to your victory in the most recent Olympic road race, you are wearing a gold helmet...
6a. ... and using gold handlebar tape...
6b. ... and rocking the gold shoes. Bettini had a tendency to dress himself up like a Christmas tree at the first opportunity. On the plus side, he earned these honors, which would eventually include two rainbow jerseys. On the negative side, he was starting in 2006 to challenge Boonen's position as leader of the powerful Quick Step team on the cobbles, asserting that a rider of his stature had a right to chase his dream of winning all the Monuments. Bettini was correct that Flanders was a winnable goal for him, but Paris-Roubaix was not, realistically, and anyway it sounded a lot less sane coming from a teammate of mega-peaking Tom Boonen. My recollection is that Bettini would go on to play a very solid lieutenant role in 2006, and not really be a factor in Spring after that. So perhaps it was just all talk.
7. I see you there, Andreas Klier. And I'll keep seeing you for six more years, as you evolve into Germany's most passionate rider of Belgian roads (and one of the most passionate Flandrophile of any of us). But alas, you will never top your second place from the previous year.
8. I see you there, Juan Antonio Flecha. Your Philipian bargain with the Dutch squad gave you a platform for cobbles success that might not have been available on a team from your native Spain, at least not back then. Spanish teams have developed some love for the cobbles (see Valverde, Alejandro) but back then it was pretty inconspicuous. The cost of this bargain was a career largely spent deploying fruitless attacks for your tactically-challenged outfit. Flecha was a class act but not without an edge, as his sarcastic clapping at Thor Hushovd in 2010 as they crossed the finish line of the Roubaix Velodrome attests. Anyway, he was one of the guys for these races, and at least walked away with a powerful Omloop win for his troubles.
9. I see you there, future two-time winner Stijn Devolder. I can't spot Leif H\o/ste anywhere, but he would finish second on the day (and Devolder would DNF). This was a powerful team for the classics. Really, Discovery should have won something. Their taking second and third on the day was just more tears for Patrick Lefevre to wash down his mussels with.
10. I see you there, Alessandro Ballan's helmet. How can you be sure it's Ballan? Check the startlist and name another Lampre rider who you think could have made it to the Koppenberg with the leaders. Exactly. Ballan would come in a quiet fifth on the day, with the first of several chase groups, lending credence to his ability to win one of these things someday. That someday would come exactly a year later, in as memorable a modern Ronde as you will find. There, he would attack Boonen on the Muur (sniff... someday...), dropping everyone but an alert Leif Hoste, whose heart he would eventually rip from his chest, shove in the oven, overcook, chop into little pieces, and devour on toast. Ask Hoste if I'm exaggerating. Bring a kleenex or three.
11. I see you there, future winner of all cycling as well as life Fabian Cancellara. This version of Tony Spartacus was a mere week away from entering the upper echelon of the sport. He would take sixth in de Ronde, encouragement enough to launch his famous solo exploit in an unbelievable Paris-Roubaix a week later, which would feature Hincapie in a ditch holding first his dismembered bars and then his broken shoulder, and the remaining protagonists held up at a train crossing. Hoste, Van Petegem and Vlad Gusev were stopped first but snuck under the gate, earning themselves second through fourth until they were disqualified by the race jury. Boonen, Ballan and Flecha smartly did not sneak through (which very well may have led to the most gruesome moment in cycling history), and for their troubles they earned another 20 seconds' worth of delay, or so.
12. I see you there, Luca Paolini's helmet. Like Ballan, I challenge you to name another Liquigas rider who could have been found in this group. Marco Milesi? The furry old dog would get as high as seventh at De Ronde, and he's got a chance to best that Sunday.
13. I see you there, Thor Hushovd. The God of Thunder... first, can we just apologize to all Norwegians who venture out into the English speaking world with the name Thor? The whole God of Thunder thing gets old. Ah, who am I kidding, Thor the actual god is too awesome not to bring up. Especially when it's time to ride the chicken. Hushovd was a Flanders pretender, his best finish is 14th, but he was a real threat for Paris-Roubaix, coming second. [clap clap]
14. I see you there, yet another Quick Step guy and possibly Filippo Pozzato. There is no way to overstate their strength in these years, though by 2007 it would wane a bit.
15. I see you there, back of the field. In 2006, the Koppenberg came with some 65 km to go, and in other years it was as far as 100km from the line. Typically medium-sized fields would come into it -- 60 riders or so -- with a smaller group coming out the other end. That was kinda perfect in a way, because the group approaching here is large enough so that something will happen and the guys in the back would end up walking... one of the strangest sights in cycling to this day. Now it's 40km from the line and a bit more strategic. There was some shrieking back in the day about whether it should be in the race at all, let alone in a position to decide the race, and in fairness if you scroll up and see the old Kopp, it's not the kind of surface you want to subject your most important race to at its most important moment. Nowadays, the re-made Kopp can handle hosting a key moment in the race... if the weather is good. At all times, the race is on standby to reroute the riders over the nearby Korte Keer, if the weather turns ugly. That hasn't happened in my recollection. They *do* reroute the cars over the Korte Keer, which raises a question, why did they ever let cars up the Koppenberg in the first place? I spent a total of 20 minutes there and saw a car get stuck on it.
16. I see you there, Rabo guy hopelessly out of position. Some things never change.