A lot of people know that March is devoted almost entirely to getting excited about April. Specifically I mean the Tour of Flanders, and after that, whatever else there is going on. Cycling has created a lot of races for the express purpose of getting riders in shape for Flanders. Paris-Nice is the all-timer, but when people started to complain that it was cold in France, they created Tirreno-Adriatico to mimic the training available in France without the exercise-induced asthma threat. That turned out to be such a good idea that riders started dressing up in wool and carrying old-timey bike tires around just so they could train in Italy even earlier, until the UCI caught on and made it into the Strade Bianche event. This serves now as the needed bridge between training for de Ronde at the Omloop and KBK and training for de Ronde in Italy. So now riders can just focus entirely on Flanders from, well, pretty much the end of the last Tour of Flanders, and increasingly without interruption or asthma as the race draws near.
But by “riders” I really only mean the super-lucky World Tour guys who can show up at every race they care about. For the rest, there needs to be a fallback plan. “Who are the rest’ that you’re talking about Chris?” Well, I am talking about the teams who are awesome enough and Belgian (or maybe French or Dutch) enough to get invited to the Tour of Flanders as wildcards. Roompot, Direct Energie, Cofidis, Sport Vlaanderen, Wanty Group-Gobert, Verandas Willems and... um, Wilier-Selle Italia.
Did you know! Sport Vlaanderen is formerly the Topsport Vlaanderen club, which has been in existence since founded by Christophe Sercu in 1994, and has a tendency to raise young Flemish talent for harvesting, when ripe, by the big Belgian teams? Its first name was Flanders 2002 Eddy Merckx, which was a cool, futuristic sounding name until about 2001, when they changed it to Vlaanderen T-Interim, which is a conspicuous edit except that they continued to ride Eddy Merckx bicycles, so it’s OK. Dropping “Top” from Topsport Vlaanderen seems equally troubling, but maybe they are just upping their sandbag game.
Anyway, the club is straight-up Flemish cycling royalty, so they hardly need to brag. Sercu is the son of Patrick Sercu, who was more of a track legend but pretty fair roadie. Their manager is Walter Planckaert, of the Cycling Planckaerts. Walter’s brother is Eddy, who has a really gross story to tell about his victory in the Tour of Flanders that I don’t care to repeat. Willy is another brother. Plus Jo, Francesco and now Eddy junior have all hit the top ranks of the sport. They’re also wacky enough to warrant a reality TV show “The Planckaerts” in Belgium, though I think it’s mostly about Eddy trying to run a sawmill in Lithuania (hilarity ensues). Eddy Jr. is a current rider on Meh-Sport Vlaanderen.
Over the years the team has won a metric F-ton of races, including recently the Dwars door Vlaanderen, but in 2015. Last year was pretty fallow Worse, Dimitri Claeys was the top Pro-Conti finisher, and he rides for hated rival Wanty, who are more like a veteran Belgian squad that catches former Topsport riders on their way out the other side of their career. [j/k, they have lots of young talent too, and also Danilo Napolitano.]
Moving on... Sport Vlaanderen, Wanty and their breathren are, well, not exactly the have-nots of de Ronde, because they are all still pretty interesting teams, and in some cases might bag some pretty compelling results in Belgium against World Tour squads. They’re just the have-not-as-much. So with the exception of Direct Energie, none of these Flanders wildcards found itself at either Paris-Nice or more pertinently Tirreno-Adriatico. It would be a sorry thing indeed if these teams were left parked in their driveways for two weeks while the fancy world tour guys stretched out their spring form at Tirreno and Strade and Milano-Sanremo...
[Did you know! Milano-Sanremo is this weekend OMG OMG OMG!!!]
... so they had to invent some nice little races in Belgium to help the have-not-as-muches stay on track. And nobody can gin up a race on short notice like the Belgians.
Also known as Three Hundred Laps of the Nokereberg, this is a pretty tame event by Belgian classic standards. If it’s like last year (and that’s pretty much impossible to tell from the map), then it might go over the Tiegemberg early on, but otherwise it’s an 80-km warmup followed by a circuit race whose main event is the very Nokereberg which it finishes on and which gives the race its name.
Did you know! That Nokere-Koerse translates to Nokere Curonian, for reasons I find impossible to understand? The race came into being unrelated to the Curonians, who were a distinct people in Latvia and Lithuania until the 16th century. If any of our Belgian friends can think of another explanation for “koerse” here I’m all ears. One possible explanation is that “course” is “koers” and somehow an extra “e” got added on like a useless appendage akin to the human appendix organ or the UCI. That’s probably it. It’s definitely not named after Jules Lowie anymore, but it was when the race came into being in 1944 to honor the guy (from Nokere) who once won Paris-Nice and then died in his late 40s.
Anyway, the Nokereberg is 350 meters of cobbles, as you can see above, on a mellow-ish gradient of 6-7%. That’s not “OMG I’m getting dropped at the top” gradient material, but it is “OMG this race-ending sprint is hard as fuck!” material. Seems like in recent years the results have been scored as a bunch finish, and I guess you could say that’s what it really is likely to be, but in slow, lung-exploding motion.
Did you know! Christophe Sercu’s grandfather won the race in 1947? Total royalty.
The three most recent winners — Timothy Dupont, Kenny DeHaes and Kris Boeckmans — are all back for more. Nacer Bouhanni is the biggest name on the startlist, which is weird because he’s also headed to Milano-Sanremo, so I don’t really know if he’ll be there to win, but he was third in 2014 and he’s Nacer Bouhanni, so you never know.
So that’s Wednesday, as in today if you’re reading this somewhere east of the Northeast American Snowmageddon Line. Ah, but there is more...
I don’t know why but I can’t stop calling this race the Ham Sandwich. I guess that’s because it’s a West Flanders circuit race and as such is not prone to a lot of excitement. The ham sandwich is also not very exciting, a premise I confirmed as recently as yesterday. There are a number of things you can say about ham sandwiches.
- They are a metaphor for “a thing just sitting there,” thanks to the Bonfire of the Vanities where someone bragged that they could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. This in turn led to food critics everywhere sparing no opportunity to indict an actual ham sandwich in their restaurant reviews. In my day job we sometimes talk of (redacted) being willing to defend a ham sandwich. So the ham sandwich as a sad, inert object is definitely a thing.
- A more exciting use of “ham sandwich” apparently refers to false evidence planted by police at a crime scene, at least as used in New Orleans parlance, where they seem to know quite a lot about fake crime scenes.
- Finally, it’s a thing you don’t want to choke to death on, lest your name will be the butt of bad jokes for all eternity. Mama Cass Elliott did not choke to death on a ham sandwich (she died of heart disease), but people like saying that she did (most recently Austin Powers, who isn’t even a real person), and people can be pretty mean when they’re talking about things that happened to someone else. Or didn’t happen.
Did you know! The Handzame classic has nothing to do with ham or sandwiches? That entire tangent was completely useless, because the race is named after the town of Handzame where it largely takes place, and Handzame’s origins are either something to do with a particularly historic handshake that might have created the town, or it describes a German word for a bluff over the water, which makes a lot more sense even though West Flanders is not Germany.
The race itself is short on noticeable inclines and even cobbles, as far as the roadbook is concerned, but it goes through Ichtegem, scene to the Dwars door West Vlaanderen race last week, where the Keiberg kinda-sorta livened things up, so I don’t know if it’s quite as bland a course as you might assume. Moreover, it’s West Flanders, and unless you have a weather report stating with a high degree of confidence that it’s going to be lovely and calm, it’s not an easy day in the saddle.
The forecast? A North Sea Special.
So yeah, this is actually going to be a brutal race, and I am reluctant to even mention how it usually ends in a bunch sprint, because it doesn’t usually have sustained 20kph winds and gusts of 32kph grinding the peloton to bits. Or maybe it usually does and it comes together anyway. I don’t know. But that looks like a classic Belgian day to me, where various riders (primarily Belgian) let their aggressiveness overcome any kernel of good judgment and go on the attack.
Did you know! That the Handzame Classic has the funnest podium celebration in cycling? Apparently you have to wear a silly French hat from sponsor Napoleon Games, but there’s a giant Kwaremont beer that comes with it, which you can drink to reduce the sting of having your victory ruined by having to wear a ridiculous hat.
The Wanty team is pretty loaded with the aforementioned Danilo Napolitano (a former Handzame hat-wearer) as well as his more recently successful teammates Dehaes and Guillaume Van Kiersbulck on hand, plus Wesley Kreder and Frederic Veuchelen.
Quick Step are pretty slimmed down, but Lotto-Soudal have Boeckmans, Sean De Bie and Moreno Hofland, while Bora start defending winner Erik Baska. Katusha’s recognizables include Baptiste Planckaert (not related?!?) and Jhonatan Restrepo. Also on hand are Stijn Devolder, Eric Vanderaerden’s kid, and the Israel Cycling Academy. Not too shabby!
Here’s what the end of the race looks like: