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WELCOME TO COBBLES SEASON

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It’s an all-caps moment to savor

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100th Tour of Flanders Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Every spring things get a little extra exciting around here, since the Podium Cafe is one of the intertoob’s more reliably devoted set of cobbled classics fans. It’s not a requirement, it’s just something that tends to happen, and since the upcoming races in Belgium and France are so near and dear to my own heart, I tend to throw gas on the fire. Going on more than a decade now, it can be a challenge to come up with a new way to have fun around the cobbled classics, but I have a couple things in mind.

First, a quick scene-setting: starting Wednesday we will take in a series of races that culminate in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. I think of this as a season-within-the-season, since it’s a special set of races that brings out a subset of the cycling world’s athletes to do battle of a very unique, special, and beloved kind. The season consists of the following:

  • The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne? That’s debatable, given the four weeks intervening between then and now. Personally I say they’re out as far as a season being an uninterrupted set of activities goes, but obviously they’re a nice dress rehearsal. Same for the mini-events — Dwars door West-Vlaanderen, Nokere Koerse, Le Samyn and Handzame — where most of the protagonists aren’t on hand (though some undoubtedly ride these and the big ones).
  • Dwars door Vlaanderen kicks things off Wednesday. It’s a World Tour event now, and it’s about as close in character to the Tour of Flanders as any of the pre-Flanders races will be. It’s also the start of races that are prestigious enough in their own right to be big targets for top riders. Men and women.
  • E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a/k/a Harelbeke) is Friday. Also World Tour now, it is free to resume its strategically important place as the preferred Flanders tune-up of the top riders. It’s a bit different from Flanders as the hills end well before the finish, but the succession of climbs is critical practice and a fantastic race. Just men.
  • Gent-Wevelgem happens next Sunday, making it three races in five days. The West Vlaanderen province’s showcase event is of a distinct character from all the others, and truly exciting. Men and women.
  • Driedaagse van De Panne starts the Tuesday after Gent-Wevelgem, with a Flanders-ish stage 1, a Gent-Wevelgem-ish second stage, and a third day with a flat circuit race and short ITT. Unlike the last three, this one is a bit more like pure practice, with some riders dropping out early if the weather sucks, though a few guys will go for it. Men only.
  • Ronde van Vlaanderen. The most beautiful race in the world. Men and women.
  • GP Dottignies, a circuit race just over the linguistic border from Kortrijk that happens the day after de Ronde. Kind of a sprint-fest, with lots of big names starting but giving in to exhaustion from the previous day. Not very cobbled, but what the hey? Women only.
  • Scheldeprijs, also a circuit event for the most part, and dead-certain to end in a bunch sprint. This is the Wednesday after Flanders. Men only.
  • Paris-Roubaix, possibly/probably the greatest of the classics. Men only.
2016 Paris - Roubaix Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

And that’s a wrap on cobbles. I mean, they pop up all the time but this is the season where they are the main course. This year things will be a bit special for me, in that I will be at the races from de Ronde through Paris-Roubaix, along with several other Cafe-sters. We will pin down a meeting time/place for any and all to hang out, but will also be around riding and drinking and so on. If you will be there, definitely check in.

As far as things you can expect to see on the Podium Cafe, I have a couple ideas to share with you, but before I do so, now is a time to remind you that this is a great time for you to join in on the posting fun! Especially if you are going to be in Flanders or France, feel free to post about your experiences. But there is one idea that I now hereby issue you an open invitation to make a post about... Adopt a Belgian!

Bascially, pick a rider — Belgian, or if you must, from one of the nearby countries of relevance -- who is a person of interest in the coming races that maybe people don’t know as well as they should. These races are loaded with guys playing important roles, particularly from the host country but from a growing list of foreign points of disembarkation nowadays as well. They work hard and they can and often do make a difference in these races, even if they don’t get to throw their hands in the air at the end. It’s fun to look at their work, maybe their background, and just pass along some information about them so we all get a better idea of who everyone is.

So Adopt a Belgian. It only takes a few minutes (posts can be as long as you decide). It’s safe, legal, and very rewarding. They tend to be nice guys and gals, might even shoot you a note on Twitter or what have you in appreciation of your posting about them. Have at it!

Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, very adoptable.
MVH/Getty

As for the editors, here are a few things we’ll be up to:

  • Did you know? previews. I’m just sticking with this. In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, this is me striking a blow against the idea that I have to do a straight preview of a race we’ve previewed ten times and that hasn’t meaningfully changed since the Age of Enlightenment.
  • Examining the great Cobbled rivalries. One of them just departed, others seem to be taking shape.
  • Podcasting! I haven’t figured out exactly what will happen when I’m in Flanders, but it might involve some highly-unplanned interactions with familiar names and faces.

And so on. OK, please stay tuned, get excited, and if the site isn’t enough, here’s a book you can buy to really take in the details of the Cobbles Season. My own book, For the Love of the Cobbles, published 11 months ago. I’m going to mention it a couple times, since this is the first Cobbles Season since it came out. Print or Kindle versions are available. Available thru Lulu Press or on Amazon.com. Oh, and here’s an excerpt you can check out. Enjoy!

For the Love of the Cobbles, by Chris Fontecchio
For the Love of the Cobbles, by Chris Fontecchio