Welcome to the Cobbled Classics, a set of races so thoroughly un-Italian that I won’t make more than three or four references — total — to ancient Rome while previewing them. And most of those will be in discussion of actual Roman roads, which are cool enough that you’d think a Belgian would feel right at home on them, and if Belgians like biking on a surface, that’s your guarantee that you should too.
What is it about this little country that nobody in America can even locate on a map, let alone explain how they got two languages or why they bother not just self-annexing to Holland or France? But people in America can be a little behind the curve on things like self-annexing, and why it’s really important to do in, say, the last 3km of a bike race.
Belgians, however, don’t seem that keen on being self-annexers. That’s a gross generalization, but if we can somehow turn back to cycling for a moment, they at least know that if they make a good show of working really hard at the front of a race, and either win alone or help someone else to do so, they’ll get a pat on the back and a ginormous glass of Kwaremont beer afterwards. That’s because Belgium has all the ingredients to give hard-working bike racers a really satisfying experience, such as bikes, races, hard work, money, beer and supporters’ clubs. If the first three come together in any shape or form, the last three are bound to show up in time for the racer to get a clap on the back and a round on the house.
Everyone in Belgian cycling has a supporters’ club. For example, if you google “stijn devolder supporters club” you get multiple hits. Sure, they go to websites that went dark roughly four years or so ago, but someone once bothered to create them. Probably someone from a supporters’ club. Because Belgians love to support their riders, and on home soil more than ever. How is this different from other countries? Nobody knows. But my guess is, it’s the same, only more so.
So yeah, it’s time to focus on Belgium and its wonderful subcategory of cycling. And it all starts Wednesday at the 72nd edition of Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Did you know! A brief list of races invented in 1945 include Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, the Omloop Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne? Obviously 1945 was a notable time in Europe, for things that you wouldn’t equate with “hey, let’s start a bike race!” but that’s precisely what happened that year on average about every six hours or what have you. There’s a bit of discussion in Benjo Maso’s seminal work The Sweat of the Gods, and seriously, just buy it already.
Anyway, Maso posits that unlike WWI, in WWII the fighting phase came and went for a lot of western Europe rather quickly, and soldiers from Holland, Belgium, France, etc. had plenty of time to get their miles in while sitting around from 1942-44 waiting for the war to end. I’m sure there were plenty of stories about how rough things were in WWII, but if you didn’t live on a front or join a resistance or get identified for extermination, I suppose you could keep riding your bike? Anyway, just not being WWI was a major improvement. As a younger brother I can tell you that you’re always going to be compared to your older brother, and if your older brother is known primarily for trench warfare, creeping barrages, flesh-eating vermin and mustard gas, you will be remembered fondly.
Anyway, after both of the big wars people wanted to rediscover having fun, so they made new bike races. In 1945 it was possible and popular to do this. And unlike 1918, not only was every young healthy male not dead, they were actually in pretty decent shape. So in the aftermath of World War II races like Dwars door Vlaanderen got invented, and got won by new names like Rik Van Steenbergen (Rik War I).
The name Dwars door Vlaanderen means “straight across Flanders,” and maybe the first edition actually went straight across Flanders? Except it was originally called Dwars door Belgie (straight across Belgium), in a fit of post-war non-sectionalism, and not a half-bad description of the race itself. It started in Sint Truiden, in the eastern part of the northern half of the country (a/k/a Limburg), which I guess is Flanders if not the traditional counties of East and West Flanders, both of which are on the other side of Brussels. That’s a pretty good haul — two hours’ drive now by highway, and there’s a bus that leaves every hour, so don’t miss the move. By bike it’s slower, though 150km isn’t all that long for a race. Rik I pipped Flemish hero Briek Schotte for the win.
By 1946, however, the course was reversed and the Waregem start location was established, continuing Waregem’s identity with the race that lasts to this day. Even though the race now starts in Roeselare, since 2000. Roeselare makes for a good start with its very lovely town hall, and nobody does town halls like Belgium. But this race is generally associated still with Waregem.
Did you know! That Waregem means true gem? Probably not, because that’s what we hack non-Belgian cycling writers call alternative facts. It would be a pretty cool name, but the original name is Waro-Inghaheim, home of the Waro clan, except the origins of that seem to also go back further to the point where nobody knows. [I could have discussed the Gallo-Roman era here, but chose not to. You’re welcome.] Point is, there’s a lot of uncertainty in life, and as humans I don’t think we do a good job of accepting it. Take, for example, the Fietsroute system of bike trails in Belgium. Nobody knows how to read those maps, or even knows where they are going. And that’s the beauty of it all.
Anyway, “gemeente” means community, so all of those towns ending with “gem” are probably incorporating that into their name. Which is super helpful, like if I were “Chris-person” so you wouldn’t see my name as just “Chris” and think, what if he’s a dog who can type?
OK, time to start in on this year’s event. First, some news.
- Sep Vanmarcke of Cannondale-Drapac is finally regaining his ability to breathe without pain, after suffering a rib injury in a crash during the Strade Bianche three weeks ago. Sep soldiered on, often in last place, in Tirreno-Adriatico, thanks to the whole I-can’t-breathe-without-pain thing. But he got in his miles, and the pain has finally started to dissipate, which puts him back into the “riders to watch” category, or maybe even the “no, seriously, I mean really watch” category, for the next three weeks.
- I am not a typing dog.
- Roger Pingeon passed away over the weekend. Pingeon won the 1967 Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana two years later. He wasn’t much of a classics guy, but any time we lose a member of the Fraternal Order of Yellow Jerseys, it’s very much worth your attention.
OK, the race...
I’m not going to geek out over the climbs, but I will say that their most important characteristic is how they keep going til pretty close to the finish (ending 9km from the line). This is fairly Ronde van Vlaanderen-like (Paterberg is 12km from the line), and raises its own discussion of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, Flanders Classics-style!
Did you know! Flanders Classics is the umbrella organization that helps run Dwars door Vlaanderen? Probably, but going a little deeper into what that actually means, Flanders Classics only came into existence in 2010 as a group in charge of putting on most of the Classics, which themselves were typically owned and operated by individual clubs or organizations. The creation of an overarching organization was a sensible enough pooling of resources, particularly the professionals who were good at certain functions and could be deployed to multiple events, rather than each race having to come up with its own set of people (and equipment, permits, etc). Flanders Classics also brought you such things as VIP access and “let’s get rid of the Muur!” But setting aside the easy vilification there, they’ve succeeded in elevating several races to World Tour status and I’m guessing made them a bit less of a financial black hole than most races tend to be. Plus the Muur is back, sort of, reducing the rate of death threats called into Flanders Classics HQ to a mere trickle.
But among the races of interest in the next week is E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, the lone holdout against the FC Machine. There was some ugly maneuvering by FC to isolate E3 early on, staging Gent-Wevelgem the next day and getting it WT status as a way of freezing out E3 and diminishing its status as the preferred tuneup for Ronde hopefuls — in other words, the second-best race in Belgium. I like to think that there was back-room maneuvering, and maybe FC even made E3 a Belgian Godfather Offer (submit to us or we will be slightly less polite to you), but E3 held firm, got WT status of its own, and is back to the #2 spot on the calendar.
That’s where Dwars comes in. Gent-Wevelgem can never be what E3 is, it’s too different, but Dwars can, and now is a pretty fair Ronde imitator, maybe even better than E3 with its longer run-in from the climbs. It’s also just now a WT race after years of lesser status and fewer top teams participating. That’s why FC is supposedly going to court (with the De Panne folks) to try to move Dwars to a mid-week slot after Gent-Wevelgem. Will that make Dwars the #2 race? Was FC playing its king in the GW vs E3 battle, all the while sitting on an ace? Stay tuned.
Like Milano-Sanremo, this is a tough race to predict the winner, but last week I was so convinced that it was not only impossible to correctly pick the winner of Milano-Sanremo but a disservice to my readers that I went ahead and correctly picked the winner. Had I tried seriously to pick the winner I no doubt would have made a terrible choice. I would have self-interestedly picked a guy from my FSA Directeur Sportif team, like Fernando Gaviria, and he would have fallen over or gotten sick. Or I would have panicked and made up a name that doesn’t exist, like Stijn Devolder. For example, in the Against All Odds fake betting scheme we have going at the Cafe now, I chose two Frenchmen as winners or podium finishers, because the previous winner was a Frenchman, and because 20-20 hindsight is better than no sight at all. Until this time, when the French guys finished well off the podium, making me look like I don’t know anything anymore.
Hm, better change the subject.
Did you know! Stijn Devolder is real? Of course he’s real, and he’s ... not as spectacular as he was, but definitely plugging away. It’s hard to imagine a two-time Ronde van Vlaanderen winner plugging away more obscurely than Stijn does, but I think someone once said to him, “may you live in interesting times,” and he took that to be a good thing and then went out and won the Ronde van Vlaanderen twice in the prime of the race’s greatest champion who had 75 guys on his wheel. Unfortunately for Devolder, that utterance is actually the translation of a Chinese curse, where “interesting” is full of multiple meanings beyond the grasp of all but the very wisest of men and women (mostly women). Is Stijn Devolder among the wisest? He certainly outsmarted 19 other teams two years in a row, including the second time when everyone could see exactly what was happening to them. So I don’t know if it’s all worked out for him but he is probably the cobbled classics embodiment of “living in interesting times.”
Anyway, here’s your race startlist. For the men, a lot of the big names are missing, like Tom Boonen, Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff. The last three winners are returning, however, including Jens Debusschere and Jelle Wallays as teammates at a “let’s hurry up and win a classic before the Quick Step Monster awakens” Lotto-Soudal team, and Niki Terpstra, who often takes charge of the Quick Step team in its pre-monster-awakened status. But it could come down to a sprint, so it’ll probably be won by that guy on your FSA DS team.
There’s also a women’s race, and it too is missing a lot of the big names, but not Annemiek Van Vleuten, Lucinda Brand, Kasia Niewiadoma, and three of the Druyts sisters (of a possible four). Both lists reflect the overarching sense that it’s a long Classics campaign and you maybe don’t want to launch all of your arrows at Dwars door Vlaanderen. But it will be fun and a good first real look at a lot of people and how they shape up on the cobbles for the coming weeks. Enjoy!