The sun is rising over a cool, crisp morning in southern Flanders and the exterior belfry lights just went off in the courtyard of Sint Hermeskerk, signaling the start of the day. All night those lights ensured that the church was a towering presence of Romanesque design outside my window. At least I assume so. I checked before I went to bed and after I woke up, and the church is coming up on its 1000th birthday, so I’m guessing it doesn’t get around much. Not without people who live in the neighborhood hearing it move.
I don’t get many chances in life to sit still and soak in my surroundings. Unless you mean it literally, since my usual surroundings are Seattle and if I sat still a while at one of my son’s soccer games I would definitely be soaked before long. But to pick up and move someplace across the world and enjoy it, that’s another thing entirely. Flanders is of course one of the best places to do that. It’s a lovely, tidy, adorable place that is at once impossibly cute and very real, with the smell of manure wafting in from the fields that look so pretty next to a bike race but also feed the people who are watching the race. It’s a human environment, like so much of Europe or much of America, though not that much of the somewhat black and white, very tamed or utterly wild, Northwest.
This relationship to the land is at the heart of the Classics, where the bulges and folds of the former give character to the latter. It’s even more apparent in the area’s other gift to cycling fans, cyclocross, and we rode our bikes past the scene of both the Koppenbergcross and the GP Mario De Clercq, races that have engraved themselves into the sides of some of the bigger geologic features between Ronse and Oudenaarde. Cycling is all about taking what’s already there and making it into something to cheer for. This can be hard to appreciate if you’ve been raised on sports cathedrals being built out of unfathomable piles of money and steel, and in the rare instances where stick-and-ball sports are still forced to fit inside a real place, like Fenway Park with its baseball dimensions warped by the pre-existing neighborhood streets, it’s called charm and lauded in poetry and song. Sports love the real world, really love it, when we let them. So why don’t we? Sigh...
Anyway, as you might have heard, a bunch of us made our way to the Paterberg Sunday where the heroes of cycling brushed past us with a variety of grins and grimaces on their faces. We were close to the bottom, before, anoxia set into their thighs, so maybe we missed the best facial expressions. But had we been at the top, our day wouldn’t have been lightened by Bernie Eisel, finishing up with one of the later groups due to an earlier bike problem, throwing himself onto the cobbles from a muddy groove next to the road to the hoots of humor and derision from his pack-mates. It was the end of a long day and there was nothing left for this group to do but go home. Eisel has as much street cred in the classics as your average Quick Stepper, so when he misjudges the gutter and flops onto the stones, it’s 100% funny and 0% pathetic or annoying.
We saw what happened in bits and pieces, mostly during runs for food or beer to the place alongside the climb where a giant TV screen was running the pictures. The Paterberg is not the craziest environment from which to take in the race, because you can only get there on foot from the Oude Kwaremont 3km away or some other direction, unless you drive over in the morning and find a spot in a field for your car. Susie (Tifosa) and I walked from a spot on the N60 which turned out to be just outside of Ronse, after zipping up to Oudenaarde and finding out that zipping up to Oudenaarde was a really bad idea. Only it worked out fine, we caught the peloton on the Korte Keer and had more than enough time to go on foot to the next place to see the race, and even ran into the women’s race as they were coming off the Kruisberg and dashing for glory.
It’s nothing at all like seeing the race on TV though. You scarcely know what’s going on, unless you park by the giant TV screen early enough to catch it both live and on the screen, which is preferable, but there’s something to be said for not really knowing and having to piece it together later on. Back in the day people relied on radios and could listen to them by the roadside as they mingled and chatted and ate and drank and celebrated the excitement of it all, buffeted by those moments of tangible interaction with the riders as they sped by. From there it was up to your imagination to fill in all the details. I’m not nearly old enough to claim that it was better before we could see the entire race on TV. I’m just saying, it’s a different and sort of charming experience without it. Especially since you can get on the internet and watch the whole thing later.
A large group of Cafe-sters have been holed up in Ronse since before the race, and for varying amounts of time including through Paris-Roubaix, and spending time in physical presence rather than digital, and it’s one of the remarkable developments in how the world works compared to days of yore. I guess we just met people more haphazardly back then. I remember, for example, meeting a couple from Denmark on a train in Thailand once, and spending the next 24 hours as a group, thrown together randomly in ways that expand one’s view of things and which etch a bit more information on the tabula. Like that, only less random and more satisfying. And nowhere more so than on a bike.
Broerie, who we will meet later, sent along a few cycling routes that Will (moo) imported into his Garmin, and we used the first one yesterday to ride a route that took in the Kruisberg (unavoidable as it’s the way out of town), Taaienberg, Koppenberg, Korte Keer, Steenbekdries, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and Hotond. The Koppenberg is like a muse to me, I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s a bit intimidating, and not easy to get my mind around how I can get up it. The weather is dry so I can’t blame slippage, but I can blame a poor approach and a negative attitude. It’s the only climb I really doubt I can get up in one try, at least at first. Fortunately I will get multiple tries at it.
I’ve rambled on long enough. The news here is that life is returning to normal, nobody seems too concerned about the Scheldeprijs, and the excitement that builds up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen bursts like a bubble afterwards. I have a theory that the farmers don’t spread as much manure or process any other wastes for a few days along the route of the Ronde, so the tourists don’t take away such pungent impressions. Then the day after the race, it’s time for Flemish life to return back to normal. Peaceful, lovely, and maybe a little bit pungent, normal.
Back with more reports. It’s Paris-Roubaix week, and at some point I have to get my head wrapped around that.