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Notes From the Flanders Desk: Big Doings and Bell Laps

Cycling: Claude CRIQUIELION (Bel)/ In Memoriam Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

The notes are few in number, but not lacking in depth...

Flanders For All!

The worldwide conspiracy to co-opt the cobbled classic into every race from the, uh, cobbled classics to the grand tours to the Spanish regional stage races continues unabated. [OK, maybe not in Spain, but anyway...] Later this week the organizers of the 2019 Tour de France Grand Départ in Brussels will convene a presser to fill in some details, and one of those minor matters will be a discussion of the Muur van Geraardsbergen’s inclusion in the Grand Boucle. This is pretty cool, and a first for the Tour, which has passed by but never properly climbed the famous Flemish wall. Whether they go all the way up and over the Kapelmuur is to be determined this week; there are places to bail before the top but there’s no reason not to get the full bang for their buck.

But this probably isn’t the most significant conversation happening now in Belgium involving the great cobbled hills. No, that would be the chatter about a bid to host the 2021 World Championships somewhere in Flanders. The story started percolating on Friday when Sporza reported that the Flemish regional sports minister Philippe Muyters was organizing a bid to host the 2021 Worlds, which will be awarded in September during this year’s championships in Innsbruck, Austria. The news included mention of a 3.5 million Euro budget already in place, and various entities getting involved, including Flanders Classics and Golazo as possible event operators.

The prospect of a Flemish worlds is a delicious one, to the point where I might have to start making plans. It would be a tenth World Championships for Belgium, including four in Wallonia, two in Zolder (Limburg province of the Flemish region) and four in the area we think of as part of the Flemish classics: Moorslede, Waregem and two times in Ronse. This time I suspect the plan is to focus on East/West Flanders and the Vlaamse Ardennen, though my only pieces of evidence are Flanders Classics being involved and a poll at Sporza where the top vote-getters for host city are Geraardsbergen, Oudenaarde and Ronse (and Flemish cities get about 80% of the vote).

The region has hosted the worlds twice in the last 30 years, and they’re memorable for maybe not the best reasons. The last time was in 2002, deep into the sport’s darkest age, when the peloton spun round and round the flat, boring Zolder race course until it was time for Mario Cipollini to sprint. It was pretty much the worst race but with a very charismatic winner, which made people sort of happy. But yeah, it wasn’t a good course, and you won’t see the Worlds in Zolder anytime soon.

The other recent appearance of the worlds in Flanders was in 1988, when Ronse hosted for the second time, and it was another dramatic, dark day. This time it was the action on the road which will forever bring people to the brink of blows, as a great race came down to a final trio consisting of Italian opportunist Maurizio Fondriest, former rainbow and Flanders winner Claude Criquelion, and Canadian classics ace Steve Bauer. Bauer started the sprint, veered left, and eventually put the Belgian into the barriers, to the horror of everyone in attendance, leaving Fondriest to come by for the win. It’s the sort of wobbly, exhausted sprint you see often enough, but ended in sporting (if not actual) tragedy as well as fairly pointless litigation.

Ronse was a choice that, while I can’t rate the wisdom employed then, looks cool and inspired now. It’s got a lot of everything Flanders: echos of the long-lost cloth industry, proximity to the pastoral and sporting beauty of the Flemish Ardennes, a multi-cultural setting, and a gritty downtown that includes the very bumpy Kruisberg cobbles. But two turns as host and a tragic ending probably puts Ronse out of the running. Geraardsbergen, Kortrijk and even Oudenaarde — suddenly enjoying an embarrassment of cycling riches — seem like good possibilities. Maybe Gent or even Bruges, though their distance from the serious climbs suggests no. We shall see.

Cyclocross Mega-Competition?

Cyclocross is maybe about to have a moment of its own. In the books are the national championships and the countdown to the Worlds in three weeks, which is almost always the peak of the sport’s season, and will feel like one of the few things to get truly excited about in a year that has been dominated by a handful of stars. Sanne Cant and Mathieu van der Poel have owned the elite levels, and the closest thing we have to suspense is when Eli Iserbyt and Tom Pidcock take each other on in the U23 ranks. That’s not to dismiss the great racing we’ve seen, but the competition for the highest glory is what generates headlines and sponsors, above and beyond the sport’s less obvious beauty.

Anyway, the Belgian races aren’t drawing as many people in to watch this year, and the UCI is convening discussions about whether to merge the various top European competition series into a “super league” of maybe 25 races, according to CyclingNews (and Het Laatste Nieuws). This would be a solution to the problem where you have four or five different season-long competitions, none of which fans can bother to keep track of, with the possible exception of the UCI World Cup. A super league idea would confer a single season-long title on whoever earns it over the course of many races, venues and months of the season.

This reminds me a bit of when the UCI tried to create the Pro Tour back in the aughts, only to get slapped down by the Grand Tours and their associated properties, which immediately starved the competition of any real meaning. But there, the grand tours and their top classics didn’t need a helping hand in the form of season-long battles, since their races were more prestigious to begin with. Here, however, the DVV Trofee or Superprestige Cup are cool but not something anyone tracks closely outside of the hardest hardcore fans. Then you add the World Cup, Brico Cross and Soudal series and it’s a big ol’ bowl of competition spaghetti.

IMHO the super league concept can’t hurt, at least as long as it finds a way to include all the right people, and happens for both men and women, with a few age classes. That’s the trend already so why not? But I’m not sure how much it can do to boost the sport. One problem for me is that the ‘Cross season now overlaps on both ends with the road season, and not just in some technical sense but with major races butting heads. The World Tour just got underway in Australia today, right on the heels of the CX nats. And for their part the CX World Cup began in September, shortly before the road Worlds and fall calendar. If you like both sports, the season simply never ends.

Anyway, I’m fine with a Super League. Mathieu van der Poel doesn’t have enough jerseys already.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

As for that bell lap thing, I just want to let people know this will be my last year in an editor’s role. As a practical matter this may only mean the difference between me having a role in the day-to-day stuff -- making sure the site covers everything we want covered — versus me just writing when I feel like it. I am sure I will feel like writing pretty often, and I’ll still have a hand in things like the FSA DS. But I just don’t feel up to the day-to-day stuff anymore. I seem to have less time than ever and am struggling to stay up on everything happening in the sport. Honestly, the amount of cycling I miss is reaching shameful levels.

I’ll get nostalgic and/or contemplative another time; my purpose for putting this out there is to let people know that if you want to get more involved, the Podium Cafe is a collective effort and Conor and Andrew will likely be interested in having more people take part. It’s been ideal to have three official editors, since the sport only seems to get busier, but apart from that more voices is how the site’s DNA stays healthy. So please, feel free to join us this year as we get ready for a transition in our management. Thanks!