By now everyone should be there, somewhere in Flanders. Men, women, mechanics, soigneurs, directeurs, sponsors — if the subject is elite bike racing, the place to be is in the northern half of Belgium.
Cobbles Season is underway.
I’ve evangelized enough in the past about the cobbled races being a season within the season. I even wrote an entire book about the matter, which if you’re into the Cafe and into reading about the cobbles, you might be interested in. If you’re more of the tl;dr crowd, the bottom line is that the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are two of the greatest days of the year, and they put an end to a three-week, slowly-building celebration of the entire sub-sport of riding bikes on really bad road surfaces. As God intended.
The rhythm of the Cobbles Season (which I define as starting Wednesday at Driedaagse de Panne and concluding at Paris-Roubaix or maybe Brabantse Pijl) is evolving again. That parenthetical alone is a bit of a jolt to anyone who had settled into the new order of things in past years, when the Milano-Sanremo folks would straggle into Zaventem, maybe in time for Dwars door Vlaanderen, a low-key-ish preview of what’s to come and a good way to warm up for the first big weekend consisting of E3 Prijs and Gent-Wevelgem. Of course, if you tuned out for a decade you might even be surprised to see Gent-Wevelgem mentioned on the weekend. But then, you have much catching up to do.
Anyway, Dwars was the event where the curtain went up, but as Flandrien ambitions grew, it became a pretty hardcore competition and showcase of what’s to come. It’s been a cracking good race for a while now, so good that they went and made it a World Tour event... at which point it outgrew its place as the opening race, where teams aren’t all on hand yet, and the fans might not be quite primed either.
Not to be forgotten is that Dwars is organized under the Flanders Classics umbrella, a consortium of races that includes the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Scheldeprijs, Gent-Wevelgem, Brabantse Pijl and even the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad from back in February. FC united these races into a heavyweight of sorts, and immediately started bossing around some of the remaining races, such as E3 Harelbeke, who eventually won a standoff with FC over pre-Ronde weekend, thanks to the excellence of that race. Anyway, now FC moves Dwars to the Wednesday before Flanders, a week later than its customary spot, swapping places with Driedaagse de Panne, owned by the Royal Sports Club of De Panne. My gut tells me that the move has more to do with FC wanting that window, knowing that fans start filtering into Flanders from all over in time for E3 or at least Gent-Wevelgem, but not for the Wednesday prior. They’re not wrong (Walter...).
So yeah, now we start with Driedaagse de Panne, which is down to a single day for each gender. Smart move, I say, by the De Panne folks, because two of the three days of the prior race were not very interesting. I was in Flanders for Driedaagse in 2010 and could only be troubled to attend een dag. Ceding two low-key race days so the women can have a top-level preview event of their own seems like a better allocation of resources.
The every-other-day pattern proceeds from there, with E3 Harelbeke on Friday and Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. E3 is just a men’s race, which might not surprise regular readers given the race’s history of atrocious poster choices. But perhaps the latest artwork is a sign of changes to come?
Uh... I have so many questions. Like, I’ve been to Texas, and to Flanders, so I really really don’t see what the connection is that they’re making. Let’s move on.
Another 40-plus hours later, and it’s time for Gent-Wevelgem. This race’s identity has been pretty well-chiseled into the cobbles by now. It’s essentially the Ronde van West-Vlaanderen, a wide, arching tour of the northwestern-most province of Belgium, unique even from its Oost-Vlaanderen companion with its flatter, more wind-swept spaces and overlay of World War tragedy. It’s culturally distinct, and favors a different set of riders even after the organizers stuffed in as many hills as they could back in 2010 or so. E3 has long had Gent-Wevelgem beat as a Ronde preview, but I have to say, Gent-Wevelgem’s marketing and the addition of the Women’s race is threatening to turn the tables on its calendar rival. Your move, Harelbekers.
From there it’s two full days to recuperate and start reconnoitering the array of hills for De Ronde. Monday next should be quiet but by Tuesday you should see scores of riders climbing the ridges between Ronse and Oudenaarde. Wednesday it’s the Dwars Dress Rehearsal, and then of course the following Sunday is the day we’ve all been waiting for, since Paris-Roubaix ended last April.
Every year the Tour of Flanders seems to sneak up on me, which is weird considering how obsessed with the race I have been for a while now. It’s like I don’t dare think about it until this week — either because it’s too far away or even as it draws nearer there are other races taking the focus. Only a fool, for example, would blow off Milano-Sanremo to add a week of Flanders obsession... but then MSR ends and suddenly the sprint to Antwerp is full-on.
I trick myself into this pattern every year, on purpose I think. It’s like being a kid and knowing that you’re going out for ice cream after dinner. Not just whatever ice cream, but your favorite place, and somehow you have reason to believe that your parents will let you order whatever you want. Maybe not everyone’s brain works this way, but for me I simply can’t think about that dessert at all while dinner is still going on. It’s too delicious for me to contemplate until it’s really almost in hand. The anticipation is overwhelming. De Ronde is the sundae with all your favorite scoops, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and a cherry on top. Even when it’s finally happening, after a year’s spent talking about the next Ronde at regular intervals, when it finally comes on I struggle to believe what I’m experiencing.
If you want to know what the real difference between Flanders and Paris-Roubaix is for me, it’s not that one race is more exciting or meaningful than the other. It’s that Flanders will always be first among equals in my heart because of the sense of the place that you get from attending the race. Northern France is lovely in its way, but the race is stretched across a yawning landscape where you can lose the thread of cobbles entirely if you don’t pay attention. You can dip into Paris-Roubaix, but once you leave and get a kilometer or so away, the race starts to recede behind the horizon pretty quickly.
But in the Vlaamse Ardennen, the heart of the Flemish hills, you are simply never not in the middle of De Ronde. Part of that is simply that unlike Paris-Roubaix, they don’t go searching for extra-special roads for the race; the surfaces of De Ronde are the regular routes of Flanders. Ride on any road and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between that and a section of the race course. If you aren’t actually on the course, chances are you won’t care much.
But it’s also spatial. You may be a few blocks from the course, but you can always see traces of it if you know where to look. You can hop on your bike and turn left or right and find a section of the race you recognize from TV or whatever. Where we holed up last year in Ronse, sitting in the hot tub of the guest house we found on the internet, we were a full three blocks from the race course. You could barely go out for pastries and not notice the word “SEP” painted on the cobbles of the Oude Kruisberg. If you walked to the market in the opposite direction, you might see the top of the Hotond sticking up. In every direction, from Geraardsbergen to Ronse to Kortrijk to Gent to Brakel, wherever you went, you were in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. As a fan and/or cyclist, of any level, it’s just a continuously beautiful feeling.
Welcome to the lead-in to that blissful state. Stick around here, we intend delve as deeply as we can into the landscape from our various DDIFP holes, and celebrate it all the way to the finish.