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Flanders Friday: Cheers to the Classics!

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KBK podium with beer AFP/Getty Images

Feeling jovial? Well, why shouldn’t you? The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, the classics are officially, officially upon us... are you thinking what I am? Yes! It’s definitely time for a beer.

Ah yes, the beer, an indelible element of the cobbled scene, from the cafes lining the course to the beer tents lined with people lining the course, to the cyclotourists relaxing in villages around Flanders on social rides with a nice cold one. The Tour of Flanders itself isn’t exactly associated with alcohol, mind you. We outsiders are more likely to conflate all things Belgium with beer — their finest export — than the cycling classics themselves try to do. So forgive us if we are surprised that there is no “Ronde van Vlaanderen, p/b Westvleteren Ale” happening.

The answer, I suspect, as to why is twofold. One, cycling and beer don’t go that well together, not at the elite level, where every calorie is ingested for a specific purpose, or not at all. Honestly, if there’s anything less healthy for the human body than alcohol consumption, it’s professional cycling, but you can’t tell those guys. The other reason is that Belgian beer is a million small (but potent) stories, as opposed to a single, easily-marketed monolithic purveyor of watery nonsense that you might find in the Netherlands United States. If a team can’t be sponsored by all of St. Sixtus, St Bernardus, Kwak, Rodebach, Leffe, Straffe Hendrik and so on, then maybe it’s best to be sponsored by none at all.

Breweries as major sponsors have never had much of a presence, oddly enough. From this list of title sponsors only three breweries appear, and none very memorable. Still, the relationship between Belgian beers and their beloved riders does exist. Two recent sponsors that are sneaking in the back door would be De Brabandere and Maes. The former, makers of the Bavik and Petrus beers, has unleashed the Kwaremont beer, with 6.6% abv set to match the gradient of the Oude Kwaremont, which has a gradient of 4.2%, but I guess it’s 6.6 if you stop where it levels off in the mini-village square. Or something. Anyway, Kwaremont has taken to sponsoring the Flanders Classics races — everything but E3 and Eendag De Panne — and giving guys enormous beer prizes, which isn’t something I could complain about. It’s also about as Flanders-friendly as they come, situated along the Leie River at the gateway to the Flemish Ardennes. I am pretty sure my first-ever ride in Belgium was briefly punctuated by their yeasty aroma on my way from Gent to Kortrijk.

Another company putting themselves out there is Maes, who have sponsored Deceuninck Quick Step since last summer. Maes, now owned by Heineken, make lighter pilsners and are touting their non-alcoholic 0.0 beer on the upper back of the DQS team kit. It’s a pretty great idea, given how alcoholism and drunk driving is responsible for so much misery, but if you can manage moderation and responsible behavior, I am guessing you can find much tastier suds.

Feel free to study up here on Belgian breweries, it’s a delicious rabbit-hole of information that pairs nicely with a trip to your local specialty bottle shop... just in time for the Classics season.

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Back to actual racing, can there be any denying that Oliver Naesen is going to win the Tour of Flanders? The AG2R star got second in Milano-Sanremo, the best finish by a Belgian rider since Tom Boonen’s second-place at MSR in 2010, which he then parlayed into... well, he didn’t quite win Flanders, but for a while it seemed he might, and he certainly looked good trying.

Cancellara accelerates Elizabeth Freer

Sigh...

Anyway, Naesen’s second was lovely, and Belgium has been starved for victory at La Primavera since Andrei Tchmiel in 1999, and before that Fons De Wolf in 1981. Whatever, they can’t win everything. More importantly though, the connection between Flanders types getting good at MSR and then being really good two weeks later is a thing, of sorts. In 2014, Alexander Kristoff won MSR and then came fifth at Flanders, just seconds off the winning group, Better still, he was second at MSR in 2015, the year he won Flanders — the very record Naesen is shooting for.

Want more?

  • John Degenkolb won MSR in 2015, ahead of Kristoff, and kept himself intact to win Paris-Roubaix the next month.
  • Peter Sagan made his first appearance on the Flanders podium, second place, in 2013, a couple weeks after taking second in MSR
  • Thor Hushovd had his best Paris-Roubaix results, third and second in 2009-10, while going third and sixth in MSR.
  • Boonen and Cancellara were all over the results pages for all three monuments, which is a trend as far as those two were concerned, if maybe not one anyone else will follow.

So, well, if nothing else, Naesen is flying and that’s a good sign. Less good (for him) is that Peter Sagan and Wout Van Aert were also flying last Saturday, and will be again this weekend and beyond. But if you’re Naesen, things look about as rosy as they can right now, and those MSR miles are a good way to sharpen your glittering form.

Trivia: There are five former Ronde van Vlaanderen winners expected to take the start this year. A pretty healthy number! Name them — in your head, not in comments, because if you’re reading this you clearly have the internet and can just look them up. Which is really kind of boring. But I think that’s the most former winners we’ve had in one place for a while.

Women’s peloton led by Ellen van Dijk hit the Plugstreets of Gent-Wevelgem
Getty Images

Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem once again features yet another reason to watch. First it was the meat in the Classics Sandwich, back when GW figured on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Then it was on Sundays and kind of came down to the Kemmelberg. Then they added more hills. Then they started calling it “In Flanders Fields” to evoke memories of WWI — which are bloody important, if maybe not connected to cycling. Now it’s the Plugstreets, a/k/a gravel roads, which are THE gimmick in cycling, from central Washington to Tuscany. Flanders has gravel — who doesn’t? — so far be it for these races to be left behind.

But news is that the Plugstreets are being loved to death. Every little race wants to include them, and tourists enjoy them as well. To the point where, Sporza reports, they are getting a bit overused. The Plugstreets are now closed to tourists and everyone but the racers, for the time being. I’m sure they’ll open up soon, because Belgium is a quiet place, not a police state with people blocking gravel paths 365 days a year. But it’s a little funny that the country that gave us the indestructable cobblestone streets (and, ahem, cyclocross) is now also touting races over a surface that has to be babied a bit.

Happy Classics Weekend!