Getting old(er) is all about things changing, and not.
I’ve told my cycling fan origin story a few times, about how my friend Steve popped the TV on to the 1985 American TV broadcast of Paris-Roubaix, which probably happened earlier that day or week, and I found my brain arrested by images of people mud-wrestling on skinny bikes in incredibly dramatic fashion. It was a short walk from there to the 1985 Tour, especially since many of the protagonists rode both, but anyway that was an era when a foreigner could have an easy time developing a new connection to this crazy sport. It was LeMond and Hinault and Kelly and Fignon (and Madiot) and some seriously sensationalized coverage on American TV, as well as around Europe.
But that didn’t make me a Flanders fan, per se. Flanders wasn’t shown and barely even mentioned in the coverage somewhere. I suppose Paris-Roubaix teed up my future interest in races with cobblestones, but that’s about it.
Honestly, I don’t really know what triggered my Flanders obsession, some combination of churches and cobbled hills and gloomy weather, all of which I love for some reason. It just seeped in over time, particularly in the early Aughts when George Hincapie, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara were waging war around the region. It was, and is, a gloriously aesthetic event, pumped up by its legions of fans from all walks of Belgian life, and I don’t really have any regrets about my own excitement reaching levels in around 2010 that resemble Tom Cruise from jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. I do feel a little sheepish about doing that (I think typically American) thing of getting a little too excited about things happening outside the US before you even know what they are? But hey, at least I know how to pick ‘em.
Roughly two decades later, my love of Flanders and the races which showcase the region is very different. Of course, the races themselves are very different, and I have mixed feelings about all that. They seem more commodified, especially Gent-Wevelgem, which has been marketed as a World War I remembrance that is both too much and not enough. Too much because if you’ve watched the race for a long time, it’s a little strange for this to have suddenly become the image of the race, tagged with a well-known English poem, which doesn’t speak to the race’s real roots. And not enough because no bike race with some gravestones in the background will ever adequately convey both the depth of the tragedy and the urgency for people to really, I mean really, remember what happened before we collectively forget. [Go there in person for that, or to northern or eastern France.] But now I have already digressed.
Anyway, the races have changed from a hidden treasure to events that have been discovered and embraced by what seems like the entire world. They are like every city’s signature neighborhood whose most authentic passed about two years before you ever heard of it. If you’ve ever laughed about how expensive apartments are in New York’s Meatpacking District, you know what I am talking about.
But I am not against any of this! Not only because that would make me a huge hypocrite, but also because I lived through the financial struggles that put these and other races on their back heels as the sport wrestled to control the doping demon within. I talked about this in the Courses post last week, the tl;dr version being that financial health and the newly settled course designs go hand in hand now, and for the foreseeable future. It’s not really worth romanticizing about the old Ronde course, which you can see in the Omloop anyway.
No, to me Flanders is still Flanders. It’s still a love affair at home. It still features a string of charming, bucolic landscapes and village squares ripped from the 14th century. I no longer think Oost Vlaanderen has a monopoly on such places — and spent part of the winter trying to convince my teenage son that we should spend spring break somewhere outside Amsterdam. But the way De Ronde and its warmup events use these ingredients, along with the race length, the history, the sequence of punchy climbs and so forth, to perfection is what makes it all great. It’s just a bike race through just another part of Old Europe, but that’s still as good as it gets.
But perhaps the biggest change is my love of the competition. I suppose back in 2010 all of my reviews mentioned guys like Pozzato and Ballan and Hoste and Hincapie and whoever was the hot new talent at Rabobank as legitimate challengers to the Cobbles throne occupied by Tom Boonen — and then snatched away, at times, by Fabian Cancellara. That was a golden era that peaked in, I dunno, 2010? Boonen’s huge 2012 run was his last big hurrah, and that was without Cancellara in the picture. After that, there was some more Fabian, then a bunch of cobbles hardmen checking their lifetime boxes. Until Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert came along, it seemed like something special had stopped happening a decade ago.
Now, though, competition is really as great as it can be. The comp would be Young Fab and Tom in like 2006, which was really wonderful... I guess. The bigger picture of cycling in 2006 is not fondly remembered. That now you have young stars doing incredible things feels at least 30% easier to appreciate. It just is what it is.
And more so. The field is truly packed beyond the top two. I covered all the teams last week and need not dredge it all up again. I’ll just point out that Van Aert and van der Poel just turned 28; their chief Flanders rival Pogačar is 24; Pidcock is 22 and just getting started. Guys like Asgreen, Benoot, Pedersen, Küng, Ganna, Mohorič... all plausible threats to take a podium now, these guys are all under 30. Maybe even add Nielson Powless to that list? Anyway, the competition is as robust as ever, both in terms of top talent and depth, and it’s all younger guys doing it. When has it been better? In the 1980s? The 70s? At some point these are pointless comparisons because of the sport’s changes. So in short, there is a very good argument that the racing right now is as good as it gets.
Now plunk that down on a long, exhausting one-day race of the highest importance, with all of the elements that make the Ronde van Vlaanderen so lovable, and now you have something truly amazing to celebrate. Like I said, I don’t regret my past enthusiasm for de Ronde, like I don’t regret my relationships in my 20s. But this feels more real, less giddy but more substantive. This is its own peak for my personal cycling experience.
Come on, Sunday. Let’s fucking go...