“I do not despair” experiences the Tour of Flanders (1 – racing and riders)

Tour of Flanders

I am still buzzing from my visit to De Ronde Van Vlaanderen on Sunday, it was a top day out.

And many thanks to my followers and tweeters who loved the photo of Cancellara attacking Sagan on the Paterberg. Key moments in cycling can be spread out over hundreds of kilometres, that’s why it is sometimes a better sport on TV than live but now I have watched the TV highlights a number of times I realise even more what a privilege it was to be there at just the moment when the race was won.

For the full “I do not despair” experience I have selected three blog subjects that summarise my memories of my first Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

  1. The race itself. It really was top drawer single day classic racing with the top guys going mano a mano, no negative racing here.
  2. The location. A big shout out to Vincent Meershaert, cycling fan and transport consultant from Ghent whose advice on where to go and how to get there was spot on. The Paterberg was not only the key climb it was a perfect setting for watching and it attracted a boisterous crowd who brought the authentic atmosphere of Flemish cycling.
  3. Riding through the Flemish Ardennes. We chose to park and ride a round trip of about 40km through the countryside to get to the race. Thanks to guidance from Vincent we had a stunning ride on almost deserted roads which only added to the occasion.

Post 1: The race.

I really worried that we might be stuck on a hillside without a sense of the race unfurling, getting just fleeting glimpses of a peloton of riders until a final thrash up the Paterberg and then they would go away and we would only find out the result later that night.

Not a chance. A big screen was visible most of the way up the hill which combined with the chatter of the fans in multiple languages and regular updates on Twitter meant that we were in touch the action the whole time. Plus the position of the Paterberg at the centre of the closing circuits of the race meant that there were circulating helicopters alerting us to the approach and location of the riders throughout the final two hours of riding.

And the Peterberg itself gave fantastic views of the riders snaking down from the Oude Kwaremont at high speed before they hit the bottom of the vicious cobbled climb where the riders funnelled so close to us you could smell the pain. Oh the indignity, some of the hardest riders in world cycling grovelling up among the cars.

Breakaway group

So here is a small gallery of my favourite racing shots as the race unfurled.

186km gone and the break of the day sweeps down from the Oude Kwaremont and then battling up the Paterberg, great team effort by Lotto, especially big Andre Greipel who certainly isn’t built for this. In this picture you can see not only

Breakaway group

the group from the front but the camera tracking them on screen.

And then the peloton, carefully controlled by the strong teams but not yet flat out on the climb, Welsh rider Geraint Thomas well to the fore and looking settled.

Tour of Flanders

Tour of FlandersOnly when enlarging a photo did I notice that Cancellara and Sagan were already inseparable, the wise old head keeping an eye on the younger man.

219km, second time up and the pressure was on, the much smaller bunch was straining and there were a lot more riders down in the team cars. Thomas had crashed and despite flying up the climb he was already being baulked by cars and backmarkers, his game was up.

Tour of FlandersTour of Flanders

Finally we saw the race unfold on the big screen as Cancellara hit the afterburners on the Oude Kwaremont and only Sagan could hold him. They caught Jurgen Roelandts and then we watched the trio fly down the valley below us and then heard the noise erupt along the roadside. 243km and just 13 km to go, this had to be the moment and everybody knew it.

From my viewpoint I suddenly saw Sagan come in to sight on the far side of the road and knew I had a great photo. I didn’t know just how great until Cancellara burst in front of me absolutely flying, just in time to click. I didn’t dare study the picture until the evening, I had the sense it might be special, especially because we then saw him ride away to the win from that point.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen Paterberg

Meanwhile our vantage point gave some great views of the following pack, straining their every sinew to form a chasing group. Not many sports let you get this close to the best. This selection includes Alexander Kristoff, eventual 4th with Johann Vansummeren 20th, Marcus Burkhardt 22nd and Geraint Thomas who lost 2:49 to finish 41st. At the top of the page are Lars Boom, Flecha and Jerome.Tour of Flanders

Tour of Flanders

Geraint Thomas

Everybody moved down the hill to watch the finale on the big screen where a burst of sporting applause from the Belgians and cheering from the Swiss accompanied the pictures of Cancellara crossing the line.

They don’t call the great races “The monuments” for nothing, and this was a classic worth of the name.