Wow. What a fantastic week of racing we've just witnessed. First the Tour of Flanders, and then a HUGE win at Paris-Roubaix (the first ever by an American team) - all wrapped up in an eight-day package that, in my book, makes for some of the best pro cycling on the calendar. The racing never disappoints, but there's so much more than just the racing when we're talking about big European bike races. Mark Johnson will be following the Garmin-Cervelo squad's adventures this season as he works on a book (scheduled for publication in Spring of 2012 from VeloPress) about the team. When he's not writing content or shooting photos for the book, Mark will be bringing us unique stories about the team and the sport of cycling. Here's story number one about why the Tour of Flanders is so much more than just a spectacular race.
Everybody knows the Tour de France is the most spectacular bike race going. And everyone dreams of seeing it in person. What everybody doesn't know is that, for the best bang for your buck, the finest event on earth-one that has you both riding and watching-isn't in France at all. It's in Belgium.
The Tour of Flanders, or the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, takes place the first weekend in April. The most prestigious and hard-fought race on the Belgian calendar drags the world's top pros, including the Clif Bar-sponsored Garmin-CervÃ©lo team, over 260 kilometers of wooded hills and cobbled farm roads. But the weekend starts in earnest the day before the Ronde, on Saturday, when tens of thousands of cyclists take on the same roads as the pros in one of the world's largest rides for amateurs. First run in 1992 with 517 participants, in 2011 the cyclo-sportif event had 19,870 registered riders. Throw in a few thousand who ride without registering, and you have one big Belgian party on wheels. The start is relaxed, with riders free to roll out during a multi-hour time window from Ninove, which is also the finish town for the Tour of Flanders the next day. There are three ride distance options, 70, 140 or the full-pro monty 260 kilometer course. At 7:15 in the morning, riders pour out of the ride start area like a Yosemite Falls on wheels. The torrent is relentless; a marvelous exhibition of sheer cycling stoke. And it goes on and on for hours. Everyone from 10-year old kids on mountain bikes to 70-year olds on classic steel frames to racing-ripped 20-somethings find their place in the laughing, smiling cavalcade.
Out on the road, ride organizers offer food and drink aid stations, mechanical support and well-signed routes. Best of all, the signs direct you onto the very climbs that make the Ronde special: Koppenberg, Molenberg, Bosberg, Oude Kwaremont-16 helling in all, that have witnessed the greatest battles in cycling history. Take the one-kilometer Eikenberg. Some of the sportif riders hammer across the cobbles with the impatience of Eddie Merckx in his prime. At the top, they sweat and gasp for air. Others take their time, waving to the families who have come out to picnic and watch the cycling procession. It's magic to ride the same cobbled hills that, for Belgians, are like wooded outdoor cathedrals forever glorifying the feats of their cycling heroes. After wrapping up a memorable day in the saddle on Saturday, the weekend just gets better on Sunday.
The Tour of Flanders starts in Brugge's Market Square, which has been filled with the sounds of of shoppers, tradespeople and tinkling beer glasses since the year 958. At the start, thousands of fans line the narrow lanes that the riders follow out of town during their neutral rollout. Before the race hits the road, however, a huge stage where riders sign in is the best place to get photos of stars like Garmin-CervÃ©lo's Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar. And then the real fun begins. Armed with one of the race maps that are freely available the week before the race all over Belgium, with a rental car you can easily watch the riders pass by four or five times in a day. And these multiple access points are what distinguishes the Ronde from the Tour de France. Because the Tour of Flanders is laid out on a course that twists and turns over a relatively small area, it is a simple matter to cut across farm roads to catch the riders go up more than one of the race's famous climbs-18 in all this year. Also, since the women's Tour of Flanders runs on some of the same roads as the men's race, only starting from a different location, you can also catch the women's race at several points. Along the way, you'll make friends with cycling fans from all over the world. One tenth of the Belgian population comes out to watch the Ronde, and their love for the sport makes the day-indeed, the entire weekend-a huge cycling festival. This year, race organizers had giant screen TVs set up at the top of the Oude Kwaremont, the finish and one other location on the course. The scene at the Kwaremont was a sprawling party, complete with beer garden and fans soaking in the sunshine all along one of the most iconic hills in the world. Another thing that makes a weekend at the Ronde so pleasurable is that, compared to the Tour, it is a relatively stress-free experience for spectators. Because the Tour closes down roads hours in advance of the race, getting race access is a struggle that can suck the fun out of your day. And once you find your spot, you are pretty much stuck there because of the massive traffic jams that follow in the wake of each Tour stage. At the Tour of Flanders, roads are kept open until just before the race comes through, and that makes getting to walking distance of the race (or riding distance, if you have a bike with you) pretty darn easy. And if you get to a spot where one of Belgium's legendary frite stands snares you with its savory hot treats, you can gather round a TV that other fans have invariably brought with them and spend the rest of the day immersed in the world of Belgian cycling. It's a place like none other.
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- Le Sensation American