The following is a story from our inaugural issue. With the Flanders Classics in full swing and just a week to go before de Ronde, we thought we’d take another look. Paved Volume 1, Issue 1 is available for free download on iTunes.
By Joe Parkin | Photography by Christian Aslund
A quarter-century ago, I left my American home and set out to learn the art of bike racing in Belgium. I was a young kid who’d been doing pretty well in the junior ranks of Northern California road racing, but I wanted to see what I could accomplish across the pond. On that first day in my new home, I watched a videotape of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) that had been filmed just one week before my arrival. Roughly halfway through the coverage, I asked, “What is so hard about this race?” with equal parts arrogance and ignorance. After all, the Ronde is primarily flat, and other than a few short, steep, cobblestone-covered hills, there doesn’t seem to be anything to sort out the great riders from the also-rans.
Racing against the best in the world in the Tour of Flanders just two years later, I found out just how stupid a question that had been.
When you live in Belgium—a country shrouded in low clouds and misty rain for much of each year—you quickly learn to enjoy the simple things, or you simply lose your mind. The Dutch-speaking Belgians do just that, as their lot in life seems to be one of surviving adversity, quietly, and with a smile. The Flemish culture is, indeed, one of steadfast determination. Every winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Belgian or not, has embodied that quiet, never-say-die drive, besting the world’s greatest cyclists on the roads of Flanders.
Most of the world would look out upon a rainy race morning and declare it a disaster. Not Belgium. The people of Flanders want their cycling heroes to exhibit the same stone-tough qualities they do. Indeed, a Ronde van Vlaanderen without rain is almost a B-level race to them. So it was not all that surprising, even, to see the hordes of Lion of Flanders flag-waving spectators assembled in the main square in Brugge (Bruges), hours before the race would start. By the start time, it was so crowded that we could hardly move.
As a racer, you sometimes forget the spectators. You don’t take them for granted—you’re always aware of them, but seeing them from new eyes, so to speak, gave me a whole new appreciation for this sport’s popularity. And as the riders were launched into the streets of this medieval city and the hundreds of motorcycles, cars and trucks moved, almost invisible in the crowd, the church bells began to ring. They would continue for more than 10 minutes as we followed the masses out of town.
After 20 years away from Flanders, it felt good to drive the familiar roads that lead to the Flemish Ardennes—the small, steep climbs that give this race so much of its flavor. Surprisingly, I was able to find my way around like I had never left; the twists, turns and landmarks seemingly imprinted upon my very soul. I burdened photographer Christian Aslund with shooting this event without media credentials, meaning he’d have no all-access pass—no ride on the back of a press motorcycle.
The roads are busy on this race day, as many fans endeavor to watch the riders pass at multiple locations. We wanted to truly soak up the culture, so we decided to make our way to the Eikenberg—my favorite of the Flemish Ardennes climbs—and claim our spot in the crowd.
Even after grabbing a quick bite in Brugge and driving for nearly an hour, we’d still have at least a couple of hours before the first riders would ascend the cobbled climb. But the spectators were already starting to assemble, and publicity people were handing out noisemakers and Lion of Flanders flags. Best of all, young kids were selling Coke, Fanta and beer.
The excitement continued to mount as snippets of information echoed through the crowd as reported by race radio or the odd mobile-phone update. Each vehicle to come into view at the base of the hill sparked another wave of excitement, until finally, what we’d all stood for hours to see was announced by the Rodania watches timing car. “Rodania….” Belgian race fans have been treated to this same musical warning since the 1950s. With necks craned, we all stood on tiptoes, waiting to catch a glimpse of the leaders, wondering just who would be on the front of this group. Would it be one of Belgium’s favorites?
But life in Belgium and racing don’t always give you what you want, and while we had all hoped to see a long string of suffering faces, we were presented with a compact group of riders, spread across the entire width of the Eikenberg’s lane-and-a-half-wide surface. Everyone in that crowd wanted to see these guys attacking each other like prizefighters. And while we were disappointed that we didn’t witness some pivotal moment in this year’s Ronde, we understood the battling that had already served to whittle the starting group of 200 down to this remaining group of 50 or so.
After the last few stragglers made their way past, we spectators made our mass exodus. Many of these fans were off to Meerbeke to catch the finish, but most would retire to their living rooms or a local café to watch the finale live on TV. We followed others into a small café just a half-mile from the top of the Eikenberg. The crowd assembled there was packed tight, all eyes glued to one of the three television sets.
By the time we wiggled our way to the bar and got our first round of “pintjes,” the two favorites, Belgium’s Tom Boonen and Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara, had made their way clear of the rest. I played commentator for one of the bartenders, who couldn’t quite see how “Tommy” was doing. Everyone in the café was on the edge of their seats, hoping their national champion would deliver a win in their race.
When Boonen could no longer follow Cancellara’s wheel on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the most painful, collective gasp filled the café. A non-Belgian would win. But no one left, no one screamed obscenities. And when the Swiss rider crossed the line, arms in the air, the café followed suit with a round of honest, respectful applause. He’d beaten the world’s best on the roads of Flanders—the people of that region will always appreciate that.