I go to the deli to get my sandwich, the same sandwich I get everyday, and the guy behind the counter tells me that he is flying to Belgium tomorrow to watch the Ronde. I think maybe I'm doing it wrong: He's getting on a plane to Belgium, I'm sitting here at my coffee shop writing about it. He asks me what I think of Tom Boonen's chances, and I mumble something about how the Ronde is hard to predict and anything can happen and Chavanel, maybe. I sure know a lot about this bike-racing thing.
Yes, it's the season of cobbles and crosswinds and things that go bump in the night. The foreplay is over—we've done two days of this and the three days of that—now it's on to, well, it's on to whatever comes after the foreplay if you know what I mean. And I think you do.
This is Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix week. It's the time of long, lingering close-ups of rain-slick stones and mud-spattered legs.
If the problem at Milano-Sanremo was a surfeit of metaphors, the Ronde is a disaster of adjectives. Epic epic epic epic epic. I hear it in my head like Mad Max's witch. I'm not a witch! I'm your wife! Humperdink! Humperdink! Epic. There should be a rule.
While you're regulating important things like saddle setback and such, please consider banning all use of the word epic in relation to bike racing.
I have a really good feeling about this. These open letters always work out for me. There could be sanctions, even. At first use, you get a warning. Subsequent use? Banhammer, baby! No more epic bike racing for you.
And then there's grueling. Grueling sounds like Dickens' breakfast: runny, colorless, and not that good for you.
Looking at photos of the roadsides packed with exuberantly drunk cycling fans—photos, because we've established that I'm here at the coffeeshop, not in Belgium—it's hard to imagine that it has not always been this way.
But at the time of the first Ronde van Vlaanderen, cycling in Belgium really wasn't really all that. Inconceivable, I know. The country had only one major race and it wasn't the Ronde. Instead, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, cycling's oldest classic, was Belgium's only big bike race until 1913. Take that, Oudenaarde!
Then a Belgian, Odile Defraye, won the Tour de France in 1912. Defraye's feat inspired the founding of a Belgian sports weekly, Sportwereld, and in the early 20th century, where there was a newspaper, a bike race was almost sure to follow. In May 1913, Sportwereld organized the first edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
This was the era when men rode their bikes for ridiculously long distances, and the first edition of the Ronde ran over 330 kilometers. Only 27 riders signed up for this excellent adventure and local boy Paul Deman won. Deman also later won the 560 kilometer monster, Bourdeaux-Paris. Apparently, 330 kilometers just wasn't enough for him.
Until after the Second World War, the Ronde ran on the same day as Milano-Sanremo. Italy or Belgium: What would you choose? You said Belgium, didn't you. I heard you say Belgium. Are you kidding me? People, the pasta is soggy, it rains all the time, and there's no wine. Also, Flemish is harrrddd. How many more days until the Giro? Because I'm totally counting right now.
On the subject of counting, five riders comprise the elite club of three-time Ronde winners. No one has ever won it more than three times, but Boonen could certainly change that before his career is done. No pressure, Tom. Just you know, the weight of history and stuff.
In truth, I like Chavanel's chances at the Ronde better than those of Boonen this year. Chavanel, he gives good bike race. He finished second at the Ronde in 2011, and his ride at Milano-Sanremo this year was all the awesome. No one is ever going to ignore Boonen, of course, but Boonen is a tactical gift for Chavanel, all wrapped up with a bright yellow Lion of Flanders bow. The Belgian's presence frees Chavanel to go up the road with impunity.
After the display of badassery from Cancellara at the E3, though, it is hard to look past him as the favorite for the Ronde. (I'd like the UCI to rule on unpoetic race names like E3, too, but one thing at a time.) Cancellara loves him some breakaway, and he has won the Ronde solo once already. How about another? After his throwdown at E3, it's hard to see why not.
What about Sagan, you'll be asking. He can wheelie, you'll be saying. Can he wheelie up the Kwaremont? That, my friends, would be something to see. At Milano-Sanremo, I won a beer off a friend by betting the field against Sagan. I'm going to stick with that bet. You guys take Sagan, I'll take the field, and I'll drink all the beer when it's over. Mmm, beer.
The Ronde is a race that rarely turns up a surprise winner, though an experienced wildcard like Pippo Pozzato is not a bad pick. The new loopy course has changed the rhythm of the finale, but has not made the Ronde easier. Kwaremont-Paterberg: It's no country for weak legs. The winner will almost certainly be a rider you already know.
No doubt it will be an epic victory after a grueling day of brutal racing over the punishing cobbles in hellish weather. The strongest, smartest rider will take the most important victory of his career. Then, we'll all go drink beer.