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Twelve Days in Belgium:
 The Northern Classics 2002


Story and Images by Tony Szurly
Copyright (c) by Tony Szurly. All rights reserved.


Editor's Note: DP Reader Tony Szurly spent 12 days in Belgium watching the great races and riding the courses. This is the first of his reports for the Daily Peloton.


Graslei.JPG (46706 bytes)



Ronde van Vlaanderen

I’ve always wanted to see the northern Spring Classics. For me, these races more than any others always seemed to capture the true essence of bike racing. Tradition, hardship and heroics all immersed in a culture that truly embraces the sport of professional cycling. It appeared as if this season could see the passing of a select group of cycling’s current generation of stars. Mario Cipollini, Johan Museeuw, Andrei Tchmil and my personal favorite Andrea Tafi had all hinted that this could be their last year. So with this in mind, I decided to pack up the bike and head to Belgium for 12 days of riding and race watching. The opportunity to sample over 400 Belgian beers and what is widely considered the best chocolate in the world was merely a fringe benefit!

I arrived in Brussels on a beautiful sunny Friday. A quick train trip landed me at Sint Pieters-Gent station where I loaded my bike case into a taxi and into the Centrum. It didn’t take me long before I succumbed to the siren’s song and found myself at a café table off the Graslei, Lindeman’s gueuze in hand. I had to marvel at all the people riding 40 pound bikes effortlessly along the cobbled lanes.

I had booked with a UK tour company and the schedule for the next day called for us to ride the Ronde van Vlaanderen randonee over the 14 climbs of the race route. As I sat at the table and looked at the profiles of the various bergs, I wondered if I should order up something stronger. 20% climbs on cobbled roads? That 25 cog I had put on in the back was looking awfully good right now.


How do you describe the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Wielertoeristen? How about 13,000 people of all shapes, sizes, nationalities and bike persuasions clawing their way up ridiculously narrow and steep cobbled farm paths, stopping for a quick glass of Maes Pils or Stella Artois at most opportunities. And they pay to do it! There were club teams in matching kit, riders in their favorite team’s pro gear and lots of mountain bikes.

It was a very windy but clear day and the first climbs came up fairly quickly in the ride. As I went up and over the Oude Kwaremont, I was really enjoying the camaraderie and atmosphere. All this changed as we rounded the bend towards the Paterberg. It looked like a wall. I laughed out loud at the sight of it and everyone went into survival mode. Some people came off and walked. Riders were weaving on the narrow cobbled lane and more than a few fell off as their speed dropped below the balance threshold. I learned some Flemish- "pas op" means watch out, and there were lots of other "encouraging phrases" that didn’t need translating! Next up was the Koppenberg, recently re-cobbled for this year’s Ronde. It was still a bit sandy from all the work. I stopped once when a rider in front came off and took the opportunity to rest and take some pictures. It was hard to clip back in and get going again on the steep climb. The cobbled downhills were no rest and as I rattled down I kept thinking I would look back and see a trail of various Campagnolo bits behind me. There were motos on the course, barriers and banners, and the camera helicopters appeared to do their final checks of the route for Sunday. On the Taaienberg, a car coming up met a car going down and they sat at an impasse, neither able to move because of the thousands of cyclists. They must have been there for hours. At the end, I got my souvenir T-shirt in Ninove and headed back to Gent. In a bistro on the Korenmarkt, we raised our chalices of Westmalle Dobbel and toasted the pros for being able to actually race up these unbelievable roads. Tomorrow would be glorious!





Steenbeekdries (and Tony)


Race Day - Ronde van Vlaanderen   

A clear but cold morning greeted the riders at the start in the Brugge’s Grote Markt. The colorful building and flags were a contrast to the fans, most of whom were dressed in browns and blacks. The announcer was apparently very funny as he introduced the riders, but as all the jokes were in Flemish, I felt a bit out of it. There was one time when the announcer was asking a journalist on stage to name his favorites. He started with "Museeuw, Van Petegem…", and then out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a rider coming up the steps. Without missing a beat, he added "and, of course, Fabian De Waele" just as the Mapei pro stepped on stage. It was set up so that the riders could ride around the sign-on stage and head off. The neos and domestiques all rode straight off, but you could tell the true stars as they strategically paused and preened along the catwalk, giving their fans a chance for a longer glimpse and a photo.

Who’s the most popular rider in Belgium? Ludo Diercksens, if you judged by the cheers he received. Cipollini, resplendent in the World Cup leader’s jersey and Johan Museeuw, the undisputed King of the Classics, also got huge ovations. We had live TV in the coach to follow the race and saw it pass in Gistel, Museeuw’s hometown, and Waregem, where an unlucky Phonak rider hung onto a team car for dear life at 40 mph on cobbles as a mechanic fixed his rear brake. Our guide described the day as a car rally with a bike race going through it. As soon as the race passed, everyone would jump in their cars and screech off to the next sighting. Next we headed to a small pub between the Knokteberg and the Kwaremont. It was packed tighter than a fat man in spandex, but we had a quick Stella while we watched TV and then it was out onto the climb. I couldn’t get over the sight of men and women, in dresses and coats and ties, clamboring up the banks of the climb to get a better view of the race. Then we ran across a field so we could watch them come up the Kwaremont. The fans were waving the yellow lion of Flanders flags and cheering on their favorites. The race was still together at this point, all the big guns were still there but domestique deluxe Armstrong was clearly suffering. This ain’t no Ride for the Roses, Tex!

Our last viewing was on the Muur de Geraardsbergen, the meanest looking climb you ever saw - a twisting, narrow, snaggle-toothed bugger of a road that was destined to decide the winning group. The crowd was packed along the road, reducing the passage to single file. The helicopter overhead told us the lead group was near and then Van Petegem, Museeuw, and my man Tafi powered their way up. Tafi was clearly on the rivet on the climb. The next small group had Cassani, Hincapie, Sorensen and the race was being blown apart. Cipo’s train was in full cry, but it wasn’t the vaunted Red Guard or even the Zebratos. It was his legion of fans that took turns hand slinging Super Mario up the Muur. Behind him a hapless Fassa Bortola rider begged for the same help, but no one paid him any mind. The parade of the shattered continued and then we headed down into the square to watch the finish on the big TV. Everyone was sure either PVP or Johan would get the win and the celebrating had already started when Il Tafone went away for what could arguably be the biggest win of his career. Tafi had just won the Ronde! I wanted to whoop it up and celebrate but as I looked around, I felt like a lone United fan in Liverpool and decided to keep it to myself. All around me the Belgian fans just shook their heads and muttered.

That night I met three friends in Gent and got religion - Trappist monk style. I was intoduced to some of the brothers’ finest works, and some of the best beer I have ever had- Orval, Rochefort and Westvleteren, in a dark, pokey place on the Vrijdagmarkt called the Trollekelleder- the troll cellar. It was 2 am when we finished celebrating Tafi’s win. Two of my friends hopped on their bikes to ride home over the cobbles, which in itself was a Belgian Classic display of its own!


Trollekelleder - The Troll Cellar

Ronde van Vlaanderen - The Start

Ronde van Vlaanderen - The Race

Ronde van Vlaanderen - The Race (continued) 


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