I arrived in Kortrijk on Friday. During the drive to the hotel that the team was staying at, I recognized the name on the signs along the road; Wevelgem, Harlebeke, Oudenaarde and so on. That’s when it dawned on me, I was in the middle of cycling history, west Flanders, the center of the spring classics.
For cycling this is legendary, much of cycling history has taken place right here. Cyclists dream about these roads where legends like Eddie Merckx and Tom Boonen have fought epic battles on. Just seeing Koppenberg and De Muur is enough to give me chills.
I was in the heart and soul of cycling, but also in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farms and open fields.
Cycling is certainly not the most glamours sport, and I was about to experience that.
I met up with our VIP guest at the hotel the day after. We had breakfast with the team and then got a tour of the team bus and the mechanic’s truck. It was fascinating to see all the preparation that goes into a race. All the soigneurs and the mechanics are focused on getting the nutrition and the bikes ready, they make sure the radios and vehicles are prepped and all details are in order. The work that you don’t see on tv is astounding.
We got in the car and went to the staring area. Riding in the VIP van was a special experience, we drove in a convoy of team cars and the bus. Going down the highway together I truly felt like I was part of the team. It felt like the “ride of the Valcyries” scene in Apocalypse Now when the choppers arrived.
At the starting area all teams park their buses, and riders go to a stage for a team presentation. It looked like the whole town of Ghent had gathered in the repurposed velodrome. One by one the teams rode up on stage to loud music and cheers from the crowd. The contrast between the calm rural roads of Flanders and the high production of the team presentation was striking.
We jumped in the van and headed off to the first stop where we would see the cyclist pass by. The driver, a former cycling pro and experienced driver, drove like we were in a heist movie, being chased by police officers. He drove the van like a racing car, and I realized he knew every part of the road like it was a Formula 1 track. He knew the cobbles, the hills, and narrow roads like the back of his hand, and he knew how to coax the van through narrow pathways and small towns.
So, there I was, in the back of the van hanging on for dear life while going in warp speed over cobbles that made my feet numb, steep hills where even our van struggled. Farms and fields passed by outside the window in a blur.
Suddenly we stopped, got out and waited by the roadside for the peloton. The trunk opened and the boot was packed with beers, sodas, snacks, and cakes. Apparently, there is nothing unusual about drinking a couples of beers before noon in Belgium during a cycling race, on the opposite, it’s kind of mandatory.
Suddenly, there was a tension building in the air, people came from nowhere and in a couple of minutes people stood in lines besides the road, cars and motorcycle appeared and helicopters in the sky closed in on us.
Like a swarm of bees, the peloton arrived and passed our corner so fast I barely managed to get my phone out to take a photo. People dispersed and we all ran back to the van to go to our next stop.
The racing is brutal, the cobbles are rough, the hills are so steep, roads are narrow, tight corners and weather is unpredictable. One minute its sunny and warm, next its freezing and pouring down rain. The roads become slippery and muddy.
After a day of windy fields, frequent beer-stops, watching the peloton storm by and more rally racing in the team van, we ended up at the finish line. The commentators were ecstatic, and the crowd cheered as the riders crossed the finish line. It was a good result for the Lotto Dstny team.
We spent some time wandering around the finish area. It’s amazing how close we are to the riders; I can’t think of another sport are the fans allowed to interact so directly with the athletes.
Cycling really is a people sport and a big party for everyone. The Flemish countryside is the arena, open for everyone. No tickets or exclusive areas to separate fans from the action, you are part of the race, right in the action. There is nothing like it, it’s a very special experience that I was fortunate enough to witness from the unique perspective in a team van racing around Flanders.