Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Belgian Opening Weekend Ramblings


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It’s the ‘Belgian Opening Weekend’; Het Volk used to be a cult race, the teams would line up in the street just up from the Kuipke velodrome.

The first team to set up would be the late Frans Assez’s Flanders squad — no flash bus or trucks, just a ‘Luton’ style van.

But his red Flanders bikes always looked the part, neatly arranged on their stands — and as first team there they caught a lot of public attention.

Belgian Opening Weekend
The usual scrum around Tom’s team bus.

As carbon came in his frames had the ‘lumps and bumps’ in the right places — just like the Treks, but which cost so much more money.

It was all a bit chaotic but I loved it — if you were patient you’d get your bike pics and ‘sound bites.’

Belgian Opening Weekend
It’s pretty open countryside here.

It’s all so different now, not least the change of name: Het Nieuwsblad — it’s definitely been warmer the last few years, it always used to be freezing.

And there are no low budget Continental teams in the mix these days.

But many of the Pro Tour teams are there; complete with space ship buses and nylon ‘VIP’ lines to prevent folks getting too close to the bikes and riders.

Belgian Opening Weekend
Stu and John head off to use their zoom.

But the biggest change is that the race has been ‘rolled up’ with Dwars Door, Gent-Wevelgem, the Ronde, Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl to form the ‘Flanders Classics’ package complete with VIP viewing galleries, lounges and the inevitable merchandising.

The moment something sells itself as ‘cool’ or ‘cult’ it ceases to be so.

I don’t agree with all of our friend Vik’s views and originally I did think he was being extreme when he vetoed Het Nieuwsblad, but now I’m beginning to see his point.

All of that said – once you’re out amongst the hellingen and kassein, it’s the same old Het Volk.

But it’s not only the racing; it’s just being in the flatlands.

Belgian Opening Weekend
The lads meet up for a wee jar or two.

Gent is a beautiful city, there’s architectural history all around — from medieval to ultra modern and all styles in between.

My favourites are the Arte Nouveau merchants’ town houses with their amazing brickwork, balconies and great windows.

As you’d expect of a university city there are bars aplenty — we tend to shun the city centre bars which feature in the guide books, attract the tourists and charge accordingly.

Belgian Opening Weekend
When he’s not racing, Iljo can often be found in here, helping behind the bar!

Iljo Keisse’s dad’s bar, De Karper is cool, the walls and ceiling have all manner of great Gent six day and Iljo memorabilia.

There’s a good buzz in there but the music can be dubious — Flemish and French ballads are OK in ones and twos but half a dozen on the trot can be sore.

Belgian Opening Weekend
Thomas goes for the schoolboy look.

Our fave is the Vivaldi; the clientele is middle aged and serious about their drinking – whilst the juke box is simply the best.

Out of town the hellingen country is beautiful — all of the climbs in Het Nieuwsblad ascend the huge, rutted ridge above Oudenaarde.

Belgian Opening Weekend
Chava “gives it laldy”.

The geographic area isn’t vast, the climbs ramp up from different side of the ridge — for example the top of the Oude Kwaremont is just a few hundred metres from the top of the Cote de Trieu.

That’s why the race loops and squiggles, to get back to the foot of the ridge and the next leg ripper.

We always watch the finale in a bar; it’s warm, dry and good ‘craic’ with the locals.

Belgian Opening Weekend
Odd. Another photo outside a bar…

I remember we were in Chris Peers’ bar in Kruishoutem when Pippo Pozzato won — the place emptied, in silence in about 30 seconds.

For me, the vibe around Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is much better, the buses line up on the main street, the riders whizz past en route the sign-on and it’s all so much less choreographed.

Belgian Opening Weekend
Lovely Farnesi Cipollini bikes.

Bike ‘skeking’ is much more of a pleasure at Kuurne; we liked the Bretagne Schuler KTMs in their black and orange trim — different and not into five figures which seems to be the new benchmark.

Belgian Opening Weekend
KTM’s with orange ‘bar tape. See that, Vik?

If only I hadn’t seen guys Guy Smet and Tony Bracke knocking lumps out of all comers on one thousand euro bikes in the kermises.

If there’s a neg at Kuurne then it’s the race route, the last hour and more is pan flat and if the weather is benign — which it increasingly is — a bunch sprint is inevitable.

As Vik said;

“Sunday’s race was more like a Grand Tour stage.”

Classics aren’t meant to be about control and boring finales — finishes should be mad, chaotic affairs.

Belgian Opening Weekend
The juniors strung out towards the finale in their version of the classic.

And again quoting Vik;

“If I’d been a DS on Sunday night I’d have been reading the riot act. Respect to Rambo, but what’s a man of 41 doing in the break when there are young guys sitting at the back of the peloton, chatting?”

The man has a point.

Traksel’s win in foul weather, two years ago was beautiful — but weather like that is unusual in late February in globally warned Europe.

Again, it’s best to watch the finale in a bar.

Belgian Opening Weekend
L’Escale in Ronse.

Our spot was in grotty old bar – the name of the village escapes me – where the ancient patron and his equally ancient honde would greet us every year.

There was a tiny old tele in the corner — but we liked the vibe, the pils was good and as the years went past we even started to get wee bowls of nibbles.

Then one year we went and they’d gone — there was football on the TV and kids making too much noise.

Every year we have a chat about our old pal and what became of him — and the dog, of course.

Belgian Opening Weekend

Our spot for the finale now is L’Escale in Ronse — the patron gave us the back room to ourselves for this year, complete with plasma TV.

It’s always a bit subdued in the Vivaldi on a Sunday night — reason has to prevail, there’s the drive down to Charleroi in the morning.

Every year we say that we should really stay nearer the airport on the Sunday night — but then we might miss Voggue and ‘Dancin’ The Night Away’ or maybe Carol Douglas and ‘Doctor’s Orders.

And for all the moans about VIP packages at Ghent and boring last hours at Kuurne, there’s little doubt that we’ll be there in 2013.

See you there?