Sunday was a big one with the main objective being the Tour of Flanders, or as the locals call it, Ronde Van Vlaanderen! Needless to say, we were pretty excited to finally see this famous race unfold before our very own eyes - especially this year with Tom Boonen's recent run of successes and Fabian Cancellara's pursuit to correct his results from last year. Most of the country, here, was excited like us - to see who would win, Fabian or Tom. To any Belgian, this is the most important race of the cycling calendar!
After another hearty breakfast of pastries, fruit, granola, and eggs, we left just a bit early to swing by a bike shop in order to replace Mark's seatpost that snapped over the cobbles to Roubaix. It was a shop owned by a friend of William's - a nice, clean boutique style shop that sold Eddy Merckx and Pinarello as well as Specialized. It ended up being closed, much to William's surprise, and we ended up pushing on towards a spot around the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, where we were to set up camp to watch the race. The Paterberg is a long, cobbled climb just outside of Avelgem and Oudenaarde, where the race would climb three times as a part of a funky, fun-filled loop. This loop was intended to allow the fans a chance to see the race without having to move around - plus, it gave the new owners of the race a chance to control the area, charging fans to eat as well as see the race in VIP sections. This was and still is a big contention amongst the cyclists and fans alike - why change the route of a race that's been pretty much the same for years?! Word on the street is, since the restaurants along the old route refused to pay the new race owners any sort of fee or tax to feed fans along the race route, the new owners simply decided to move the route and assure themselves of full, financial control over where the fans spent their money. A stupid reason, if you ask me, to change an iconic race for the sake of money?! Everyone knows that this race means more to the fans and certainly the cyclists than making money.
Regardless, we knew where to find the best spot for our campsite. So, with our beers and flag, we headed for the Paterberg, about 71 km's from Westouter. We parked along the old route and hiked, checking out where the race had taken place just last year. The Tour of Flanders is not an easy bicycle ride, mind you - the cobbles, the hills, the length, the hills, the cobbles...I think you get the idea. You know, there is one thing I've noticed about these great climbs in Belgium, they really not very long - some are actually quite short, but where they may lack in length, they most definitely make up for in steepness! They sometimes hit well over 20% gradient and most of those steel ascents have the cobbles mixed in. Now you have yourself one tough climb - I don't care how short the distance. Oh, and I failed to mention the weather - if those cobbles climbs are at all wet or if it's raining, good luck, my friends. You'll need it.
Today's weather, however, was to be a sunny one - originally there was rain in the forecast, but thankfully, that changed and we had a nice, dry day to comfortably watch our heros pass. We set up shop near that VIP section that I had spoken of earlier - you can see some of the blue stadium seats in a few of the photos. They were trying to coral the fans away from this area, but our guide, William, told the "guard" that this was a free road and we were going to use it no matter what. Ha. So, we did. Our spot was great - on the Paterberg right near the big screen where the race was being broadcasted for the fans to watch, eat frites and drink beer. We had our very own beer from William and Alex - the delicious MALTENI brew, the name being a play on the old Eddy Merckx team, MOLTENI, which was a furniture company back in the day. They label shows Eddy's old jersey. Brilliant.
Once we found our spot, we unraveled the Velominati flag (black with a big "V" in the center) and started our beer picnic (with sandwiches and frites, of course)! You'll have to pardon my race pics - they aren't the best as I haven't quite mastered the digital camera quite yet - at least not with action shot, unfortunately. The first bunch are of the pro women, who went past just once. We saw Kristen Armstrong in a 2-lady break-away. We had heard later that she lost the sprint and took second. Oh well. Good to see 3-4 American women up front for sure! So, as I had mentioned, our spot was to give us 3 passes of the the race - the last pass being the most exciting, of course. We just happened to be at the spot just when Pozzato started to bridge a gap up to Ballan, just after Ballan attacked the peloton. He took Boonen with him, which is something I'm sure that he didn't really want, thus the two Italians then found themselves in a bit of a sprinting "pickle," if you will. Boonen is hard to beat in the sprint. You can see in the photos a bit of a breakdown in the action.
Actually, we found ourselves on EuroSport - at least found the Velominati flag waiving in the background - they show us 2-3 times. If you click on the YouTube link and watch with about 18km's to go, you'll see Ballan escaping and Pozzato/Boonen chasing. At 49:54 and on you'll see a black flag on your right - that's where we were all day. It was awesome!
What wasn't awesome was having to say good-bye to Jeff - shortly after the race, he headed back to Lille to catch a train to Paris for his flight home. I am SO thankful that he was able to join me on this great adventure - I am certain that we'll be back out here again soon. Thanks, Jeff!
The day ended with another incredible meal - mashed potatoes and pork with gravy. Uff, perfect fuel for cycling!