Opening Weekend - Tommeke on the Taaienberg
A crisp, bright February day. Birdsong and wisps of breath filled the cold morning air… until the oompah band rolled into town and the 2016 road racing season finally thundered into life over the cobbles and climbs of Flanders. The distant bugle call of the GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise may technically be the true réveil of the European road season, but the sense of slumber engendered by the expansionist desert campaigns is never really wiped from the eyes until battle is joined at Gent for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (that's Het Volk for those who hold tradition and lore above newspaper corporation buyouts and marketing portfolios). Whilst the debates and economic politicking surrounding distant races in the Middle East are a somewhat necessary feature of the modern landscape of professional road racing (and I cast no aspersions upon the commitment and effort of the riders sent to contest them), the physical landscape and nature of the races leaves one decidedly underwhelmed.
The saying goes, in these here parts, that spring is only truly sprung by the sighting of Tommeke on the Taaienberg. Well, perhaps it was for the early part of this century, but it now seems that an older dog can’t learn new tricks; neither can he patent the old ideas, as it was the young pups that blew proceedings apart on that steep, narrow pitch of cobbles after the race had cranked into life through its southern-most turn at Ronse.
The upstarts’ flight snapped the elastic and took off after the obligatory early break, barrelling down the deceptively terrifying Haaghoek. The legendary cobbled climbs of Flanders are much vaunted as places to watch the race clamour past and rightly so. The allure of tackling them yourself is one you should definitely succumb to. But my most memorable cobbled moment was turning the 90-degrees right from a smooth, tarmacked road, just off the N8, to be confronted with an unexpectedly steeper than planned for descent into a sleepy Flemish hollow across the instantly grip loosening ‘kasseien’ of the Haaghoek; I was getting faster and faster and my brake levers were getting further and further from my grasp…
“Stay relaxed and ride the crest!”
Go ride the Haaghoek for yourself and you’ll never again watch the peloton flattening it at 50kph + in the same light.
Sagan rode with little sign of the weight that some before him have found within the Rainbow Jersey, while Van Avermaet’s mugging of the World Champion in the finale of Saturday's Omloop will have accounted for many a long till receipt in the bars across the region that night. But, for me, the ride of the day was Jasper Stuyven, hands in the hooks, flying across the sapping, lengthy cobbled secteurs of Paddestraat and Lippenhovestraat as the race skirted the north of Zottegem. Not buying into the stasis within the herd, his lone attempt at bridging across to the move of the day may well have been doomed from the start, but his heart won many another’s with its desire. The dusty exit to the secteur brought him down and his day was done - but he had not packed a white flag into his kit bag for this weekend...
24 hours later, a somewhat fractious Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne seemed to be heading for the scripted bunch sprint. The Flemish lad from the previous day’s doomed chase had other ideas, however, delivering the cycling equivalent of the one-inch punch to floor the field before they even realised they’d been struck.
I do love a good attack from around the 16km to go mark; it means I can set my stopwatch and compare my Evening Club 10 time to the on screen escapee in their race to the line. It’s a race of truth in which I’m always the one that gets hurt.
With his dossard flailing in the wind and that big heart clinging to his sleeve, pumping belief through the veins to counter the lactic suffocating the body, Stuyven took a win that will forever live in the legend of a land in which bike racing runs deep in the blood…
Photos credit - Pieter Van Hoorebeke