ROAD BOOK RETROSPECTIVE
In the build-up to this weekend’s edition of The Tour of Flanders, have a read of Thomas van den Spiegel’s excellent essay from The Road Book 2021. This essay was one of our editor, Ned Boulting’s favourite ‘Classics’ themed pieces and as such has been selected to join the Road Book Retrospective series.
If you’re born in Flanders, there’s a bigger chance than anywhere else in the world that you will become a cycling fan. That’s exactly what happened to me.
My earliest cycling memory dates back to the sacred year of 1986. My uncle took me to go and see the Under-23 Tour of Flanders. It was a hectic day in which we did the traditional thing of trying to watch the riders come past as many times as possible, before getting to the finish in time to see Edwig Van Hooydonck take the win. Van Hooydonck would go on to become a local hero by repeating his feat in the professional race in 1989 and 1991.
My education as a cycling fan was further defined, at least in my eyes, by the dominance of the Panasonic team of Peter Post, Eric Vanderaerden, Eddy Planckaert and all the others. Their kit was beautiful and their Mercedes cars set them apart from the rest. And, of course, I clearly remember the great LeMond–Fignon duel at the 1989 Tour de France.
I would have loved to become a cyclist. They’re the real heroes in Flanders. But my talent lay elsewhere, namely on a basketball court. That led to a professional career that lasted 18 years, during which I experienced cycling passively. I was a passionate fan of the sport, and would never miss a big race, especially not the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders.
There was not a single bit of me that imagined that the course my life had taken would one day intersect with the cycling world in the way it has done. But after several twists and turns, I find myself enormously grateful to be in a position where I can help to build cycling. It is something so close to our hearts, something that we in Flanders consider to be a part of who we are. It’s often said that cycling in Flanders is a religion, and that’s not far from the truth. Not a day goes by without cycling featuring prominently in the newspapers. And for most of us the names Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremontand Muur van Geraardsbergen mean so much more than just a series of cobbled climbs to be visited and ticked off a bucket list.
At Flanders Classics we are involved in about 70 to 80 events a year that revolve around cycling. We’re not the biggest professional cycling organiser in the world – we don’t have a Tour de France or a Giro d’Italia, for example – but we do aim to be the most inspiring and innovative for all fans, regardless of their age, race or gender. Sport in general has become part of the entertainment industry in recent years and the battle for fans’ attention is very fierce. That’s a boat that cycling in general simply cannot afford to miss, and we at Flanders Classics in particular owe it to ourselves to challenge one another to innovate, rejuvenate and become more and more inclusive.
The Ronde is by far our biggest event (with the exception of the Road World Championships 2021, but we don’t organise them every year!). We have seen the Ronde grow year by year on all fronts. Every spring around a million people gather by the side of the road to try and catch a glimpse of their heroes.
In 2011 to we took the bold decision to make Oudenaarde the centre of the experience for 2012, with three climbs of the Oude Kwaremont and two of the Paterberg, which meant that the Muur van Geraardsbergen was no longer the final obstacle. It was met with a lot of misunderstanding at the time, but it has since proved to be entirely the right decision. The thing is that when you touch the race, you are actually touching the identity of the Flemish people. But such emotions should never stand in the way of progress and the sport’s best interests. Over the last ten years there has been a steady rise in the crowd sizes, with more for them all to experience, and every year the race has provided an opportunity for the best riders to race it in their own way.
I made my debut at the Ronde – sadly not as a rider but as an organiser – in 2019. The men’s edition was won by Alberto Bettiol, with Marta Bastianelli taking the women’s race. It was, for Bettiol, a first-ever professional win. But even though he had been riding well all spring, including finishing fourth in Harelbeke a week earlier, his victory was not enjoyed as much by the fans as if, say, Greg Van Avermaet or a rider from a Belgian team had won. But, as an organiser, you try to look at things in a more rational way. In the context of hosting an international race, having two Italian winners could hardly be a bad thing. And in the meantime, Alberto has of course gone on to become an absolutely top-class rider, as well as being a fantastic ambassador for the Ronde.
Now we are almost three years and two editions of the race further on: two editions that will be recorded in the annals of history as having been raced without a crowd. But two editions that also signalled the definitive breakthrough of a clutch of superstars of today’s global cycling: Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Kasper Asgreen. Two editions that have also put us on the map, that have shown us to be a strong organisation. Not even a global pandemic, with its first and second waves, could stop us – not even when others, like Paris–Roubaix, were repeatedly halted.
But this year’s edition was even more challenging than the previous year. We had managed, in October 2020, to get cycling fans to stay at home. We had done it once. But how do you do that twice? The discipline shown by the fans last year in not coming to the race and only following it on television showed just how important we Flemish think the Ronde is. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of the authorities, the media and the virologists, who were all too aware that the Ronde – even without fans by the side of the road – would be a welcome diversion after months of lockdown. We consistently referred to those races of October 2020 (we also organised the Gent–Wevelgem, the Brabantse Pijl and the Scheldeprijs during that period) as our test events for 2021. People got tired of hearing me recite over and over again in newspapers or on the television: ‘Stay home, stay home and stay home!’ We knew that if we could all pull together to do this, then there would be no hesitation from the government’s side in allowing us to organise the entire Flemish spring of 2021. And that’s exactly what happened.
But in 2021 – even more so than in 2020, when I had been proud and happy just to have been able to organise the race – I couldn’t help thinking one thing: if only these stars of cycling could tackle the Oude Kwaremont flanked by two walls of people shouting their encouragement and with the smell of chips and beer. We got nothing of the sort. It was surreal. A deafening silence, broken only by the sound of the riders’ breathing and their gearsets working.
The best photographers from across the world were producing beautiful imagery and, on television, the race was still going strong. In fact, it had never been watched more on TV. Personally, I had never followed more of the race with my own eyes than I did in this edition, not even when I had been a fan. The climbs of the Flemish Ardennes were so empty that I could pass easily from one spot to the next, and watch from a number of different places. I saw the riders at the start, in Sint-Niklaas, on the Paddestraat, three times up the Oude Kwaremont, twice on the Hotond, on the Steenbeekdries and then at the finish. But this wasn’t what we wanted. We wanted the public, the emotion. We hoped we’d never repeat our little trick again. Every day I cross my fingers that it’ll never happen like that again.
And yet, there were a number of reasons to be very proud of the 2021 edition of the Ronde. It wasn’t just the men’s race (and what a bear Kasper Asgreen is – Wout, your turn will come!), but also the women’s race, won by Annemiek van Vleuten. Annemiek and I share the same very ambitious but also rational view of the development and huge potential of women’s cycling. It starts with respectful organisation: what you provide for the men, you should also provide for the women. But it’s also about the constant search for better and longer broadcasts and more optimal TV slots, generating extra attention and attracting additional resources to the sport in every possible way. I couldn’t have wished for a better winner than Annemiek, who did it again ten years after her first victory at the Ronde.
The 2021 Tour of Flanders will also be remembered as the edition where, after lengthy negotiations, we were able to announce that we would be reinstating a traditional piece of the Ronde’s past. From 2022 onwards, the start of the race will alternate between Antwerp and Bruges, its former start city. There’s no doubt about what this will mean to people from Bruges and its surrounds, because the loss of the annual start to Vlaanderens Mooiste (Flanders’ Most Beautiful) in 2017 is still a sensitive issue there. This new formula will allow us to be creative with the route and make even more Flemings periodically happy with a passage of the race through their neighbourhood. It’s a win–win–win.
2021 is also the year in which we (and others, by the way, not just us) really took important steps in the field of security, not just at the Ronde but at other races too. We rethought all our processes and implemented them successfully. Because, if there is one thing that had kept me awake at night all year, it was the thought that something might happen to the riders in one of our races, or even to the public, and that we hadn’t done everything in our power to prevent it. For the time being, racing still takes place on public roads and these are becoming less and less suitable for professional cycling. Because of the increasing traffic volume and the corresponding structural interventions designed for general traffic safety, the roads are increasingly unsafe for the peloton. This is an issue that requires more than ad hoc thinking. It needs the stakeholders from the cycling world, together with government, to anticipate problems and give them due consideration. And that would be good for my sleeping pattern!
The Ronde is the Ronde. It belongs to everyone, and everyone is proud to be a small cog in this great machine. Thousands of people work on it every year. When I had a beer on the Sunday night after the race, I enjoyed a feeling of satisfaction and passion that I don’t think I could have matched in any other job. Ever since I stopped playing basketball I have said that the trap most professional athletes fall into is trying to replicate the feeling of victory in their later lives. That first blissful minute after an important win is so unmatchable for the rest of their lives that retired sportspeople often mount a comeback, successfully or not. You have to be able to let go of that feeling in order to be successful in your second career. It’s a feeling that will probably never return, so don’t go looking for it again. That said, I found a feeling that finished a pretty close second. In fact, it was only just beaten on the line.
If you enjoyed Thomas van den Spiegel’s essay, why not pick up your very own copy of The Road Book 2021 from our online shop: BUY “THE ROAD BOOK” HERE
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