There are few bike races as iconic as the Tour of Flanders. Known for its narrow cobbled roads, pitchy steep climbs and infamous Belgian weather, De Ronde van Vlaanderen is a Spring Classic nearly every cycling enthusiast has heard of.
There’s a reason De Ronde (as it’s affectionately called among Belgians) is one of the five Monuments of cycling. The race has spanned over 100 years; the longest uninterrupted streak of any cycling classic.
More than that, it’s the character of the race that draws fans from across the globe to flood into Northern Belgium every April. With its ceaseless onslaught of cobbles and short, sharp climbs, Flanders is a race of attrition, rewarding only those who can withstand the most exasperating of abuses.
It’s the character of Flanders that makes De Ronde my all-time favorite bike race. After years of pre-dawn wakeups to tune into Tour of Flanders on crappy internet feeds, I finally had the opportunity to watch the race in person.
Coming from the U.S. where the sport of cycling is at most an afterthought, it’s difficult to explain the overwhelming enthusiasm the Belgian people have for cycling. In Flanders, De Ronde is THE most important race of the year. Taking place entirely on Flemish soil, it’s treated like the world championships. Every bar, every person is abuzz with excitement for the race.
I was in Oudenaarde (the town with the majority of the race’s iconic climbs) the morning of the event, watching the celebration commence as locals threw out their predictions for race winners, ringing cowbells and pouring Belgian beers. Locals hand out Flemish flags and children run around begging for team-issued water bottles. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Imagine the fandom of Texas high school football in the U.S., amplify that tenfold, and you have an idea of what cycling means to the Belgian people. Cycling is central to the Flemish identity. The passion and respect for the sport is palpable.
It was eye opening to spend time in a country whose infrastructure is completely centered on bicycles. (I had a chance to ride the streets of Ghent without ever having to worry about the danger of cars taking over my space) People of all ages and backgrounds have a relationship with the bicycle; whether it be their primary means of transportation or simply a way to enjoy the outdoors. There is also incredible national support for young riders interested in pursuing the sport more seriously.
Cycling is a source of immense pride among the Belgian people, and why shouldn’t it be? They’ve produced legends the likes of Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert and Sven Nys to name a few.
Speeding to various on-course locations via moto, I was able to watch the race from several vantage points. But without a doubt, it was the top of the iconic Koppenberg climb that I found to be the most exhilarating. Extremely narrow, cobbled and topping out at a gradient of 22% and 600 meters in length, it’s a leg ripper. The number of fans tallied in the hundreds and it was all I could do to squeeze into the barriers to get a good view on the front lines near the top of the berg.
Helicopters flying above, loudspeakers blurting out race updates and a giant projector screen showcasing television coverage, the fervor was electric. The Koppenberg comes at 222 kilometers into the 270 kilometer race. If it weren’t already a hard day in the saddle, the course is relentless after the Koppenberg, dosing out five more climbs (including the Taaienberg, Oude-Kwaremont and Paterberg) before the finish.
Not surprising, the race begins to shatter on the Koppenberg. Watching the absolute best cyclists in the world turn themselves inside out was an incredible site. Yes, they are world class athletes, the best in the sport, and yet, they still suffer just like you.
To see these professional athletes whimper, suffer and turn themselves inside out was phenomenal. The athleticism, attrition and tenacity was like nothing I’d seen before. It wasn’t just one rider suffering as he made his way over the top. It was 20 riders, 30 riders, all on the rivet, digging deeper than they ever have before. It’s the stuff champions are made of.
This is why I love cycling. This is why I love Tour of Flanders. The demands of the race strip away everything, leaving only raw emotion and human potential. To witness this first hand, just inches away from their contorted faces, was amazing. What a privilege to immerse myself in Belgian cycling culture and watch the best cyclists in the world race their bikes. I’m sure I’ll be back.