I wish I was in Flanders

Tonight, Australian time, a race will be run in Flanders and I wish I could be there.

It’s the one-day classic Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, that two years ago finally gave me some understanding of what cycling means to so many. The holiest day, they call it, and it is.

This year, yet again, the race is billed as a duel between local boy Tom Boonen and the Swiss Fabian Cancellara. Two years ago, Easter Sunday 2010, it was the same:

As a visitor, it can be hard to find the start of a race in an unfamiliar town. Not in Brugge on the first Sunday in April. Follow the other cars, follow the crowds from the train station. The Lion of Flanders flags are a bit of a giveaway.

Along the 600-metre street between the two squares (one for team buses; one for the starting line), there’s scarcely a spare spot and by 9am both sides are two to three deep. All they will view is the riders making their way to the start line. But that seems to be enough. At least the pace allows them to take a good look at their heroes and treat them with reverence – it’s the only words for it.

They yell and cheer when they see their Tom in the livery of champion of Belgium. Lance Armstrong attracts plenty of attention. ‘Mark Cavendish’ they say with excitement in their voices when he rides by. Winner of the last two Rondes, Stijn Devolder causes a flurry but he doesn’t quite make the ‘our’ tag.

By the time the race starts at 9.45am, it seems as though all of Flanders has squeezed in, and half of them are smoking.

Once the riders are off, the crowd quickly disperses. And they are content that they have had their glimpses. They go home to the TV. The hardier souls head out to the bergs and vantage points along the route and then at the finish. About 50 take the train – two changes and 3 hours of travel and waiting and walking – to the finish line in Ninove. One of them has four 2-metre poles with Lion of Flanders flags. They watch the last 85 km of the race on the big screen. That’s when all the action happens.

The race runs its course. The riders pound on and on, a picture of strength and endless endurance.

Bike riding is so much the sum of hard work and luck, hard and otherwise. Cancellara’s mechanical about 50 km from the finish is sorted with a swift bike change and a cool determination to get back to the action. The same team car could not do the same for Matti Breschel and the change was painfully long.

His race may have been over anyway because Cancellara soon was on the attack on the Mollenberg and only Boonen could go with him. The sighs of satisfaction are audible. The two strongest men in the race have it between them.

But Boonen’s luck runs out and he does not have the strength to overcome it. From the time he latched on to Cancellara’s initial break on the Mollenberg, he has looked the more uncomfortable of the two. He takes a line through some very rough cobbles on the Kapelmuur. Cancellara, on the smoother cobbles to the side, makes his move. He is in control, as he really has been all day, and the race is his. The crowd takes on the odour of despair.

Tommeke has given his all but today it is not enough. The man who has proudly carried his Lion of Flanders flags and poles on the train from Brussels to Brugge to Ninove and back to Brussels is disappointed in the result but he knows this is cycling. He wouldn’t give up this day for the world.

And back home, a Swiss rider winning Flanders’ iconic race, humbing the local favourite, is the first item on the evening news.

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