By Karel Bergmann
This past week in Belgium, I was able to experience the lead-up and the first two “Belgian Classics”.
As many of you are aware, Etixx – Quick-Step is a Belgian cycling team, and they’ve long eschewed chasing Tour de France victories for concentrating on stage wins and their fabled classics. The classics are one-day races that take place around Europe, but mostly in Belgium, Holland and Northern France. These races are characterized by long, gruelling parcours, often bad, unpredictable weather, and often cobblestones.
The first of the Belgian classics that took place this weekend is Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a mini-Tour of Flanders with many cobblestone sections, and many famous, short, but steep hills referred to as Hellingen. Omloop lends itself to long-distance attacks and is often won from a smaller breakaway of riders. The second classic I attended in my support role with team Etixx – Quick-Step is Kuurne – Brussels – Kuurne. That race is less hilly and is friendlier to sprinters who usually end up winning the day.
My experience with these races started the Wednesday before when Etixx – Quick-Step riders and other teams did their customary recon of the cobblestone sectors of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Since most cyclists haven’t ridden here since last spring, it’s important to re-familiarize themselves with the feeling of the cobblestone.
You’d expect the recon to involve cyclists focused on going for a ride and taking in some of the key parts of the upcoming race. While this is true, the recon ride is also a time where you get to experience first hand Belgian’s overwhelming passion for cycling and especially how the nation goes nuts for Belgian classics. Consequently, in addition to going for a ride to check out the course, riders also face a well-publicized start, hordes of reporters, and an entire media circus that follows the riders on their first outing on the cobbles, complete with camera bikes and an entire entourage.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a real eye opener for me about just how much effort goes into supporting a team during such a race. Unpredictable racing on sharp hills and cobblestones greatly increases the chance of mechanical problems so the team orchestrates an unbelievably intricate dance of team cars and support personnel behind the scenes to make sure that help is always near by with spare wheels, food and bottles. While one team vehicle follows the race with spare bikes on the roof, other cars are preplaced at key points on the course with more spare bikes, equipment, food and drink.
Each checkpoint is announced to the riders over race radio so they know where to expect help. The second a racer passes one of these pre-arranged spots, the sports directors, mechanics and soigneurs jump back into the cars and rush off at mind-blowing speeds through back roads, to intercept the riders a few kilometers further along the course.
Things looked really promising for team Etixx – Quick-Step until Tony Martin went down in corner. After that, it became unlikely that the breakaway would ever be caught, especially with the likes of Sagan and Vanavermaet driving it home to the finish.
Kuurne – Brussels – Kuurne was a very similar experience, except that the course criss-crosses the countryside a little less so you don’t make as many stops and you might make one additional stop for Frietjes (French Fries).
Having ridden many of the cobbled sectors myself (for PRECISION power meter product testing and pleasure), I have to say that I found it amazing how fast the pros go across this terrain. The reason for this is (and I’m not sure how else to describe this phenomenon), but when you get onto the cobblestones, the laws of physics as they pertain to cycling seemly stop functioning. I assume that this is because of the hugely increased amount of rolling resistance on the cobbles, but the draft of riders in front of you seems to almost stop benefitting you entirely. It’s like racing up hills without any hills, and that’s why the riders go so fast on this terrain as it’s an opportunity to drop, or at least weaken your competitors.
The other thing that makes these races special are the spectators. You haven’t really seen a bike race until you’ve seen a bike race in Belgium. The spectators are everywhere, the beer is free-flowing and the atmosphere is intoxicating. Spectators line the start and the finish, banging on the barriers as their favourite riders come by. Out on the course, the team cars have to compete with spectators that follow the race from critical point to critical point in order to see the race from as many places as possible. My mind was sufficiently blown, and I’ve been told that this was nothing compared to Tour of Flanders.
T’il the next adventure, ride safe.
INTERESTING HISTORICAL FACTS (source)
First held in 1945, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race was initially called Omloop van Vlaanderen (“Circuit of Flanders”). The event was initiated by Flemish newspaper Het Volk, in response to rivaling newspaper Het Nieuwsblad’s classic, the Tour of Flanders. Het Volk, of left-wing signature, wanted to start a new cycling event in Flanders as a rival race to what it saw as the Tour of Flanders’ closeness to the nazis during World War II. The Ronde’s organizers protested that the name was too close to their own – there is little semantic difference between “Ronde” and “Omloop”. The Belgian cycling federation demanded Het Volk to change the name of the event, prompting Het Volk to serve as title sponsor of their own race. In 2009 the former rival newspapers Het Volk and Het Nieuwsblad merged, causing the event to be renamed Omloop Het Nieuwsblad for its 64th edition.
Karel is a 4iiii product manager who’s been currently mandated with one task: to ensure Team Etixx – Quick-Step gains the greatest value from riding with PRECISION power meters. When our PhD in Computer Scientist is not on the road supporting the world’s most decorated cycling team, he’s a Cat 2 rider in his home of Calgary, Alberta. Karel will periodically share his Tour adventures. You can read more of his stories at 4iiii.com and send him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.