I was watching the highlights of the Tour of Flanders – or should I say Ronde van Vlaanderen? – last night. What a gruelling race that is. It’s one of the one day classics and a highlight of the Belgian racing calendar. A lot of the top racers are there. It was 256km long yesterday. Flanders isn’t generally noted for its hills, but around Oudenaarde, the race’s destination, there are a few, so they went up and down them three times! Nasty stuff too – sharp climbs on narrow and cobbled pathways in the main. The cobbles look brutal – you’ve enough to worry about getting up the hill and staying on your bike, without being shaken to the core.
And it was really cold!
Watching the ascents up the cobbles – the Oude Kwarement and the Paterberg in particular – made me think that this was the elite cyclists’ version of one of those horrible cross country runs we had to do at school in ankle deep mud and across cow-pat strewn fields. Ah, the memories!
The Swiss cyclist, Fabian Cancellara, crashed in this race last year and broke his collarbone. This year he won it in magnificent style, his second victory in the race. It all came down to the last ascent of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. Cancellara and Slovakian youngster Peter Sagan had broken away from the Peleton, in pursuit of one of the earlier breakaway riders, Jurgen Roelandts. The latter accepted the game was up and the three of them rode together for a while. Then Cancellara made his move. He turned up the pressure on the first of the two climbs and then, on the Paterberg, stepped up another gear. Sagan couldn’t follow him; Roelandts was never going to. In a few seconds Cancellara was away and with 13km to go the race was as good as over. Cancellara switched to the turbo-charged time triallist that he is, and was unstoppable. He won by about one and a half minutes, which is a remarkable margin in a one day race.
A classic sporting moment. On the last brutal climb of the race. Bodies shaking on the cobbles. The champion finds new reserves, takes the gamble and destroys his rival in a matter of seconds. In a six hour race.
I’m only really getting to understand the cycling outside the Tour de France now, inspired by the triumphs of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish and the fascinating autobigraphies of Wiggins and especially David Millar. I read Millar’s book, “Racing through the Dark”, recently: an engrossing tale of his descent into the bleak world of doping, and his escape from it. (I shall be reviewing it at some point!). It also describes some of these Belgian races vividly. How tough they are, how the weather is often awful, how cobbles wreck you. Watching yesterday, I could imagine all of that.
And, with that lack of knowledge, I always had Cancellara down as an ace time triallist and sprinter. A bit short on the stamina needed for the Tour de France, often withdrawing as the first mountains approached, after some glory in the first week or so. A bit flash. Surprising perhaps, given that he is Swiss.
But seeing him win the Tour of Flanders on those cobbled hill roads yesterday put paid to that image. He must be as tough as they come. I guess the Alps and Pyrenees require a different kind of toughness. An ability to endure over days, weeks. Cancellara must have a more finely-tuned engine.
Next up is the Paris-Roubaix. 260km and on the cobbles for about 50 of those.
They call it “The Hell of the North”!
(Photos from Google Images. Cancellara pics both from Roadcyclinguk.com and the crash on the cobbles from USA Today)