Ronde van Vlaanderen: “It is the Way of the Cross”

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Words by Chris Fontecchio

The cancellation of the spring Classics has left a void in our lives that’s been a challenge to fill. These races are a cornerstone in cycling fans’ psychic foundation — even for those of us in the US.

It wasn’t always this way. ’Twas a time when many of us thought the season started in July, or maybe May. Then we were eventually told about a marathon of madness called Paris-Roubaix, and the hook was set. But the Ronde van Vlaanderen took some time to make it across the Pond. Much like the French sending us their leftover wine until we knew how to ask for the good stuff, we had to earn it.

For me, learning to love the Ronde van Vlaanderen was a three-step process. The first was aesthetic. The darkened beauty of the Northern races hit me like a sack of doorknobs when I first tuned in to watch a bike race, the 1985 edition of Paris-Roubaix. I grew up in dark places. I cycled in them, testing the margins of New England winters with my 19mm tires.

Aesthetically, I love that cold and grey world. Give me Wuthering Heights over Pride and Prejudice, any day. Right away I felt I was experiencing a certain majesty watching the peloton hammer through wind and rain, the Wuthering Heights of cycling compared to the less subtle beauty of the Galibier in summer.

The wide open French fields of Paris-Roubaix were cool as a backdrop, but in de Ronde, all of Flanders is the canvas: the brick towns, the brooding medieval churches, that shuttered train depot at the bottom of the Steenbekdries – it was all so dark and silent, with a single ribbon of pulsating life running through the middle.

The subtle artistic drama of the Ronde’s old course would build like the progression from the Flemish primitives through the medieval times until exploding into Renaissance-style beauty atop the Kapelmuur. Passing over that open-air summit was like ascending briefly to heaven. It’s no coincidence that the roadside pub up there is called ‘t Hemelrijk.

But this is about sports, and the undeniable appeal of the Tour of Flanders was “OMG Paris-Roubaix only with hills!” After a few editions I figured out that it wasn’t so much “more” than its French cousin, as it was distinct. It was cobbled flats, cobbled hills, tarmac climbs, and skinny roads. It is the Way of the Cross.

It is also beloved in a way that again differs from Paris-Roubaix. Nobody has ever called Paris-Roubaix the national sporting event of France, and the race started as a campaign to remind Parisians that the Department du Nord exists. De Ronde is a true tour of Flanders, in route and in the minds of Belgians. I discovered that this was a diverse race full of excitement, and you didn’t need any help noticing that to the fans along the road and elsewhere, it was a big, big deal.

The third and final leg of my journey to permanent Ronde-loving status came as the Editor of the Podium Café. The tl;dr version is that the closer one gets to the Tour of Flanders, the more there is to love. Talking to riders about the technical and emotional sides of the race brought only a deeper appreciation for how unique and special it is.

George Hincapie, a specialist in the cobbled classics, described to me how much the course’s endless twists and turns distinguished it from Paris-Roubaix. While Paris-Roubaix would grind steadily across the wind-swept landscapes, de Ronde would slow, speed up, slow again and on and on, all day, with every 90-degree turn from one tiny road to an even tinier one.

Tyler Farrar (I like talking to Americans) described to me how his day in the breakaway was maybe even more special than that time he finished fifth – leading a small group through every throng of screaming fans ecstatic at the sight of riders (male ones at least) racing by for the first time all day.

The combined challenge and the atmosphere are like nothing else, and they are so hugely important to cycling that they’ve lined up a series of warm-up events to build the tension and to prepare the riders. You don’t just pop in on a race like the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

Now I can tell you how special it all is and how much I await its arrival, how the spring builds to this crescendo of classics-style drama, how the peloton is loaded with incredibly talented athletes who have spent years working insanely hard in anticipation of this race.

I can tell you how the Tour of Flanders is its own ecosystem, a beautiful one with flora and fauna all its own, from the bare trees to the broad-shouldered, long-limbed humanoids who crush the kasseien like nobody’s business. And how the world around the race is entirely about that race – don’t ask Belgians about the Tour de France until May at the earliest.

Right here, right now. At the Ronde van Vlaanderen, for the days before and the day of and even the day after, it’s all that matters.