A week ahead of the E3-Prijs, Sep Vanmarcke is off to meet his older brother…
“These are the most beautiful races of the year.”
After a winter of anticipation, fans flock to see beloved home teams open up the season. New players suit up in fresh uniforms for the first time, new stories wait to be written, and old traditions to be deepened. The opening day — it’s a feeling that touches all sports at all levels.
In Belgium, and for cycling’s races over the old cobblestone roads, it’s known as “Opening Weekend.” And it’s finally here.
The Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen, is Belgium’s Super Bowl. It’s the race families sit down with neighbors to watch. But before Flanders, the playoffs start a few weeks earlier on a late-February weekend. Opening Weekend consists of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, followed by Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. These races mark the real start of the European road cycling season for both men’s and women’s pelotons.
Both races rove across Flanders, taking on many of the same roads and steep, cobblestone climbs that test racers throughout the spring. Although winning one would make most riders’ seasons, the top stars hope to build their fitness through the coming rounds of racing and be at their best for the grand finale.
“Paris-Roubaix and the Belgian classics, these are the most beautiful races of the year,” EF Education First Pro Cycling’s captain for the classics and former Omloop winner Sep Vanmarcke says. “The racing is hard, on cobbles and small roads with lots of wind but the fans are always very enthusiastic.”
New Zealander has fallen in love with the classics, too. “The real season starts in Belgium,” he says. “It’s as hard as it gets up there. One-day races mean you have one opportunity, one shot at getting it right. My most vivid memory is the first 100-metres of the first sector of Opening Weekend—the speed and intensity on the approach, and then the thundering sound and vibration as we rattled across that first 100 meters.” Tom Scully
Classics riders such as Sep and Tom have to be brawnier than the climbers who race for prizes in the mountainous grand tours. Their favored races twist and turn over muddy tractor trails paved with rocks. For every minute of every 200-plus-kilometre classic, they must focus on getting to the front, ducking and dodging through the peloton at full speed, avoiding crashes like running backs avoiding tackles. On descents, they go faster than 100 km/hr, and there’s no soft grass on which they might land. And the crowning points of their seasons come before winter is really over, when northern Europe is still mostly grey and cold and wet. The classics are synonymous with harsh weather. But that doesn’t keep anyone from the roads, the bars, the starts and finishes in small Belgian towns. It’s an enormous celebration, no matter what.
“It’s the same for the riders as it is for the fans. They are just raring to go."
In Belgium, they celebrate such toughness. For weeks before Opening Weekend, the sports pages of newspapers are full of columns about the favorites’ chances. On TV, retired racers talk for hours, analyzing small course changes and the teams’ rosters. Their favorites are always Flandriens, of course.
Every stretch of road in Flanders has its story. Every hill has been the site of a legendary winning move. Every corner has seen a crash. Every cobbled path has witnessed the ambitions of a famous rider. While Flanders is no bigger than Connecticut on paper, its lack of breadth is made up for by the depth with which it has been mapped in the minds of its people and racing fans. Much of that mapping has been done by bike races.
On Opening Weekend, the people of Flanders and those who’ve traveled to see the races will trek once again into their countryside, carrying their cases of cheap beer, their lawn chairs and umbrellas and boom boxes. They will organize impromptu roadside parties with thousands of their compatriots and wait for the riders to pass.
The team, the fans, and our directors, are all ready. It’s time for our classics opening day.
“Bear in mind that the last time that you’ve really seen riders on those roads and in those conditions was the previous April,” says EF Pro Cycling director Charly Wegelius. “It’s the same for the riders as it is for the fans. They are just raring to go. You see those pictures come on the TV, and you start to feel the atmosphere.”
Now, Flanders eagerly awaits the next episodes of its national mythology.
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