Some nostalgic expats may disagree, but I think the town of Bruges isn’t exactly planet earth’s most exciting place. Except for the weekend when the Ronde van Vlaanderen comes around, that is. Those two days, when the air is thick with anticipation, this town becomes the centre of the universe, for those who care. And the fact of the matter is, that weekend, everybody around here does care. And the great thing is that, despite all the talk about Cancellara’s stunning form and Tom Boonen’s new bike, the extra newspapers and the incredible gathering of about 800.000 cycling enthousiasts alongside the race course on sunday, there’s still plenty of honour in spare for the 4000 amateurs gathering under the Bruges belfry the day before the official race, ready for their 260k struggle with concrete roads, including 30k of kinderkopkes and a total of 18 climbs. Tell any Belgian you’ve climbed the Zoncolan mountain and a total lack of enthousiasm will be your reward, but the mere suggestion that you rode the ronde will turn your newfound companions into an admiring crowd, for you’ve gained the official title of “flandrien”. It’s this almost tangible thrill that turns the rvv into maybe the most exciting cyclo in the world.
Cause it ain’t the scenery that makes it unforgettable, trust me. Though the race course may differ for over 50% every edition, the pattern is trademark: take a map of Belgium, a bottle of strong ale, a glass, and some abbey cheese, sliced in dices. Put the bottle on the town of Bruges and the glass on the village of Meerbeek. Open the bottle and empty it into the glass and take a sip. Then close your eyes and throw the dice halfway the bottle and the glass, and there you have it, the ronde. Now, every possible pattern implies you getting at the first cheesy dice, by bike of course, and that means riding Flemish concrete roads and dito cycling tracks. These roads will take you through an almost endless string of villages ending on “-gem”, (which you pronounce like “-hem” while riding in the province of West-Flanders) and all will look pretty much like any other –gem that you may have passed or ever will, thanks to our flourishing ribbon development. When entering the hillzone the scenery gets more picturesque indeed, but that will be none of your concern when riding the ronde, since you’re going to keep focused on the crevasses in the road in front of you.
And now to the race! Variations in the racing trajectory mean variations in toughness. This year the rvv organization dropped their first cheesy dice after only 80k which meant it was meant to be a bloody hard edition this time. The weather however didn’t share the same ambitions, though. With 22 degrees celcius and a pretty favourable wind, this was to become the first ever summer-ronde. What was it going to be; tough as hell or smooth like a baby lamb cutlet? Well, at 8 in the morning, me and my fine racing quartet gathered around the Bruges belfry to find out the answer. Fact is that after the first 100k the moral was still 100%, and the legs were still turning in the butter, to use a local saying. But there and then we were to have a rendezvous with the cobblestones of Wannegem Lede. Cobblestones come in various forms and conditions, from very polite down to revoltingly nasty. These ones were of the last type, rumour says they were thrown out of a German Zeppelin at the end of the great war as a primitive form of cluster ammunition and afterwards mistaken for a road since they are, in a certain way, leading to Oudenaarde. The copybook way to master such a nasty stretch is by gearing up and kicking like hell, something I did eventually try. Things however turned out for the bad when I decided to take the smalle dirt-track beside the, er, road in order to overhaul a Dutch mobilehome creeping along the stones at a ducks pace, an ambition shared by an Australian rider just in front of me. That turned out to be the wrong wheel to follow, cause all of the sudden, as though the geezer had just realized he were riding upside down, the aussie jammed his brakes and thus forced me to do exactly the same thing and consequently caused the inevitable launching of my body on his own back. Nobody got hurt, physically that is, but as a consequence I lost my pace and had to deal with the rest of the stretch in rather painful conditions. Conditions that made me wonder about the meaning of this quite grotesque race.
And you know what I finally got to understand –after another 160k of relentless contemplating? Well, that physical hardship, or plain pain as it is also called, is part of the fun in the ronde. Even more, it is the essential ingredient of the ronde. There is the obvious sore butt. The aching stomach –caused by an overdose of sugar in all its possible forms, from hard as in dades, over thick as in perperkoek, and gelly as in energy gels to fluid as in all those drinks that aren’t sold in any decent pub for the very good reason that they are utterly gross. Then there is pain in the neck caused by a too heavy head. And last but not least, pain in the fingers. On cobbles it is imperative that one puts his hands loosely on top of the handle bars in order to absorb eventual shocks. After 200k however one tends to lose some of his agility and therefore finds him or herself clinging on his or her bike as it were a life belt and thus receiving every single crack in the road as a good old beating. Yes, it’s in this pain that lies the true meaning of the ronde, I thought the day after, when watching the start of the ronde on television. A journalist asked an old man what he appreciated in the ronde and the bloke answered: “I like seeing the racers suffer”. “Well, old man, you bet I suffered yesterday”, I thought, contemplating my sore butt. “But did you suffer enough?, the man asked. “is an aching bum all it takes to become a flandrien ?” I looked deep into myself and answered, “Well, to be really Honest, my old man, let’s pray for a shower of rain next year and a little hailstorm and an icy wind, and then I’ll show you !”
And the same counts for Nick Nuyens.