Thursday – Gent by Sunlight: The late afternoon riverside teeming with the sun-kissed, newly beautiful; shoals of bicycles brushing lightly through the lumbering, hobbled cars and rattling trams. The wrinkled weariness of the working-day-ended gazes press up against their windows and out upon the elegance and sprezzatura of those who’ve already escaped into easy idleness.
Gent: A lived in and gothic splendour under the snapping canvas of proud regional flags, whipped by the breeze atop turrets and towers. We retreat from marktplein table into darkwood interior as the sun sets and plan our immersion in De Ronde.
Friday – We ditch the car at Oudenaarde’s Delhaize and follow the course of the Schelde by bike until the lonely church spire of Kwaremont beckons us from upon high to our left. Alongside that barbed wire fence, shimmying down cut-throughs to evade police road blocks that have sprung up to enable the corporate machine to spew out its VIP enclaves. Those that live and pay their taxes beside these cart-track-cum-legends hammer at their makeshift garden stadia – all pallets, nails and 2×4’s – along the roadsides.
The party will soon follow but for now we follow our noses, losing ourselves in the Flemish Ardenne, hopping from windmill to windmill across the kasseien & slab-paving, past bored horses and the barking of hidden, courtyard-bound hounds, under warming sun and squalling showers. We have no plan and the whole playground to ourselves. Just. A. Perfect. Day.
Saturday – Driveway brusherers and garage potterers turn and watch as we spin by. A studied gaze. Tiegemberg, Nokereberg, Doorn: All sit silently awaiting the storm that will, alas, merely pass them by for this year. De Ronde’s fury will be vented upon the white-tented villages of the corporate circuits, after a charge, once more, through the eastern outpost of Geraardsbergen, leaving this sleepy corner of Flanders to unfurl banners lamenting the race’s absence and issuing a plea for its return.
Home along the Schelde, towards the iconic cooling towers that besmirch every Paterberg landscape shot; ‘They’re coming down – blowing them up’ I am informed by a Jupiler fuelled 30-something in worn, faded stonewash jeans and last year’s ubiquitous Het Neuiwsblad publicity casquette. He’s weaving around on an immaculate Colnago Master museum piece. Borrowed from a neighbour.
He insists he is a Dutchman, to the snorts and giggles of his fellow bon viveurs, and wants to race me along the towpath towards Avelgem. It would be neither wise nor dignified so I let him pedal off like a spark spat from the embers of a fire. “We love our wives and families – but on Ronde weekend there are other priorities”. The party has already started. One more sleep…
Sunday – Phil has been on the rampage for days, devouring this Classics campaign with all the swagger of a bloated monarch. Ham hock in one hand, teeth tearing at the meat on the bone, stained napkin clutched in the other to dab at his lips with; crown perched juantily on his head, shoes kicked off, feet on the table. It is imperious. A violent finesse. He flings his wine-filled goblet across the banqueting hall with 55km to go and leaves the scrambling courtiers, clowns and prat-fallers in his wake, carving through Flanders and giving the baying crowds exactly what they want, barking at his page boys. This is days-of-yore stuff. One man, alone and in command. They’ll be talking about this one for a long time to come. A hell of a long time…
All life and Flemish history is here in this bar with its walls full of sun-bleached race posters & signed jerseys and a battalion of little die-cast model tractors on the spirits shelf behind the bar: The octogenarian dandy, the faded songstress, the jaded old boy who has rolled his eyes at far cleverer fools than any you’ll find amongst this crowd in his time. “A Belgian victory!” toasts one of the bar-flys in my direction. “A Walloon victory” I offer, sensing the wind is not fully in his sails and taking the chance to tease him with the nuances.
“Same time next year?”
“Same time as every year” we promise and set off back along the N8, sweeping down the Edelareberg, brake fingers sufficiently loosened by the Ename Blonds to let the speed rush greedily over me as I tilt into fast, carefree arcs on the deserted road and head for the WorldTour soup and bacchanalia that is Oudenaarde central.