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When I’m chatting to clients on trips, one question that usually comes up is … “Which is your favourite event?” or “What trip would you recommend for me?”. My usual answer, without much thought, is the Tour of Flanders. (Or, if I’m feeling brave with my pronunciation and have had a couple of Leffes, I might try “De Ronde van Vlaanderen”).
For me, the Flanders weekend has everything you could want from a cycle event, especially if like me you’re a bit shall we say, ‘old school’. From a Sports Tours International perspective, we’re based in Gent, which is a fine place to visit even without a bike race to watch. Famed for its gorgeous architecture and picturesque canals, it has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, plus a huge choice of bars and restaurants. Even the shops are more interesting than in the UK, most are independent with no chains and look-a-like indoor shopping centres here. Anyway, back to the cycling…
Most people come on this weekend to ride and watch, so on the Saturday the clients can ride the same course as the pros finishing in Oudenaarde – another great town, a bit like a mini Gent. So they’ve got hills (bergs) and cobbles to challenge/amuse themselves with for as long as they dare on the Saturday. (There is now 4 distances to choose from in 2017.) We get back to Gent pretty shattered, reps and riders; then it’s time to find a restaurant. As I say, there’s a great choice but don’t leave it too late as everywhere in Gent is packed this weekend.
Thankfully, there’s not such an early start on Sunday and we just have a short drive back to Oudenaarde to watch the pro races. First up is the women’s race starting in Oudenaarde where we get a chance to wander amongst the team cars and try to snatch a picture of our own superstar Lizzie. After the women’s race has rolled out it’s either a) head for the free bus service to the Oude Kwaremont or b) hang around in Oudenaarde, maybe visit the Ronde museum, watch the race come through, then wander out to watch the finish on the run in to town.
So, Kwaremont or finish in Oudenaarde? It’s a tough choice and I think you need to experience both. For a crazy, mad Belgium party atmosphere head for the Kwaremont. Think of Alpe d’Huez ‘Dutch corner’ but with Lion of Flanders flags instead of all that orange. You’ll see the women come up once and the men through three times. Position yourself somewhere in the middle of the climb and you may well see the winning move go on the last pass. It’s a bit of a mad scramble back to the buses, but well worth it. If you stay all Sunday in Oudenaarde, then you’ll also see the spectacle of 20 team buses squeezing into the quaint town square, ready to provide sanctuary and showers for the riders at the end of the race.
Somebody once summed up the race very well to me – ‘De Ronde is the Flandrian’s ‘Tour de France’. I think they’ve given up on waiting for another Belgium Tour winner, the last one being Lucien Van Impe in 1976. (That’s 40 years ago – before even I started cycling!) . So whether it always was, it certainly is now the most important road event in the Belgium psyche. And don’t they know how to enjoy it!
Can’t wait for 2017 and the return of ‘The Muur’. Hope I get a chance to ride it!
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