Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Classics of Spring

Last April, I treated myself to a trip to northern France for the venerable Paris-Roubaix bicycle race. It was an experienced that I'll never forget...the legions of screaming (mostly Belgian Flemish) cycling fans, huddled along the brutal cobblestone roads in the middle of the countryside, screaming their collective drunk asses off as the riders streamed by. It was almost as if I went to a Flemish street party and a bicycle race broke out.

This year, I made plans to replicate the journey, adding another race or two to my schedule. The Tour of Flanders was out (holiday in Portugal). Fleche Wallone (a mid-week race) would not be too feasible. That left Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Any 2 out of 3 combo of these races would thrill me. I chose the first two...a return to P.R. and a view of the biggest pro cycling race in the Netherlands (A.G.).

Joining me for PR was a fellow British School parent, Kris, who happens to hail from Seattle. We had our own little corner of the Pacific Northwest set up alongside the cobbles of France, ready for action. Kris offered to drive (with his Washington State license plates), and the comments we had from other race fans were interesting. The plates opened up a number of conversations with interesting people who were amazed that we had driven “all the way from America” to watch the race. Funny.

The flags of Flanders flapped in the wind as the all-night/all-day party roared to life. Depending on your point of view, the weather held out, too. I say “depending” because many PR purists love the challenging weather conditions for which the race is so famous. The “Hell of the North” as it's sometimes called is notorious for rain-slickened cobbles and mud that blackens the riders' faces and clogs their brakes. But the light overnight showers ended early and would not be a factor. In dry years, the dust can be as bad (or worse) for the riders than the mud, but the light precip eliminated even that as a factor. Just the distance of the race, the brutality of the cobbled sections, and the riders' legs and lungs would determine who would arrive first on the velodrome in Roubaix.

A late crash very near our location on Le Carrefour de Arbe (just 20km from the finish) would have a huge outcome on the result. Two-time champion Tom Boonen took advantage of the crash by his opponents, throwing in a surge, and vaulting into the lead that he would hold to the finish. The Belgians were overcome with joy at Boonen's third win! American perennial favorite George Hincapie never got it together and would finish back in the pack.

As for us, we enjoyed the day with a few eats, a few drinks, and soaking up the unique atmosphere. The trip home and following four days weren't too pleasant for me—I had contracted a stomach flu—but the fond memories of another day on the “kinderhoofd” (Dutch for cobblestones) will linger forever.

One week later, I embarked on a 2-hour train ride for Maastricht, in the far southeast corner of the Netherlands. After perusing the maps of the Amstel Gold race, I determined that with a little fancy footwork and help from the regional train network, I might be able to see the race pass by FIVE times. I managed to catch the start in Maastricht, then jumped on the train for the first stop in Meersen, where the riders were faced with a steep, short climb about 38 km into the race. Already, a breakaway group of 5 or 6 had formed and held a 6 or 7 minute advantage on the peloton.

At the top of the climb, I met up with Kris and his family, who were catching more cycling action after a week holiday in Germany. They gave me a lift to the town of Valkenburg, a short drive away after one minor wrong turn (my navigational skills might have been compromised by the excitement of the day). We parted ways as they headed out of town to a major climb and I parked myself on the side of the legendary Cauberg hill in Valkenburg. Over the course of the afternoon, the race would pass my location three times.

The scene in Valkenburg was no less of a party than the nutty Flemish scene in northern France a week earlier. Cafes overflowed with patrons getting in their early-morning, mid-afternoon, late-afternoon, and early-evening cold adult beverages. There might have been some food served, too, but I didn't see much of that. I talked with a number of keen cycling fans from many lands: Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, England, and Luxembourg. To change the scenery a bit, I situated myself in 3 different spots on the Cauberg. On this day, I welcomed the sunshine and clear blue skies as I lounged about in the town, trying to soak up every last bit of cycling ambiance...and it felt SO good.

At the end of the day, Russian rider Sergei Ivanov would prove that previous high finishes in the race were no fluke as he sprinted away from the Dutch rider Karsten Kroon for the win with just 200 meters remaining before the line.

As the crowds screamed their support for the riders over the last kilometer, I knew that my Spring Classic experience was coming to a close for the year. But I couldn't help smiling knowing that I had been a witness to something very special on two consecutive Sundays.

(The beautiful painting above is by Gregory Allen Page...visit HERE to view this painting and his other works.)

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