Stop it, she says. What, he says. Not here, she says. Yeah, yeah, he says. She runs a hand through short red hair and says stop again. He gives her a clumsy little push and she spills some of her beer. Ohh, she says. She says ohh and runs her hand through short red hair. Wait. I wrote that already. The surrounding people are getting uncomfortable now; you should go and do that somewhere else, their eyes seem to suggest. We are in the forest of Arenberg to watch a bike race. Not this fooling around. Also. We’ve brought our children. And dogs. I said! She giggles again. From where Jakob Kristian and I are standing, we can’t see a damn thing. An old man is blocking the view, holding up a silver radio trying to find the signal. Jakob Kristian lifts his Canon and tries to get closer. The girl immediately spots the enormous camera and smiles. Oh, Christ. Jakob Kristian lights up and moves in. And I back down. And then we all look up. Is that not the sound of a helicopter? Yes. The guy removes his hand from her parts, parents make room for their children, many stick their heads out, sidestepping out onto the small cobbled road, gradually filling up the entire section. Look! The riders are coming! They are coming!! The sound of a helicopter. It’s what you hear first. Then the motorbikes approach. Full speed. Or. Race speed. The horns of the motorised vehicles following the peloton are used more than necessary and, let’s be honest for a moment. You can’t hand a guy a backstage pass, a team car, a motorcycle or scooter and tell him to navigate around a bunch of bike riders on public roads without the knowledge that he’ll abuse the horn to its fullest. In the caravan everyone seems to discuss matters using their horns. From small talk to outright hysterical opinions, this kind of free exhaust is really the rhythm of a race, its engine. And as you get ready for the helicopters, knowing that it won’t be long now, the first motorbikes you see create the same stir, the same dramatic effect but on a smaller scale. I’m not talking about the police motorcycles who drive right in front of the riders. No. I’m talking about the technical crew and commissaires on scooters and off-roaders driving in and out and around the peloton. Like kids at a grown-up party. Cavalry scouts. They’ve been sent ahead to inspect the terrain. To alert the spectators. And, while they are at it, create a little bit of panic among people sitting in their fold-out chairs at the roadside. They are coming, they are coming! Infantry on motorbikes. This is how it looks and there is something highly appealing in their violent arrival on the cobbled sections in a spring classic. Often standing up in their saddles, wearing ski masks because of dust or mud. Now the photographers get busy. They shoot away. Adjust their cameras. Speed. Light. Click, click. Adjust. Click click click. Some change lenses, cursing. But these flying scooters and motorbikes are important for the photographers. Because they have the same speed as the riders. Which means that the photographers have a clear chance at getting the adjustments down. So once the riders approach they won’t end up with the same blurry images like the rest of us amateurs. They are coming! People who come to their first bike race all say the same thing: it all happened so fast! So here is a bit of advice. Look at the riders when they come. Don’t look at them as they disappear. Yes. Don’t turn your head to see their backs and try and pick out who it was. Because chances are that more riders are coming. Some have had mechanical problems, some have been to their team car to get rid of extra clothing, whatever. The ones coming up from behind, chasing the peloton, have more speed than the actual peloton. Of course. They have to close the gap. They need to get back on and will use anything to gain seconds. It can be in the slipstream of a team car, a long stretch of hedges that shields from the wind, or even the wall of spectators. They get really close. And if you stick your head out you might get a bike rider right in your face. He’ll hit you at 55 kilometres per hour. That’s the speed of a moving car on a normal stretch of road. You’ve seen a crash test dummy in those videos. The way the thing gets throw around inside the car. Or out the front window. The dummy, that’s you. The first thing that happens is that you’ll get thrown to the ground with a force you didn’t think was even possible. If you are standing with someone you’ll clear the pavement like a game of five-pin billiards. No. Think bowling ball. More downforce. Legs, arms everywhere. After the impact the rider continues through the air for another five metres. Then he gets up, bewildered, confused or dizzy, and begins to look for his bike. Where is my bike? He’ll examine it and, if all is fine, he’ll jump back on the thing and race after the peloton again. This is all he is thinking about. I’ve got to close the gap. A minute later he will check himself for broken bones, bruises, minor injuries. Because he has tried this a hundred times before. Since the age of 12 he’s been crashing regularly at high speed and he is good at overcoming a crash. It is a different matter for you. You’ve never had a professional bike rider in your face before. And while he is closing the gap you are still on the ground when the ambulance arrives. I’m standing next to the young couple now. I tell them to keep their heads up. And don’t stick them out. Why, he asks and looks a bit aggressive while Jakob Kristian keeps shooting his girlfriend. What do you mean heads up, he asks?
Sean Kelly tells Matt Seaton how to ride the cobbles.