Listen and LearnTiegemberg or Taaienberg, Harelbeke or Waregem? It's all very confusing for Chris Juul-Jensen as his cobbled Classics education continues apace.
“Wait, wait, wait! Where was it we had to be at the front again?”
“At 83km, where you come onto a big main road, then turn left and go down a fast downhill before the small roads.”
“Ah okay, and then we turn left and go up the Kemmelberg?”
“No. No, you turn right and then you have La Houppe.”
“It’s the long climb on asphalt, it’s important to be near the front!”
“Oh right, that one! With the big plastic mushroom at the bottom?”
“NO! That’s Tiegemberg, the last climb today.”
“Isn’t the Tiegemberg the one where Boonen always attacks?”
“No, that’s Taaienberg. That’s another thing, guys. Be ready on the Taaienberg. That’s where Boonen will attack the first time. Boonen always attacks on the Taaienberg!”
“Right, now I’m with you, and then we hit Kemmelberg?”
“You don’t do Kemmelberg today!”
“Oh, for God’s sake!”
When trying to figure out what is being said during the pre-race meetings, I find myself confused, in the same way as trying to navigate the unknown environment of a foreign supermarket. Puzzled and lost, desperately searching for the fruit and veg section, only to end up at the checkout bathed in sweat, and with a shopping trolley filled with food totally unsuitable for a starving cyclist.
The Flemish roads are my foreign supermarket. My knowledge of all the crucial climbs and crunch points, which decide whether a rider makes the first or last group, is flawed, to say the least. Struggling to remember the important sections, I usually drift off in team meetings, much like I used to in algebra class. I am only brought back to reality when the sports director asks if I understand what he is saying.
“Er, yes… Yes I do.” (Translation: No. No I don’t.)
All these bergs and cobbled sections that need to be learned by heart! It’s like being back at primary school, when we had to recite every European capital city without glancing at our notes. Maybe the Flemish riders have Bergs of the Classics as a key subject?
“Kids, please turn to page 59 of your Tour of Flanders textbook. Today we will discuss how Boonen compares to Merckx, then we will finish off with a know-your-bergs pop quiz from Boigneberg through to Paterberg: the rest is for homework.”
I seriously need to do more of that homework. Even the race names can lead to misunderstandings.
“So what’s your next race?”
“Waregem and then E3. You?”
“Oh, I do Dwars door Vlanderen and then Harelbeke.”
“They are the same races, man…”
Then there’s cycling history. I often fall short when it comes to basic Classics knowledge, landing myself in awkward situations with sports directors when trying to strike up a conversation about the next races.
“So did you ever do well in this race when you were a pro?”
“Yes. I won it twice.”
“Oh yes, of course. Now I remember… Wow, is that the time? I’ve got to go to massage.”
I know, it’s unacceptable. However, this rather sad state of affairs only increases my appreciation of what it is I am a part of when spring arrives. The magnitude of the cobbled Classics cannot be compared to that of any other one-day race. It is the epicentre of bike racing, and for me this part of the season is what defines the beauty of cycling.
The Flemish eat, breathe and sleep the spring Classics. It amazes and inspires me whenever I meet someone from Flanders who considers the Ronde van Vlaanderen holier than any other festive holiday. Christmas or Easter? In Tommeke, even Jesus has some serious competition.
Riding alongside Tom Boonen through Brugge during the neutral zone of Flanders was madness. The crowds went bananas when they spotted him.
“Tommeke, Tommeke, TOMMEKE!”
He is their hero. It was awesome, I almost got carried away with the excitement and started cheering for him along with the crowd. (I composed myself, although I did start to pretend my name was Tom. It felt great.)
The day we did Waregem - or is it Dwars door Vlaanderen, or both? - Barack Obama was in Brussels for a visit. Having Obama visit would be regarded as a privilege by many countries.
Be that as it may, the fact that his route collided with the race parcours, potentially jeopardising its outcome, did not go down well with the Flemish cycling community. President of the USA or not, nobody messes with the Spring Classics.
I wonder which would attract the biggest crowd if parked beside each other: Ground Force One or the Omega Pharma-Quick Step bus? Barack himself would probably stand in line for a cap or autograph.
In the last week, I’m always caught by surprise whenever we have to pack up and leave the beloved team hotel in Kortrijk and head for France.
“For Paris Roubaix, maybe?”
“Oh yeah, that’s in France. I totally forgot.”
What a race to mark the end of the cobbled Classics campaign! For the last two years, I have let out a sigh of relief after Flanders, reminding myself that at least there will be no climbs the following week.
But after the first pavé section of our Roubaix recce, I’m reminded of how hellish it is.
The cobbled sectors, all 28 of them, are brutal. You would think a blind man with a wheelbarrow full of cobblestones had walked on a muddy path disposing of them whichever way he chose. Which genius decided that it would be a great idea to stage a bike race over these “roads”?
Paris-Roubaix makes me rather grateful that I’m not a skinny climber. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to take part. I will probably be rather less appreciative when struggling up the Stelvio come May, mind.
I may be a cycling history dunce, but when it comes to Roubaix, I am an expert of one edition: the 1976 race, immortalised by Joergen Leth in his famous film A Sunday in Hell.
Watching it the day before this year’s Roubaix put everything I’d experienced in the prior weeks into perspective. My fear of Arenberg evaporates - bring it on. This has to be the ultimate way to spend a Sunday afternoon. As long as I stay near the front, I should be fine…
Tinkoff-Saxo pro Chris Juul-Jensen was fine, finishing his second Paris-Roubaix in 73rd place.