At a finish, our eyes are instinctively trained on the riders leading a bike race. They are multi-coloured flashes tearing past the waymark signs, sponsor logos, fans and their banners. In the moment, the race and its protagonists are what matters to us; it’s tempting to think of it as a self-contained world. But over time, the wider place becomes the great common denominator.
One-day Classics are closely rooted to certain locations in a way that Grand Tours, with their changeable routes, never are. They’re like catching up with a old friend each year: you already know its reference points and history, but they give you different stories and enjoyment.
So, a finish is a far more than a banner and a line painted on the road. A good one gives a race sporting drama, subtlety, symmetry, identity, beauty; it even makes the most of the world outside its crash barriers. Think of the bunch tearing down the Champs-Elysées at the Tour de France, descending into the Piazza del Campo in Strade Bianche or sprinting full pelt along the Mall at the RideLondon-Surrey Classic; that’s sport, history and architecture coming together at once. The images lodge themselves in the memories of racers and fans alike, elevating the race in the process.
Of course, many iconic cycling finishes are outwardly mundane places, such as Roubaix velodrome and the Halsesteenweg in Meerbeke, that earn extraordinary resonance over time. The bike race hullabaloo is there for one day a year, but the sentimental attachment never leaves. Strange bunch, cycling fans.
As for a bad finish? It’s like a beautiful crescendo ending on a screeching note and risks detracting from a race’s charm. Take Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Monument through the Ardennes forests that has concluded in the industrial suburb of Ans for 25 years. The race ends next to a petrol station and a Pizza Hut, adjacent to a motorway slip road; as we parked the car to inspect the locale, a man was pissing against a wall. Not only is it an ugly end to a beautiful race, but the endgame has become increasingly formulaic over time, little more than a waiting game for the last kilometre.
The good news for Liège is that finishes are moveable feasts. There have been some novel ones: Paris-Roubaix used to conclude behind a dairy; the Tour of Flanders finished in the Kuipke velodrome; an early Liège-Bastogne-Liège edition ended on an airfield. I took a trip down some spring Classic memory lanes to see how they have changed and to understand what makes a finish – and a race – special, retelling some lively past editions along the way.
TOUR OF FLANDERS
There is a petrol station on one side of the road and a railway on the other; the pavement is a narrow sliver and the road probably wouldn’t pass the modern UCI width regulations. Only the town’s 1920s water tower reassures me that I’m in the right place: the Warandelaan in Wetteren, a market town on the Ghent outskirts.
The Ronde’s founder, Karel Van Wijnendaele, originally wanted to change his race’s finish location every ten years, but he liked both the finale and the town’s mayor, Josef Duchâteau. Save for a brief switch to the legendary Kuipke velodrome during wartime, Wetteren was the race’s endpoint from the late ‘20s to the early ‘60s.
The 1955 edition was a pearler, hailed as the best since World War Two at the time. It was lit up by Mercier team-mates Louison Bobet and Bernard Gauthier, who broke away mid-race over the Muur. On the descent, they took a wrong turn after being badly signalled by a policeman. By the time they had corrected the mistake, rivals Hugo Koblet and Rik Van Steenbergen had caught up.
Breakaways don’t get much more elite: Bobet was world champion and would soon take his third consecutive Tour de France title, Koblet was a Giro and Tour winner, and Van Steenbergen was the generation’s one-day king.
But Bordeaux-Paris champion Gauthier made the difference, chasing down attacks for his captain. He was one of Bobet’s ten team-mates in the field of 300, whereas Koblet had just one, compatriot Marcel Huber. The rest of his Faema squad had preferred to stay in Italy before the Tour of Calabria.
Things were rosy for the leaders till they encountered a closed level crossing 15 kilometres from the finish. With the bunch bearing down on them, they hopped it. Led out by Gauthier, Bobet became the first Frenchman to win the Ronde and the commissaires decided to not disqualify them for jumping the gates. Legend has it that fifth-placed Karel De Baere was offered money to not make an official complaint, but never received it…
Back then, there were “only” five hills on the route. But the dawn of the hellingen-heavy contemporary Tour of Flanders came with a move to the Flemish Ardennes in 1973 and an unlikely terminus. Thirty kilometres west of Brussels, Meerbeke is an unremarkable little village, but its mayor Etienne Cosyns had a big dream: to attract the finish of the country’s big bike race. He offered the long road out of Ninove – the Halsesteenweg – as a final straight. It’d be closer to the race’s final bergs, his team had experience organising bike races and, last but certainly not least, the price was right. They stumped up 1,000 Belgian francs, a fair old whack back then.
It was an incredible coup. The Ronde ended there for 38 years and its run-in quickly became an institution: De Muur van Geraardsbergen with 16km to go, followed by the Bosberg and a twisting ride into Meerbeke that offered options for both the strong and the shrewd. “I liked it because there were more possibilities to make a move and get away on your own or in a small group,” 2011 winner Nick Nuyens says. “Once you pass the Bosberg, the real game starts again because the differences are not that big anymore: you know that the guys with you doing 50km/h are not able to do 60.”
The Halsesteenweg is a humdrum main road — indeed, the countless logistical demands of a modern race often inhibit a characterful finish – but Ronde day transformed it. For those watching at home, the yellow Flanders flags billowing in the wind packed a special televisual punch. In person, there was little else in cycling more spine-tingling than the roar of the crowd when a home favourite won. The slightly uphill last hundred metres added sporting intrigue too, able to scupper a mistimed sprint for victory. “It’s nothing. But after 260 kilometres, it’s a lot,” Nuyens says. He knows full well, overhauling Fabian Cancellara there to become the last man to win the Ronde in Meerbeke.
There was uproar when it was announced that the finish would be moved to Oudenaarde. Ninety per cent of Het Nieuwsblad readers voted it as the wrong decision; hundreds of fans staged a mock funeral on the Muur. You can replace a finale, but not a feeling. “I could win ten times in Oudenaarde, but it would never be the same sensation as the one in Meerbeke,” two-time champion Stijn Devolder said at the time.
Commercial imperatives were one reason for the transfer, as organiser Flanders Classics sought to exploit the race’s explosion in size. And it has mushroomed: according to Geert Vandenbon, who worked on the race between 1987 and 2009, the 250,000 people who stood on the race route in the late ‘80s has tripled and the Halsesteenweg grandstand that once seated 250 became one for 6,000, with 6,000 standing places – more than double the population of Meerbeke.
Nowadays, the faded finish line and logos of sponsors KBC and Base are still visible. Across the way stands Sint-Pieter’s church and a statue of two riders duelling for victory, commemorating Cosyns’s feat.
“This place is something special,” Nuyens says. “Everybody passing knows the history, sees the line and can imagine how the day of the race is with all the crowds, the podium, the TV and press, the whole circus.”
Soon, they won’t have to picture it. The Ronde’s loss has become Omloop Het Nieuwsblad’s gain, as the Classics curtain raiser adopts the last 60 kilometres of the former route this year. The Muur, Bosberg and Meerbeke are back. “Now, the new generation look forward to seeing what everyone is talking about,” Nuyens says.
Nowadays, a finish to Paris-Roubaix anywhere other than the Vélodrome André-Pétrieux would be sacrilege. But during the race’s first 50 years, it had six different endpoints around the textile city.
In 1929, the Stade Amédée-Prouvost played host to one of the most chaotic conclusions in the Classic’s history. When the leading Belgian trio of Georges Ronsse, Aimé Deolet and Charles Meunier got there, “the organisation was perfect, but its cinder track was not as good as had been hoped,” L’Auto reported with considerable understatement. The recce of the stadium was done at the beginning of winter, signed off before months of bad weather loosened the ground. Ronsse discovered this when he tried to pass Meunier on the outside of an uneven bend. He skidded, fell and took down Deolet too.
The unfancied Meunier won by virtue of being last man standing and lit up a cigarette in celebration. In contrast, after finishing on foot with his bike, runner-up Ronsse sobbed and nursed a bleeding hand. Fearing more crashes on the treacherous surface, commissaire André Trialoux classed the first big group to arrive as joint sixth. A few minutes later, the angry crowd invaded the track, making it impossible to note any more finishers. That was, unsurprisingly, the first and last time that Paris-Roubaix finished at the Stade Amédée-Prouvost.
Monsieur Trialoux had form for this. Two years earlier, finishing on the Avenue des Villas in Roubaix, Ronsse and French rival Joseph Curtel crossed the line together. The photograph clearly shows the latter just behind, yet he was given the winner’s bouquet and the finish line band began playing La Marseillaise before Trialoux amended his verdict.
Save for a few more traffic lights and islands, the Avenue des Villas is remarkably similar today. It saw 15 finishes of Paris-Roubaix between 1922 and 1939, punctuated by a couple of editions at the Hippodrome Croisé-Larouche in the mid-‘30s. Situated ten kilometres out of Roubaix in Marcq-en-Barœul, the racecourse with its distinctive black all-weather surface remains one of France’s busiest.
The move attracted controversy – as spectators could be more easily charged for entry, the socialist rag Le Populaire reckoned Henri Desgrange had sold the race’s soul – and yet more dodgy adjudication. In 1936, Romain Maes beat Georges Speicher by a tyre, but victory went to the Frenchman, despite the protests of Maes and his fans.
The race adopted its iconic Roubaix velodrome finish in 1943.
While road race finishes in cycling tracks or stadiums used to be all the rage – in the early ‘60s, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Bordeaux-Paris, the Tour of Lombardy and the Tour de France all concluded on them – Paris-Roubaix is now the quirky, modern outlier.
It was only interrupted in 1986 when the finish moved to the Avenue des Nations Unies, outside La Redoute’s office. The old velodrome was in need of repair and the mail-order retail company jacked the prize money up to 110,000 francs, eight times the previous rate. However, with popular fervour stoked by a Tour de l’Avenir visit, the Monument returned to its traditional home in 1989 and has finished there ever since.
With its cement track and weathered seats, the terminus of Paris-Roubaix is as gritty as the race for which it serves as a spiritual home. Everyone from Coppi to Cancellara has won there, and such continuity sprinkles even more magic for fans and riders alike. The crude feel actually makes it easier to imagine the ghosts of winners past pedalling round. Ultimately, Roubaix velodrome is the exemplar of how a modest place can be given great meaning by a cycling race.
AMSTEL GOLD RACE
In its infancy, the Amstel Gold Race had a fight on its hand to even exist, let alone establish itself as a spring highlight. Before its 1966 debut, the organisers only received a government permit for the event at the last minute and had to throw in lengthy deviations due to Queen’s Day parades, making the race 302km in length. “I was only paid to ride 250,” Jacques Anquetil quipped after abandoning upon reaching the finishing loop. For winning, Jean Stablinski received a golden beer barrel. Two years later, the race was shunted back to late September due to a calendar clash with a one-day race in Roeselare.
Between 1969 and 1990, the race had an uninterrupted finish in the village of Meerssen and became shaped by the inclusion of more Limburg hills. It became the domain of record five-time winner Jan Raas, who made it a tradition to do his immediate post-victory press conference in a house adjacent to the finish line, belonging to the Mullender family. “Please Madam, these flowers are for you. May I come in again?” Raas asked, clutching his bouquet. The race’s title sponsor can’t have been pleased when Mrs Mullender informed him one year that they had no Amstels in the fridge and handed him a Brand beer instead.
The race’s calling card became the Cauberg, which served as the finish itself between 2003 and 2012. That was more down to the party atmosphere lent by thousands of fans – many of whom have been sampling the race sponsor’s wares all afternoon – lining the hill rather than its difficulty.
The line is still there, next to a Radler sign, but the Amstel Gold now concludes in Berg en Terblijt after an additional loop of the local lanes. Race organiser, 1983 Gent-Wevelgem winner Leo van Vliet, recognised the old finale had turned into a stale shootout on the Cauberg.
Their shake-up demonstrated the fine balance between tradition and innovation for a race. The Amstel Gold’s relative youth arguably makes it a poorer companion to the other spring Classics in terms of prestige, but allows its organisers to reinvent the race without the burdensome weight of history or public outcry. With the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège sticking to long-held, more predictable uphill finishes, the Amstel Gold Race may well become the most entertaining Ardennes Classic in coming years.
Inside the hulking cinema complex of Kinepolis, it’s all reflective black tiles and promotional posters of the latest Hollywood fare. Nice enough, but we’re not here to watch Kong: Skull Island. After 30 seconds of taking photographs, we’re stopped by G4S security guards (since when did cinemas have bouncers?), informed we’re on private property and asked what we’re doing. At least our excuse is a novel one: looking for a commemorative stone to Eddy Merckx.
This is the former site of the Stade Vélodrome de Rocourt. Its heyday came in the ‘50s alongside that of its football club tenants, RFC Liège, who won two Belgian football titles that decade and drew crowds of 45,000. A banked cycling track was added in 1949, sitting between the terraces and the pitch like an orange cummerbund. It hosted four track World Championships over 25 years, the scene of titles for legends like Reg Harris, Beryl Burton and Daniel Morelon.
From 1964 to 1973, Liège-Bastogne-Liège concluded there too. It was Eddy Merckx’s manor: cycling’s greatest won four of his five editions at Rocourt. “I liked that finish on the velodrome, it was an advantage for me,” Merckx says. His manners of victory ranged from a photo finish sprint to breakaway drubbings. In 1969, he and Faema team-mate Victor Van Schil famously put eight minutes into the closest chasers.
Two years later, a similar 90-kilometre solo bid almost backfired. “I’d been ill and attacked from too far out. Georges Pintens was chasing, I suffered from cramps and then he caught me a few kilometres from Liège,” Merckx says. “I didn’t want to overdo it because I knew he’d get up to me and attack straight away – and he did. But I took his wheel and, voila, beat him on the track.”
I had read that while the stadium was demolished in 1996, a commemorative stone still remained inside. Summoned down from his office by the puzzled doormen, the cinema manager explains he cannot help: “I can’t say where it is. There was a film crew who came to do a piece on Merckx. They looked in the cinema, but didn’t find it either.”
He suggests asking round the tennis club next door, which is populated by children during the Easter holidays. The proprietors put the word out and one kid thinks her father might know where it is. Unfortunately, it’s a false alarm. The mystery of Merckx’s stone lives on.
In 1975, the Liège-Bastogne-Liège finish moved to the Boulevard de la Sauvenière in the city centre, the 15-kilometre run-in from the top of the last hill, the Côte des Forges, made for an exciting finale . For many, the go-to edition from that era is Bernard Hinault’s 1980 escape to victory through a snowstorm.
Many appear to have forgotten that twelve months later, the weather was just as foul and the race similarly attritional. Drenched by downpours, intermittent hailstorms and snow flurries, only 25 riders got round. ‘The Badger’ was 18th. “It was the rain, then the cold that killed me,” Hinault told L’Equipe while thawing out in his hotel room. “In my opinion, this Liège-Bastogne-Liège was harder than last year’s … the rain penetrated the acrylic jerseys I was wearing, I’ve undoubtedly never been as cold as today.”
Who won? Swiss veteran Josef Fuchs – eventually. Away with Cilo team-mate Stefan Mutter and TI-Raleigh talent Johan van der Velde, he escaped over La Redoute. Though Van der Velde, shaking with cold, crashed on the subsequent descent, he caught Fuchs on the outskirts of Liège and won the sprint comfortably.
Five weeks later, the Dutchman was disqualified after registering a positive test for the corticosteroid Nortestosteron and 33-year-old Fuchs got given a Monument win with none of the fanfare. At the end of the season, he quit the sport and opened up a bike shop.