If the glory of pro cycling lies along the country roads and cols grandes of France in July and the romance lies in the boulevards and passi di montagnes of Italy in May then surely the heart and guts lie among the cobbles, muurs, and bergs of Belgium in April. Especially in the Flemish region. To the Belgian faithful, where bike racing is a national pastime, the Tour of Flanders is the Super Bowl and World Cup combined.
“I told the organisers it wasn’t a race but a war game. It’s hard to explain what the Koppenberg means to a racing cyclist. Instead of being a race, it’s a lottery. Only the first five or six riders have any chance: the rest fall off or scramble up as best they can. What on earth have we done to send us to hell now?” – Bernard Hinault (5x Tour de France champion, never won Flanders)
First raced in 1913, Flanders was held in March during those early years – on the same day as Milan-San Remo, actually. As the race grew in stature, it was moved to the first weekend in April after World War II. One of cycling’s five “monuments” (Milan-San Remo, Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Tour of Lombardy), the Ronde van Vlaanderen is characterized by narrow roads, and short, punchy cobbled climbs dotted throughout tiny Belgian towns. And for a few hours at the beginning of April, the world descends upon these sleepy Flandrian villages. It’s always a war of attrition and only the strongest survive.
“Only those who are in top condition can say that the Ronde is not hard. For everyone else, it’s the Way of the Cross.” -Andrea Tafi (’02 winner)
In total, Belgian riders have won Flanders 66 times. The next closest country is Italy with 10. No American has ever won here. Only 4 men have won the race a record 3 times. This year, 2 men will line up that have won de Ronde twice, Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder. Both Belgians. Will this be the year one of these riders join the exclusive 3-win club or will Fabian Cancellara or a host of other strongmen ride away with it?
“As a Belgian, winning Flanders for the first time is far more important than wearing the maillot jaune in the Tour” – Johan Museeuw (’93, ’95, & ’98 winner)
The Flemish have a term for the strongest of strong men who take well to a race like de Ronde: Flahute. A Flahute is Vlaanderens mooiste (Flander’s finest). The website Cycling Revealed has an incredible post written by Graham Jones on what it means to be a Flahute. It’s required reading. But in part:
The Belgian school breed them tough. They thrive in foul weather and on atrocious roads. As children, they grow up “playing racing.” Museeuw tells us that the Tour of Flanders route passed right by his house. The kids dream of being like the great champions. When they are old enough to race they start to train in conditions similar to the races. Only the toughest survive and in the Flemish tongue these “hardest of the hard men” are known as Flahute. – Graham Jones
Welcome to the first weekend in April where the Flahute come out to play and destroy. Versus coverage of the Tour of Flanders airs at 1pm PST on Sunday. Set your DVR or, better yet, watch it live.