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It is called the Flemish High Mass and the most beautiful of all classics. In East and West Flanders, the gardens have been raked, the sidewalks have been swept and the windows have been washed, and in the weeks prior to the first Sunday of April nothing else is said in the cafés. The Course. The Tour of Flanders. More than a hundred years old but still alive and kicking.
Karel van Wijnendaele was a bad cyclist, but a great entrepreneur and editor-in-chief, and a man with ideas. His magazine De Sportwereld could use some promotion and in the beginning of 1913 he started the first Round. "It started in 1913," he wrote, "with 37 participants and five trailers over more than three hundred kilometers of poor paved roads."
The founder was a master in thickening and dramatizing, he wanted to turn his Tour into a character contest based on the romanticized image of the Flemish people of that time: hard-working, toiling people fighting the elements. "All the better," he shouted when rain was predicted, "The Round needs bad weather. It thrives best in rain, wind, and mud."
Karel van Wijnendaele had long since passed away when Johan Museeuw won the Tour for the third time in 1998, but the rider's words could have been his: "Become guys, one-piece men, with thoughts in their heads and crumbles in their legs "
Because no matter what happened in those hundred years, the nature of the course remained unchanged. The Tour of Flanders is a competition for experienced, tough riders. In 2000 the winner Andrei Tchmil was 37 years old. After a flat, well-paved run-up of one hundred kilometers, the asphalt is increasingly giving way to merciless cobblestone strips. Then come the rugged, steep slopes and the turning and turning starts. Whether it is dry (dust) or collapsing from the rain (mud) the unevenly lying, slightly convex stones hurt the wrists and legs, and plague the seat. The roadside is covered with water bottles that have been shaken from the holders. And on the slopes with illustrious names such as Paterberg, Steenbeekdries, Kruisberg and Oude Kwaremont, it is sometimes so steep (up to 22%) that even the pros stop standing and bounce against the stones.
It became a famous image of the Tour of Flanders when the Dane came across Jesper Skibby on the Koppenberg in 1987. As a leader in the race, he tried to climb the dramatically bad and narrow strip of cobbles near the brewery town of Oudenaarde. He barely advanced any further and understood why they called this part of the course the torture chamber of Flanders. Behind Skibby the driver of the radio car was in a hurry, he did not want to block the slope for the pursuers. Skibby almost fell, was then touched by the car, which then casually drove over both its wheels. Narrowly Skibby could pull his feet out of the toe clips. They were dramatic images and the Koppenberg disappeared from the race for fifteen years.
The images of the Tour of 1985 were also shocking. Winner Eric Vanderaerden had to be lifted off his bike, chattering and half frozen. It had been fresh but sunny at the departure, but soon it started to storm and rain heavily. Far too thinly dressed, only 24 of the 173 participants finished.
The Tour of Flanders is also the course in which the spectators on the embankments watched in bewilderment at Eddy Merckx who stumbled the last two hundred meters up. The great champion, the Cannibal on foot, they had never seen that before.
On the Saturday before the real Tour, that is a more common image, riders who have to leave their bikes. Then cycling tourists fill the hills and cobblestones and the hills with cobblestones. Around twenty thousand riders, including nearly five thousand foreigners from thirty countries, will ride the entire (more than 250 kilometers), half or a quarter Tour of Flanders. It is a wonderful chaos, a folk festival, and from behind the fences and from the cafes where the mayor drinks a beer with a factory worker, the brave enthusiasts are encouraged. On to the next church village. Zingem, Zottegem, Zulzeke, Kruishoutem, Knettergekem. In real time the riders will be in the heart of Flanders, in the heart of cycling, but eventually the finish line will be in Oudenaarde and life will never be the same again.