The helicopters are always the first sign that something's happening at a big bike race, though with a vast VIP area just outside the village there were choppers coming and going all day. Then there are the whistles of the stewards, the sirens of the first police outriders, the Rodania car leading the publicity caravan and a handful of team vehicles, then... nothing, for what feels like an age. And all of a sudden, a rush of bright lycra, the clatter of bikes on cobbles, the riders' heavy breathing somehow audible over the cheering & applause of the thousands-strong crowd. The speed is incredible. I've seen enough road racing to expect fast - but having ridden these roads just the day before I simply cannot comprehend how they can be ridden at race pace. It's clear from the riders' faces that it hurts them just the way it hurt me, yet still they attack the climb at twice the speed I managed on the smoothest, flattest tarmac.
After the first lap of the men's race we investigated the village square at the top of the climb. What I'm sure would normally be a peaceful little retreat with just a couple of old guys enjoying the sunshine was party central - big screens showing Sporza's live coverage (the mass intake of breath as Fabian went down in the feedzone, ending his race), half a dozen stalls selling beer and burgers and hundreds and hundreds of people. A beer (well, a few), a hotdog, a new spot on the barriers and two more laps, seeing the race shift and take shape, the first signs of the winning break beginning to form - then the rush back to the square to find a spot with a view of the screen. Not easy when you're only 5ft1, unless there's an accommodating landlord who invites you to climb up on his bar, & a big strong friend to help you up there!
The atmosphere in that square was unforgettable. Three riders had escaped off the front of the dwindling bunch - Alessandro Ballan, Pippo Pozzato and local hero Tom Boonen, and were, somehow, extending their lead by the minute. People were cheering, chanting, even praying, yet as the three riders approached the line there was quiet. And then -
and the crowd, as they always say, went wild.
Some random observations from the race:
- Those clouds of dust you see the riders charging through on tv? Actually just as likely to be barbecue smoke ;-)
- Race spectators are fuelled by copious quantities of beer, burgers & sausages. It may well have been possible to buy soft drinks and healthy food in Kwaremont on Sunday, but no-one was doing so.
- These people love bike racing. And they really love Tom Boonen.
- It's every man, woman & child for himself when it comes to finding a good spectating spot - but if it looks like you're about to spill beer people will instantly come to your aid.
- That evening Tommeke Boonen's win was the top story on all the local news channels (with Fabian's broken collarbone taking second spot) and pages and pages of Monday's paper were given over to the race - the kind of coverage British cycling could only dream of.
- When you're only 5ft1 it's really useful to have a couple of stupidly tall guys with you!