Flahute and "The Lion of Flanders"
Imagine the fastest rides that you do – racing or training. You are on the rivet, eyes glued to the wheel in front as tiny rivulets of sweat sting your eyes. Now imagine upping the pace by about another 4mph or 5mph and staying there for about 100 miles. The road breaks up into long cobbled sections, rough and uneven with frequent potholes. The bunch, over 100 strong, looks for every tiny respite from the cobbles. You dive left onto a narrow sandy strip about 6 inches wide. Suddenly everyone is charging over to the other side of the road where there is a better strip of smooth track. The track finishes abruptly as you enter the outskirts of a small town. The twisting road offers numerous corners. You head into them at full tilt. You sprint out of them even faster. The town has trams (streetcars) and now everyone is trying to avoid getting their wheels into the tracks. Riders bunny hop sideways up on to the sidewalk. Back out of town and the road opens up into a bleak, featureless countryside. Now the road is an endless strip of concrete slabs. About every 10 seconds for the next twenty minutes the gap between each slab sends a sharp shudder up your forks and through your arms to rattle the teeth in your head. All this time a strong wind coming off the ocean is buffeting the peloton. Echelons form and no quarter is given in trying to secure a place in them. Those hanging onto the tail of an echelon will shortly lose contact. For the majority of the riders this infernal cocktail is not much more than an exercise in survival. Hold the wheel in front and grab whatever drafting advantage that you can. Up front the elite riders maintain the incredible tempo and yet look totally at ease. It starts to rain just as you approach another set of cobbles. The speed is increased and now you attempt to stay upright on a surface which is more like riding on blocks of ice. Seventy miles done and the final phase of the race heads for the ‘bergs’. Nasty short climbs, usually cobbled. Forget the pacing; it is now a war of attrition. At the top of each berg the fragmented bunch attempts to become one cohesive unit again. The strong make it, the rest are shelled out and are done for the day. Coming into the finish town or village there is a long cobbled main street with the finish at the far end. You wonder where you are going to find the strength to sprint. The top twenty riders all receive a cash payout. The winner is the hero for the day. Four hours or so of racing at an insane speed. Cobbles, concrete slab roads that never seem to end, brutal cobbled climbs and an endless struggle to stay on the wheel in front while often performing great acrobatic skills just to stay upright. All the while Mother Nature is hurling powerful winds in your face and every now and then it rains hard. Mud and manure from the farms has splashed all over you. On a real bad day you look as though you have a face pack on. Everyone goes home exhausted. The bike is a mess and serious work needs to be done to restore the wheels back to true. On average you will race like this about four times every week.
Such scenes are enacted almost every day in Belgium. Every town and village seems to organize their own criterium or kermesse which is the centerpiece of their annual fair. The locals are out in force consuming generous amounts of beer and ‘pommes frites.’ They are passionate about their sport and will know most of the riders by name. Before the race they invite you into their houses to change and prepare for the race. For local riders their entire family will be out in force to support them. After the race they are hungry for an ‘insider’s view’ of the day’s proceedings.
This is the incubator that has nurtured many of cycling’s greatest: Buysse, Merckx, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, De Vlaemink. These names of the past inspire an awe and admiration that transcends time and intervening generations. In April 2004 we witnessed the end of the road for possibly the greatest one-day rider of all time – Johan Museeuw. Known as the Lion of Flanders, Museeuw holds the record for wins in World Cup classics, eleven in all. Three times he won the Tour of Flanders and three times the Paris-Roubaix. In the Tour of Flanders alone he has stepped onto the podium no less than eight times. In addition to mastering the five monuments, Johan also became World Road Race Champion in 1996 and has, during his illustrious 14 years as a professional, also claimed the yellow jersey for a while in the Tour de France.
Now, go back to our imaginary Belgian race. Add about another 60 miles and put together a field of around 190 of the world’s very best riders. This would be a Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. To be a dominant rider in such races year after year does not bear thinking about, but that is what riders like Museeuw, Merckx, De Vlaemink and a few others manage to do. The Belgian school breeds 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.
Museeuw has left us with many indelible memories. One of my favorites was of a few years ago in the Paris-Roubaix. America’s own Frankie Andreu was the last rider left from a small break. Museeuw bridged up to him. Briefly a gallant Frankie held his wheel until inevitably, along a cobbled stretch, Johan pulled away very slowly at first. But then the elastic snapped and the Lion of Flanders was at home alone on his beloved cobbles with just the whole of Belgium to keep him company along the road side or on television. At this point there was still around 50km’s to go and the fans holding numerous yellow flags bearing the black lion symbol of Flanders indicated that there was a powerful wind blowing straight into Johan’s face. It was a fearsome display of power and skill that delivered Johan to the velodrome in Roubaix. And once more Belgium probably experienced new records in beer consumption to celebrate their favorite son’s exploit. Probably the worst memory (especially for Museeuw), was his Paris-Roubaix crash in the Arenberg forest. His knee was smashed and an infection turned to gangrene which could have claimed his life. Yet he fought his way back to health and the following year won Paris-Roubaix pointing to his knee as he crossed the finish line alone. They don’t come any tougher – even as a Flahute!
With Museeuw gone Belgium is now looking for their next great hero. At just 24 years old Tom Boonen (pictured on our front cover this month) has been dubbed the ‘Lion Cub’ and ‘Torpedo Tom.’ He plays down any comparisons with former super stars but his short career certainly indicates high promise. Most of us first became aware of Tom during his short stay with Lance Armstrong’s USPS team. In 2002 we saw him during the final phase of the Paris-Roubaix riding with George Hincapie as they tried to chase down a small break. It was a classic day in Flanders, cold, damp, misty and gray. Tom and George were powering along looking good when suddenly George slipped ignominiously off the side of the narrow cobbled road and down into a drainage ditch. Tom was instructed to continue on alone and eventually he made the lowest step on the podium in Roubaix.
In 2003 Tom produced many good rides but only one win, a stage in the Tour of Belgium. 2004 heralded Tom’s arrival as one of the most talented riders of his generation. His twenty wins included two Tour de France stage wins and the Ghent-Wevelgem semi-classic. At the end of the year he was ranked 10th on the UCI rider ranking. Already in 2005 he has achieved five wins with two of them in the hard fought Paris-Nice. His most notable victory so far this year was in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen which is another of those races that dish up the type of road conditions associated with ‘Flanders’ and ‘Roubaix’. Some observers rated Boonen’s win in this race his best ever which augers well for him in the coming weeks.
On the Milan-San Remo start line this year Boonen was asked about his chances. He played them down but of course said he would love to win such a prestigious race. However at this level the head has to be 100% for the task in hand. As he explained, M-SR is the most important one day race on the calendar for the Italian riders. For him (and all other Belgians) he made no qualms that ‘Flanders’ and ‘Roubaix’ are the most important events. To win such races in front of your own countrymen is the pinnacle of success. And that is where his head is!
This year the European winter has been exceptionally cold, snowy and wet. If winter hangs on into April the Northern Classics are going to be exceptionally uncomfortable races. However along with Tom Boonen there is no shortage of hard men who are up to the challenge. Last year we saw new names dominate and riders like Magnus Backstedt, Stefan Weseman and Roger Hammond will be out to repeat their successes from last year and take over from the old guard like Peter Van Petegem. However World Champion Oscar Friere who seems to be winning everything he rides this year is in exceptional condition. At the end of March he won the Brabantse Pijl, which is another of those Belgian races for the ‘flahute’, in tremendous style. Paris-Roubaix may not quite be to his liking but the Ronde Van Vlaanderen could well be where he writes his own piece of cycling history to become the first Spanish rider to win a Northern Classic.