By Scott Downes
A pilgrimage is defined as a difficult journey to a sacred place to find meaning and pay homage. On Sunday, Belgium will host the cycling world in such a journey to watch the 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders, known more globally by its Flemish moniker: De Ronde van Vlaanderen.
It comes on the heels of a truly horrible time for Belgium. On March 22nd, terrorist bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station killed at least 35 people, and injured more than 300 others. Incredibly, Belgium carried on, hosting the Dwars door Vlaanderen the very next day, as well as two other major races in the days the come.
Tragedy struck the Belgium pro peloton as well, as two of its young pro cyclists lost their lives in the last week. Antoine Demoitie was the victim of a fatal crash with a race moto during Gent-Wevelgem, and Daan Myngheer died two days after suffering a heart attack during the first stage of the Criterium International.
Some would understandably be hesitant to venture in the direction of such anguish and chaos. Many others would not, opting instead for a journey to one of the cathedrals of cycling. A few hardy contingents of Colorado-based cyclists are among the latter – the most famous of which is Taylor Phinney, who announced days ago that he’d earned a spot on the BMC squad for De Ronde, his first monument in two years, after an arduous comeback from a career-threatening injury. The rest of the Colorado crew traveling to Belgium will be watching De Ronde, riding bikes over the bergs and cobbles, and paying homage to a sacred place in its somber time.
303Cycling briefly caught up with one such traveler, Brett Richard of Handlebar Mustache, before he departed for Belgium, to find what this kind of trip means at a time like this.
Brett Richard: When I first got into cycling, the more racing I watched the more I was hooked. I instantly fell in love with De Ronde the first time I saw coverage of it. There is something special about the “all in” nature of The Classics. There is not another stage tomorrow to get time back, it’s now or never…add in weather and rabid fans for pure sports perfection. I got more into the history of cycling and then went deep into the history of Belgie cycling culture. There is just something special about their relationship to the bike. The history is filled with laborer-to-legend stories – guys that have one shot at making it or go back to the fields or mines.
We first visited Flanders in June of 2013 on our anniversary trip. We then returned in April for De Ronde. Flanders is the living breathing soul of cycling. Oudenaarde is like cycling Disneyland. From De Ronde museum to the well-labeled routes, they just get it. I always tell people Roubaix is one day of the year in northern France, but De Ronde vibe lasts all year in Flanders.
The vibe of crowd is very unique. They have a very high cycling IQ. Any time a Belgian even moves off the front 10ft they erupt. Especially if it’s Boonen – imagine MJ meets Springsteen. Multiple beer gardens on course with huge screens make it an amazing experience. We like to watch to De Ronde on the Kwaremont. You watch the race come through, and between laps you go watch in the beer garden. Then you watch the final there, so you don’t miss any of the race.
How do you get the most out of a trip there, between riding and spectating?
We are blessed to have some great friends that love and know the area well.Jered and Ashley Gruber have been our personal tour guides, and Gregg and Holly Germer always make us feel at home at their place (The Chain Stay). The great thing about the Oudenaarde area is the clearly marked routes. You can show up there without a Garmin, stop in to De Ronde museum select a route (red, blue, yellow etc) and head out. Each corner has signs showing the routes, it’s so easy to navigate.
What kind of reaction did you have when you heard about the terrorist attacks? Did give you any pause about going?
Our first reaction was just instant sadness. We also thought of the resilience of the Belgians. That country has seen some of the worst humanity has to offer during both World Wars, so you know they will they move forward. The scene they kept showing on CNN was a counter we stood at last year sorting out a flight issue, so that was a bit surreal. Of course your brain has lots of thoughts, but we both just wanted to be there right away. The only way not to allow the terrorists to win is to move on. Somehow going there for De Ronde feels like the best way to show our support.
What are you most excited about for your upcoming trip?
Our Belgie trip – we call it Stache Van Vlaanderen – and Interbike are two times we see people we otherwise would miss. So the people and spirit in air are the things we look most forward to. We are going with another couple this time, so we are excited to see it a bit through their eyes.
The Tour of Flanders starts this Sunday, April 3. Live streaming for U.S. viewers begins at 6:00am MT via Bien Sports.