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The Tour of Flanders in the Belgian province is one of the toughest cycling races in the world. With the enduro on and off the trail of the famous spring classic.

Lothar Kutschera


The professionals bump along narrow dirt roads with their filigree racing bikes in a jagged 40s cut.

Dust and dirt have caked their faces. Panting, they torment themselves again and again up steep ramps, which are sometimes fairly asphalted, sometimes peppered with cobblestones. Icy wind, rain or even a shower of snow often make the tough race even more difficult. Even the big stars in the field are plagued by defects and falls in such conditions. Every year in April these fascinating pictures can be admired on the various TV sports channels. Then the one-day spring classics are in high season in Holland, Belgium and northern France. One of the outstanding events of this kind is the Tour of Flanders, almost 270 kilometers long, a run for the World Cup and, for the Belgians who are crazy about cycling, an event of national importance. Hundreds of thousands of fans line the racetrack, proudly waving the yellow flags with the Lion of Flanders and, of course, mainly cheering on their Flemish compatriots among the more than 200 professional cyclists who took part. If you want to experience this sparkling atmosphere live on site, the motorcycle is an ideal means of transport to see the drivers several times on the day of the race. The mostly short distances between the individual climbs, known in Flemish as »Hellingen«, can be bridged the quickest by bike, without getting caught in the traffic jam of the fans who have come by cars and buses. The route of the famous classic bike is also a great guideline for a private tour of Flanders, regardless of the hectic race date at the beginning of April, because only then can you really enjoy the province in western Belgium between Brussels and the North Sea coast. Gerhard and I rode in the footsteps of the bike race in early summer, and Flanders presented itself from its chocolate side: bright sunshine, hardly a cloud in the sky, lush green everywhere. Like the professional cyclists, we start our tour in Bruges. The capital of West Flanders exudes southern charm. Thanks to its well-preserved medieval buildings and the canals that run through the historic city center, Bruges is known as the Venice of the north. Life pulsates on the market square, as if the popular meeting point in the center were an Italian piazza. And the 83 meter high belfry towers over the area like a campanile. Every hour a carillon sounds from the imposing, octagonal tower. Those who climb the 366 steps to the top of the belfry are rewarded with a magnificent view over the city. The racing drivers take a direct course from Bruges to the North Sea coast. On the other hand, we take a short detour from the racing course to a canal that leads from Bruges over to Sluis in the Netherlands. A river like from a picture book: bordered by an avenue of poplars, which are reflected in the leisurely flowing water, with many cozy spots in the bank grass, where you can stretch all four and enjoy the peace and quiet. In Gistel we return to the route of the Tour of Flanders. And for a special reason: The Tourmalet cycling pub, one of the most famous of its kind in Belgium, is located here. In these so-called supporter cafes, the cycling fans meet for a beer, discuss the number one popular sport in their country and watch the television broadcasts of the races in large groups. Almost every driver has his supporter club or his supporter cafe? Institutions that also serve in the cycling nation Belgium to financially support young talents on their way to the top. The Tourmalet, named after the pass in the Pyrenees that became legendary through the Tour de France, is not only a pub and restaurant, but also a small cycling museum. On the one hand there are numerous exhibits from the time of the two-time Tour de France winner Sylvère Maes, who opened the Tourmalet in 1936. On the other hand, pictures, trophies and championship jerseys tell of the little town’s currently most famous son, Johan Museeuw. The world champion, world cup winner and three-time winner of the Tour of Flanders lives just a few steps away from the Tourmalet. It goes without saying that the folk hero can be seen by his loyal fans in the pub during the winter months. While the Tour of Flanders in Gistel is still in the rolling-in phase, things are slowly getting serious for the riders on the Molenberg, the next stop on our motorcycle tour. Here, in the area around Oudenaarde, the chain of slipways begins, those sometimes only a few hundred meters long, but very crisp climbs. The cobblestone ramps, which are up to 20 percent steep, are not a problem with the Enduro or with a road tourer, only when it rains it can get slippery. The cyclists, on the other hand, need a lot of driving experience, even in the dry, in order to steer their ultra-light racing machines with the extremely narrow tires across the parquet floor without falling over. And a good physical condition, because with 16 such driveways a considerable amount of vertical meters comes together to the destination. On the Molenberg, in German: Muhlenberg, two restaurants invite you to take a break. One in the old mill down by the stream, the other further up just before the end of the ascent: the »Ter Maelder« or »Zum Muller«. The restaurant is jam-packed during the race, and the landlord sets up a grandstand every year so that his guests can enjoy a better view of the “Renners”, as the racing drivers are called in Flanders. Now in June, the noisy hustle and bustle of the bike race is far away, and the landlord is using the time to freshly paper his guest room. A motorcyclist and a photographer from Germany who stop in front of his restaurant are obviously a pleasant change for the restaurateur. He spontaneously invites us to the shady garden terrace. He proudly tells us that Eddie Merckx, Belgium’s cycling legend par excellence, occasionally comes to his restaurant on Molenberg to eat. Both Belgian ethnic groups – with all other reservations about each other – can equally identify with the great champion, the French-speaking Walloons as well as the Flemings, who have a dialect related to Dutch. What do old star Merckx like to eat most? “Soup with meatballs,” the Muller landlord knows. Because of the renovation work, he cannot serve us anything from his kitchen. But the hospitable man offers us a drink. What he takes from the counter looks like a beer bottle, but has a champagne cork as a stopper, and the reddish content pearls in the glass like sparkling wine. We take a sip, are impressed by the slightly sweet taste, but can’t really classify the drink right away. The solution to the riddle: We drink cherry beer, or Kriek beer in Flemish, a specialty among the 400 or so types of beer produced in Belgium. Here the fruit juice is not added afterwards, but added during the brewing process. Tastes delicious and makes you thirsty for more. But we prefer to leave it with a bottle, because we have to go down the Molenberg safely and via the village of Horebeke back to the hotel in Oudenaarde. The city at the foot of the Flemish Ardennes is an ideal base from which to explore all the hills that leave their mark on the Tour of Flanders. The Molenberg at race kilometer 150 is the fourth ascent of the Flanders circuit and the first on cobblestones. Maximum gradient: 17 percent. Six more slipways with the bumpy subsoil will follow south and east of Oudenaarde, but there are also passages with cobblestone pavement on flat stretches to shake up the professional cyclists. And the slipways on asphalt also have plenty of gradient percentages to offer. On a motorcycle ride from hill to hill and through many small villages, you can discover the charm of Flanders away from the main thoroughfares. Spotless clinker brick facades, lonely farmsteads, large country houses that almost look like castles and gnarled windmills lie along the way. And again and again the view from one of the hills falls on the picturesque course of the river Scheldt. Not a spectacular landscape, but an area that exudes a certain calm. Here you can relax and unwind. Which of course does not apply to professional cyclists. The closer the goal in Meerbeke gets, the more important it becomes to bring the favorites of your own team into a favorable position, to face the outliers of the competition again and to launch your own attacks. The penultimate ascent of the race is probably the most famous: the Geraardsbergen wall. It lives up to its name. No car fits through the cobblestone streets that screw their way up the hill above the city in tight bends and with a robust 20 percent incline. The mountain is full of people. Beer and hard liquor are making the rounds. Fanfares and sirens create a powerful background noise when the first riders climb the mountain. On our bike tour, on the other hand, there is pleasant tranquility up on the mountain. The thermometer has now climbed to midsummer temperatures. Only a few of the amateur cyclists, who are otherwise quite numerous in the footsteps of their great role models, are out this afternoon. No wonder, given this monkey heat, which is unusual for Flanders. Our trip ends in the beer garden of the pub, which is just before the summit of the Geraardsbergen wall. Under the shady trees it is easy to endure and wait for the coolness of the evening. You almost feel like the restaurant is called: in the kingdom of heaven. For some drivers, this passage in the race may be a little bit like hell. In the lowest gear and almost only at walking pace, they torment their way up the ramp, with burning bronchi and the hope that the drudgery will soon be over. 18 kilometers and with the Bosberg a last ride over the dreaded cobblestones are still to the finish line.

Tour of Flanders 2001

The 85th edition of the classic starts on April 8th, starting in Bruges and finishing in Meerbeke south of Aalst. So far there has only been one German winner in Flanders: Rudi Altig won in 1964.

In addition to Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Dutch Amstel Gold Race, the Tour of Flanders is one of the five great spring classics in the Cycling World Cup. The race was started for the first time in 1913. This year it will take place on April 8th. It starts at 9.45 a.m. on the market square in Bruges, between 4 and 5 p.m. the finish is in Meerbeke. The race gets really interesting after about half the distance. Then the poisonous, up to 20 percent steep climbs pile up at short intervals. 16 such hills have to be overcome between the towns of Oudenaarde and Geraardsbergen, seven of them on cobblestones: Molenberg, Oude-Kwaremont, Paterberg, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Mauer von Geraardsbergen and Bosberg. The course can change slightly from year to year. Current information about the course is available from the organizer Het Nieuwsblad, Gossetlaan 30, 1702 Groot-Bijgaarden, Belgium, phone 0032/2/4672421, fax -4663059, e-mail: rr1157@vum.be. The organizer’s website is also highly recommended: http: //www.rvv.be. The quickest way to travel from West Germany is via the A 3 from Aachen via Liège and Brussels and then on the A 10 Brussels – Ostend to Flanders . From southern Germany, it is recommended to travel via Saarbrucken and Luxembourg. From there it goes on the A 4 via Namur to Brussels and then on the A 10 to Flanders. The motorways in Belgium are free of charge. There are hotels and guest houses in Flanders in all price ranges. The organizer’s website is very helpful when looking for a place to stay. If you click on the route of the race, you will find links to the tourist offices of all important cities and towns along the route. The Belgian Tourist Office, Berliner Allee 47, 40212 Dusseldorf, phone 0211/864840, fax -134285, has further information. The detailed Michelin map number 213 on a scale of 1: 200,000 for 13.80 marks is suitable as a map. Time required: two to three days, distance: around 300 kilometers

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