A fan's eye view of the Classics
The inside line on following Team Sky
Last Updated: 05/03/14 5:24pm
Neil watched Ian Stannard on the Oude Kwaremont
Have you ever thought about travelling to Europe to follow Team Sky on the road? Well British fan Neil Care did just that for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne double header, and his first blog of the season gives a great insight into the fun that can be had watching the action. Take it away Neil!
Day one - Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Whilst I watch the early races on TV, the season always starts for me in Belgium. That’s where cycling’s hard men come out to play and I can easily travel to watch them.
Having Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne on consecutive days made for a perfect weekend of cycling. Like most Classics, you can watch them several times during the day and take in iconic climbs and cobbled sections that are difficult to walk on, let alone ride on.
The start of Het Nieuwsblad is in Gent, just a 90-minute drive from Calais. There are no restrictions which means fans can meet all their favourite riders. This year the Team Sky bus was particularly popular and shortly before the start the riders emerged to make their way to the sign on. On the way they signed countless autographs and posed for countless photos - name me another sport where the elite competitors are so accessible?
I watched the roll-out and then drove 30 minutes to the Haaghoek, a 2000m stretch of cobbles that the riders would tackle three times during the day. Once I’d got parked, I only had to wait 40 minutes before the riders appeared. At that stage the pace was quite sedate and it was easy to pick out the riders and take some photos.
An hour later the riders returned again, although this time the pace had visibly quickened and everyone screamed encouragement as they flashed past. For the final lap, I only had to wait 40 minutes and the speed was immense with riders hanging on for dear life. It was fantastic racing and brilliant to watch from the roadside.
Once the first groups had passed I dashed back to the car and returned to Gent. I was now in a race of my own to get there before the finish. After finding a parking spot, I jogged to the finish and heard over the PA that the leaders were only 8km away. I was buzzing when it was apparent that Ian [Stannard] and Edvald [Boasson Hagen] were right up there. I managed to get a spot on the barriers just 150m from the line!
Soon the finishing straight was packed as people poured out of the bars and cafes to watch the racing in person. The atmosphere was unbelievable when Ian emerged to take the win and the crowd was deafening. This moment alone made the 4am ferry worthwhile.
Once Edvald had battled his way to third place I walked to the nearby podium and secured another spot at the front. 20 minutes later Ian, Edvald and Greg Van Avermaet were introduced to the crowd to very generous applause. As Ian walked off I shouted "Well done Yogi!" and he turned and raised the trophy in my direction. Top man!
Day two – Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne
I’d booked accommodation at a budget hotel in Kortrijk so the following morning walked over to the Team Sky hotel to find the mechanics and carers hard at work preparing for the day ahead.
One of the great pleasures about supporting Team Sky is how friendly the staff are, and Chris Slark deserves a mention for giving me a quick tour of his bus. Mechanic Richard Lambert also gave me a couple of bidons for my grandson, and it’s that type of interaction and access that makes Team Sky so special. Being allowed onto the bus just a few hours before a Classic is equivalent to getting a tour of Manchester United's dressing room just before a fixture at Old Trafford - it simply doesn't happen in any other sport, and probably not with many other cycling teams either.
I didn’t want to impose so made the 10-minute trip to Kuurne to see the riders roll out once again. I made my way to the Team Sky bus and there was Bernhard Eisel happily signing autographs and posing for pictures. Bernie is, in my opinion, an absolute role model for his fellow professionals and never seems to decline a fan’s request.
I watched my second race start in as many days and then commenced a leisurely drive to the iconic Oude Kwaremont, a cobbled climb that is 2,200m in length and has a gradient of nearly 12% in places. The cobbles here are brutal, huge rocks with chasms in between, I can't imagine what it was like to ride them.
Whilst waiting for the race to come through I had a great chat with a young Belgian stood next to me. This is another great pleasure I get from attending races abroad, everyone is there because they share a passion. For me, it’s a really enjoyable part of the day.
When the riders came into view, the effort and pain on their faces was clear for all to see. The climb became a cauldron of noise as they powered up it, and although it only took five minutes for the field to pass, the atmosphere was something I'll never forget.
As the last support vehicle passed, I returned to Kuurne for the finish. Poor traffic meant the road was blocked and I had to watch the peloton flash by from my car as they began the two-lap circuit. Although it was disappointing not to make it to the end, battling the traffic is actually part of the thrill and I still got to see the racing.
When the road did eventually re-open, I headed back to Calais and was home before midnight.
As always, I had a brilliant weekend and managed to see both races multiple times. If you haven’t been to the Classics before, I strongly recommend that you consider them in the weeks to come. The races come thick and fast and they’re easier to get to than you might think.
The next race for me is Nokere Koerse on Wednesday 19 March, so hopefully see you there!