On Sunday it's De Ronde Van Vlaanderen, The Ronde, The Tour Of Flanders, The Belgian World Championships. It's a brutal 7 hours of racing across the bergs and cobbles of the Flemish Ardennes and the most important day of the year for many Belgians. We all know how the race is going to pan out. A break will go up the road and then be caught with about 50km to go, then Cancellara and Sagan will rip the field to bits with an acceleration on the Oude Kwaremont. Sep Vanmarcke, Greg Van Avermaet and a couple of others might be able to follow them. The race will be decided by whoever can sprint the fastest, which should be Sagan but you never know whether he'll forget to use his brain and act like Van Avermaet's lead out man again.
There's no point in me writing a preview piece as every other cycling blog and site is doing it. They're all picking the same big names out of the hat, and occasionally trying to make the case for someone who's never going to win. Besides, I've just told you how the race is going to go down.
It's a long old slog watching De Ronde, there's 4 hours or so of it on Eurosport this weekend. Of course it's worth watching the whole thing, as the accumulation of fatigue and stress are all part of the story that sets up that final strongman attack that decides the race. Obviously it's not an all action blockbuster, more a subtle drama that builds to a huge set piece reveal. It's Bladerunner and not Die Hard. To help you get the most out of it I thought I'd give you a few things to spot over the course of the race. Kind of like Flanders Bingo in a way.
Tornado Tom Frits
Here he is, look. The Tornado Tom Frits man. He's always at the Belgian races, normally looking into the camera rather than at the race. He always knows exactly where that camera is going to be. Has he got a man on the inside? Obviously he's advertising a brand of Chips named after the Belgian classics hero, Tom Boonen. Obviously. Only no one seems to be able to find any evidence of these chips. There doesn't appear to be a restaurant, not even a van. Tornado Tom's Frits is a riddle staring cycling fans in the face. One day I'll try and solve it and get myself into some kind of Flandrien Da Vinci Code. I can't wait.
As well as Tornado Tom Frits, you might also spot Luc or Dirk Hoffman Motor Homes. Luc's a particular favourite of mine. He just follows the race trying to get on telly as much as possible. He even brings a portable telly with him to check he's made it on. There's a great piece on them from the always excellent INRNG, here.
One of the problems with being part of the World Tour is that you have to send teams to all of the world's biggest races, including De Ronde. Not so fun when you're a Spanish team that would rather be climbing mountains in warm weather than bouncing over cobbles in the freezing cold. If you can spot a Movistar rider then you've done well. I did have high hopes for them this year when Alejandro Valverde said he was going to ride. Valverde is one of those racers that I think can be competitive anywhere, the same thing goes for Nibali who smashed his way over the cobbles in the 2014 Tour De France. Sadly old Valverde has decided against taking part, and is instead doing a training camp somewhere up a mountain.
Perhaps the UCI should allow blood transfusions just for this race, as long as the blood you're transfusing is just that of an ordinary Belgian. It'd probably make Movistar more competitive.
Etixx Getting Yelled At.
Back to the race scenario. Cancellara and Sagan have powered away over the Kwaremont. Some other riders have managed to just about hang onto their wheels. Etixx have all their riders in the front group but none of them can make it across. For the next few KMs they put men on the front to chase but the gap never seems to come down. If you spot this then just sit back and imagine what Patrick Lefevere is yelling into the radio at them. When Stybar removes his earpiece you know it's getting obscene.
Flandrian Independence Flags
If you're not looking at the peloton then the chances are you can see one of these. They're the ones with a Lion that appears to be challenging someone to a boxing match on them. If you're a fan of separatist flags then cycling is the sport for you. There's the Basque flags that we see when the Tour De France visits the Pyrenees, and the Brittany flag when the same race visits France's north-western corner. There's that Sardinian one too, the one that features those four Moors, or Moops if you're a Seinfeld fan. The Flandrian flag is so synonymous with cycling that I doubt it even carries much of a political message anymore. The only statement I take from it is to ride really hard over cobbles on a cold day. That's the kind of politics that I can get with.
He might be hiding in the middle of the bunch but you can see him. He's the one bathed in heavenly light. You can see it gleaming off his peacock feathers. Pozzato was once a contender at these races. He was a runner up in Flanders in 2012, and he won Omloop back in 2007 but now he seems to be content with being the man in the bunch who'd look most at home with his own Las Vegas magic show. Despite his lack of results the camera will always pick him out at some point. In recent years that point has been the bit where he's given up about three quarters of the way into a race. Say this quietly but he's found some form this year. He was 8th at Milano-Sanremo and 4th at Dwars Dor Vlaanderen. If he wins then don't label him a Lion of Flanders, the White Tiger of Flanders is way more his style.
Rider fan clubs are a very European thing. Even the most obscure rider seems to have his own fan club. Last time I was at Paris-Roubaix I bought a cap that said 'Yo' on it. I liked it because I like the word and I like things like 'Yo MTV Raps.' Nice of them to make a cycling cap that appeals to me. Actually they made it for the Yoann Offredo fan club. Offredo has never won a pro bike race. There can't be much admin involved in running that club. Watch De Ronde closely and you'll see other fan groups cheering on their man. Their man who mostly has absolutely no chance of winning. Cycling might be the only sport where that old school sports day maxim 'it's the taking part that counts' actually applies.