To get a real taste of this weekend’s 101st edition of the Tour of Flanders you could do worse than checking out this great 15 minute film “Ronde Van Paterberg.” The Paterberg is one of the key climbs of this famous race, topping out at a wincing, cobbled 18%. The documentary is told purely from the spectators’ point of view as they watch the peloton tackle this often dramatic part of the race.
To truly understand the passion for the Tour of Flanders you have to know something of the nature of the Flemish people who for many years have seen themselves as separate from the French speaking part of Belgium. They’re fiercely proud of their cultural identity. The Ronde van Vlaanderen, as it it’s known here, is inextricably linked with that Flemish pride.
The Ronde was set up by a Flemish journalist, Karel Van Wijnendaele back in 1913 – he wanted to create a race run entirely on Flemish soil, crossing as many cities as possible. By the 1930s it had become a huge cultural event, so vast that masses of spectators lined the route and followed the riders in cars and motorbikes. The result was a ‘wild rodeo’ as drivers sought shortcuts across the countryside to see the race several times. As many as 500,000 people would watch the race at times making it difficult for riders to pass.
That same spirit is reflected here in the film “Ronde de Paterberg” as burger stalls and beer tents are set up early in the morning before the race has even left the departure city of Bruges. As one local whose house is luckily alongside the Paterberg says, “We’ll eat a lot, drink a lot and see a little bit of the Tour of Flanders.”
It’s a huge circus as locals of all ages wave their Flandrian Lion flags, drink Jupiler beer and gorge themselves on burgers and sausages slathered in onions and mustard. Raising as much passion for the race as British football supporters do for their teams, the crowd chant and sing for Flandrian independence as well as for their heroes.
The year that this film was made, 2012, saw Tom Boonen win. Not only is he Belgian, but, as importantly, he’s Flemish, and so a huge cause for celebration for the local fans.
This year will see Boonen, or Tommeke as he’s known, compete in his final Ronde and all of Belgium will be willing him on for a fourth victory. Unusually however, he’s a not a favourite this for the 2017 edition. Watch out for Greg Van Avermaet, also a Flandrian, who recently won three important North European races, the E3-Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Omloot Het Nieuwsblad - all on similar cobbled terrain up and down those short sharp bergs and muurs.
Of course, Peter Sagan is on imperious form at the moment and, as a World Champion and 2016 winner has to be the favourite. He could be performing victory wheelies at the finish line again but he’ll also be the most marked man in the race which could hinder his chances. Watch out for Phillipe Gilbert who is Quick-Step’s main man. Another Belgian, he’s had somewhat of a resurgence this season and has had podium finishes at Flanders in 2009 and 2010. This week he won the opening stage as well as the overall Three Days De Panne. Could this be his year?
The race starts at 9.30 GMT on Sunday 2nd April and is being broadcast on Eurosport. But to get you in the mood make sure you catch the film, “Ronde de Paterberg” first!