Going to the Chapel
10 March 2023
This was at the chapel on what is known as the Kapelmuur, a steep cobbled road above the town of Geraardsbergen, where a funfair is currently installed, its cups and saucers whirling. For a few precious minutes every year the Kapelmuur is the focus of Belgian cycling, which is to say the very centre of the world. There have been races before this, in the Middle East and Australia, and for sure they have their fans, but here in Belgium everyone is a fan. The country is divided into three languages and at times can barely elect a government, but everyone, it seems, agrees upon bike racing. So this, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the first of the one-day Classics, is road cycling’s opening ceremony and homecoming ball.
Rewind to 9 A.M. and our scene is a giant industrial hangar appended to the frankly scarily steep velodrome in Gent. Everybody and their dog, it seems, is smashing a morning beer, and techno is blasting out at the team presentations, amid the smoke machines and toned legs gleaming under coloured lights. Outside, the Stefan Küng fan club, a handful of guys in red anoraks, are testing their vocal chords over the Stefan Küng theme song.
What follows is a madcap dash across vistas of pointy-roofed bungalows, pristine topiary, vegetable gardens, warehouses and fields. Viewed on a map, the route looks like a pile of wet spaghetti. A dizzying turning of circles around hallowed hills that is as absurd and confusing as it is beautiful. Brief moments strung out across a landscape. A police roadblock stops the traffic and a number of people gather in front of a derelict building, waiting expectantly. Ten minutes ago, this corner did not exist, and this is what is important, this is the power of cycling here: to suspend the normal order of things and turn a desolate and windswept non-place into a party. The riders, stretched along the racing line, pass through in a blur, it all happens so fast, and then we are chasing them again.