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Going to the Chapel

We have been to Belgium and can confirm that the soul of bike racing is alive and well. We found it atop a ridge, being resuscitated by a crowd of people drinking beer underneath a giant crucifix, as deep, dark house music pumped out of a giant speaker only to be snatched by a cruel north wind and hurled over the sodden muddy fields below.

03 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.

In no other country could a bike race pass through a funfair to arrive at a chapel, and, with the Omloop, a strange and beautiful madness descends upon Belgium for six weeks, culminating at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen in early April.

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.

Families with pushchairs mingle among the team buses, guys in uniforms blow officiously on their whistles and a policewoman takes a selfie on the start line. Groups of motorbike riders devour pastry and coffee to fortify themselves for the day’s work. Old men with grave faces, old friends and old acquaintances, toddlers in cycling caps and star-struck kids, all the ritual of the year beginning again.

What people do not tell you about is the noise or the smell. The cheering and the barking, the spilt beer and the pastries, idling exhausts and, among the riders massing behind the start gantry, the embrocation. “Seven layers of warming cream and olive oil,” jokes one, an Aussie, as she waits for the off. This is after the men’s race has left under a low sun and dark skies and the rattle of helicopters above. All around her, women are reluctantly surrendering their outer layers to their soigneurs.

Close to the massed ranks, a man crouches on the floor loading blanks into two guns. Chilly silence and then a bang and a whiff of cordite. Shouts of “Success!” everywhere. Two riders fist-bump and clip in. And then they are gone.

Immediately a crew begins to dismantle the barriers. The travelling circus has left town.

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.

Another drive, then we run through the mud towards a line of campervans and Lion of Flanders flags whipped taut just to catch a glimpse of the peloton’s Technicolor flash. A helicopter circles, they arrive, there is a headlong and temporary communion, and they are gone.

Back at the Kapelmuur the celebration has been growing for hours. For each amateur cyclist who makes it to the top to join the crowd, a man who is dressed as a mayor and may actually be the mayor rings a bell, everyone cheers and a group of young people sitting on rapidly emptying crates of Jupiler lager throw Kellogg’s Honey Pops on to the riders and crowd below. The house music swells to a crescendo and the weather sweeps bright and hard across from the North Sea and hits us full in the face. For a few minutes it hails – real hail, real balls of ice pelting down from the sky – and it is as if God is Belgian and is joining in. The lead rider arrives, Dylan van Baarle of Jumbo-Visma, alone but being chased, and everyone screams and chaos reigns.

By the time we get to the finish, drunk from the spectacle and the chase, the men have been wrapped up and swallowed back into their team buses. The women, meanwhile, are over the Kapelmuur and only kilometres away, spearheaded by one brave solo rider, the Belgian Lotte Kopecky, hammering her way in the last rays of the sun down the long straight road to victory. Soigneurs gather with tiny cans of Coca-Cola and Fanta, and with care and solicitousness dispense jackets back to the riders as they arrive, disgruntled and tired, thus closing the circle. And then they too are gone and the crowds disperse into the gloaming. An hour later, across the streets of the finishing town, Ninove, it will almost be like nothing happened. But not quite.

Because bike racing does not exist for the rule-makers or the corporations, the sponsors, the tourist boards or the sheikhs; it exists for the fans. And it is here that this truth is felt most strongly. During the dark months of winter, the idea that road racing will rise again – that those days of sunny mountains and rainy cobbles will come – requires belief. Every turn of the pedal on every turbo trainer, everywhere, is an act of faith. But now it seems certain that spring is coming: on a ridge overlooking a wickedly cobbled track, above a funfair, beneath a Jesus, to a litany of techno beats and with Jupiler and Honey Pops, our faith has been redeemed.

We have found the soul of bike racing alive and well. It is resurrected for another year.

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