Going to watch a bike race is not as simple as you might think. Get it wrong and you’ll catch a cold instead of the action. There are some hints, tips and skills that can substantially improve the experience. Given the classics season is upon us again, it’s time to share some of these.
As well as tips for the day, there’s a wider look at travel if you’re coming from near or far, for the day or the trip of a lifetime.
Watching the traffic go by
First, the basics. If you’ve never seen a race before, go stand in the street near your home and watch the traffic pass. Excited? No. A bunch of riders doing 50km/h will go by just as quickly and you won’t see much either. There is often little chance to recognise who is who, yet alone anything more substantial. Often the breakaway will be on the other side of the road and obscured by a camera motorbike or a team car. You could wait for hours only to see the race flash by.
A snapshot, not a panorama
It’s important to remember that standing by the road means you will not see the race unfold in front of you, the chances of seeing the defining attack of the race happen in front of you are tiny. Even going to the top of the Koppenberg or Paterberg for the Tour of Flanders needn’t reveal too much. In short don’t go and see the race expecting the whole story to be told in front of your eyes but instead go for the atmosphere and the occasion.
To simplify things I’d suggest you have two options as a spectator. The first is to pick a spot for the day and relax, the second is to follow the race as much as possible.
Option 1: stay in the same place
This isn’t as easy you might think. The trick is to pick a scenic spot where you are happy to spend hours, a vantage point that lets you see the race for 30 seconds is also a place where you might wait for hours in order to stake out your prime real estate. The finishing straight is often a bit boring, the race flashes past, it’s in town and crowded. I’d recommend getting near a giant video screen that can sometimes be found at strategic points including the final. Or find a good place to see the race go past and then retire to a local bar showing the race on TV where you can join in the local atmosphere as the race heads to the finish. Since you’ve opted for the slow approach, think about finding some local food and drink to soak up the scene even more in a picnic. Frites will be everywhere and have the added benefit of warming up the fingers, whilst beer is almost inevitable.
Remember places like Belgium are cold in March and April and standing outside waiting for a race is a good way to get cold to the bone. So come equipped with warm clothes and pick your spot to ensure you’re sheltered from the wind. And get ready to wait. You can pass the time with a portable radio or even TV, even if you don’t master the local language you’ll get a flavour of what is happening.
Option 2: the rally drive
You can see the race several times in one day. Get to the start to see the signing on. As the riders mill around team buses and the signing-on podium you can grab photos and signatures and inspect bikes if you want to check the tech. Then it’s possible to drive to a spot and see the race go past and then jump in your car and get ahead of the race and then watch them ride past. And repeat.
You’ll need a good GPS or better, a co-pilot who can pick a route that stays close to the race but doesn’t get blocked by closed roads. Each race is different, for example the roads close very early for the Tour of Flanders whilst smaller races just get a temporary closure of the road for the time it takes the race to ride by.
You will find quite a few people do this, spending the day jumping in an out of their cars in a mad dash across Flanders or Northern France and you might want follow them, or at least talk to them since local knowledge helps a lot. In between you can listen to the race via radio. You’ll finish the day almost as tired as the riders but it adds an element of adrenalin and ensures the race viewing lasts a long time.
I say “rally drive” but don’t get vision of speeding across fields and sliding around corners. Matthew Conn advises me that the police in Belgium will stake out the small roads with mobile radars to ticket wannabe Séb Loebs. Some might boast of seeing the race 12 times in the day but they seem more interested in the logistical high score rather than the race. Personally this frenetic activity inclines me towards Option 1, or maybe watching the signing on and catching the race a couple of times before heading for a cobbled hill near the finish.
Some more suggestions so you don’t look like a Dog in Hat.
- Leave the bike at home. You want to watch the race, not keep an eye on your bike. Your cleated shoes are impractical. Besides to everyone else out for the day you probably don’t look very good in comparison to the pros.
- If you want to ride, do some of the course the day before the race as you’re likely to meet the riders on reconnaissance rides.
- Visit local hotels on the eve of the race, you’ll see where the riders are thanks to the team bus parked outside. You might meet riders in the lobby but if they’re resting, you can often check out the team bikes and if you ask, grab a souvenir team cap or a water bottle.
- Once the TV coverage is up you’ll find the helicopters hover above the race. There’s often a long parade of vehicles that make you think the race is coming but you know the race is near when the helicopters thunder.
- Don’t bother trying to photograph the race. Take some images of the crowds and the local scene but when the race comes, face it, you aren’t going beat pros like Cor Vos, Jered Gruber or Kristof Ramon so let your eyes and mind record the scene for ever as a memory.
- Painting the road will get you in trouble. It’s tolerated on Alpine passes where few drive but in town it’s graffiti. If you want, use chalk or safer, take an old bedsheet and paint a slogan on it.
- Think twice about those Flemish flags as they can be a loaded political symbol
- Similarly a reader advises not to take a souvenir cobble, the price can be high. Only the winner in Roubaix deserves one.
- Another reader suggestion is that it’s not an ideal day out for pets or kids.
- Dress properly. You could be standing in a water-logged field and it might be cold. Bring warm clothes and waterproofs.
- Come equipped. Given the waiting involved, wise folk bring folding chairs. A smartphone with a local simcard will let you track the race and a small radio can do the same.
- Food. Take some food and you’ll find many locals enjoy a beer or six. There have been public order problems with drunken fans, you want a spot where a neighbour will share a beer but not one where they’ll start trouble.
- After the race many riders will head for the local airport, if you’re flying back then you might be on the same flight.
I’ll follow this up in May with a piece about watching stage races like the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France as the logistics are different, as is the racing and much, much more.
Readers here come from all around the word so tips for a day trip, a week or a more if you’re coming from Germany, Britain, the USA or Australia.
One Day Visit
Let’s take the Tour of Flanders Sunday and imagine you are driving from somewhere like France, Germany or Britain. There’s time to get to the start town of
Oudenaarde Bruges. Here you can watch the races arrive and sign on, a spectacle in its own right. With this done, head off for a wafel and coffee. Then go to the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen in Oudenaarde, it’s a museum dedicated to the race (hopefully it’s open) and packed with a range of memorabilia. After you have time to get a local lunch before heading off somewhere to see the race nearby.
My tip would be to see the race at a strategic point but within range of somewhere to watch the rest of the event on TV, either on a large outdoor “jumbotron” installed for the day or in a local bar or café.
One Week Visit
There are the big monuments at the weekend but you’ll find plenty of races on mid-week to see. As these are smaller you can often get even closer to the action. They’re not every day so if you come with a bike you can go and explore the roads as well. Flanders is your best bet because the French pavé on the roads to Roubaix is just too much for many a ride. Try it if you want but watch out.
Just soak up the atmosphere for a week, buy the local press and if you’re back in the hotel in the evenings, check the Belgian TV. You’ll be surprised by just how much coverage the sport gets at this time of year. Get it right and in the space of a week you can see several races, try the local bergs, visit the Ardennes for a ride and more. As well as riding and racing there are cycling museums to visit and of course plenty more, some like to visit the war memorials and battlegrounds, some might want to visit the monastic breweries and there’s plenty more.
You can spend the whole of April in Belgium if you’re inclined but you might be pushing it. To your advantage many races are within riding distance and even the furthest ones are only a train journey away. You could cross to France and get a train to see the start of Paris-Roubaix and get back up to Roubaix for the finish; similar excursions are possible for the Amstel. But it’s not the same as a month in Italy or France spent following the Giro or Tour. You will gain in logistics as you’re not having to move 200-300km a day but won’t find stunning scenery and big changes in cuisine and more.
Is there anything to do for my family?
Yes. Often Belgium looks like a place to avoid, all those cracked roads, brick houses and muddy landscapes. Think romantic destinations and Paris or Venice probably come up. But that’s why Belgium is worth visiting as cities like Antwerp, Gent and Brussels are charming places. The bike races celebrate the blunt countryside but the cities are great for families and couples with activities, fine dining, shopping and more.
I’ve had several emails asking for tips on seeing the races and the piece above answers a lot of these FAQs, obviously only from my view and you might have different plans or expectations.
Belgium in late March and April is not a tourist destination but it is a great place for the sport, although a week is probably plenty to visit the cycling landmarks and see a couple of big races. But whether it’s for a day, a week or a month there’s plenty to enjoy as long as you’re prepared and know what to expect on the day.
In the simplest terms go equipped for a day out with warm clothes, food and drink and enjoy the whole experience.