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.
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A few years ago I took a Friday morning Eurostar from London to Lille (1 hour 20 minutes) with my bike on board. Rode north via Roubaix (stopped for a lap of the velodrome and a poke around the showers), then along the canal to Oudenaarde. Put a tent up on the Koppenberg and the next day tagged along with the Flanders sportive, as far as the Muur. On Sunday visited the RVV museum, watched the race & rode back to Lille for an early evening train home. Highly recommended and all recorded in a podcast too:
A busy weekend and that’s it, with the planning you can get a lot done. Brave staying in a tent given the seasonal weather.
(For other readers note Jack’s radio show and the cycling podcasts on iTunes are very good, a real mix of of cycling from transport to sport. Take a look at the archives for past episodes on subjects that appeal to you)
A few years ago did the RVV sportive, but was staying in Brussels. We discovered its pretty awkward to get out from Brussels to the race by train (pretty much what you’d expect of a rural train service on a Sunday!), and surprisingly very few of the bars in Brussels show the race. It sounded like Oudenaarde was an ideal place to stay – lots of the riders on the saturday were staying there, so plenty of fans in the bars, and it’s walking distance from the famous climbs.
I remember it was Freezing but the Frites were astoundingly good. Yup, the atmosphere in Brussels wasn’t up to much.
Another tip, if you’re used to taking your bike on a train in the UK, wearing cleats and pushing your bike on/off. Beware the akwardness of ‘climbing’ up and down from platform to carriage lifting your bike as it’s a long and steep drop.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is probably the easiest one to watch logistically (if you can use a car). You can easily see the race twice but there’s five hours in between. The scenery along the route is also really nice. I’ve also found Amstel Gold quite easy to follow live because it’s basically happening around Valkenburg all the time. Roubaix takes place in the middle of muddy fields and the cobbled sections are sometimes really hard to find. Much better to watch it on TV.
My tip. Convince your girlfriend that chasing after water bottles is a prestigious activity. Mine was sprinting like a cheetah 🙂
Good tip because there is often a fight for these and perhaps the sight of a woman might make the men stop for a moment and behave.
Also remember that if there’s small kids around, it’s good sport to let them get the water bottles. And you really don’t want to fear the wrath of the Jens.
You’ll have a long wait if you want to see the sign on for the Tour of Flanders in Oudenaarde as it starts in Bruges. Get there early for a good view – we arrived at 9am last year and it was already rammed. If you ride the sportive the day before you can ‘entertain’ your family and friends during the race with tales of how you took the same line as Boonen up the Paterberg.
You’re right about Bruges / Brugge and I’ve updated the piece above, thanks.
I recall the area where the riders convene is fenced off from the public too so getting good views of riders, bikes etc is not easy. I have been with the boys from Graham Baxter sporting tours from the UK a few times. Well organized and they know the roads/venues well.
If you’re going to the Ronde’s museum in Oudenaarde, don’t forget to have a chat with Freddy Maertens, who is working there, and ask him why he never managed to win Roubaix.
I would actually recommend taking a bike, especially if you fit SPD pedals and wear shoes with recessed cleats so you can walk in them. A bike is an excellent way of seeing the races that loop around – as mentioned above, Amstel is one of the best for this. Obviously it doesn’t work for point to point races like Paris-Roubaix. You need a reasonable map from the tourist information office (or a sat nav) and then you should be able to ride from place to place seeing the riders several times. You can certainly get to places much more easily than in a car, especially if there are a lot of closed roads.
I concur. Especially for the Amstel. The race twist and turns so much, it is easy to get from one good spot to the next one without any troubles and rush while the race takes another extra loop. I think Amstel is the most spectator friendly one in that regard.
Also, my tip, check out Aachen. 30 km from Maastricht, 20 km Valkenburg and everything is much cheaper than in the Netherlands and the Belgium boarder region. And a city with a lot of history and cobblestones, also with some cycling history, though only insiders know that. Also there is a direct train line to Luik/Liège (~70 km).
That said living in that region, the Ardennes classics are my highlight. I cycle to the races to watch them live and spend a grand day out. As said, Amstel many vantage points (Eyserbos is a really nice one, shouldn’t miss that), then for the Flêche, Huy (watch my tip, the womens’ race at the bottom of the Muur, since they finish on top, ride up and have a chat with them or the mechanics or soigneurs, then further on there is an improvised bar in some kind of community hall, the mens’ race passes it, watch the race outside live and inside on the telly the finale, and then see the riders pass after the race live again.), and for LBL on one of the climbs, La Redoute being my favourite.
Also don’t be afraid about not looking as slim and fit as the pros. Especially at the Amstel there are many hobby cyclist doing exactly the same, getting some cycling done and watching the race. And trust me, I’ve seen Rabobank kits from the first to the last in all sizes, from XXS on the 10 year old boy to XXL on some middle age men. And least at the Amstel you will blend in wearing cycling clothes, during the Belgian races there are also a handful of cyclist on bikes and in kits out there, but not as many as in the Netherlands.
Disagree with not taking kids to races. We took our 21 month-old twins to Flanders last year, you just need to be prepared and flexible and make the most of it. We benefitted from the new “circuit” route as we watched on Kwaremont, so got to see the race three times without having to get back to the car and the kids got into the spirit and clapped everything that moved.
You’ve used my buddy’s photo of Ghent! Love this site even more now!
Oh, and my other tip would be to drink less, but go for better beer. Go for Duvel, La Chouffe, a Trappist beer, something local like Val Dieu or a pleasant Leffe. Two bottles of those and you will feel warm, merry and a little bit Belgian!
You forgot to mention Grimbergen und Maredsous. Oh and since you mentioned Val Dieu, Check out Joup and Brice from the brewery Grains D’Or in Hombourg.
There are two types of Trappost beer (made by monks), those actually made by the monks and those made under licence by the monks – because these days it’s a lot to handle the big brewing and distribution – like Grimbergen or Leffe. Wikipedia lists the ones made by the monks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trappist_beer
Beer matters in Belgium, like wine in, say, France or Italy.
It’s only called Trappist (and never Trappost) if made at the cloister by monks of the Trappist order. The only one really made in more or less traditional fashion by the monks is Westvleteren, which you can only get in limited quantities at the cloister itself, though there are many specialized shops and bars that will get it and sell it. The other five have basically turned the entire cloister into a brewery to maximize production.
That being said, many of the licensed ones taste great too. There’s hundreds to choose from, and they’re pretty cheap in the supermarkets. Don’t try them all in one day!
Sorry, a spelling error there.
Anyone visiting Brussels should try the “Gueze” beer too.
Thanks – I will certainly look for Joup and Brice on my next trip to Belgium!
Last year a pub in Bruges was selling a beer called Kwaremont for the occasion, which was definitely worth a slurp. As is De Garre if 15% beer is your thing, but not advisable if you want to remember anything about the race.
Out of interest, other than the monuments, which races are considered classics?
are probably the biggest “non-monument Classics”, though I’ve no doubt missed some.
I moved to Belgium in February, just in time for the classics season, but without any idea how to catch the races. This is EXACTLY what I wanted to read! Thank you inrng, once again.
I want to ask about trains though. I don’t have a car here and would like to see the sign on in Brugge then get down to the action around Oudenaarde, but by public transport… Is this possible?
It should take about an hour by train:
Thanks Steve. Do many people do it, and is there signposts or a clear line of cycling fans heading up some cobbled streets to guide the way.
Yes, we did this last year by train, you need to change at Kortrijk.
It looks like there are free buses out to Karemont from Oudenaarde in the morning, and then back again… http://www.derondeinoudenaarde.be/paginasN/elitevrouwenenmannen.html
This made me very nostalgic, thanks inrng
I grew up in Heuvelland near the Gent wevelgem parcours and remember my late grand dad taking me as an 8 year old to watch the riders ascend the Kemmelberg three times , it was still on a Wednesday back then and not as busy as races get today. We watched the riders had a ‘ braadworst’ and drove home to watch the finish on television an hour later in wevelgem . I think that’s the way to watch the race : go and see them in the field and time your journey to get to a decent cafe or a house where people are watching together and watch the finale. One thing not mentioned is that in Flanders , but maybe elsewhere too, people watch(ed) the race across generations, it’s a day that brings all ages together without any differences. For me that’s a perfect way to watch the race, bring the young ones and let them listen to the epic tales whilst slagging off the commentators on the telly. It’s the one time you can actually spend time with family for a couple of hours without getting agitated.
On a different note , people staying Flandres for the week, I recommend hiring a car. Everything is under an hour drive if your in one of the towns , even the north of France ! Pay a visit to Ypres and its war memorials and Flandres fields museum a Tuesday! And talk to the locals they’ll be pleased your here for the cycling !
Of course should you decide you want some help watching some of the Spring Classics next year, we would be happy to assist.
In the mean time, look for me puffing up the Paterberg on Friday and Saturday before Flanders! Something to note, the cyclosportive on Saturday is limited (ha!) to 16,000 riders and was down to the last 1,000 entries two weeks ago. Some of the climbs will be closed to everyone without an official number plate.
Liam, the train station is about 3km from the Ronde Museum and the finish will be another 2km past that. The finish is on the N8 heading southwest out of town. There is a jumbo-tron there and the race should finish about 4:30 pm local time.
Great article as always and lots of useful tips both above and below the line. I was really hoping to get across this year for my first experience but alas that’s fallen through so I’ll have to make do with Belgian beers and my sofa. Really hope to manage it next year and experience the atmosphere in the flesh.
I Can’t wait for Flanders! I always watch this video at this time of year: http://youtu.be/8m6Vwy6NtB0
Following the experience of many years watching road rallies I would advise anyone wanting to watch from a number of points not to rely on GPS (a total waste of time) but to buy a good Nationaal Geografisch Instituut map of the area. There are 1/20000 and 1/50000 maps covering the whole of Belgium. Only try the 1/20000 if you have lots of experience of map reading, although it will show some additional back roads. The 1/50000 is quite adequate, if I remember correctly, for finding the shortest route between spectator points.
This site is, as usual, such a treasure trove for cycling info! Thanks again InrRg, all your work is really appreciated.
It is without doubt the best pro cycling blog on the net. Bravo.
For the Tour of Flanders I have gone maybe 5 times now.
I’ve stayed in Ronse, Ename and Brugges over the years. Each has its drawbacks and advantages.
If you don’t have a car, best to find a place close to the train station. If you want to watch the start, Brugges is the best. If you want to see the race come through, Ronse was a pretty good option last year – but the town is literally dead, and the race comes through on its way up to the Kwaremont for the final loops.
In short: do your homework when you have good DSL on a big screen at home. It’s not easy on a smartphone.
As owner of CycleItalia and veteran of 10 years of race-chasing starting before we began our program in 1998, all of your advice is spot-on. Of course another option is to pay someone to take care of you, but lest you think this simply a blatant plug for our Corsa Rosa vacation http://www.cycleitalia.com/la-corsa-rosa-tour.htm I’ll tell you for the Ronde I’m going with Velo Classic Tours. Why? Because I don’t know much about Flanders, though we did go up and see P-R last year and enjoyed it immensely. The wife can’t go this time and be my co-pilot/navigator so Peter and his crew will be putting up with me for the weekend. Don’t be afraid of hiring an expert to take care of you if you have fears about doing it yourself or simply don’t want to put a whole lot of thought into the complicated logistical challenges. Anyone can watch these things on TV, but trust me, “I was there” is something you’ll never forget and enjoy recounting for the rest of your life. Even after all these years (first saw TdF in 1988) I don’t get tired of it.
Larry, do you have suggestions on how to get to wevelgem from lille? Is taxi the best and do you think there will be a taxi to take us ack to lille?
“Looking like a Dog in Hat” – I like it!
Brilliant write up. Me and a mate are considering going over to watch a race next year, and the 2 options are interesting.
I’d love to race around the Belgian countryside following the pro’s in the car. However, as we both like beer far too much, Option 1 sounds like a much safer option!
Looking forward to the write-up’s in May about the Giro and the Tour. Saw a little of La Vuelta in bars when in Spain last year and the locals went mad for it.
Been to see Paris-Roubaix many times and whilst it is difficult we have always managed to see the race at several locations.
saturday afternoon is the Team presentation at compiegne starting at about 2-ish local time, well worth attending.
tour the local hotels after, you will see the buses aprked outside. I once watched Tafi setting up his bike for about 30 mins, he must have driven his mechanic nuts but I found it fascinating, Mrs DB didn’t!
Get to the start early but leave with the caravan and go to km0 and listen to the jeers from the peloton as the no-hopers hit the gas as the flag is waved.
drive to cambrai on the autoroute and head to for troisvilles, couple of choices to watch. At the start of the section it’s war as the peoloton fught for position, the break having rolled through. Halfway along the section crosses the N road following a sharp downhill, the speed is astonishing.
Towards the end of that section there’s a square corner that everyone has to slow for, someone usually drops their bike, the world’s press will be here! A few hundred metres further on and at the end of the pave it’s downhill onto tarmac after a very rough and rutted section. You can stand well off the road and have a great view.
Beware though as team cars fly up the hill and your walk back will share the road. The road then turns square right and I have burned in my memory the sight of a team car, fully loaded up on three wheels taking that corner with a gendarme trail bike on it’s bumper and a Mavic bike trying to overtake then both. Madness but incredible to watch.
Lots of choices after that if you know the roads, Buat-but not this year, Arenberg, Orchies but watch where you park or you’ll be stuck all day, Arbre-but avoid all the drunken fans and then the finish.
IGN maps are the best to use for P-R as they show all the pave.
Hope that helps someone
My Dad, brother and I go to Ghent Wevelgem every year.
A combination of 1. and 2. works for us.
Try and get to a feed zone so you get to see a bit more of the peloton floating through looking for musettes (and it’s rich pickings for bidons).
The up to the Kemmelberg – they go over twice these days – you get to listen to the oompah bands and the rising atmosphere as the beer bins fill up. there is a decent restaurant / bar at the top which is q. expensive but the taps never run dry and you can watch it unfold on the telly.
We then get to another restaurant to watch the finish on TV.
Busy day – but loads of atmosphere.
I went to the race in Montreal in 2011 and stayed in the same hotel as all the teams, definitely recommended. Being used to the attitude of the prima donnas in baseball I was surprised how friendly and talkative most of the riders were with complete strangers in hotel lobbies, Marco Pinotti and George Hincapie in particular. The only exception was a young up and coming American rider on BMC (not Taylor Phinney) who wasn’t very friendly at all, in fact he was very hostile.
We’ll be on holiday in Italy during the Giro and I’ve managed to talk the wife into watching the Stelvio stage. Good information is surprisingly difficult to find so I’m looking forward to your advice on that.
Thanks, seeing a stage race is different, especially in the mountains and that’s why I wanted to return with another piece.
Perfectly timed article. Informative as always.
Regarding the Amstel, it is also very interesting to ride its route throughout the year, as it has recently been permanently marked – aka Amstel 365 (http://www.amstel.nl/evenementen/amstelgoldrace/365). Starting in Valkenburg it is nice to visit the Amstel Museum after the ride. You also find parking and showers there.
Since both races share a lot of routes, watching the “Hel van het Mergelland” aka Volta Limburg on March 30 might also be an option to “train” for the Amstel on April 14. (http://www.voltalimburgclassic.nl/index.php?pageId=16)
We came to lille from paris just to go to gent wevelgem today but are having a hard time finding transportation. our hotel concierge recommends a driver to take us there, wait for s and bring us back. we want to hang out, watch race on tv, tour the museum and catch the end in wevelgem. Any suggestions on the best way to get us there? We are close to a train station but it only takes us as far as Bourgogne.
My son and I are in Liege from April 26th-28th to watch the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race. We will not have a car so it seems that Option 1 is the best solution. We thought of trying to watch the start and then travel by train to Ans for the finish. Would be grateful for any helpful suggestions.
I can’t think of any more tips, just that it’s a long race so you’ll have a long wait for them to get back. There is a big TV by the finish so you can watch a lot of the action. Liège and Ans are places that have seen better days, they’re safe but just don’t expert scenery and it to be full of charming cafés to while away the time.
Thanks-it sounds as if it’s too much to hope for local bars/cafes with TV screens in Ans?
You should get that for sure and the big screen by the finish.
Thanks-do you have the location-street,post code-of the finish in And. I think where we are staying is within walking distance but would like to check.
They climb up/west the Rue Walthère Jamar and turn right for the finish on the Rue Jean Jaurès in Ans. If you’re there on the day you can’t miss it.
Thanks-brilliant-c.2km from our hotel!
Ans-I mean of course-this predictive stuff sends me mad!