The Signs of Spring

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2014In Belgium there’s no need to look for flowers and buds on the trees or listen out for birdsong to tell spring is coming. Instead there are flashes of green sidewalls and the sound of Rodania. As the spring classics approach, so the annual rituals repeat themselves.

This week teams are out riding the route of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It’s a media event itself with photographers out to snap the scene and reports of who rode where make the TV news and newspapers. Spring is here.

The intimacy of Belgium explains a lot. It’s a small place with obvious landmarks and strategic points for the race meaning teams and media know where to find each other; the opposite of a mountain stage recce. But it’s this small scale that makes the pre-race ride even more important. A race in Belgium has tens or even hundreds of strategic points with narrow roads, cobbles, hills, sharp corners and sections exposed to the wind. If these were listed in the roadbook only a memory champion could recall them… and they’d probably fail after hours on the bike in cold weather with their blood sugar level dropping.

In place of this the reconnaissance, or verkenning in Dutch, is almost essential. Take a flat stretch of cobbles, it is rarely uniform. Perhaps you need to be on the left of the road when you enter to benefit from some smoother path but then need to cross over mid-way; or maybe the wind is blowing hard and there’s some shelter from a building or a hedge. On a climb there could be running water down the gutter meaning reduced traction. This knowledge is vital and it can make the difference between winning and losing. Sure, scouting a mountain stage can help but it’s rare to find being on the left or right of the road on, say, Alpe d’Huez makes a meaningful difference to the stage winner.

The Devil is in the ditch
It’s not just the cobbles and climbs, the approach to these sections is crucial. Teams need to place their leaders at the front of the bunch when entering these strategic points but on a small road there can be room for four or five riders across the road. The pace gets frantic as riders scrap for every bit of space on the road, a contest that’s often underestimated. Imagine a game of Flappy Bird only make a mistake and you can break your collarbone and even end your career. All this happens at 50km/h, trying to dodge street furniture, sunken drain-covers, flower pots and the more unpredictable parked cars and spectators. The approach roads can be as important as the cobbled climb.

The signs of the spring classics
It might seem strange for Belgian riders, locals, to ride these roads again and again but everything helps. Perhaps some of it is lore, gestures that are repeated by each generation but it makes commercial sense too. Teams are snapped for the newspapers and it helps build the atmosphere for the event. The courses are signed days in advance of the race which helps the ride but also offers a cue to locals that the race is coming.

Teams can use race radios in World Tour races but neither of this weekend’s events are on cycling’s prime calendar meaning no radios and besides, radios are only good for big warnings.

Route reconnaissance is a springtime tradition tells us the classics are just days away. These practice rides are essential, a professional cyclist needs to know the roads. Nobody can remember every corner and cobble but the race can be won and lost thanks to these details and a good team won’t be surprised by a tight bend, a hole in the road or rough cobbles. There’s no substitute for riding the route and these rides are themselves part of the build-up to the spring classics. Three days to go…

A race preview for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad + Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne should be online for Friday morning

27 thoughts on “The Signs of Spring”

  1. “Spring is here.”

    The above statement crushes me. The high tomorrow is 2F/-16C in Minneapolis.

    The high for March 1? Also 2F/-16C. Riding the trainer has gotten old…

      • What you know about Minneapolis winters INRNG? 😉 Needless to say we of the north land were pretty disappointed when K-B-K got cancelled last year. Warming buses at Milan – San Remo, come on.
        By the way, this is how we cope with the cold weather up here, we pretend we are hard core and we actually like it. In December, maybe, in March, not so much.

    • I hear ya, stuck as we are just south of you this winter. Winters in Sicily have made me a total wimp when it comes to cold so we’re escaping to SoCal for spring break. Finally the real cycling season is upon us as well, things can only get better from here!

    • There’s still lots to remember, the smoother side of the cobbles, the gutter section on the climb and shelter from trees or buildings if there’s a crosswind etc.

      It’ll be interesting to see how the rule is applied.

  2. I rode the Paris – Roubaix Challenge last year (details found on my blog, nudge, haha!) and the overwhelming new respect I had for the Pros doing the same thing was huge and instant.

    There’s a guy from my club who’s riding this year and he asked me for tips/thoughts – I basically told him that frankly I hated riding it, but also utterly loved the experience it gave me. It’d be like playing football on ice, ridiculous and dangerous but fun for those that stay upright.

  3. Can’t wait for the cobbles. This is my favorite period of racing of the year and which ends with Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s all about the history and the fans. Allez allez allez!

  4. Boonen for his part isn’t doing any recon for the opening weekend. Maybe breaking with this tradition will also lead him to break with another one and finally win the Omloop. (although for my part I am hoping he finally wins Milano – San Remo)

  5. RO DAN-IA da da da da…roll on spring!

    Looking forward to some wonderful, high stakes, all or nothing, one day racing. The spring classics are the highlight of the season for me, even though I very much enjoy January-October as a whole. The variety that the progression from cobbles and short and sharp to some serious climbing brings can’t be beaten. I only wish we had similar levels of media coverage as Belgium.

    It will be interesting to see how much the new stick to the course rule affects the dynamics of the racing, though I’m sure it will still be highly enjoyable. While I can see the risk I can’t deny the thrill of watching riders going off route to gain every possible advantage.

  6. Aah..
    This weekend it was 14°C, super sunny, some tree blossoming, …
    I love living and riding in the epicenter of the cycling world.
    For only I hope that winter will have her comeback when Parijs – Roubaix is ridden.

  7. If the weather in West-Flanders is similar to western NL at the moment (and it usually is), the wind is going to be a much bigger factor than the cobbles. Was pushing hard to go 25 km/h this morning sitting as deep as I could on my clip-on tri bars.

  8. I can honestly say I have not looked forward so much as this year, maybe because we have enjoyed a mild winter which allowed for some solid training. Wednesday afternoon’s training had more than 50 guys when it is normally no more than 30. All had finally swapped training wheels for deep carbon rims, which could be heard whining and screaming at one adrenaline-spiked moment as we came fast upon a temporary traffic light!
    There is an air of optimism, almost constant butterflies in the stomach, edging to gnashing teeth due to impatience. Our first race is next week Saturday, and I fear this opening pro weekend will only serve to fuel us and pump us up to Hulk-like proportions over the next week! I think I will go into the 1st race in Batman frame-of-mind! Feels like a good choice!

  9. The run up to key sections is never shown well with the constant switching cameras. The shoulders bumped, an elbow spread and shoulder shifted sliiiightly in the defense of the front of the peloton is the business of 4/5 of a team in a race.

    IMHO, you are just the writer to cover the how of the pressure on the front of the peloton that is almost impossible to see on the television screen.

    A geek spiral of the how and why of pre-running such feature-filled courses could span many articles. But, probably not a big audience.

    This is without a doubt the best time of year for elite bicycle racing!!!! As always, thank you for your great work.

  10. I’d love it if you’d cover Tro Bro Leon this year. I watched a torrent of the 2013 race and it deserves a much bigger audience. One WT team swept the podium against continental squads, but, the course and race production was great.

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