By now, in any normal season, we’d be indulging ourselves in the enjoyment of the Spring Classics, with all the excitement and anticipation that entails. In any normal season we’d already be celebrating the success of Milan San Remo and seeing if its winner could also manage to pull off a victory in one of the cobbled monuments like the Tour of Flanders or even Paris-Roubaix. Depending whether a pure sprinter or a power-climber had won Il Primavera, we’d be reviewing and discussing his chances in races like Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3, and Ghent-Wevelgem, and even stretching our imaginations to the hillier Classics of Limburg and Wallonia, to speculate further on the outcome of those treasured races. Except this is no normal season, how could it possibly be, in a year that is already beyond extraordinary because of the way the pandemic of Covid-19 has spread its evil across the world?
Anyone who has followed cycling for a long time knows instinctively when a big race is happening, no matter where in the world you happen to be. It’s something you feel in your bones and in your veins, as much a physical sense as it is a mental one. But it’s the mental sense that strikes the harshest tone when those races have not taken place – there’s something missing from your life. This is one such year. Ghent-Wevelgem takes place on the last Sunday in March, each year, except that it didn’t. The Tour of Flanders has been held on the first Sunday in April since time began, but it too was postponed or cancelled. And Paris-Roubaix has followed suit – postponed from its slot on the second Sunday of April with no replacement date given. These three Classics happen to be equal favourites of mine and I’ve missed them as much as anyone else. So, time to pen a few thoughts and concoct a tribute because of their absence, so far, in 2020.
If ever a sixth Classic was to be nominated as a ‘Monument’, Ghent-Wevelgem would have to be at the top of the list of contenders. Quite possibly, it’s the most brutal of the one-day classics. There is no other race - not Flanders, not Paris-Roubaix, not Milan-San Remo, nor any of the hillier classics - that has so much drama and nastiness attached to it. Ghent-Wevelgem is a monster within the world of cycling, a horror movie of suffering and pain and sadness brought to glorious life under the guise of a bike race. The fact that it takes place amidst some of the most war-torn landscapes of WW1 only re-enforces the savage legend of the race.
Having already photographed Flanders and Roubaix, I was even more thrilled when I encountered my first Ghent-Wevelgem in 1982. Back then it was a full-distance 260km marathon, a mid-week race supposedly made for the road-sprinters but which often transformed itself, mid-race, into a tasty free for all. It was a race where the greatest one-day riders were meant to rest a little after Flanders and before Roubaix, allowing others to unleash their ambitious attacks and try to win. Even then, the big ‘stars of Flanders and Roubaix found the addiction to racing impossible to resist, and often turned the race into an epic. “Didn’t win Flanders – maybe I cannot win Roubaix?” Ghent-Wevelgem was a tempting alternative worth fighting over, long and hard, a true Classic in its own right.
I don’t know why, but I always found Ghent-Wevelgem more exciting than Flanders. The quality of the organisation that ran the race back then, basically a group of enthusiasts who lacked the means to ring-fence their event against all kinds of mishaps, actually made the racing more gung-ho, more attractive, to the photographer. The chaos from un-marshalled junctions caused crashes and confusion but brought great drama to the watching world. The in-race officials were well below par as well, sometimes making mid-race decisions that affected the outcome of the event. In today’s slickly-run event, owned since 2010 by the Tour of Flanders organiser and run on the Sunday before Flanders, mistakes and errors are rarely seen.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s the April weather could be appalling in comparison to the globally-warmed conditions of today. It was often very wet and very windy, and occasionally it snowed - conditions which produced a more savage display of racing. All-in-all the racing was more open, less controlled than its bigger cousins, and a mixture of circumstances sometimes resulted in a truly opportunistic win. Fortunately, today’s modern version is no less exciting than the former. Just as it does today, the older race started from the t’ Kuipke velodrome, home of the Ghent 6-Day and famous at the time for its foul-smelling sewers beneath the stadium. The smell was sometimes so bad that un-suspecting visitors could be seen retching or rushing outside to be sick. Yet the riders obligingly carried out their sign-on and pre-race duties before lining up outside the velodrome in relatively clean air.
The race headed straight for the north-sea coast, almost to the Dutch border near Knokke, before following the entire Belgium coastline to the French border at Veurne with the potential of exposure to some mighty winds for over sixty kilometres. And if the wind didn’t get them then there were always the lethal tramlines that snaked like unwanted spaghetti through towns like Zeebrugge, Ostend, Middlekerke, Nieuwport or Koksijde. The older versions of Ghent-Wevelgem went right down the main streets of these stark towns, and it became an annual treat to photograph the peloton as it split into two columns to pass either side of moving trams, a major hazard in a race that had so many hazards. If it was wet, those tramlines spelt disaster for any luckless cyclist. If it was dry, then the sands would blow off the beaches and into the riders’ faces and eyes with a stinging velocity. Yes, it was a photographer’s dream.
Invariably, an escape would have got away well before Knokke, and just as surely the chase would begin in earnest along that hostile coastline. You could instruct your motorbike driver to stay right behind the peloton knowing there’d be a dozen crashes before the peloton turned inland at Veurne. There were so many crashes that the more discerning photographers would choose when and when not to stop – only if someone of importance had fallen - because the speed was such that it took forever to catch the main peloton up. If a north-westerly wind hadn’t smashed them along that coastal road, then a western gale might knock the cyclists sideways and into a ditch on the way down to the hills. Echelons formed easily on a narrow, highly-exposed road called de Moeren, but other challenges came from a myriad of bumpy lanes and highways that hadn’t seen proper road repairs in years.
Cyclists would often fall after getting their front wheels trapped in the cracks between concrete sections of road. The famous Uzbekistan sprinter, Djadmolodine Abdujaparov, jumped his bike onto a smooth path alongside the road in 1992, but then somersaulted over his ‘bars as the bike path suddenly ended and became a sand-pit. A bike path dealt a strange fate to Andreas Klier in 2005, when the German switched out of the speeding peloton and onto the parallel path to gain a few metres, only to be hit from behind by a moto-marshal using the path to overtake the race. It was exceptional when a peloton actually made it to the Kemmelberg as one entity, those exposed roads across the agricultural lands of the Heuvelland made sure of that. I’d often watch, mesmerised, as the peloton was sliced open by the winds, like the proverbial hot knife through butter, until only the strongest and cleverest formed an elite echelon in front.
These echelons – called waaiers in Flemish – became the default image of Ghent-Wevelgem in the 1990’s and were no respecter of fame. To see tough guys like Rudy Dhaenens, Wilfried Nelissen, Laurent Jalabert or, in more recent times, Mark Cavendish, spat out the back was quite shocking. And to watch a brute like Erik Zabel or Peter Van Petegem battle their way back to the front after a mechanical was so awe-inspiring. I used to love following the peloton from behind, watching the waaiers form, then picking out my targets for a quick shot before squeezing past the multiple lines of cyclists to other targets in front. Photographing such tough racing can be tense. Linger too long with your lens as a famous name is dropped, and you’ll get a murderous insult thrown at you. But stay a while longer and that same cyclist will love you to bits as he takes shelter in the moto’s slipstream.
For a few moments your driver – and you – actually become part of the race, squeezing past line after line of desperate men as every inch of road is fought over by bicycle and motorbike.The 2015 event was an absolute epic in terms of wind and waaiers. The winds were that strong that cancellation would have been a certainty under today’s protocol on extreme weather. The long road of de Moeren kick-started the action, with 40-kmh winds driving acutely from the side and dissecting the peloton into a dozen pieces. Riders were being blown back, or sideways, and even off altogether if your name happened to be Gert Steegmans, an 80-kilo’ goliath who plunged into the adjoining canal and had to be rescued by his Trek mechanic. A temporary halt to racing allowed most of the peloton to reform before hostilities commenced ten minutes later. This time there was no let-up, no mercy, and I looked up the road at maybe eight or ten lines of cyclists, all of them fighting to stay upright, and then fighting to stay near the front.
As the gaps opened and we edged past the dropped riders, I watched as American Ted King became airborne and crashed onto a soft grassy verge. He was actually laughing as his front wheel lifted off and his fate became clear – ah, such insanity! There wasn’t a single cyclist not riding at a crazy angle, leaning precariously into the wind to stay upright. This was the day Geraint Thomas got blown into a ditch while leading a potentially-winning breakaway, and the day that Luca Paolini scored a solo victory after getting with a final four-man escape over the Kemmelberg. It was a day that provided proof that the modern Ghent-Wevelgem could be just as nasty as the older one had been.
The Ghent-Wevelgem of the 1980’s used to climb and descend both cobbled sides of the hill, so up from the east side and down the west, then up the west and down the same eastern flank, with a 30-kilometre loop between each ascent to give the riders some respite. If it was wet, many cyclists had to walk the hill back then because leather shoes and metal shoe-plates didn’t make for good grip on slippery cobblestones. They made themselves an easy target for the photographers perched there especially for that reason. Yet every one of the cyclists raced down the other side, willing to take almighty risks on the ‘stones to accelerate away or close down gaps. If the novelty of a top cyclist scampering afoot up the hill made for great images, the drama of cyclists veering off into the bushes on the descent was unmissable. Uwe Raab was chasing the lead group down the eastern side in 1993 when he suddenly lost control and disappeared into the trees. For a few minutes, all anyone could see of him was his Eddy Merckx bike, smashed to pieces against a tree. Raab eventually climbed out and finished the race, but that descent was never used again.
I once stood on the western descent instead of the eastern climb and was blown away at how fast the riders came down the cobbled hill. Mere inches separated the top riders as they came down at absolutely crazy speeds, with heavy drink bottles coming loose and richocheting off wheels to create chaos for anyone following. Only then did I understand why there were more spectators on the descent than the ascent, for drama is what Ghent-Wevelgem is all about, and a lot of it occurred right here. There was an horrific crash on the descent in 2007, after a loose bottle took down Jimmy Casper and a dozen others including Tyler Farrar and Matthew Hayman. There were so many serious injuries that the race-ambulances ran out of space. Having seen some of the horrific images on photographers’ lap-tops in the media room, I was pleased I’d worked on the climb that year. The next day’s newspapers published some of the worst crash shots I’ve ever seen, across two full pages, with broken limbs and broken faces to be studied as the nations’ households ate their breakfasts.
That crash forced changes on the Kemmelberg, and every bike race since then has avoided the cobbles and taken a safer way down on a paved track. But both climbs still remain. The good news is that after all the crashes, echelons and associated drama, Ghent-Wevelgem reverts to pure sport for its finale. The last 30-kilometres into Wevelgem heightens the challenge of winning. Today’s modern route takes the race from Kemmel and into the tourist mecca of war-destroyed Ypres, passing beneath the impressive Flanders Fields museum and through the soulful Menin Gate before heading to Wevelgem. This nod to history and ourism is all very nice, but the route is a much tamer option than its predecessor. The older version skipped the scenic route and went directly onto the exposed N58, where the leaders who’d attacked on the Kemmelberg fought hard to hold off the peloton and its sprinters.
I can remember the suspense when Lars Michaelsen broke free with Maurizio Fondriest and Luc Roosen in 1995 and, better still, when Frank Vandenbroucke took off with Michaelsen and Nico Mattan to win in 1998. The time gaps were minimal, just seconds between success or failure and the racing was oh, so, compelling. It was by far the best pursuit race of the year! Yet still it wasn’t over. The finale could change character when the built-up streets of Wervik and Menen created a wind-break for the race. And the situation with even 1500 metres to go could flip if a superpower like Edvald Boasson-Hagen or Peter Sagan shed their sprinter’s skin to become a fleeing hare. Yet Ghent-Wevelgem is that rare classic where the sight of an elite group of the world’s best sprinter’s sprinting, brings a wholly satisfying end to a most extraordinary day.
TOUR OF FLANDERS;
I take the view that the Tour of Flanders is the toughest one-day classic of them all and go so far as saying it is also the greatest classic too. What other one-day race takes place over a such a mammoth distance, on a sinuous route made up of narrow concrete lanes, great unbroken lengths of cobblestones, and so many nasty, cobbled climbs? What other race boasts of a glorious history like Flanders, with its pre-WW1 beginnings and proud boast that it raced throughout the years of the second world war? What other race carries the love and hopes of an entire nation the way De Ronde does? Those war years defined what the race meant to the locals, it led to the race become a living symbol of national pride, a celebration of Flanders and its independent population even as neighbouring countries fought each other on Belgian soil. The popularity of those early editions has endured ever since, with massive crowds turning out each April to see their treasured race pass by. It is by far the most supported one-day race in the world, a carnival hosted by Flemish people which the rest of the world enjoys too. There is no other bike race that encompasses so many great things in the way the Tour of Flanders does.
All of this history, glory, and sporting culture hit me square in the face when I first travelled to see the Tour of Flanders in 1979, a solo tourist on a bus load of bike fans who’d travelled overnight from England wanting to see something of the great race. The event convoy was crammed into the Grote Markt of Sint-Niklaas, a strategic town 30-kilometres south of the great city of Antwerp. Perhaps crammed isn’t the right word because the main square in Sint-Niklaas is Belgium’s biggest and in fact the peloton, the cars, the motos and the fans barely filled a quarter of the square. Travelling by bus wasn’t the best way to see Flanders, we were forever at the mercy of traffic jams and closed roads, and a timid driver meant we caught only a few glimpses of the race at strategic locations; there was no guarantee we’d ever get to the finish. Still, I repeated that trip for another two years before getting myself into the race on a motorbike in 1982.
By then I’d progressed as a cycling photographer and needed the in-race access to further my career. An enthusiastic organiser recognised the importance of some English-media exposure for his race and welcomed me with open arms. The 1982 Tour of Flanders was the first one-day Classic I ever photographed from the pillion-seat of a motorbike. There’s a distinct majesty that is exclusive to Flanders, and it is felt right from the moment the race pulls away from its ceremonial start, be it in Sint-Niklaas (until 1997), Bruges (until 2016) or Antwerp to the present day. The crowds are always enormous, crammed into the main square and cheering their heroes to the start-line. There’s a cauldron-like atmosphere, an air of anticipation, before a starter’s gun goes off and the lead car pulls away, allowing the peloton to stir and move its colourful mass out of the square. Tucked in behind the peloton on a moto, there’s a sense of occasion that seeps into you, it’s as if there’s some magical spirit in the air that’s about to settle on your shoulders.
For the time it takes the race to weave its way out of town and to its flying start, you feel as if you are part of a royal procession, albeit as an interloper, with a privilege that is impossible to deny. All the history and glory of the race washes over you as the crowds roar their approval at de Ronde’s brave cyclists just before they go into battle. Those early years were a blur, both collectively and individually, for the biggest challenge was not taking pictures on the move or from the side of the road. It was trying to learn the intricacy of the route. What strings the Tour of Flanders together is its succession of hills, for that is where the cyclists attack and therefore where the photographers have to be too. The challenge is to choose the right hill at the right time to get that winning shot.
Back in 1982 I didn’t know my Eikenberg from my Steenberg, my Paddestraat from my Mariaborrestraat. With the exception of the Koppenberg and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, I had no idea which hills were cobbled and which were not, and I had absolutely no clue as to where I needed to be, nor when, such was the mind-boggling nature of the race-route. My Flemish driver that first year wasn’t much use. In real life he was a bus-driver from Brussels and had never even seen the tiny lanes that flowed between the race’s famous climbs. Yet that 1982 Flanders in particular - and the many bits of it I missed because of my in-experience – helped forge a career-long obsession with the race. Whereas other classics like Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, even Paris-Roubaix, were quickly mastered as far as familiarity went – the Poggio, Kemmelberg and Carrefour de l’Arbre were where they’d always been, where decisive moves were a guarantee - Flanders never once gave up its secrets to me.
Each year I went back thinking I’d got it cracked, only to be repelled by a subtle tweak to the route. It was like finding a lost key to a long-closed door, only to discover that someone had changed the locks. No two Flanders’ courses were ever the same, nor the racing on such roads, and I remember thinking that if it so hard for me, how hard must it be for the cyclists to gain sufficient knowledge? A reconnaissance on the eve of the race became obligatory, that helped a lot, but come race-day what seemed like a million fans came out to follow and watch Flanders, by car, by bus, or by moto. Such a mass following changed how the course looked, with many village signs or street names I’d memorised now hidden by a wall of humanity. It didn’t help that the race had a habit of switching its famous climbs around or sending its cyclists down a notorious stretch of cobblestones in the opposite direction to the previous year.
I learnt to remember landmarks like decrepit windmills or prominent churches as a way of telling me where I was in the race. A huge brewery still dominates the road immediately just after the Holleweg cobbles – you just know the Molenberg is five minutes away when you pass its imposing frontage. As my knowledge and experience of the race grew over the years, with it came a wisdom that sometimes allowed me to actually enjoy the big day. Part of the trick to following the Tour of Flanders is just pick out the best bits, like plucking only the best cherries from a tree. To know when a scenic shot is more important than action. The first priority was the iconic windmill perched above some terrible cobbles at Wannegem-Lede, almost three hours into the race, so decision No.1 made. But if I stayed too long at that windmill, I also ran the risk of not getting to the Oude Kwaremont, usually the first climb of the day, from where most Tours of Flanders usually kick-off.
But that too required a big decision if I also wanted to photograph the Koppenberg and all its guaranteed chaos. In that 1982 race, I’d stopped on the Oude Kwaremont, and we’d just got past the race before the route swung obliquely left on to a series of narrow, twisting lanes the width of one car. They should have taken us to the Koppenberg, but instead I watched the race fly by towards its most famous hill while my driver and I hauled the heavy moto out of the muddy field we’d crashed into. We were too close to the head of the race to get away and not far enough in front to get to the Koppenberg in time. Luckily soft mud makes for a softer landing, and I changed my tactics in 1983, with a better driver and no stopping on the Kwaremont before the Koppenberg.
I had chanced upon the Tour of Flanders during a rich vein in cycling history. It was probably the draw of seeing famous riders like Hennie Kuiper, Jan Raas, Francesco Moser and Dietrich Thurau that took me to Flanders in the first place. The Ti-Raleigh team dominated the one-day races back then, with Raas as their default leader for the cobbled classics with a pack of burly Dutchmen to support him. Ti-Raleigh raced then like Quick-Step races today, with few prisoners taken on a mission dedicated to bringing the team endless victories. When I wasn’t grappling with the challenges of a new route, the entertainment in Flanders was to see if anyone could beat Raas and his team. Many did, but only if Raas acted as a decoy to let even his Dutch rivals win rather than his fiercest enemies from Belgium. The first ten years of my Flanders experience saw a total dominance by Flemish and Dutch ‘stars – they won five editions each!. Yet I loved watching Moser race, always at the front in his Italian champion’s jersey. He seemed to possess enough class and strength to race away and win, a dream that ultimately eluded him and this fan.
We were right alongside Raas when he attacked on the Bosberg and soloed to victory in the 1983 Flanders, and I remember being dumbstruck at how easily his huge legs powered a massive gear. Raas was the Fabian Cancellara of his day, he had an explosive energy that quickly opened a gap, and an engine that powered him away from any chasers. In 1985 it was Eric Vanderaerden going solo on an absolutely miserable afternoon that saw just 24 riders finish. The Flemish ‘star overcame a mechanical on the approach to the Koppenberg, but fought back on the climb, riding the hill’s crazy wet cobbles while just about everyone else walked. I’d chosen the best place to stand. The Koppenberg was the most destructive hill in the race, and the 1987 edition gave me images of the infamous fall by Denmark’s Jesper Skibby. I’d got a clear shot of the stricken cyclist as an official’s car seemed to drive right over his foot (in fact the car had only crushed his front wheel).
Although the incident forced the organisers to remove the Koppenberg for the foreseeable future, I’d had my Skibby image published in a major Flemish-language newspaper, enhancing my status amongst rival cycling photographers and cementing my relationship with the race. The Koppenberg returned a full fifteen years later, by which time other hills had grown their fame and notoriety. Without the Koppenberg, organisers had re-jigged the order of some hills to create fresh challenges in the race and maintain suspense for TV viewers. The un-cobbled Berendries became the launch-pad for many winning attacks in the mid-1990’s – this was Johan Museeuw’s favoured climb, a full 50-kilometres from the finish. The asphalt innocence of the Valkenberg was exploited by Tom Boonen when he attacked there in 2006 with Leif Hoste. Then a little-known climb called the Eikenmolen was used in 2008 as the springboard for victory by Stijn Devolder, a teammate of Boonen.
The Molenberg, first used in 1983, was constantly switched in order as well, and it became the hill to attack from in the late-1990’s. This was a really bumpy hill that forced many cyclists to walk if it was wet, but it rose to real prominence in 2010 when Cancellara famously dropped Boonen as part of a long-distance, softening-up tactic. He let Boonen join him in a two-up epic before attacking his arch-rival on the Muur. Throughout this period, the Muur and the Bosberg still hosted the final action of the race - it was where the biggest and most passionate crowds gathered, where the cyclists emptied their tanks, and where the best images were to be found. The 2011 Flanders was the last time both climbs featured in the finale, and it saw one of the finest battles between Cancellara, Sylvain Chavanel and eventual winner, Nick Nuyens. Just when I thought I’d conquered its many variations, after a mere twenty-nine years, the 2012 race unveiled a daring new route that cut out the Muur and Bosberg as well as the finish in Meerbeke.
The new course was designed to be spectator-friendly and absolutely riveting on TV, and it succeeded so well. It did laps of a circuit based around the hills and lanes between Oudenaarde, Kruishoutem and Ronse, preceded by a three-hour march from the start. The plan was for the organiser to sell space in massive VIP tents placed on all the best climbs, while at the same time obliging de Ronde’s barmy army of 20,000 fans to select their viewing locations early and stop driving madly around the countryside in search of the race. I thought it looked a bit sterile on paper, maybe too contrived, but it was surely a doddle to navigate around and work through. And it did away with many of the confusing choices us older snappers had had to make. But I’d have hated it as a cyclist, with three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont and two of the Paterberg to be tackled, and a single Koppenberg ascent thrown in for good measure with about 50-kilometres to go.
During an un-remarkable debut in 2012, won by Boonen in a sprint after he’d let Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan do most of the work, the new circuit began to grow its fanbase and show the world what it had to offer. The earlier sections of the race-route were eerily void of spectators, but that’s because just about everyone was parked-up somewhere between the Koppenberg, Kwaremont and Paterberg. When the race first reached the Oude Kwaremont in 2012, it was as if the Tour de France had arrived on to the Champs Elysees in July. Thousands upon thousands of fans lined both sides of the long hill and its ensuing plateau, a true wall of humanity - many more thousands than I’d ever seen. The noise was deafening, everybody was having a good time, and I knew that after this first passage most of them could return to their seats in one of many beer-tents and watch the action on TV. Until the race came around again. And again.
Next up, the Koppenberg was hosting its regular die-hard fans - they never go anywhere else, so no changes there. But it was the Paterberg, first used as far back as 1987, that held the biggest surprise. Several thousand seemed to have found a place to sit and watch, some in VIP areas the rest on flat ground dug out especially for the day. On this revolutionary circuit, the Paterberg would finally eclipse the importance of the Koppenberg, its neighbourly rival for so many years. The cobbles were better, so no-one walked, yet the climb was steep enough to force the final act in the race on a hill that provided a perfect amphitheatre where spectators could get an un-interrupted view - twice. And what finales this hill and its supporting act, the Kwaremont, would witness.
That 2012 showdown had lacked one key ingredient – Cancellara, who’d crashed out much earlier on. But 2013 saw a battle royale between an attacking Cancellara and a chasing Sagan on the Kwaremont, followed by a surging attack by Cancellara on the Paterberg. Still there was something missing – this time Boonen had crashed out. 2014 was the year when we had to accept there never would be a Boonen-Cancellara duel again, for it was Sagan who chased Cancellara on the Kwaremont - and lost. Cancellara won in a sprint, but he’d needed both climbs to keep an escaping Greg Van Avermaet in-sight. 2015 was a non-event on the final hills with Terpstra and Kristoff already so far ahead of their chasers that they could have by-passed the Paterberg altogether and had an earlier shower after the finish. Yet the crowds cheered and roared their heroes on anyway.
Then came 2016, with a Sagan solo on the Paterberg that broke Flemish hearts when he dropped Sep Vanmarcke in front of the man’s biggest audience. Now in its fifth year as the race’s final climb, the Paterberg put on its greatest show to-date, forcing the very best from Sagan, immense courage from Vanmarcke, and a scintillating chase from Cancellara who got within twenty-seconds of Sagan by the top. Oh, the noise on that legendary hill! I bade farewell to the Tour of Flanders in 2016 after that long-awaited victory by Sagan – the race’s 100th edition had the reigning World Champion as its victor! Had I waited one more year before retiring I would have photographed an astonishing ride by Philippe Gilbert, champion of Belgium but not yet champion of Flanders in 2017. The man attacked with 55-kilometres to go on the Oude Kwaremont and was never in danger of getting caught. And he still had one more climb of the Kwaremont and two more ascents of the Paterberg to go when he’d powered away.
I’d probably have declared Gilbert's as the greatest Tour of Flanders victory I’d seen. In any case, I remembered being there the last time a French-speaking Walloon had won the Tour of Flanders – Claude Criquielion in 1987. But Gilbert’s performance reminded me more of Museeuw’s stunning wins, when a partisan crowd spurred their hero on to his very best victories in Belgium in 1993, 1995 and 1998. Or maybe the victories of Edwin Van Hooydonck in 1989 and 1991 when Eddy Merckx was driving the lead car and egged Van Hooydonck on when he began to falter. I think fondly of those earlier Flanders’, when my ignorance of the race and its route did little to spoil my enthusiasm. And as I explored the race-routes so did I discover Flanders as a region worth knowing.
I discovered many of its beautiful tree-lined canals, perfect for cycling along when there was no race to photograph. Luckily, I also found ways around the race's bergs to avoid cycling up them. But mostly I learnt more of the role de Ronde has played in the nations’ hearts. I think my favourite Flanders’ years were when double-winner Boonen found his greatest rival in Cancellara and responded so well to the challenge in 2010. Their separate crashes in 2011 and 2012 spoilt what should have been an annual slug-fest, at least both men settled on three wins apiece. Do I have a single, favourite, edition of the race? No, they were all won in different ways and on different courses too. All I can say after photographing my 34th and last Ronde in 2016 is that I felt that I’d never quite mastered the art of photographing the race. But that I had such great fun trying to.
Paris-Roubaix is the most famous of all the one-day Classics. It is also the most popular Classic, the most glamourous one too. It is the one single race that every professional cyclist dreams of winning. And if anyone were ever still in doubt, let’s also state that Paris-Roubaix is the most exciting Classic of them all. Coming as it does after Ghent-Wevelgem, with its wild-west style of racing, and the Tour of Flanders, with its bewildering sequence of hills and sub-plot of confusing tactics, Paris-Roubaix is like a breath of fresh air because it opens up the flood-gates of opportunity to a much wider portion of the peloton. There’s a simplicity to the race and to the racing that makes it far more user-friendly even if, ultimately, the experience is as cruel and soul-destroying as anything made across the border in Belgium. Almost everyone wants a truly great cyclist to win Paris-Roubaix, and that’s what usual transpires. But it’s a unique classic that’s is judged equally by the quality of the racing, the battle to win or to just finish, as much as by the calibre of the winner.
There was no doubting the quality of the winner when I first saw the ‘Hell of the North” in 1980. I’d caught a pre-dawn ferry from Dover to Calais and then cycled the 130-kilometres to find the race near Gruson, just after the infamous pavé of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. I didn’t have long to wait before the preceding race cars started passing me, then the motos of the Gendarmes, and the motos of TV and stills photographers too. Then the first cyclist emerged from the dust, moving with frightening speed along the softer edges of the cobbled track. He was instantly recognisable as Francesco Moser, his familiar pointy nose almost down on his stem, his mouth wide-open, his elbows locked at 90-degrees, and his back arched so low and so level over his bike. I knew just about enough of the race to realise Moser was on his way to winning, for no one lost at the speed he was racing at, not that close to the finish, and not after the course he’d ridden over. Moser had won the two previous editions of the race as well, and I felt absolutely chuffed to have captured my first-ever image of this ‘star.
Back then, the spectators on the sides of the road were one hundred times fewer than they are now. I’d had a whole swath of land to compose my shots from, and an absolutely clear view of the cyclists as they came by. I’d been alone on my spot until maybe ten minutes before the race arrived - only then did spectators start to arrive. And by the time I’d dusted myself down afterwards, packed my camera and lens into a nifty handlebar bag and prepared to pedal back to Calais, there was not a single spectator left to be seen. It was just me in a ploughed field beside a cobbled lane in the middle of no-where. Compare that memory to today’s race, when such a mass of humanity flocks to see their heroes pedal by. Some come at the last minute, from their nearby homes, while others descend from cars and buses with twenty minutes to spare. Yet more take their places on that same cobbled track hours before the race arrives. A crazy few will have been there all week to get the best spots, camping out in the fields with their camper vans or even in tents. Somewhere along the way, Paris-Roubaix became as popular as the Tour de France, if only for just one day.
It’s been forty years since I saw that first Paris-Roubaix, and I’ve passed over that same set of cobbles so many times since, never once forgetting what I saw in 1980. But so many other sections plead for attention as well. From the first pavé at Troisvilles to the last real cobbles at Hem, each and every section represents a link to some incident - a memorable race-winning attack, a crash, a cruel mechanical, or even a contentious disqualification. I’m of an age that means I actually saw the race enter the first cobbles at Neuvilly instead of Troisvilles, on a significant hilly section long-since removed that gave the opening phase of the race a very different character. It even had a climbing prize at the top, on the Cote de Neuvilly. Troisvilles has no such hill, meaning the cyclists go into that section at full-tilt, knowing they won’t all be coming out of it. There’s absolute chaos at that first section, with a 90-degree bend halfway along forcing spills and misfortune every year. A TV moto filming directly in front of the escape skidded over in 2001, thrilling the many photographers and fans crowded in there, but so spoiling the escapers chances.
Once Troisvilles has passed, so begins a mad, mad day for every person in the race convoy. A cyclist pleads for a new wheel, another for a whole new bike - team cars try to reach their stricken riders but are blocked by other cars, as well as the motos of officials, photographers and Gendarmes queued up behind the peloton. In any case, no-one can move aside on such narrow lanes. Meanwhile, roadside fans run back across fields to find their cars or buses on a day where there is more than one race going on. Taking diversions away from the race is the order of the day, even for us actually in the race. The speeds are too high, the cobbles too risky, the integrity of the racing of paramount importance. Photographers will have tested the route at least once mid-week, so they are the ones who lead the first diversion after Troisvilles. There’s a battle between in-race motos and the cars of fans to get ahead of the race before Quievy and section three of the cobbled route, and again just afterwards to reach Solesmes still in control of our destiny. We’re largely safe in the knowledge that all the police and gendarmes are marshalling the race-route and won’t be stopping any speedsters today.
My earlier experience of Paris-Roubaix saw us staying in the race all day, along never-ending sections of pave, watching riders fall or suffer flat tyres, until a wider road opened up for us to accelerate in front. The peloton was much smaller back then. And if we never quite made it to the front then we more or less joined in the race, unwilling participants in a contest not of our making. We didn’t always win. Some of my best images of the 1980’s came when we were stuck between fragmenting pods of cyclists, either attacking, chasing back, or being dropped. While the driver worked his magic amidst such mayhem, I was able to shoot off a few frames of their tortured faces, firing away at the action behind. A shot of a desperate Laurent Fignon in the 1988 race and a fiery Duclos-Lassalle in 1992 were of particular note, but there were so many other images too. How many times did we see a cyclist crying out to us for a spare wheel, thinking we were a neutral service moto, when all I could offer him was a complimentary print of his distress, if he’d be so kind as to provide his name and address?
And so the first hours pass by and half-a-dozen diversions have already been done. All roads lead to the Wallers-Arenberg forest, the first really important section of the race, with a reputation for drama and glory that goes back to the mid-1970’s when Eddy Merckx and Roger DeVlaeminck fought out their epic rivalry in the forest. The Trouée d’Arenberg, to give its local name, once had an insecure role in the race-route – it was considered too dangerous. In from 1968, out from 1974 to 1983, then in again until 2005. After some renovations it came back in 2006 and, with some considerable gentrification, is still in the race-route to the present day. Secure now because it’s too famous and strategic to leave out, its importance in the race – with its awful 2,400 metres of lop-sided cobbles – is matched by a popularity involving thousands of fans, with decent access roads to the forest making this a fabulous place to congregate and watch the battle.
Some of the worst crashes have happened in the forest, such as Johan Museeuw’s in 1998, or Philippe Gaumont’s in 2001, and they almost always happened about 500-metres in, at a point where the descent into the forest levelled out and a patch of evil stones threatened to take down any front wheel that wasn’t properly grounded. Some of the gaps in the pavé are where fans have later come back and removed stones to put on display at home, a selfish deed likely to cause injury to the very heroes they worship. I’ve seen cyclists bunny-hopping the worst cobbles, yet not always making it safely - I watched Rolf Sorensen crash out in 1991, in the exact same place that injured Museeuw and Gaumont some years later, as well as Mitch Docker in 2017.
For anyone who’s never been in the Arenberg forest on race-day, it is impossible to describe the atmosphere as the race approaches the forest from the south, and then as it starts its 60-kmh sprint to those deadly cobbles. The tall forest trees act as a canopy that amplifies the spectators’ cheers and yells as the leaders race by. A unified gasp indicates there’s been a crash, deep-hearted roars suggest a cyclist is attacking, the occasional scream means a fan has spotted his or her favourite rider. It’s a cauldron of fire for the riders, a theatre of cruelty and bravado for the fans, and a truly spectacular place in cycling folklore. It used to be that the race’s best-placed finishers emerged first out of the forest each year. Think Sean Kelly, Eric Vanderaerden and Marc Madiot in the mid-1980’s, Andre Tchmil, Franco Ballerini and Andrea Tafi in the mid-1990’s, or Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara in the 2000s.
Although Cancellara and Boonen continued that trend during their winning rides of 2008 and 2010 – maintaining a macho tradition that the strongest cyclist in the race is the one who can lead the whole way through the forest and out of it – the modern Paris-Roubaix has gone more tactical there, meaning the main favourites bide their time until the next suitable landmark, the double obstacle of the cobbles near Bersée and its immediate follow-up near Mons-en-Pevele. These two sectors act as the prelude to the finale, following on from the roughly 85 kilometres of racing and seven strength-sapping sectors that brought the race up from Arenberg. The section to Bersée has a serpent-like trajectory, with long, un-relenting straights and three 90-degree bends, all of them on a nasty camber. So many successful attacks have been launched here, with riders using their strength to break clear in the knowledge the sharp bends will likely slow the chasers down.
The section just before Mons-en-Pévele is possibly the second-best in the whole race with two uphill stretches either side of a tiny, dipping, 90-degree corner. The race is exploding now, with the Bersée pavé in the riders’ legs and another hour’s racing still to come. The basic tactic is to attack on the first long stretch, gain a lead through that tight left-hand corner, then accelerate again where the camber drops acutely away to the right. Anyone who has the strength and can also cope with this highly technical section has a chance, for the following 300-metres are distinctly uphill and the gaps will surely open. If the modern-day Paris-Roubaix was to award a climber’s prize, it would be here, a wheel-breaking section of cobbles that squeezes the last ounce of energy from almost everyone. Almost. This is where some great long-range attacks have started - think Tchmil in 1994, Ballerini one year later, Cancellara in 2010, Tom Boonen in 2012. I’ve always targeted this section for pictures, knowing my chances of capturing the final attacks were high. But this is also the section where George Hincapie crashed out in 2006, after breaking his steering column before that tight left-hand corner.
Diversions still fill the photographer’s mind as the race scuttles away from Mons-en-Pévele. A cut through to Pont a Marcq means missing the Merignies pavé but it will give you clear shots of the final contenders at Ennevlin. Another cut takes you to the surreal pavé at Vertain, its picturesque windmill at odds with such brutal cobbles – perhaps the most jarring in the race. The Vertain cobbles saw a spectacular crash by Max Van Heeswijk in 2003, a full-on somersault performed right in front of some lucky photographers who were lining the windmill up in their sights. From here, finally, the photographers have the chance to work on the move, snapping at the leaders and chasers on a series of narrow asphalt lanes that approach the very final of the race. The town of Cysoing is next up, with its famously long section of cobbles that used to zig-zag across the agricultural landscape forever – until the newly-laid rails of high-speed TGV trains cut them apart in the 1980’s.
Instead of two long, succulent sections of pavé between Cysoing, Bourghelles and Wannehain, now there are three or four shorter sections, with more diversions needed for the photographers to keep pace with the leaders. But the twistier route means that any wind will bring another exciting factor to the racing. A static shot after Cysoing, a dash across farm tracks to Camphin-en-Pévele, another static shot there before a really cheeky cut-through a farmer’s field (only if it’s dry), and we arrive on the opening phase of the iconic Carrefour de l’Arbre. It was here that I saw Vanderaerden attack to win the 1987 Paris-Roubaix, his skills in the mud so mind-boggling to witness. I thought I’d stopped for my passing shot a bit too soon, but had the luck to see the winning move. The exact same place then gave me a shot of the winning break in 1988, with Thomas Wegmuller and Dirk DeMol forcing the pace through clouds of dust. I used that image on the cover of my first-ever book, Visions of Cycling, so I’ll remember the location forever.
Because of the massive crowds that started lining this section from the mid-1990’s, most of them Flemish wanting to see Museeuw and then Boonen perform, it became almost obligatory to take your shots at a ridiculously tight left-hand bend, where the moto can be safely parked behind spectators and made ready for a quick getaway. Some great solo escapers have flown by here - Tafi in 1999, Museeuw in 2002, Stuart O’Grady in 2007, Johan Van Summeren in 2011, all of them followed by an impressive circus of cars and motorbikes that enhanced their image as virtual winners. Occasionally, large groups sped through the corner, the eventual winner amongst them, but not yet known, but who the photographers had to guess and pick out anyway. It’s an amazing thing that the eventual winner is often the guy leading anyway. Think Fredric Guesdon in 1997, Servais Knaven in 2001, Magnus Backstedt in 2004, John Degenkolb in 2015, followed by Matthew Hayman a year later.
There was the spectacular crash of Thor Hushovd in 2009, right on the corner, a gift made in heaven for any quick-reacting photographers, but a cursed stroke of luck for Hushovd himself, for I think he might have won. It’s a precarious position for the photographers crouched down on their haunches, for the red lead-car typically precedes the leader by just a few seconds, its front wheels and bumper passing inches from our faces. It’s also the last time some of the ‘pros will capture the action, for a nice diversion can take the photographer right to the finish if he’s had enough. But by doing that the snapper might miss an incident like a closed railway crossing in 2006 that saw three riders disqualified after they'd crossed the tracks with a train coming. In a a normal year, the last 20-kilometres is basically a pursuit match between escapers and chasers, between winners and losers - fascinating to a point but not worth the risk of a very late arrival for those finish shots.
My best memories of Paris-Roubaix are probably at Carrefour de l’Arbre, it’s the perfect type of finale when the distance bites into the cyclists’ legs and lungs, and where the cobbles are thankfully maintained at their very worst. Back in the day when photographers could work from the moto as opposed to taking side-of-the-road shots, it became a matter of pride to photograph the actual winning attack. I thought we’d got it right in 1990, when Steve Bauer launched a few attacks right behind us, only to see Eddy Planckaert beat him in the closest-ever sprint in the Roubaix velodrome. 1991 was the jackpot year, when Marc Madiot attacked coming out of the famous corner and pulled away from John Talen and Ballerini, with myself and driver Luke Evans in pole position, much to the chagrin of my French colleagues who’d missed the shot.
An adaptation on working the Carrefour is to take the in-race shots early, even before the bend, then drive to the end of the last long stretch and take static shots too. In 2002, Museeuw launched his winning move a full 45 kilometres from the end so the jostling for position on the Carrefour was made redundant. It was wet that year as well, the crowds were fewer too, and, crouched down on the cobbles I got some great head-on shots of a mud-splattered Museeuw coming straight at me. A 21-year-old Tom Boonen followed three minutes later, he too was caught in head-on pose, with bloodshot eyes and mud all over his face and body. Oh, how I loved a wet Parsi-Roubaix! Now, I could talk of the many different finishes to the race, like dozens of glorious solos, of the cat-and-mouse tactics that preceded a sprint-finish, of the atmosphere in the velodrome when the leaders arrived, when the winner had won, when the result was known, when the tears flowed for winners and finishers alike. I could even describe what a wet Paris-Roubaix is like to photograph, except that I’d need a completely separate blog’. But I prefer to end my tales at the Carrefour, just a kilometre or two from my first-ever sighting of the race in 1980.
Photographing Paris-Roubaix is a dream come true for anyone who loves cycling, and certainly it was for me. It’s a wonderful adventure that rarely disappoints, a day out in an exquisite part of France, a race that knows no equal in terms of bravado and excitement. And it always, always, brings us great images. So, to add to its accolades as the most exciting, the most famous, the most popular, can I also say it is my absolute favourite race to photograph? There, I just said it, Paris-Roubaix was my favourite race – and I missed it so much this year.
Photo Gallery: https://photos.grahamwatson.com/Print-Gallery/Paris-Roubaix/