The cycling world is approaching the climax of the Flandrian campaign: The Ronde Van Vlaanderen. All across the Flemish Ardennes there is a palpable buzz and sense of anticipation. Teams of workers are erecting the race infrastructure; barriers, signage, hospitality tents and stands. Perhaps the only people working harder are the teams who will be battling it out over the legendary cobbles and climbs of this true heartland of cycle racing. The last few days of run up to the race are devoted to fine tuning the whole operation for what can be, in many cases, one of the most important appointments of the season. Always Riding had the privilege of tagging along with Team Giant-Alpecin on their final race recce training ride on the Thursday before Vlaanderen's Mooiste, courtesy of the team's proud new co-sponsors, Renson. We spent four hours in the team car with coach Marc Reef and mechanic Ed Bekhuis as they completed the last 100km with the squad.
My first question was about the health of the riders who were involved in the infamous 'driver-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road' collision whilst out training in Spain earlier this year. Thankfully, pretty much all involved are back on the bike, in some cases making rapid progress. The only to riders still yet to return to training are Germans Max Walscheid and John Degenkolb. Clearly, the latter of the two leaves something of a gaping hole in the team's plans and firepower for this part of the season: John is not expected back until at least May. Marc is realistic about the loss of their key man, facing the problem with professional pragmatism.
"Sure, John is the guy for these races and we do not have a second John Degenkolb, so we have to go into the races in a different way - we have to aim for the break, getting guys up there. We've been there so far but not made the final selection yet...This type of race is very honest when it comes to the final selection - brutally honest - it's the absolute strongest guys who make it and only them. But, this is definitely an opportunity for the other guys to take the chances and show themselves!"
This type of race is very honest when it comes to the final selection - brutally honest - it's the absolute strongest guys who make it and only them.
We are flying across the cobbles of the Haaghoek sector in order to catch up with the already departed squad as they make their way toward the asphalt climbs of Berendries and Valkenberg. Marc outlines the purpose of the day's session - the guys are already physically ready having been told of their selection for the Ronde weeks previously and have worked towards it specifically; extra gains are not going to come in the days before the race. This is all about imprinting the race route on their memories, knowing where the climbs and cobbled sections lie and also, more crucially in Marc's view, the nature of the run in to these race defining features: Position is critical in the kilometres leading up to these iconic stretches on such narrow and twisting rural roads. It is this knowledge the squad are out to capture, to become as familiar as possible with the tight, narrow lanes, critical turns and pinch-points.
The session is also an important opportunity to test out position and tyre pressure variations. We halt twice en route and adjust tyres with a handheld air compressor, the riders discussing with each other and the two staff the best options. Numerous enquiries and discussions are had over the radio or through the open passenger side window as we are on the move as to the tweaks that may be needed to fit or equipment throughout the ride. These adjustments can be matters of mere millimetres in some cases. Weapons of choice are the lower profile C35 Shimano rims and Giant's Defy Advanced SL frame.
But such fine tuning and micro-measures can only go so far in a race like the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Marc acknowledges that the race's chaotic nature is perhaps the its greatest appeal.
"Of course, we have our key lines of planning ready, we know what we want to achieve in every part of the race and the guys know how to go about making sure we do so. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you have to be able to adjust and take them - this can be through either good or bad luck, whichever the race throws at you. That's what makes it special- you just never know!"
A steady pace is maintained throughout, the riders clipping comfortably along at an easy looking 40kph over most terrain
We temporarily lose sight of the squad as we are confronted by a large truck and a group of workers repairing a section of road on the narrow, wooded descent from the Kanarieberg; the riders have slipped through the roadworks but we are not going to make without losing the paintwork and therefore the sponsors’ names from the car's doors... A quick, polite word from Marc and the truck is manoeuvred out of the way, the World Tour squad's deft bike handling and bustle of the team car a fun distraction to the toil of laying tarmac ahead of the race. Directions are radioed through to the squad, Marc referencing the upcoming Kruisberg as the place of the race wining move in the 2015 edition. Will this be a key point again?
"The race will start on our second time up the Oude Kwaremont- you have Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg in quick succession this will be key and the splits will come. You need to be up in the front group then or you are going to struggle to come back..."
The ride is as well drilled and disciplined as you would expect from one of the world's top squads. A steady pace is maintained throughout, the riders clipping comfortably along at an easy looking 40kph over most terrain. The Koppenberg and Paterberg provide wake-up calls to their legs (which am relieved to see, remembering my own flailing and bouncing attempts upon them) as the riders grit their teeth and make determined, controlled progress upwards. This is not a ride to head into the red on - the relatively leisurely 60kph pace on descents indicates the nature of the ride. It will be far higher than that come race day- and there won't be any freewheeling! In fact, there will be only a couple more rides of around an hour and a half on the two remaining days leading up to the race, an easy turning over of the legs. Easy rides, massages, food for fuel and rest is the order of the day before the maelstrom descends upon sleepy Flanders...
Many a local club rider and touring group have to double take over their left shoulder as the guys roll past. A couple manage to hack the pace for a few kilometres - some admirably well - until the difference begins to show and the group glide away leaving the dropped with a tale to tell in the bar that evening. Smiles and a waves greet us from the roadsides as we pass the already assembling camper van villages, flags flying from aerials and BBQ arrangements being made. Sure, the race brings pressure to perform for a team like Giant- Alpecin, but it is one that Marc looks forward to, "It's very special: It's made special by these people here, at the roadside. Their passion and love for the race. That atmosphere is very special!"