Thursday, April 1, 2010

Berkshire Poppies

Oh… to be in Belgium – where the cobbles glisten as the rainstorms threaten. Oh… to be in Flanders fields – where the war clouds gather, ready to ride, ride, ride the wild wind from the West.

Ninety-five years ago – this coming April 4th… Easter Sunday that will be… Muddy Waters was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi – while the shaping of a musical century was to be his destiny, its entirely debatable if Mr and Mrs Waters even knew of events unfolding on the far side of their world.

Seven and half thousand kilometers away and, on that very same day, it was more or less ‘all quiet on the Western Front’. The Ronde Van Vlannderen was just two-years old and had just been put on pause – the ‘war to end all wars’ had been raging barely a year.

As the trees left standing turned from bud into leaf, conscripts and regular militia on either side were recovering from the Battle of Neuve-Chappele while preparing for (another) oncoming onslaught in the vile mud-bath a bit to the south of Kotrijk; otherwise known (to historians and scholars alike) as the Second Battle of Ypres.

Just over 100,000 perished over the calendar month during which that battle raged… in the midst of which, Colonel John McCrae penned these – immortal – words on May 3rd:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

And, war has, in its own way, shaped the epic battles that will be fought again across Flanders fields this coming Ester Sunday.

Belgium – probably more fought-over than any other country – was, of course, decimated and re-built only to be destroyed all over again in the 2nd War. However, turn off the highways – in immediate post-war times only the main roads were asphalted – and onto the by-ways and what remains is pretty much as it was after the first conflict; the countryside more or less re-built itself with what it had to hand.

And… that’s where the beating heart of this and any year’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen lays.

Sometime in the 1980’s, cycling historian, writer and all round bon-viveur, the late Geoffrey Nicholson observed, “apart from war itself, cycle-racing is the only international conflict that takes place on the doorstep”.

(ok, ok – in the spirit of a wee bit of plagiarism, the good Geoffrey’s 60-a-day quote actually referred to the Grand Boucle but, for this little Voltaire out on its windswept knoll in the fields beside the Oude Kwaremont, that’s as close as frankly makes very little difference).

This Easter Sunday, the scent of embrocation will outweigh incense swung from censers in churches and chapels alike; the air will be rich with the odour of frites mixed to the acrid exhaust fumes from the race convoy’s motor-cycle outriders; the fetid stench of over-extended burger-vans will mingle with cheap after-shave and the carefully selected best perfume of those out on the roadsides in their Sunday best.

This excursion into the tiny lanes of Flanders is an FA Cup Final, a SuperBowl, an Olympic opening ceremony and a Rodeo all rolled into one.

And, the cement that glues it all together consists of a vast volume of beer consumed amidst accumulated noise that makes a summer thunderstorm pale by comparison.

Because, come rain or shine (and many will pray for the most unseasonal – unreasonable – weather imaginable), around about a quarter of the entire population of Belgium will emerge from their doorsteps from dawn onwards, to gather along the roadsides that lead to the shrines of cycle racing that litter this tiny corner of Europe.

These shrines are, for the two-wheeled gladiators, their own stations of the cross.

The shrines are what define… and determine… the Ronde.

These are the short, sharp, ‘hellingen’ – quick-fire ascents that are more often than not cobbled; some rising to a 20% gradient, others that are little more than one, two or three-plus kilometre lengths of Napoleonic farm-track which end between high banks before bursting out onto decent tarmac’d roads for… a little bit.

The names of these ‘hellingen’ are the backbone to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and trip easily off the tongue; Den Ast which comes first this year; the Klusberg and Knokteberg which precede the Oude Kwaremont – the pavé birth-mother to all of the sections of cycling-hell that follow.

The brutal 1 in 4 ascent of the Paterberg comes before the legendary Koppenberg – both lined from bottom to top ten-plus-deep with spectators screaming encouragement as the tv-helicopters chatter noisily overhead, transmitting the carnage unfolding below to millions watching around the world.

Then comes the Steenbeekdries, the Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Molenberg, Leberg and Berendries before Tenbosse. By now, the field (peleton) will have shredded – only the strong, the very very strong survive this far.

There'll be a slight lull in hostilities before… the Holy Grail of Flemish ‘bergs’ hoves into view… the fabled Muur… (in Flemish = wall).

And, aptly named it is – the ascent starts off in a relatively benign fashion… over the River Dender and then onto a pleasant enough (tho’ pretty steep) asphalt road before… suddenly… two right turns in quick succession and… ouch… big ouch… cobbles the size of bread-loaves that look (and feel) like they’ve been laid by a blind-man trusting to judgment rather than benefitting from using a spirit-level.

The Muur (or Kapelmur’s) cobbles kick up at 20% above Geraardsbergen. It is, in brief, the epicenter of the Ronde; its the fulcrum of all the viewing points and… as near as dammit a natural ampitheatre as if the climb itself was made for the race; where the slopes can accommodate many thousands of spectators and where the sound level approaches that of The Colloseum in days of old when the Emperor’s thumb hovered around the horizontal.

Imagine: a small, fairly non-descript Belgian market town – altho’ its actually a city (being proclaimed such in 1068).

Its perched half on and half off a medium sized hill above the River Dende and, in the fields on the banks of said river, not long before the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington and his Prussian counterpart Blücher, reviewed their troops.

There are the usual abundance of cafés; there’s a train station, boulangeries every few yards – touting mattentaart, a sweet pastry which is made locally - are interspersed with shops selling ladies undergarments - every shape or size and all tastes catered for. The market square is ring fenced with bars.

On this, coming Easter Sunday, the usual population of around 40,000 will grow ten fold.

And… this population-growth is not confined to rabid sports fans… by no means; we’re talking cuddling teenagers in the first flush of lust as much as babes in the arms of great-grandparents… and absolutely everyone one can think of in-between. Entire families dressed for the occasion and to impress too. Every sector of society, every race and creed… vegetarians to carnivores; men dressed as farm-animals, women with megaphones; drunkards and teetotalers alike (although it should be said this is not Lemonade Lucy territory… Geraardsbergen on Ronde day is not really a place for those who belong to the Temperance Society).

The Muur is one of these monuments (shrines) where disoraganised lunacy reigns supreme.

Goodness only knows what it must feel like to ride up through the cauldron of noise and emotion that erupts off of the side of the Muur.

Because, this is where the blood is shed; where the race is (most often) lost… or won… where the hell-hounds breathe down the neck of a potential victor… a few more kilometers, one more climb (the Bosberg) and twelve more rolling kilometers and God-like status is assured.

I’m not entirely sure who this quote should be attributed to but, whoever the wise person was, it rings true: “If you want to see a sporting event, go to the Tour de France, if you want to see a bike race, go to the Tour Of Flanders – the Ronde”.

Because… to this Voltaire’s way of thinking, the Ronde should be high on most people’s list of twenty things to see (experience) before you arrive at the Pearly Gates.

This coming Sunday evening, there will be many who saw the dawn, who lived the dream but whose sunset lays shattered and crumpled across Flanders' unforgiving fields...

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