The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Say “Flanders” to the typical cycling fan and you will immediately inspire images of cobbled climbs, boozing Belgians and on-the-rivet racing.
In contrast, if you ask a Flandrien – let’s say Johan Museeuw – to tell you what matters most about their homeland, and they are more likely to first tell you about the region’s place in the history of Europe, established at an enormous price, during the First World War. Flanders is as scarred with battle sites, graves and memorials as anywhere on what was the Western Front. Inescapable for anyone growing up there.
It is this profound sense of human history, at least as much as the cycling heritage, which inspired Museeuw to come up with “3 Classics in 2 Days: The Rouleur Flanders Monumental Ride”. On Wednesday morning he, along with a select group of guests, will set out from the Belgian town of Ypres on a gruelling 177km ride, encompassing some of the most celebrated sections of two of Flanders’ famed Classic races. Their ultimate destination, following a short hop across the channel by Eurostar, is the Thursday evening session of this year’s Rouleur Classic in London.
While the riders will clip into their pedals at dawn on November 1st, proceedings will officially begin at precisely 8pm the night before, with the bugle call of the Last Post. This simple ceremony has taken place at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres every evening, almost without interruption, for nearly 90 years. The year 2017 holds a particular significance for the city, as it marks the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, at which as many as 500,000 soldiers were killed.
Sport and battle have long held literary, if not literal, connections. Cycling, with its extreme physical rigours, amongst other parallels, perhaps embodies those links more than most. Commentators will often adopt the language of war in describing a race. All the better to stir your emotions and enhance the experience.
Museeuw does not exactly embrace those comparisons but he clearly understands where they come from:
“You have to fight with your bike and with your head and with your morale and all you have. It’s not with guns and bullets but you have to fight for your place, for your victory, for everything.”
The route itself is Museeuw through and through, reflecting the breadth of responsibility of his ambassadorial role. He’s no mere salesman.
Just south of Ypres the band of riders will pass the site of the Battle of Messines and the Irish Peace park, a memorial honouring the Irish who died in the war, before turning east along the route of several of the areas numerous war cemeteries.
For Museeuw, the ride is not simply about promoting what Flanders is now – aiming to draw cycling tourists from beyond Belgium – but of keeping this history alive. Museeuw seems to feel the current geopolitical instability in a very real way. One hundred years on, he says, “it’s a different world and it’s still at war”.
Solemnity aside, it is about the cycling, and the group will enjoy (enjoy?) several stretches of the famous Flandrien “bergs and cobbles”, which is what gets Museeuw really excited. It’s not enough to watch it on TV, he insists. “You have to taste it, you have to try it, you have to smell it.”
The Kemmelberg, the climb which has so often sorted those who have it from those who don’t at Gent-Wevelgem, is the first real test, followed by 95 relatively respite-y kilometres to the Kwaremont. At 162km they’ll hit the Valkenberg before the run-in to Geraardsbergen and a finish on its fearsome Muur. After the better part of 200 kilometres, rather them than me.
With six podiums on top of his three victories at the Tour of Flanders, Museeuw has a better record than anyone else in the race’s history, comparing himself positively and proudly with Eddy Merckx who, he points out, only won the race twice.
He knows these roads, and what it takes to ride them well, better than anyone. So what is the secret? “You have to get a big engine because it’s a long distance and you have to do the hills so you have to have explosivity.” More than anything, he says, a rider needs to prepare like it’s the only race in their calendar.
When I mention to Museeuw that it looks like a challenging ride, he seems to think I’m challenging his own fitness for it. “It’s going to be a long day, but I’m still in good shape and I don’t think it will be a problem for me,” he says. I clarify that I rather mean his less-experienced companions…
“If they have a hard time, I will go a little bit slower, but we have to do it in one day, so we can’t go at 20k an hour… otherwise it may be dark before we reach the finish.”
The final entry on the group’s itinerary – no, I’m not at liberty to divulge – reads simply “6pm: Party Hard”. They’ll have earned it.