Ronde van Vlaanderen 2022: Flemish at Heart

(Text: Victor Morozov)

The absurdity of watching a cycling race by the road can only be grasped after the passage of the last rider. How long did it take? Twenty seconds, maybe. Then they are gone: a moving tapestry of flashy colours, lines, and dots disappearing around the corner. All you have left – for evidence – is perhaps a shaky video or a blurry photo and, in any case, the sensation of being sandwiched against the protection fence by those whom you suddenly feel a kinship with. The crowd quickly disperses, each one going his or her way. What was that all about? A question not to be asked on such occasions; for with road cycling, as with love, we tend to be driven by passion, acting irrationally in search of the mythical precise moment.

I once read a wonderful essay of “cinephile semiology” by film theorist Patrice Blouin, where he stated, in regards to the Tour de France, that “[t]he open field spectator pays for his amateurism with the high price of frustration: hours of waiting for a lightning passage.” This is certainly true in most cases of professional road cycling – as opposed to the “mountain spectator”, who “benefits from a natural effect of slow-motion” –, but not for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. As I was quick to discover by myself, the appeal of the Flemish sea level, with its picturesque small towns and crowded pubs and this well-known desire for cycling – as spectacle, praxis, topic of conversation – is not something you can shrug off without an effort. That’s how I ended up spending the afternoon in Oudenaarde, the finishing location of the race, although I originally meant to reach Koppenberg, one of the decisive climbs of the course. But the prospect of a Kwaremont (6,6%) – the beer, obviously, not the homonymous climb – to be sipped amongst the locals, and the shiny showcase of the De ronde store – a Parthenope of sorts for cycling consumerism – took the better of my intentions to head uphill.

Now, I have to say that back in October 2021, when I watched the Paris-Roubaix finale on the famous velodrome, soaking wet as I was from hours spent in the stubborn rain of the Nord, I realized that these on-site experiences could serve – if certain conditions were met – as pipes filled with sheer emotion flowing in your direction. These conditions, of course, come together under the ideal of a beautiful race, whatever that means. Beautiful, this year’s Ronde surely was. I could already see it coming some hours earlier when, overlooking the fully packed Grote Markt in Antwerp, Florian Vermeersch of Lotto-Soudal blew a ram horn (!) and was answered by his teammates’ haka-like celebration, quickly adopted by the crowd. Yet it’s not the entertainment sequence per se that interests me, nor its charismatic host, Victor Campenaerts, whom I hoped to see up front at the end but didn’t; it’s this simple gesture by which Vermeersch put his horn into his back pocket with a matter-of-fact pose, as if the textile feature had been conceived for this purpose all along.

With the horn placed where gels and bars are usually kept, Vermeersch drove his team off-stage, concluding a moment of interactivity which otherwise contrasted with a monotonous series of riders taking a smooth right turn, waving their hand, then going away. For all its resemblance of principle with televised cycling – the same landscape (open field), gesture (pedaling) and visual shape (peloton) for hours – this presentation could only underline the massive, almost shocking dichotomy between the rider as showman (or, in any case, homme de parole) and the rider as athlete. It was not these fundamental platitudes – “amazing spectators”, “I love this race”, “glad to be here” – which everyone kept saying over and over, amounting to a hypnotizing show of excess, that ultimately intrigued me. It was the superimposition between, say, Pogačar receiving a huge bottle of champagne, and the same Pogačar dominating all the climbs that did, as it lingered in my mind throughout the day in the form of an irreducible montage.

The presentation was more than just glamorous show – it was also a ghostly ceremony, as the name of Wout van Aert, the absent VIP of the race, landed on everyone’s lips, either in dismay or in relief. Yet the men contending for the cobble prize this year seemed determined to outlive his shadow. They rode with particular generosity towards energy waste. Pogačar – who else? – proved capable of changing the rules of the game by himself, storming past the peloton as if on an electric bike. Only Kasper Asgreen, for a brief period, and Mathieu Van der Poel, the revenant, were able to respond. Yet it all got out of hand in the last few hundred meters, after what looked like a perfect collaboration between the two leaders, who controlled the last 30 kilometers at a steady pace. But after all this effort, so intense it made everyone in Oudenaarde’s central square keep silent in awe, Pogačar tried to play it safe: the gratuitous gesture turned into selfishness. It doesn’t take more to invoke the wrath of the gods of cycling. There was this incredible moment when, thanks to the frontal video camera, all notions of perspective became ineffective, and it was suddenly unclear whether the two in front were within reach for the two men who set off in pursuit. As it turned out, the gap had indeed closed in – so much so that Pogačar found himself in the unlikely position of losing both a massive sprint and a tight breakaway. De Ronde was actually testing hybrid vehicles in its own way.

The image of the day was not, however, the one with Pogačar raising his arms in deep frustration, although it did occur almost simultaneously. Indeed, one could make out the silhouette of a man jumping beyond the protection fence and advancing down the road just as the remaining carré des as was sprinting for victory. And if this act became an image, it was not by means of recklessness – what’s this compared to the woman who caused the crash of the entire peloton on the last Tour de France? – but through a sort of poetic reverse shot to the actual race. Of course, the message that was displayed in big capital letters on this man’s chest – CLIMATE JUSTICE NOW – was no news in itself, and it would have probably gone unnoticed in the vicinity of a Formula 1 pit-stop. Yet demanding climate change awareness behind the non-motorized wheels of Van der Poel and the likes suddenly seemed to call for an in-depth examination. This person clearly belonged to another scenario of De Ronde. But he somehow participated in the same global movement of discarding utopias that we experience everywhere now. His message alluded to the end of the dream: we were to go back into the real world, with its wars and its diseases. It was painful, like light bursting into the movie theater at the end of an old classic. Eating a cone of French fries on a pub terrace in Oudenaarde, trying to catch a glimpse of the action as it unfolded on a small TV screen that was obstructed by fans moving all around, I suddenly had the vision of a fleeting moment of beauty that blossomed in the midst of chaos.