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.

Paris-Nice 2022 in a bouquet of highlights (and a bonus)

Text: Victor Morozov

The medium

Cycling was not made for Video on demand. The temptation to skim through the race is too strong, as if denying, through a click, half a century of efforts to take hold of the spectator. Yet perhaps, by diving through the images of races as freely as possible, as I did in the course of the last week, we somehow reach the essence of the cycling event as it was when it all started: loose impressions, bits and pieces. Some glimpses you picked from the newspaper, via majestic thrills that only the purest literature – the one written by storytellers dreaming of epic heroes – can ever produce. Others you glimpsed by the road – the dusty, sloppy road that cut through the fields–, but only if you had it in you, this understanding of the inhuman pain that cycling seemed to stem from. With the arrival of VoD, one no longer depends – as far as cycling matters go – on the unique truth of television (the live broadcast), nor on the unique truth of old-school journalism (the sports column of the morning after). Following years and years of relevance achieved by maintaining an insurmountable gap between those who had access to the race itself, and those who didn’t, is this sport about to lose its media soul, after losing its popular one? Caution is advised. For ultimately, what the erratic mode of VoD watching has to teach us is hardly news: namely, that the fragment, taken out of context, is for show, while the essence of this sport, its unflinching capacity to amaze us, comes from duration. Montage interdit, as a famous film critic wrote.


These days, Slovenian Primož Roglič is a familiar view in yellow (or red), yet he doesn’t seem to be made from the same implacable material as some older (Coppi, Merckx) or younger (Pogačar) champions we’ve seen. Indeed, you never know with Roglič, and this doubt, this permanent possibility of fallacy, is what makes him so likeable. Roglič does not compete often – few ticks on his calendar –, and, of course, he always sets out to win. But he still gives the impression that each race is a stage too long. (Or too short: perhaps one of the finest moments in cycling from last year was the Olympic time trial race in Tokyo, when he maintained his maddening pace well beyond the finish line – he had won gold –, in a trancelike pose.) This last-minute improvisation from Roglič turns him not only into a sympathetic character – somehow similar to you and me –, but also into a finer showman than average. It’s as if, unlike Pogačar, who has already made it clear he has no regards for the notion of suspense, Roglič was there to make sure it all comes down to the last kilometer.

Bibliophile intermezzo

In the past few years, Guillaume Martin from Cofidis became famous not only as the highest ranking Frenchman on the general classification of the Tour de France (9th of the last edition), but also because he seems particularly adroit with words. At the end of the ITT stage in Paris-Nice this year, he found himself on the podium. Not in his cyclist capacity though, since he only took 57th – “a performance within the usual standards of the discipline”, as he said –, but as a writer for his (already!) second book, „La Société du peloton“.

A man of his words

Back to sport and, to our man Roglič. Because unlike Martin, who has been nicknamed “le vélosophe du peloton”, the Slovenian is much less a spender with his ideas. Understandably, not everyone can match Patrick Lefevere, the ultra-charismatic cycling manager. Yet watching this man talk – and keeping in mind that English might be a barrier –, one cannot help but remember those brilliant athletes whose craft, and indeed artistry, were so intense that they bore no possibility of being put into words. After taking the yellow jersey from Wout van Aert during stage 5, Roglič praised teammate Rohan Dennis as “half human, half motor”. Cut to three days later, after he secured the overall lead in Paris-Nice, and there he is again, describing van Aert with the exact same words about a motorized centaur. He should, however, pay closer attention to his metaphors: there have to be better ways to describe such wonderful a team play than this quasi-Freudian slip. The UCI is known for taking things literally.

From Roglič & Co. to BikeExchange-Jayco

All in all, it was a strange race. There lay an emptiness at its core, with the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine and the not-so-distant horizon of death being inscribed directly into its course of events. The roads felt ghostly as only 59 riders got to the finish line, and the Course au soleil turned into a rainy battle towards the closest hot shower. The flu took out many riders. For the AG2R-Citroën Team alone, Ben O’Connor, Clément Champoussin, Stan Dewulf, Oliver Naesen and Damien Touzé had to abandon, turning the remaining crew into a fragile duo. This only reduced the stakes to around a handful of contenders. After two full stage podiums for Jumbo-Visma, finishing in yellow was still no formality for Roglič, as he barely dodged a well-coordinated attack from Simon Yates on the last climb. It all got quite emotional after Wout van Aert, the homme à tout faire, dragged his struggling team leader beyond the Col d’Èze and onto the finish line. As always with van Aert, cycling’s tension between the individual and the collective was once more put to the test.

Bonus from the Tirreno-Adriatico

At the same time, on the sunnier and more populated Italian roads, another battle was being fought, with perplexing results. It concerned the most impressive young riders out there: Remco Evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard, and, of course, Tadej Pogačar. They were on the attack. They were cruising past everyone else. And then they missed a turn and found themselves off track. A rare moment of truth, reminiscent of an era of unmarked roads, so unbelievable it happened off-camera. For Evenepoel, the last one from the trio to realize the mistake, it was a fatal blow. He was going so fast all landmarks disappeared into a blur.

Somersault on the Moon – Notes on Strade Bianche 2022

(Text: Patrick Holzapfel)

The fancy signs of wineries – tellingly written in perfect English – on the side of the eponymous white roads across the Crete Senesi, a beautiful landscape in Tuscany transformed by humans over centuries, must have looked as if they were put up in defiance of the dust covered bodies and bicycles racing past them in what has become the most attractive one-day race in professional cycling next to Paris-Roubaix. No wine in the world, not even the famous Chianti produced alongside the route, could ease the pain of the riders participating in Strade Bianche. However, their reward is a narration embedded as thickly in myth as the modern world can possibly accept. The word hero grows as close to these roads as the rows of cypress trees – the race was even founded as a L’Eroica. The reporters there refer to the natural elements as if they were some Homeric mischief brought to the mortals by gods; they speak and write of eternity as if that’s all we aim for when pedaling towards our own exhaustion; their sounds of awe are accompanied by the frenzied excitement of the people standing on the side of the road like lost markers of forgotten civilizations. Those visitors from the real world – some of them looking surprised as if the race passed their gardens without warning – wear jackets and sunglasses to protect themselves from the dust whirling through the air (we know the metaphoric of dust), and even a frightened horse has to watch in panic as the caravan thunders past its once-so-quiet refugio at the foot of a rolling clay hill.

Cycling’s hunger for legend and archaic experiences is almost ridiculous, but it is also the most romantic justification for the absurd task of trying to ride your bike faster than everybody else. In the case of Strade Bianche, make no mistake about it, this hunger is a calculation. As opposed to other great races, this one comes with next to no history. It was only in 2007 that the race became a fixture in the international calendar of professional cyclists, and though there have been some remarkable editions in those fifteen years, it’s hard to compare them to the century old stories of steel bikes other races come along with. The race is built on nostalgia for a certain type of racing which is very hard to find in modern cycling; racing without being able to calculate. It leads uphill and downhill over kilometers of gravel roads (which make up more than a third of the total route), small streets and finishes after a narrow and steep climb up Via Santa Caterina on Piazza del Campo in picturesque Siena.

In this sense the Strade Bianche might be one of the few events in public sports in which we can see a successful attempt at historical preservation. While the interests of money and power subvert most attempts in other occasions (for example in football or the Tour de France), the rather naive and passionate desire for legend gives Strade Bianche an air of history in the making. It helps when the riders are reminiscent of what was once referred to as heroes, like in the edition of 2022.

It’s true that observing cycling races on television comes with a lot of patience, which is a euphemism for boredom. This is not the case with Strade Bianche. The first image of the men’s race we could see this year was a somersault on the moon. In a horrible crash caused by gusting winds, almost half of the riders fell down on the grey-blue, lunar-like soil. One of the them was World Champion Julian Alaphilippe, a favourite who loves the cameras and didn’t disappoint them with a spectacular salto off his bike. Later, he would pay the price for his crash as he strained to catch up to the other favourites through heavy headwind. He couldn’t keep up with the best rider on that day but then, nobody could.

Right behind Alaphilippe, a certain Tadej Pogačar fell less spectacularly but – undoubtedly – with a smile on his lips. This smile is hard to explain. There is a lot that is hard to explain. In cycling, we’ve learned that whenever something is hard to explain, it’s probably a cause for doubt. Pogačar is a 23 year old, two time winner of the Tour de France. He also won the Il Lombardia and Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2021. Actually, it seems as if he wins whenever he wants to on whatever terrain. The only rider comparable to him in the history of cycling is Eddy Merckx, the cannibal, who is referred to as the greatest of all time. Pogačar, who looks like an enthusiastic schoolboy, is a force of nature, and the perfect winner for this race. He didn’t only win it, he attacked around 50 (!) kilometres before the finish line and managed to go all the way without any help, leaving the bunch of world-class chasers no chance. Such an effort is what journalists refer to as epic.

In the past couple of years five riders and three teams have taken control in the world of cycling and released it from the cold, data-driven, robot-like bureaucracy dominating the sport for a decade with champions like Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins or Geraint Thomas. These riders are Pogačar, Wout Van Aert, Mathieu Van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Primož Roglič. All of them risk losing in order to win. They ride not only for records but for glory. Four of those five have now won the Strade Bianche in the last four years. That’s no coincidence. In them glows the very same desire and nostalgia as in the race itself. Their style is more daring, wilder, more erratic than anything we’ve seen in this sport in the last thirty years (with honourable exceptions like Marco Pantani or Alberto Contador). Embedded in tradition as they are (Van der Poel is even the grandchild of the great Raymond Poulidor) we basically already know – because such is the history of this sport – that they will fall at some point. However, they will fall in style just as Alaphilippe demonstrated, and to witness their fall and possible resurrection might just be another cause for beautiful legends carrying eternity across time.

Further remark: There is another type of a long fallen hero resurrected. His name is Alejandro Valverde. He will turn 42 years in April. It’s his last season. One should write a book about his career. He finished second. It’s not an overstatement that he is the real hero of this race. Like Pogačar he seemed to smile throughout the whole race. It’s sort of his trademark.

Smiling in pain. I find it hard to imagine that despite the pressure and the fierce competition involved these smiles do not display a love for the sport.

1 Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates 4:47:49
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:37
3 Kasper Asgreen (Den) Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team 0:00:46
4 Attila Valter (Hun) Groupama-FDJ 0:01:07
5 Pello Bilbao Lopez De Armentia (Spa) Bahrain Victorious 0:01:09
6 Jhonatan Narvaez Prado (Ecu) Ineos Grenadiers
7 Quinn Simmons (USA) Trek-Segafredo 0:01:21
8 Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal 0:01:25
9 Simone Petilli (Ita) Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux 0:01:35
10 Sergio Higuita Garcia (Col) Bora-Hansgrohe 0:01:53

Last hero to arrive in Siena:

87 Marijn van den Berg (Ned) EF Education-EasyPost 0:18:31