Words can't describe how much I love 'de Ronde'. It encapsulates everything great about our sport, passion, grit, determination, tactics, history, all the ingredients that serve to make it a true monument.
The build up in itself is incredible, the biggest day of the year in Belgium, a national event known and supported by what seems like the entire population. Classics riders start training in November thinking about this race. Training camps, early season stage races, all the sacrifices for months on end are all with the aim of reaching peak form at the start of April. The build up in Belgium starts with Dwars Door Vlaanderen 10 days before the Ronde, quickly followed by E3 Prijs Waregem, Gent Wevelgem and Driedaagse de Panne. Barring Gent Wevelgem, all these races cover some of the climbs and cobbled roads that will be faced by the riders this Sunday. Media coverage in Belgium goes into a frenzy over the final week leading up to the race, it's all over the television and newspapers (even the front pages) as they trawl back through the archives, and speculate on the form of this years competitors. Unlike other races in other countries, the average person in the street has an appreciation and knowledge of the event and it's history, if you are a rider in the race, you immediately become a hero.
My love affair with the race began in the late 90's when I first started road racing. I distinctly remember leaving my house to go training at the same time that the riders were setting off in Brugge. 4 hours later I returned, tired from what seemed like a long and hard ride. I slumped in the sofa and watched in awe as the hard men of the north faced a further 3 hours in saddle, the hardest and fastest part of the race over brutal cobbled climbs and exposed windy roads. Museeuw and Tchmil were my heroes, for me they defined power and endurance, I couldn't believe the speed they climbed the 'Muur' and Bosberg after 230km, it was like another world.
From that moment on, my aim in life was to one day race the Tour of Flanders. If I'm honest, I never truly believed it would happen. In some ways, the closer I got, the further away it seemed. When I started to rub shoulders with some of the pro's at smaller races in Belgium, the speed was a shock, and I knew full well it would be another level entirely at the Ronde, the biggest race of the year for Belgian riders and fans.
In 2009, thirteen years after I started watching the race, I found myself on the Cervelo team bus heading from our hotel in Gent to the start line in Brugge. Nervous? That doesn't really begin to describe how I was feeling. The whole day was everything I had hoped for and more. The short ride from the team buses to the sign on was lined with 1000's of people, and the main square was packed with fans watching as riders signed on and got interviewed on the elevated stage. I had goose bumps as I rode up the ramp to sign on, the atmosphere was out of this world, and I'd recommend any cycling fan to go there at least once.
160km later, between the Patersberg and Koppenberg, I attacked, riding away in a group with Chavanel, Hoste, Quinziato and a couple of others. I felt like I was in a dream, I almost had to pinch myself to make sure it was true. The noise up the Koppenberg was insane, thousands of fans who'd been waiting patiently for the leading riders to come through all shouting at the top of their voices. At the same time, through all the noise, I could still pick out the (few!) British fans that recognised me and shouted my name.
The break seemed to last forever, but in fact it was only around 40km, before Chavanel showed he was a class above me and attacked on the Berendries, I simply didn't have the legs to follow. Down the other side, I was caught by the steam train that was Stijn Devolder that day, with Boonen (his team mate at the time) and Pozzato on his wheel. Eventually, what was left of the bunch caught us, my legs were completely shot. I did what I could for Thor and Heinrich, but I had nothing left for the Muur, and ended up riding to the finish line with team mate Gabriel Rasch. Devolder was too strong for everyone that day, riding solo to victory, whilst Heinrich got 2nd place. I finished anonymously in 45th, but the day will remain in my mind forever, my dream had come true and it was everything I had ever hoped for, and more.
This years Ronde, as everyone knows, has made a break from tradition, and will finish in Oudenaarde after three incredibly hard laps which incorporate the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg cobbled climbs. More than ever, the strongest should prevail, and there has been speculation that we could see fewer finishers and large time gaps at the finish. However, the peloton will be afraid of what awaits them, so there is the possibility of some negative racing in the early stages whilst everyone saves themselves for the final circuits.
Omega Pharma – Quick Step have been the strongest classics team in 2012, having won all four of the warm up races in the last 10 days, so the onus will be on them to control their home race. Boonen is the obvious leader, but with Chavanel and Terpstra showing some fantastic form, they have a number of cards to play. Cancellara is the other hot favourite, and the harder nature of the parcours will likely play into his hands. However, there are sure to be one or two surprises - luck, team tactics and the sheer distance will all play their part in what will be a fascinating race. One thing is for sure, despite the fact that I am not racing there this year, I will be glued to the TV on Sunday.