Tales from the peloton, July 9, 2007
It has been nearly 50 years since the Tour de France visited Gent, Belgium. As the French race prepares to head across into Flemish territory today, Bjorn Haake wandered outside of Cyclingnews' European headquarters to discover a city awaiting its Grand Tour return.
Later today the Tour de France will make its third ever finish in the centre of Flandrian bike culture, Gent, Belgium. The famed Grand Tour finished in the historic town for the first time in 1951, when Luxembourger Jean Diederich soloed in for victory, over two minutes ahead of local rider Stan Ockers. Seven years later, the Belgians were again deprived of a home town victor, when Frenchman André Darrigade beat home Belgians Jos Hoevenaars and Jozef (Jef) Planckaert. The latter recently passed away and will be honoured when the prestigious French race returns for only the third time today.
Nestled in the heart of Oost Vlaanderen, Gent is just a short spin down the bike path from major spring race routes like the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Het Volk and Gent-Wevelgem. The area is host to dozens of kermeses, cyclo-cross races and track events as well, making the city a sort of Mecca for cycling fans and racers alike. Throngs of spectators are expected to line the roads along the route, which runs from Dunkirk via Oostende, the famous coastal city with ferry service to England, to the likely sprint finish on the Boulevard Charles de Kerchovelaan.
Wim Vandendriessche, head of the Department of City Promotion & Sports, points out that the Tour organizers looked at three potential spots for the finish line, but the one chosen has the advantage of being straight for some 670 metres before kinking uphill towards the line. The wide boulevard should make for a fair sprint as native locals like Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic) go head-to-head with other star riders that call the nation 'home', including Stage 1 victor Robbie McEwen.
Gent has been preparing for its first Tour de France appearance in nearly 50 years for some time, with the local area abuzz in Tour themes. Of course, with the world's biggest stage race coming to town, the majority of shops throughout Gent feature Tour-centric window displays. Bookshops have special Tour sections stocked full of literature about Le Tour and other races, as well as biographies of famous racers on display, while wine shops are using the event to promote the finest of their French collections.
One place in Gent is home to the perfect Tour display: classic racing bicycles. Plum, both a bike shop and bicycle museum, is usually filled with two-wheeled contraptions of the late 1800s vintage, but this past week has loaned part of its collection to a shopping mall near City Hall to help spread Tour-fever amongst the locals in the lead up to today's finish. "That's why our museum is a bit empty right now," explained Plum co-owner Pierre, adding that they've loaned bikes out to a variety of other stores as well.
Originally called Plume Vainqueur, which translates to 'feather winner' (the e was dropped over time to give the shop its unusual name), the shop's basement museum is a popular stopping point for cycling tourists. "After Tom Boonen wins the stage into Gent, we will have many customers come in," joked an optimistic Pierre. Unfortunately for the store's employees they will miss the Tour's arrival, as its all hands on deck for an anticipated influx in tourists today.
The 150,000 Euro payment to host Stage 2 is well-spent money according to Vandendriessche, who sees three major benefits for Gent. "Besides the promotion of the city, especially with the usual helicopter shots after the stage has ended," he explained, "people in Flanders love cycling, and it also helps mobilize enterprises in the area. I think we can have a couple of hundred thousand people at the finish."
Pierre is also hoping for a big boost. "I hope it brings us on the map," he said. "Many people don't even know Gent; some international people don't even know Belgium. I am proud of my country and I hope this will get us some exposure."
The city of Gent began pursuing ASO some 18 months ago to bring its hallmark event to the neighborhood. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt even put his weight behind Gent's bit, helping seal the deal at last year's Tour when its Stage 4 set out from neighboring Belgian city Huy. "We succeeded thanks to our major assets, like for instance our location within Europe and our splendid reputation as a city of knowledge, culture and sports," said the city's mayor Daniël Termont.
Gent worked closely with the province of Oost Vlaanderen, headed by Governor André Denys, to ensure its bid was successful. The tight collaboration between local, regional and federal level ensured the process played out smoothly. "We formed a temporary non-profit organisation," explained Termont, revealing the amount of work that went on behind the scenes. "The Governor and I met with the executive team every Monday morning for a breakfast meeting."
Vandendriessche, who commutes 25 kilometres by bicycle to work during the drier season, is also keen on seeing Boonen taking a home country win. "Although, I also like Robbie McEwen," he confessed. "He lives here in Oost Vlaanderen."
Gent is a city of bicycles, with many one-way streets open for two-wheelers in both directions. In addition to the large professional population that reside in and around the city, many of its cyclists are students who rely on a cheap, standard yellow bikes that can be purchased for very little money.
As the clock finally winds down, today is a big day for Vandendriessche and his nine-women team. Vandendriessche will meet with volunteers at his office around 6:30 this morning. There, final instruction will be given ahead of the race, but the crew is well-oiled and have a lot of event management experience. "We don't have to look for volunteers for something like the Tour," explained Vandendriessche. "We have a pool of people that we can rely on and it is really important, as they know what to do."
The majority of people required to put on the show deal with traffic closures, something where his staff's experience really comes in handy. The tasks range from calming motorists, who are usually not happy about detours or traffic jams, to giving out information to the curious and, of course, controlling the crowd as the peloton blasts into the city at some 50 km/h.
The mayor knows his city's people know how to put on a big show, citing another of its star attractions as an example. "People will no doubt have heard of our famous Gent Festivities, an annual and free event that attracts some 1.8 million people in ten days," he said.
Termont is just one example of how Belgians endorse bicycling. The mayor started riding at age three and still goes out on the bicycle "to relax or to go from one meeting to another during the summer". Like many Belgians he is also enthusiastic about professional cycling, next to football. Termont, like most of Gent, seems to be stacking its hopes for today's stage on a certain sprinter. "My favourite rider today is Tom Boonen," he explained. "Sheer A class, that young athlete."
Termont's day will start in the finishing area from six o'clock this morning. There he will be in touch with the organisers, the Police and Fire department and checking out the safety measures. He will also be keeping informed on events the city has organised at Saint-Peter's Square, before moving to the grandstand to see the moment his organisation has work so hard for over the past 18 months: the peloton's arrival. "We want to see some bike racing in the afternoon," smiled Vandendriessche, who will also be in the stand.
At last, the pair will be rewarded for months of hard work.