An attempt at normality in the wake of unspeakable atrocity. A day after terrorist attacks just 100 kilometres away in Brussels left 31 people dead, the professional peloton assembled in Roeselare on Wednesday morning for the start of Dwars door Vlaanderen.
It is usually one of the most boisterous occasions of the season, heralding as it does the beginning of the fevered countdown to the Tour of Flanders. For the ten days that follow, the eyes of the cycling world seem to be trained solely on this postage stamp of cobbles and hills.
For rather more doleful reasons, the eyes of the world at large are trained on Belgium right now. With the country at its maximum terror threat level of four, the early expectation was that Dwars door Vlaanderen would be cancelled, but on Tuesday evening, director Guy Delesie announced that the race would continue as planned.
And so on Wednesday morning, albeit with heavy hearts, thousands of fans poured into Roeselare to do what they always do in the last week of March in this part of the world: watch a bike race. For some, it was perhaps an act of defiance. For many more, it was a simple but no less important attempt at bringing some order and routine to a moment of anxiety and chaos.
“Just because we are racing today, it doesn’t mean that our thoughts aren’t with the victims,” Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) said after he signed on, and the reminders were all around him.
As a mark of respect to the victims, the usual team presentation was not held in the main square. There was no music blaring over the public address system and there were no jovial interviews with speaker Michel Wuyts on the podium. A number of teams, including Orica-GreenEdge and Tinkoff, wore black armbands in memory of the dead.
The throngs in Roeselare – a little smaller than normal, perhaps, but only by a fraction – watched on in a rather more muted atmosphere. Etixx-QuickStep fans and staff still stopped for a coffee at the Guillaume Van Keirsbulck fan club bar off the main square, for instance, but the general mood was subdued.
“You can feel the sadness in the air here,” 2013 winner Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff) told Cyclingnews. “But I think it’s only right that we’re racing, to try to overcome this sad moment as best we can.”
Gatto’s fellow countryman Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) had only arrived at his hotel at 1 a.m. the previous night, as he was forced to fly into Charleroi after his earlier flight to Brussels was cancelled.
“I slept a bit less than normal but that won’t change much for me today. It’s not a problem,” Nizzolo told Cyclingnews, mindful, like all of his colleagues, of the bigger picture. “We’re used to racing in a festive atmosphere in Belgium, so it’s certainly very different, very sad. I think the best argument for racing today was to show that we’re not going to let ourselves be intimidated.”
Filippo Pozzato (Southeast-Venezuela) has been racing in Belgium for more than 15 years. “They told us it was possible to race today and we put our trust in the authorities that it’s safe to do so,” he said as he lined up for the start. “But there’s certainly an unusual atmosphere today, it’s different to what you expect in Belgium.”
Youngsters Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) summed up the macabre position in which they found themselves. With a nation in mourning, lining up for something as frivolous as a bike race felt odd.
“Of course I want to race, but it is really hard. Cycling is a nice sport and it should be fun but with what happened yesterday it is hard to have fun,” Hofland said.
“It feels weird to race here, but the sportsman in me is pleased to be able to continue his season here,” Benoot said.
A minute’s silence was held before the neutralised start in Roeselare and after pedalling out of town, the peloton stopped once again to honour the victims ahead of the official start. At twelve noon, the riders of Dwars door Vlaanderen joined with the rest of Belgium by bowing their heads and observing the nationwide minute of silence.
And then they set off, beneath leaden, grey skies, for four hours of racing through the rain and the cold of the Flemish Ardennes, before looping back towards Waregem.
At times like this, it is trite to overstate the importance of sport and its place in the grander scheme of things. But even so, there will be few hearts along the roadside that won’t have been gladdened by the sight of the peloton flashing past on Wednesday afternoon, a welcome glimmer of brightness on a dark day.