Finally the day of days has arrived. The first Sunday in April in Bruges is one of the great occasions on the cycling calendar, and the 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders set out from beneath the city’s famous belfry amid all of the usual excitement.
It has been a trying couple of weeks for Belgium and for cycling, though the anticipated increase in security measures did little to diminish the size of the crowd that descended upon the start.
There was a sombre moment when the Wanty-Groupe Gobert team arrived to sign on. The riders were returning to action for the first time since their teammate Antoine Demoitié was tragically killed in a crash at Gent-Wevelgem last week, and they took to the podium wearing t-shirts bearing an image of their late companion.
A minute’s silence in memory of Demoitié was impeccably observed on Bruges’ normally raucous market square, before the crowd broke into warm applause. “It’s been a hard week. We can’t change things but we have to go on,” Marco Marcato said. “We know we have someone extra up above. We’re competing with nine riders today, not eight. We’re riding for Antoine and his family.”
Away from the signing-on podium, UCI inspectors were carrying out controls for motors, with the Belga news agency later reporting that they had used iPads to scan the bikes of every rider in the peloton, as well as their spare bikes, but no anomalies had been detected.
The big favourite for the race is Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), lining out in the Ronde for the final time in his career. The Swiss rider is seeking to become the first man to win the race four times, and he hailed the multitudes from the signing-on podium.
“It’s pretty emotional to be standing here for the last time,” Cancellara said. “I will give all I have. I have nothing to lose.”
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) is, at least for the bookmakers, the man most likely to deny Cancellara the crown. The world champion was serenaded by the on-stage band, who sang his name to the air of ‘On Blueberry Hill’ (only Cancellara and Tom Boonen received the same honour). Sagan complimented the ditty, but he was coy about his prospects on Sunday.
“Yeah, these guys are good,” Sagan said, who was asked to describe the significance of winning the 100th edition of the Ronde. “We will see how I do. I don’t know what it would mean. It’s a race like all the other years. I don’t feel pressure.”
Geraint Thomas (Sky) is in Flanders for his first race on the cobbles this year, but his absence from last weekend’s Classics has done little to diminish his status as a contender. “I wasn’t doing anything today so I thought I’d start,” Thomas said. “I don’t know how I’ll go, but as long as the team wins, that’s the main thing. I’ll either play a supporting role or have a go myself.
Thomas’ teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, such an impressive winner of E3 Harelbeke, pointed to Cancellara as the man to beat. “He seems the strongest, he’s the biggest favourite,” he said.
Last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) admitted that he was unsure of his chances this afternoon after he missed Gent-Wevelgem through illness last weekend, though his win on the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne suggested he would not be unduly affected. “I was sick last week. Sure, I won a stage in De Panne, but a lot of these guys weren’t there,” he said.
As ever at the Tour of Flanders, however, the biggest cheers of all were reserved for Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep). The three-time winner has been short of his best this season and lines out in the unfamiliar guise as outsider, but nothing, it seems, could ever diminish standing of ‘Tommeke’ among his people.
“We'll talk about that in a few weeks’ time,” Boonen said, when asked if this would be his final appearance in the Tour of Flanders. “That’s something for you to guess and for me to know. I like the fact that the sun is out. It means the race will be harder as the speed remains high.”
On his form, meanwhile, Boonen knows that words count for little on the first Sunday of April. “I'm good,” he said. “Now we'll see if I'm good enough.”