The Racer - Flanders Extract - Part I

The Racer - Flanders Extract - Part I

To celebrate the Tour of Flanders we'll be running three excerpts from The Racer about the great race. The book focuses on the 2014 season but thanks to the legend that is Graham Watson, we've been given a hand-selected set of images from the last 40 years to bring these stories to life. Graham's ability to bring life to a race from a still image are unrivalled and we're incredibly grateful for him sharing his archive with us. You can visit Graham's site to browse more incredible stills or even buy yourself a print.

See more of Graham Watson's photography.

There’s Nothing Quite Like Racing in Flanders 

The first two Classics of the year are Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne– Brussels–Kuurne. They’re the first test for all the one-day specialists whose principal goals still remain a month away. The same guys whom I’d perceived to be trying to kill each other in Qatar all those years ago were actually just sparring in preparation for this opening weekend a few weeks later.

The races are mostly held in the Flanders region of Belgium. They do, on occasion, find themselves further afield, yet are still referred to as Flandrian in style. These are a particular type of race; they involve cobbles, small country lanes, steep hills, bad weather, muddy roads and about 342,105 corners. All one-day racers dream of one day being referred to as a Flandrian. This means you’re one of the hard bastards who excels on that terrain.

The essentials of the Flandrian calendar are:

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne

Dwars door Vlaanderen E3 Harelbeke Gent–Wevelgem

Three Days of De Panne

Tour of Flanders aka Ronde van Vlaanderen Paris–Roubaix

Some professionals will base their whole season on this racing block alone – these are the proven and recognised Flandrians. Once Roubaix is completed in mid-April they will effectively end their season; they’ll keep racing, but with none of the impetus, aggression or motivation that they showed from Qatar to Roubaix. Those of us who stage race through the summer find their lacka- daisical behaviour for the rest of the year near incomprehensible. It’s as if they’re in hibernation until they arrive on that start line in Qatar in January, ready to begin their annual three-month crazy- batshit phase.


The Flanders specialists seem to enjoy bad conditions; they have a skip in their step and a sparkle in their eyes when they wake up the morning of one of their beloved races and see wind and rain. Their enthusiasm for those six weeks of the year is uncontrollable and made all the more annoying by the fact you know that once Roubaix is done and dusted they’re going to spend most of the rest of the season whinging about every- thing when everybody else has to keep their head in the game. It’s clear their season’s worth of mental energy burns brightly, and violently, for a very short period of time. The rest of us have to spread it out till October – we don’t really stand a chance on their terrain. There are a few of those mad bastards who can spread it out through a whole racing season, but they’re rare beasts, certainly not the norm.

I’ve grown to love the Classics. After spending so many years repeating the same races, season after season, it was a joy in 2010 to find myself thrown in among the Flandrians. I won the Three Days of De Panne and was racing the finale of Tour of Flanders with the favourites, something I had never thought I’d be doing. I discovered too late what I was maybe most suited to. Of course, the problem was my disdain for winters, which meant that truly I was never meant to be a Classics rider, no matter appearances.

There is nothing quite like racing in Flanders. I do believe it is the home of professional cycling. The atmosphere is unique – the enthusiasm the locals have is contagious. I get the impression that little has changed in decades; the fans are from all ages and backgrounds, and the races themselves are as chaotic and nonsen- sical as cycling. It beggars belief how it’s possible to organise and marshal a Flanders race, for they go round in circles, figures of eight, back and forth. To quote Churchill, they’re like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

In order to be a specialist Classics rider it is not enough simply to have the right genetics and work ethic, and hit the right numbers in training then turn up as a contender – you have to know the roads intimately, much like a London taxi driver must possess the Knowledge. And not only do you have to be familiar with the route – you must be aware of every road that leads to and from it, the corners and turns, the cobbles and climbs. Each year the races will use these roads in slightly different combinations, and being able to know exactly where you’re going next is a key ingredient to success.

For the uneducated, you will feel like you are trapped in a labyrinth, all sense of direction lost and absolutely no idea where you are in relation to where you have been or where you are going. You won’t understand why all of a sudden everybody is racing like a maniac at what appears to be a random moment in the race, far from the finish. Then you’ll see the lead cars and motorbikes far ahead veer to the left on to a single-track country lane, the front riders will follow close behind, sprinting out of the same corner in a scattered single file . . . while you’re still braking in a densely packed bunch that feels miles behind. You may as well not be in the same race. That is what racing in Flanders is like.

Het Nieuwsblad this year lives up to its reputation: the weather is atrocious, barely going above five degrees all day and raining the last two hours. In these conditions there is very little you can do to prevent yourself getting cold – well, there is: you can wear a big jacket, but then you’ll be dropped because the terrible aerodynamics will slow you down too much. I am far from setting the world on fire but manage to complete my assigned job and continue on to finish, which, considering the conditions, I am satisfied with. Ian Stannard of Team Sky, and a Brit no less, wins it, in the process becoming the latest pro to earn himself the moniker ‘Flandrian’ – something that Ian has always dreamt of the way others dream of winning the Tour de France.

The next day is Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne. Although I’ve done Het Nieuwsblad in the past I have never doubled up and done Kuurne, too. I don’t really know what to expect. In the end it’s anti-climactic, as our leader for the race, Tyler Farrar, is involved in a crash and I am the man to get him back on, which involves a ten-kilometre chase back to the peloton to drop him off just before a key moment in the race, meaning my race is over. This isn’t ideal, but it is often my job to fix things that go wrong for our leaders, and frequently that means sacrificing my own race in order to save theirs.