Tuesday 27 March 2012

Ronde van Vlaanderen Facts

Paul Deman, the first
ever winner
The first ever Ronde van Vlaanderen took place in 1913 and was won by Paul Deman. During the First World War, Deman became a covert espionage agent and used his bike to smuggle secret messages around the country after Germany invaded. In time, he was caught and imprisoned to await execution; but the war ended and he was freed. He went on to win Paris-Roubaix a year and a half later, then Paris-Tours in 1923.

27 riders turned up to race in 1913, and they were followed around the parcours by five cars. In 1914, 47 showed up: news of the race had spread, but French teams had banned their members from taking part. Organisers began to worry that they were doomed to failure. Fortunately, Alcyon's Belgian rider Marcel Buysse - winner of six stages and third place overall at the 1913 Tour de France - refused and went to the race anyway, winning it and vastly increasing its fame. Not long after it started up again in the wake of the First World War, the race was attracting 120 riders who would be followed by as many as 40 cars.

Like many races to have begun in the late 19th and early 20th Century (including the Tour de France), the Ronde was first organised to help increase sales of a newspaper - Sportwereld, edited by Karel van Wijnendaele (real name Carolus Ludovicus Steyaert).

Most races banned riders from receiving any help during races in the early part of the 20th Century, including the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Instead, they were expected to carry all spare parts, clothes and tools they might require with them - tyres were much thicker and heavier than they are today so that they could cope with the rough roads, but most riders would set out with at least two looped over their shoulders and their pockets stuffed with food, bike parts and anything they might need (which, since there were no effective anti-doping controls then, could include all sorts of exotic things).

The prizes on offer for the first edition added up to a total of 1,100 Belgian francs.

Van Wijnendaele was a Fleming and spoke Flemish. The fifth of fifteen children, raised alone by their mother after their father died, his childhood was desperately poor and after leaving school he went to find work carrying out jobs, deliveries and anything else available for the rich French-speaking Walloon families in Brussels. In those days, the Walloons thought of the Flemings as an uneducated underclass and he was treated appallingly by his employers. He tried his luck as a cyclist but soon discovered he wasn't good enough to make a living from it. Fortunately, although he had left school aged just 14, he'd studied hard and could write well; which allowed him to find work as a cycling reporter for a newspaper and became sufficiently respected for Sportwereld to ask him to join when it first started, and he was made editor less than four months later.

At first, spectator attendance at the race was so low that organisers were able to take a accurate estimate of figures by manually counting them as the race progressed. Gradually, after the First World War when Flanders began to be pieced back together, the Ronde became viewed as a symbol of Flemish identity, nationhood and pride - with a little encouragement from van Wijnendaele, of course, who was intensely proud of his Flemish heritage and hadn't forgotten how those Walloon familys had treated him. By the 1930s, large crowds would show up. This began to cause problems with the introduction of cheap cars, because due to the tightly looped nature of the parcours it became possible for them to see the race pass by several times provided they could drive from one point to the next quickly enough. The police had some limited involvement for the first time in 1933 and by 1937 they were an integral part of the race, controlling the crowds, protecting the public and riders and providing rolling road blocks as can be seen in a modern race. Since 1976, when the race had become a major international event and the start line was moved away from Ghent for the first time, the organisers have worked alongside police, other emergency services and local authorities for many months prior to each edition in order to make sure each one passes without serious incident.

In the early days, the Ronde was often held on the same day as the Milan-San Remo race in Italy. Back then, travel to Italy tended to involve either a dangerous trek on rough, unsurfaced roads through the bear-and-robber-infested Alps or a long and expensive sea voyage round the coast of France and Spain, then across the Mediterranean (air travel was becoming available, but was almost as dangerous as it was expensive). Thus, Italian riders tended to stay in Italy whereas the French had plenty of races of their own and stayed in France - which is why only one rider from outside Belgium, the Swiss Heiri Suter, ever won the the Ronde before the Second World War.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 1937
In 1935, rules were changed so that if a rider broke his frame or another non-repairable part of the bike, he could be supplied with a new one.

The race continued to be held right throughout the Second World War, the only Classic on Nazi-occupied soil to do so.

In order to keep going after Belgium had been overthrown, organisers needed the express permission of the Nazis. Permission was granted as it was felt important to encourage a sense of normality among the population, which helped prevent partisan actions. This caused problems after the War when organisers were accused of collaboration, especially when it was discovered that a few Nazi officers - presumably ones who enjoyed a bit of cycling in between committing crimes against humanity - had been directly involved in the race. Karel van Wijnendaele was found guilty and given a lifetime ban from working as a journalist, but turned to Britain for help and was completely exonerated when he was able to provide a letter from no less an authority than Field-Marshall Bernard Montgomery confirming that, while giving the impression of working with the Nazis, he had been sheltering British airmen in his house until they could be smuggled back over the North Sea to safety. Had he have been caught, he would almost certainly have been executed.

During the War, the race could no longer afford to give money as prizes. Instead, riders would compete for anything the organisers had been able to obtain - prizes ranged from cookers, cycling equipment, bottles of wine and razors.

After the War, van Wijnendaele agreed to change the date of the race so that it would no longer clash with Milan-San Remo and could become part of the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo, a season-long competition originally cooked up by the directors of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia in an effort to further drive sales of the newspapers they edited and of which Sportwereld and a fourth paper - Les Sports - would soon become enthusiastic parts. The Challenge would later become the UCI's World Tour - the race series that still includes the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the other Monuments.

Not everyone was convinced collaboration had not occurred, however - including, perhaps unsurprisingly, rival newspaper Het Volk. Seeing an opportunity to increase their own sales, Het Volk organised another race and hoped to polarise opinion, calling it the Omloop van Vlaanderen. In Flemish, omloop and ronde have an identical meaning, so Sportwereld started a legal case demanding Het Volk changed its race's name. The court found in favour, and the second race became the Omloop Het Volk. Years later, Sportwereld merged with another paper, Het Nieuwesblad - which, in 2008, took over Het Volk. The Omloop Het Volk became the Omloop Het Nieuwesblad and is still held each year in February and forms the opening race of the Flemish cycling season.

(image credit: LimoWreck CC BY-SA 3.0)
For a little while after the War, there was a craze for awarding prizes to the slowest riders. In 1949, the last four to finish were each given a bottle of massage oil. The year before, the last rider to arrive at Eeklo - hometown of many famous cyclists, including the de Vlaeminck brothers - was awarded 100 francs.

In addition to the tough climbs, the Ronde is famous for its cobbled sections. The most famous is Paddestraat, which has been a feature of every edition since 1973 with the exception of 1988 when it was being repaired. The name means Mushroom Street, and it forms part of an ancient Roman road.

Until 1976, the race always began in Ghent (though the exact location changed from the Korenmarkt to the St-Pieters station). In 1977 it moved to a different town entirely - Sint-Niklaas, which has a large market square more suited to the vast crowds that now show up to see the riders set off.

There is a monument to the Ronde on Paddestraat featuring a list of all the riders to have been first to the end of the street. Set into a circle at the top is a large, rough block of stone - an example of the pavé cobbles from which the road's surface is made.

(image credit: David Edgar CC BY-SA 3.0)
Koppenberg is one of the most famous climb in the race - the name means "heads mountain" because the large cobbles are said to resemble children's skulls. It was first used in 1976, then formed part of the race every year until 1987 when Dutch rider Jesper Skibby slipped, fell and came within inches of being run over by the race commissaire's car. Deemed too dangerous, it would be left out for the next 15 years until 2003 when it reappeared with a new, improved road surface. In the past, Koppenberg has been too far from the finish to decide who will win the race; but for 2012 the route has been redesigned to place it 60km from the finish line.

Koppenberg is also the steepest hill - if riders choose the inside line on the bend, they face a gradient of 25%. The outside line isn't much better at 22%. Often made damp and slippery by the high banks either side, few riders will make it to the top of the climb. Though reaching only 77m above sea level, it's one of the most feared hills in professional cycling.

Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen, the
women's race
(public domain)
Since 2004, there has also been a women's Ronde van Vlaanderen. In 2007 it was won by the British rider Nicole Cooke. In 2011 it was won by Dutch Annemiek van Vleuten.

When Henri van Lerberghe won in 1919, he did so in spectacular style. He was never a favourite because of his habit of riding too fast too early and tiring himself out before he could finish races, usually after warning opponents before the race began that he was going to "ride them to death" - which is how he got his nickname, The Death Rider of Lichtervelde. Then, a slight issue came up as he went to sign on with the race officials, who discovered that while he had clothes, food, spare tyres, tools and almost everything he could conceivably need during a bike race, he was missing one thing - a bike. Fortunately, someone lent him one and he set off. After plodding along with the peloton for a while, he got bored and accelerated away; once again rapidly tiring himself and soon looking as though he'd have to abandon the race - however, he came across a man with a bag of food intended for Marcel Buysse (who had won the previous edition in 1909). Van Lerberghe persuaded him that Buysse had abandoned - he did, at some point, but whether or not he had done at this point is not known - and that he might as well have the food instead. The man agreed, and van Lerberghe was off on his way again. Now refreshed, he kept his lead all the way to a level crossing and became frustrated when a slow-moving train held him up - so instead of waiting any longer, he shouldered his bike, jumped up to grab a door handle then ran through the carriage before leaping out the other side and riding away. Towards the end of the race and still in the lead, he decided he was thirsty so he stopped off at a pub and had a couple of pints. His manager began to wonder where he'd got to and came out of the velodrome which then hosted the finish to look for him. Spotting the bike leaned up against the pub wall, he had to go in and convince his rider that he should finish the race - and he must have made a good argument because, after finishing his drink, van Lerberghe rode into the velodrome and was declared the winner.

In 1939, Karl Kaers won by accident. He'd planned to follow the race round the parcours for a bit and get in a bit of training for the upcoming Paris-Roubaix, then after the race climbed to where he'd left his car on  Kwaremont go home. As a result, he had no reason to conserve energy when the hill approached and climbed to a one minute lead at the summit. Once over, he found that his car had vanished - and decided that he might as well carry on (which seems odd, but bear in mind that a; he'd have a far better chance of finding a police station or phone to report the missing car and b; the story is almost certainly a completely fabricated legend) and was first to the finish line - where he was met by his manager, who had deliberately moved the car after seeing how well Kaers was riding that day.

Only one British rider has ever won the Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tom Simpson, in 1961. Strong winds had blown down the banner over the finish line and an Italian, Nino Defilippis, argued that he would have won if he'd known where the finish was. The judges decided that as all the riders had completed two laps of the finishing circuit, everyone had had plenty of opportunity to know where it was and Simpson kept the victory.

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