THE FANS ARE BACK!
I started taking pictures of people on the side of the road many years ago. At this point, sometimes I wonder why, but after each race, I go back and have it confirmed for the millionth time: they're just as much a part of this race as Pogacar or Van der Poel or Asgreen. I love that.
With the break gone, there was the not so small task of counting down the kilometers until the race started properly. For the peloton, that meant pee breaks all the time and much food. Including the neutral zone (because 10k is not inconsequential on a 280k day), it was 140k until the race finally hit the Kwaremont for the first time. 140!
With the return of the fans came the return of the FLAGS. As a side note, and something that I've been paying a lot of attention to of late: the official flag of Flanders is the one with the black lion with red claws and red tongue. The all black lion is the separatist flag - advocating for the division of Belgium into two countries, Flanders and Wallonia.
Either there are a LOT of separatists in Flanders (I think there are approximately 19 black and yellow flags for every 1 black, red, yellow flag), or, people unwittingly end up with these, or maybe they're cheaper, or, they don't know, or I don't know. I will continue to investigate this. In long, just know that I'm not a right wing separatist by posting images of the yellow and black flag - I truly think there's more to this story than just the colors.
Like I said, it took a long time to get to the Kwaremont for the first time. There was a small cobbled introduction to the day with the Lippenhovestraat/Paddestraat combo, but both were taken at a fairly pedestrian pace and followed by virtually the entire peloton stopping for another pee break. This was also the point in the day when the warmers, shoe covers, hats, and the proverbial gloves all came off. It was about time to clock into work with approximately 140k to go.
FANS, PART I.
It will be one of the great mysteries of Sunday...until I manage to watch the actual race on TV. That might help solve this.
Even with the race still ostensibly drinking coffee at the breakfast table, the screws were slooooowly beginning to tighten. It was at this point that I first started to realize just how complicated shooting anything other than straight on shots inside the barriers would be. The sea of humanity was amazing to behold - but tough to decipher the right choice with little time.
I ended up bartering for a spot on a tree stump near the Kwaremont village with some really fun fans. They let me stand on the stump if I drank a Jupiler with them. I dutifully accepted my part of the deal and drank half a Jupiler.
IN THE VLAAMSE ARDENNEN.
From this point onward, the name of the game was ever increasing intensity. Slowly at first, but then more and more and more as the hills began to stack up.
I shot through some old Citroëns on the side of the road near the Kortekeer - because I couldn't bear taking another boring shot on the Kortekeer. That climb gets used a LOT, and I don't think I've ever made a really good image there. It's a lovely climb to ride, but it doesn't afford all that many creative possibilities, so at a certain point, it starts to feel like a cosmic-level joke when you encounter the Kortekeer...again. I did quite enjoy shooting these cars though. It's the little things that make me happy in moments of high stress. Steal a small, happy shot in the middle of the craziness of Ronde afternoon? Success!
FANS, PART II.
The Molenberg came with about 100k to go and saw the first real signs of aggression from the field. Two riders jumped clear on the Molenberg and were joined a few kilometers later by eleven more riders - and it was game on.
For me though, I will always remember this visit to the Molenberg for the one fan in particular who gave his all cheering for the riders as they passed. It made me so happy.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS.
After the Molenberg, the Berendries, Valkenberg, Kanarieberg, and Berg Ten Houte all followed in rapid succession. The lengthy chill vibes that started the day were already a distant memory.
FANS, PART III.
And now, we come to the true business end of the race. With just under 60k to go, the second time up the Oude Kwaremont signifies the beginning of the monstrous finale of the Ronde. Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Oude Kruisberg, Kwaremont, Paterberg. They don't make them much harder than this, and without fail, the cream rises to the top in this terribly difficult series of hellingen.
As if on cue, Tadej Pogacar unleashed a savage acceleration that brought that previously threatening baker's dozen of riders to hell, then left them all behind and took only a few strong souls with him.
Minutes later, it was Van der Poel who took over the duties for ripping the race to pieces. If I'm not mistaken, this was maybe the only time in the race when he forced the matter. After this, it was all Pogacar, all the time, doing everything he could to wrest free of the iron grip of Van der Poel.
Don't worry - you've just endured Pogacar's first acceleration on the Kwaremont, then MVDP's on the Paterberg, are you ready for some more? Pogacar once again took over the mantle of race destroyer and in a few short minutes laid waste to many riders' dreams at Flanders. After the top of the Koppenberg, it was only Dylan Van Baarle and Fred Wright a few seconds up the road, followed by Pogacar, Van der Poel, and an astounding Valentin Madouas.
Side note: the Koppenberg is a hard climb to shoot. There's no space, the cool spot to shoot it is directly in the middle of the road, and there are a dozen other photographers trying to line up a decent shot as well. It's amazing how complicated shooting on a climb like this can be. That's not a complaint - just a little BTS at what we think about on a climb like this!
FANS, PART IV.
Eventually, the two groups came together to make a five-strong leading group that never looked in any danger of being caught. This was the group that would decide the 2022 Ronde...until it wasn't. We'll get to that later though! :-)
Funny realization: we've had it really easy the past two years in our two fan free Rondes. I'm not protesting fans in any way, but it was on the Taaienberg where it hit me that I didn't really have a choice where I was going to shoot. I had to go to the end to park the moto and line up a kind of boring straight on shot. There just aren't quick options to choose a spot when the crowds are thick and you have thirty seconds to make a shot happen. This is one climb I'd like to figure out a better option for in 2023. I didn't feel good at all about this one.
UP NEXT: KWAREMONT/PATERBERG.
With everything done save the Kwaremont and Paterberg, there was everything to play for as the group of five lined up for their date with destiny and the guillotine of truth that Pogacar was about to swing at them.
The third time up the Kwaremont, Pogacar replicated his effort from the last time up the Kwaremont in hopes of wreaking more havoc. He ejected Van Baarle, Wright, and Madouas, but could not get the better of Van der Poel.
For those that have ridden the Kwaremont before, you'll recall just how hard this climb is. The speed of the two superstars as they passed was just wow. It always is. They participate in a different sport than we do.
Pogacar went AGAIN on the Paterberg a few minutes later and briefly looked like he had the better of Van der Poel, but there would be no fairy tale solo victory for Pogacar, as Van der Poel dug deep, got back on the wheel, and headed to Oudenaarde for his third straight two-up sprint showdown in three years.
HEADING FOR HOME.
Well, it was a two-up showdown until the two left the sprint a little too late and were swarmed by a storming duo of Madouas and Van Baarle. Pogacar came out the worst of it and threw his hands up in frustration. So close, yet so far. His frustration was quite the juxtaposition for the ecstasy that erupted from Van der Poel a few seconds later.