Sabine Sunderland is 40 years old, a freelance writer and married to Team Sky sportsdirector, Scott Sunderland. She's also a regular blogger on procycling.no.
It's been in the air since the first shy rays of sun broke through the grey cloud cover which had wrapped Flanders into a long dark winter sleep. The Classics fever has been intensifying after it all started the last Saturday in February with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a magnificent prelude to the upcoming series of one-day Spring Classics that dominates the cycle racing calendar at this time of year.
I spent that afternoon of February 27th with a few Team Sky staff as well as my sons Saën and Tristan. We watched the race unfold on the big screen in the team bus. It was an emotional day with some nail-biting moments when Juan Antonio (Flecha) attacked on the cobbled stretch - which was only 2km from the front door of our home in Zottegem - and soloed into Gent. Seeing Scott encourage his rider while driving alongside him, head out the window, banging his hand on the door while fueling Juans efforts to dig that little bit deeper was pure excitement. «Another couple of k's, keep going, careful of that last turn, yeah!»
A few tears of joy rolled over my face when I got a big hug from Scott, who was moved and happy when he got back to the team bus straight after the race and very pleased with the teams first victory in Belgium. It was a big win for the new Sky Pro Cycling Team which Scott and his colleagues had worked on so passionately during 2009. It had been an exciting race, with all the big hitters showing their early season form. A fantastic result and it really felt like a weight fell off my own shoulders, as if I could breathe easier and more freely.
I love this time of the year. Scott is at races closer to home after having spent weeks away at training camps in Spain and competing with the team in Qatar, France and Italy and people seem genuinely happier, enjoying nature and outdoor sports more; it lifts the spirit.
While Scott was still racing himself, this always was a nervous time for our family. Scott often rode these races as domestique for the captains of his different teams during his career. He didnt really appreciate the cobbles and cold weather the first few years but he grew to love the Classics as years passed. He got better at riding them every season.
Some years it was a rather uneasy time for us as well. Not everyone in the public understands the valuable role of the lieutenants and domestiques in a team; if Scott didnt finish in the top 10 due to the fact he had ridden his heart out for his team leader, we did receive less-than-pleasant remarks from some inconsiderate «fans» as well. But, as the wife of an athlete, its something you learn to live with. In the press and in the public eye, a rider is only as good as his last race. Its a side-effect of being in a sport which offers a close and personal public experience.
For weeks now, the number of tourists and pros riding past our home in the heart of the Flemish Ardennes has steadily increased. The rainy days caused no enormous interruption in the training schedule of the die-hard bike fanatics. Its amusing to watch the huge bunches of cycling clubs rolling past in their new outfits, often followed by a flashy support van. It's also quite inspiring to see the solitary rider in total concentration, digging deep on the hills and determined to fulfill a new years resolution to improve health or boost fitness levels in order to ride that Mont Ventoux or l' Etappe du Tour in July.
The love for the sport of cycling is like an ingredient of our national cuisine which almost every newborn is spoon fed by mum, dad and the grandparents. Its almost like genetic encoding; if you dont like cycling, you really are the odd one out.
If you have been bitten by the bike-racing bug and you have never undertaken a trip to the Spring Classics, its one experience I have to recommend. Come and experience the unique atmosphere these races generate; its something youll always remember Im sure.
I believe that life experiences beat material possessions if only due to the simple fact that experiences improve with time and most possessions dont. The experience of the Spring Classics is one you will want to relive over and over again.
The rich choice in beers and the Flemish stews – prepared with Trappist beer - or the famous chips with mayonnaise might be an additional reason for a visit to the Tour of Flanders, or any other Belgian race. Other cycling fans might have a very different motivation. The pretty young girls put on their short summer skirts and get together at the start and finishes of the races; they push their way through the mass of spectators and stand at the front of the stage during the rider presentations, giggling and hoping to draw the attention of that handsome Edvald Boasson Hagen or the cheeky Andy Schleck.
The parties in the pubs and tents along the parcours start long before the peloton passes, beer and spirits flowing freely. Before going home, a packet of Belgian «frieten»or a «braadworst» (sausage in a bun) helps to tone down the possible hangover.
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It's also interesting to watch the older generation; those knowledgeable locals often seen with a glass of beer in their hand and smoking. On race days they claim to be authorities in the field of professional cycling, while most never rode their bike much further than school or church. These wise older men share their opinion - whether or not you have asked for it - on what a fantastic talent this rider has and how bad that teams tactics are. Scott and I often get stopped by cycling fans, young and old, in the middle of town or we get addressed in restaurants by people who share their thoughts on how this or that race will need to be ridden and who is in shape or not. Mostly people just like to wish Scott and the team the best of luck and thats always very pleasant .
Many people are simply cycling mad here and encounters are wonderfully enjoyable and funny, others quite ill-timed. Yesterday, Scott drove out of the driveway in quite a hurry to get to the Team managers meeting for Dwars door Vlaanderen. A car suddenly crossed the road and stopped in front of his team car. Driver got out, greeted Scott and an animated conversation, clearly on bike racing followed for another 10 minutes.
Of course, the main reason to visit Flanders and the Spring Classics are the race experiences. Each year, these one-day races shape the profiles of those riders who will be among the stars of the season. The atmosphere is exceptional. Thousands of fans alongside the roads, on the cobbled climbs of the Tour of Flanders and the stretches of hell in Paris-Roubaix; theres the wonderful hilly scenery of Luik-Bastenaken-Luik and Amstel Gold. One quickly gets to appreciate just how steep and in some cases, long, these climbs are and this is why the mountain goats like Evans and Valverde target these great races.
The buzz, the encouragement, the screaming fans, the passion for cycling, its simply unique.
Stars are made by conquering these monuments of cycling. The Fabian Cancellaras, the Thor Hushovds, the great warriors, show their strength and skills on these roads, often through the mud, chilled to the bone by pouring rain. You can get up-close, standing along the parcours lined with spectators and witnessing the pain which is etched on the faces of the riders as they battle through and stretch their personal limits. I invite you to come and experience it - as this truly is the stuff legends are made of.
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