The map for the 2016 Ronde van Vlaanderen was the most complicated I'd seen; after a full 4 hours of route planning I still wasn’t sure how the day was going to work out.
Looking at my carefully marked-out map, this work of art, I kept thinking about the press briefing from the day before. Apparently, this is the most difficult race to follow on the circuit. The sheer number of fans, all trying to get around the course to see as many spots as possible, results in traffic chaos. The only way through is on the back of a motorbike.
Arriving at the start in Bruge I met my Belgian driver, Bruno. After a quick chat I went off to capture the riders preparing outside their buses.
Security was tight; my camera bag was searched before entering the team area. The riders were still hidden in team buses, so I went hunting for the bikes of my two favourites to win the classic.
I found Sagan’s bike, anointed with a golden badge that looked like it would be more at home on a luxury sports car than a race bike.
It’s a long way back to car and I don’t want to start the race too far behind the riders.
I spotted Cancellera’s bike, just as the UCI were scanning it with a motor-detecting iPad. No motor was found.
The first cobble section was heaving with people. The windmill I had planned to use in my shot was obstructed by public toilets and a stage. A DJ cranked out tunes for party-goers, who, despite the early hour, looked as if they had already sunk a couple of Duvels. Good times.
Still, I didn’t have long to come up with an alternative shot, the police motos and road closure vehicles were already thundering across the cobbles.
Troublingly, the car was now surrounded by people, preventing my escape. Some well-practiced, ample use of the horn did the trick, and we were able to part the crowd and speed off to the Eikenberg.
Some decent route planning then paid off, helping us arrive with plenty of time to pick out the best spots. I handed a camera to Bruno and, after a quick tutorial on how to use it, suggested he shoot from the hill to capture the riders passing below. “I’ll head down and capture them on the steepest section”. Our plan was a success and we rendezvoused back at the car for the drive to the Oude Kwaremont.
My navigation was going surprisingly well, before things took the inevitable turn and we hit a series of road blocks. I could see someone ahead was trying to negotiate with police and was getting nowhere. I needed to find another way round.
The next road was also closed. However, this time there was no-one watching, so Bruno drove up onto the footpath and managed to get around. Only to reach the race course to find it was, of course, blocked once more.
I checked the rider schedule – there was still time to try and find a third road through.
We thought we had found it when we hit yet another road block. This time it was serious, so I abandoned the vehicle and headed for the Kwaremont on foot.
A bearded dude jogging the cobbles in front of hordes of drunken fans gave rise to plenty of comments. It is probably best they were speaking Dutch, so I had no idea what they were yelling at me.
With the car now well and truly stuck, I only had two options left for a final shot. The first was to stay put and get another shot of the riders on the Kwaremont, or, alternatively, set up my bike and ride to the Paterberg – trying to stay ahead of the riders. Being the final climb of the race, this would likely be a decisive moment in determining the result, so I had to go for it.
The police gave me a strange look as I arrived on my bike. “No moto?” they laughed as I showed them my pass, before shrugging and waving me through.
I got to the top of the Paterberg, leaned my bike against the fence and unpacked my camera.
It’s a popular spot and I’m squeezed between the broadcast camera and the edge of the cobbles. A police officer tapped my shoulder and gestured for me to keep to the side. “I let you stay” he said as he moved the person next to me along. Relieved that I didn’t need to find an alternate spot in a hurry, I readied myself for the riders, who were already on the descent towards Paterberg.
As they came powering up the horrifically steep climb, to the chorus of screaming fans and flags waving all over the place, I couldn’t help but think of the farmer that paved this hill in cobbles just so the Ronde would pass by his house… I guess it worked.
For now I get to kick back, assemble some photos to share with you and enjoy a well-earned beer. Next stop for the Caravan is the Roubaix next week – so stay tuned!
Thanks for reading.
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