It all started with a viking horn. Florian Vermeersch, Lotto Soudal’s politician, history student, and Paris-Roubaix runner up, greeted the Antwerp crowd with a viking horn he smuggled onto the stage at the beginning of the 106th Tour of Flanders.
The 23-year-old blows the horn with all his might and the spectators in front of Antwerp’s Stadhuis go crazy in response. It is not even 10am on a bitterly cold morning in the north of Belgium, and yet this is the magic of the Tour of Flanders.
The noise, the atmosphere, the beer; it has been absent for two years from the Ronde thanks to the pandemic, and here it is, back again.
“We thought it was a fun thing to do, a bit of interaction with the crowd, and it was really fun on the stage,” Vermeersch explains shortly after.
The young Belgian says that they thought it would be cool, a nod to their sponsor Viking Lotto, and that he got to play it because he bought it. He adds that he paid $50 for it, some price for entertainment.
This is his first Flanders in front of the fans, after two raced behind closed doors, and he is excited.
“I had goosebumps on the podium, not only from the cold but also from the fans, from the interaction,” the man from Gent explains. “It’s really nice to see and it gives cycling another dimension. I imagine I’ll have goosebumps a few times. This is one of the reasons I started cycling and became a professional rider, to ride on the cobbled hills between the fans.”
Lewis Askey, riding his first Monument for Groupama-FDJ, is blown away by the reaction in Antwerp, and knows it is going to be like this all day.
“We have been prewarned it might be pretty crazy today,” he says. “I think that’s the thing that I’m most looking forward to. It’s my first Monument, I think this will be another level.”
Fred Wright, Bahrain-Victorious’ young puncheur, who ends up finishing seventh on the day, is ready for what awaits him, he has experienced from the other side of the barriers before.
“I’ve done two Flanders with no crowds,” he says. “I’ve got people from my old club on the Kwaremont, my dad is watching. I was there in 2012, I watched on the Kwaremont, I remember it was crazy. Now I’m gonna be in the middle of it.”
The Latvian champion Tom Skujiņš has good memories of fans on the roadside, so knows what to expect, not that it will necessarily be pleasant while riding hard.
“It was nice to have the fans back,” he explains. “I’ve done two before, one with fans, one without. I have some good memories from 2016 where we had the fans, it was quite something. I expect a lot of people. On Kwaremont , I especially expect the smell of beer in my face. I don’t enjoy it in the moment, but it is something I remember from the first one, that’s Flanders.”
Two hours later, in the town of Oudenaarde, home to the Tour of Flanders museum, and host of the men’s and women’s finishes, and the start of the women’s edition, things are similarly crazy.
It’s warmer by now, and the crowd are slightly more lubricated as they are treated to pounding pop music in the town square.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope’s vivacious leader, is grooving around to the beat in the mix zone.
“It’s so crazy feeling the vibe again,” she tells Cycling Weekly. “It has been years since this type of crowd so it’s just like goosebumps. I love it so much, it’s so nice feeling it. On the big climbs it’s going to be crazy and I’m just going to enjoy it.”
It’s stunning to see this kind of turnout for a bike race early on a Sunday, especially a women’s race. These fans are here for the long haul, as the men’s race will finish four hours later, and the women’s an hour beyond that.
A small boy greets riders with little models of their jerseys he has made himself, handing them to Elisa Balsamo and Ellen van Dijk of Trek-Segafredo. He’s disappointed not to catch Lotte Kopecky of SD Worx, but then the Belgian champion is a woman in demand. She goes on to win the race.
Amanda Spratt of Team BikeExchange-Jayco, riding her 14th Tour of Flanders, is looking forward to showing her team-mates what racing in this part of the world is really like.
“I think it creates a really nice atmosphere, and having the crowds here is part of the Flanders experience,” she says. “It’s going to be crazy, it’s fun for me because I have a couple of team-mates doing this for the first time.”
The crowds do not disappoint. In spite of the mixed weather, hundreds of thousands of people line the roads in Flanders to greet their heroes. There are some people that go too far, like the man with the giant flag who chases Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel up the Oude Kwaremont, but for most it’s a day to savour, to enjoy.
That includes the riders, despite working hard.
Marlen Reusser, who saw her team-mate Kopecky win, and finished fifth herself, was helped by the power of the fans.
“It was very nice,” she explains after the finish. “Especially for me because I came into international cycling just as covid started, so I have had none of these experiences. I’m really like wow. It’s crazy.”
The smells and sounds of Flanders are certainly something that has been missing from the action during the sterile covid-impacted years. The roar that greats Van der Poel and Kopecky’s victories is like almost nothing else in cycling. It feels like almost all of Flanders cheers when the latter crosses the line first.
“It’s mega,” Connor Swift of Arkéa-Samsic explains pithily. “This is the first time I’ve experienced this race with the fans. Going up the Kwaremont you can just smell the beer, you get all these smells and sensations.”
“Without them it’s not the same race,” Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s Zdeněk Štybar explains. It certainly was not, and how good it is to have the fans back.