Well, what a year for British cycling. Track or road... Ten, or even five years ago, who would have serously thought that British riders would be standing on the top two steps of the TdF podium in Paris and that the winner of the final sprint on the Champs Elysees would be a Brit wearing the Rainbow Jersey..?
2012 was indeed a great year for British cycling fans. Fortunately I live on the south coast and I am able to hop across the channel quite frequently to see the numerous races that take place within a couple of hours drive from Calais each year. For want of something better to do I thought I would share with you my thoughts, or the highlights of my cycling season as a spectator. Not necessarily the best races in the world but the top 10 memories that I will take from 2102...
10 - Dwars door Vlaanderen (blog)
Not a full blown classic but the start of Flanders week and a race where the big guns with an eye on the Ronde or Roubaix come out to play. It's also a race that is easily accessible from Calais and can be seen several times during the day.
This year I was delighted to hear that the World Champion was a late replacement for Team Sky.
Shortly after Mark was crowned world champion I vowed to attend as many races as I possibly could to support, photograph and just enjoy the spectacle of the Rainbow Jersey on British shoulders.
I thoroughly enjoy races like the Dwars door Vlaanderen, A quality field without the full-on security experienced at the Grand Tours, where the race can be seen multiple times during the day and a race that's certainly taken seriously by the locals.
This year I managed to not only see the race several times out on the road but managed to watch the final few kilometers from the Sky bus that was parked just before the finish line. Although Cav didn't win it was still a great days racing and a race I thoroughly recommend.
9 - Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (blog)
The first race of the European season. Usually wet, usually cold and usually brilliant.
I love the fact that the fans have unrestricted access to the teams pre-race, where many new signings are making their European debuts. This year was no exception and I was delighted to see one of my favourite riders turning out in a Sky jersey - Bernhard Eisel...
Team Sky, my team, have done rather well in this race since their formation. The legend that is Juan Antonio Flecha, was runner-up last year and the winner of Het Nieuswblad during Sky's debut season. After following the race around the Belgian countryside it was brilliant to get back to Ghent in time for the finish and see Flecha amongst a trio sprinting for the win
Whilst I am sure that the Tour Down Under and the Tours of Oman and Qatar are very nice, it is the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where the cycling season really starts in earnest and this year, as usual, it didn't let me down.
8 - E3 Prijs-Vlaanderen (blog)
2012 was the first time I have attended the E3 - It won't be the last. This is another race that can be seen multiple times during the day and I managed the perfect set of start, road section, cobbled section, climb and finish.
Whilst the racing was absolutely full-on and thoroughly enjoyable, what really made my day at the 2012 E3 was finding myself at the head of a convoy of VIP coaches that was given a motorcycle escort from Oudenarde to the finish, I'm not sure how many road traffic laws were broken during the roller-coaster journey, but it was great fun... You will need to read my blog for the detail.
7 - Olympic Road Race
This is the first race in my top 10 that I didn't attend. Having had the pleasure of obtaining media accreditation for the 2011 test event, the London-Surrey Classic, I reckoned that without a ticket for Box Hill or The Mall I would probably see more on TV. I therefore opted for a bottle of wine, a French stick and I am sorry to say, Hugh Porter's disappointing commentary.
Much has been written about Cav's failure to secure gold, or Team GB'S lack of a Plan B, but it remained a fascinating race to watch and it makes my top 10 of memorable moments simply because the crowds were absolutely amazing - cycling is now mainstream and watching the tens, or hundreds of thousands of people lining the road brought that home to me - Brilliant...
Another race I didn't personaly attend (a bit difficult to do in a day) but it makes my top 10 because it was simply a brilliant race to watch.
Obviously I had high hopes for Chris Froome but after a promising start it looked like his efforts in July had taken too much out of him. Whilst John Degenkolb was cleaning up the sprints (which was handy because I had him in my fantasy dream team) it looked like Joaquim Rodriguez had it sewn up before Alberto Contador made that unbelievable attack and snatched the race from the jaws of defeat - Probably the best grand tour for racing of 2012.
5 - Tour of Flanders (blog)
Usually my favourite race of the season. As far as the Belgians are concerned the Tour of Flanders is the highlight of the cycling season and it is estimated that a third of the countries population line the roadside. The atmosphere at Flanders is immense, particularly if a Belgian rider does well.
This year the route had been changed and it seemed to me that the only place to watch the race now that the Murr was missing was the Oude Kwaremont, a long cobbled climb that had to be tackled three times.
As usual the place was rocking, Leffe and Jupiter being consumed in vast quantities. I was struck by the number of British flags that could be seen on the climb - there is no doubt that cycling is becomming more and more popular and at last the Brits are able to compete head to head against our European neighbours.
One side of the climb had been given over to corporate hospitality which is a bit of a shame and a direction that I hope cycling does not follow. Free accessibilty to the road is a long standing tradition that has made cycling what it is today and the minute the fans are charged to watch races will be the minute cycling starts to loose its appeal. Anyway, I was rather pleased to note that the public in 'the stalls' across the road from the hospitality tents had a far better view of the climb, even if it was a bit cramped.
The ladies race came through and the atmosphere started to build as we awaited the main event. The Kwaremont was packed. A narrow cobbled climb in the middle of the Belgian countryside was absolutely heaving with thousands and thousands of cycling fans from all over the world eagerly anticipating the spectacle...
Decent photographs were imposible. The pace of the riders as they flashed by and the density of the crowd, all straining to see down the road meant that it was simply a case of pointing the camera in the general direction of the riders, push the button and see what you get later...
For the second pass the pace had noticably dropped (although still beyond the ability of us mere mortals). Chavanel was having a dig, followed by Peter Sagan and marked by Ballan and Boonen -
The field was really stretched out now and it took a good 20 minutes to pass. The pain and the effort clearly evident on the faces of the riders as they passed just inches in front of us. Twenty minutes later it was time for the final climb and the already unbelievable atmosphere raised a notch or two as it was evident that the winning move was likely to be made on the Kwaremont and we were in the box seat to see it..
As the helicopter hovered ever closer a lone rider came into view. Ballon was attacking..!
A few seconds behind Filippo Pozzata and Belgians No.1 son, Tom Boonen, were desperately trying to claw him back... The place erupted and the Tour of Flanders was about to be won or lost right in front of our eyes - Fantastic..!
Once the leaders had gone through it was clear that only they would be contesting the finish. Nevertheless every rider was cheered and applauded as they passed and as I made my way back to the car I heard that Boonen had gone on to win and as the result was announced the cheers could be heard reverberating all around the Belgian countryside. There was going to be a few sore heads the following morning.
Another brilliant Tour of Flanders that is easily accessible in a day from the UK. If you are able to attend just one one-day race next season this should be it.
4 - Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (blog)
Held the day after Het Nieuswblad this is another race I have not visited before, however this year I stayed overnight in Kortrijk after Nieuswblad, because I was determined to witness Mark Cavendish make his European debut in the Rainbow Jersey and to make the day even more memorable I met him...
I said earlier that I had been lucky enough to obtain press accreditation (as a result of my ramblings on the now defunct teamskyfans website) at the 2011 London-Surrey Classic, the race that was being used as an Olympic Test Event. Mark won it and from my position behind the finish line I was able to take a half-decent photo of the winner. Imagine my delight when I met the new World Champion in Kortrijk as he made his way from the Sky hotel to the Death Star (team bus) and he signed my photo..?
Chuffed with my good fortune I made my way out onto the course and the race itself proved to be excellent. Like nearly all the one-day races that take place in the area the race can be watched numerous times during the day and I managed to watch it a few times before I made my way to the Oude Kwaremont.
Unlike the Tour of Flanders (above) the Kwaremont is not barriered off at K-B-K, but it was still packed as the riders hauled themselves up the climb. I was delighted to see Cav up there with the leaders being protected by Bernie...
After the Kwaremont there was still time to see the race one more time before making a mad dash back to the finishing circuit where the race crosses the finishing line twice. As a mad keen Sky fan I was delighted to see first-hand the Sky train form on the first lap as the boys chased down an early breakaway...
With just a couple of kilometers to go at this point Mark was ideally placed and as I made my way back to the car I was chuffed to hear that the World Champion had won the first European race he has ridden since winning the jersey - A brilliant race and a brilliant day.
3 - Olympic Time Trial
For the same reason that I did not attend the road race I made do with the TV and a bottle of wine for the amazing Olympic time trial.
Following an absolutely magnificent Tour de France, Bradley absolutely smashed it and even though I wasn't in London the atmosphere and sense of achievement could be felt through the TV cameras.
2 - Gent-Wevelgem (blog)
I've been going to Gent-Wevelgem for years. I love it. The closest semi-classic to Calais and easy to do in a day. This year was particularly special because for the first time I was accompanied by fellow Wheelsuckers member Bev Young (Smerklo) who I met briefly at the Tour of Britain last year. Bev had not been to a race abroad before and as I had spare seats we made arrangements to go to Gent-Wevelgem together.
Spending the whole day with someone you don't really know is a bit of a risk, but fortunately thanks to her zany sense of humour and our common passion for cycling we hit it off immediately and have since travelled together to the Tour of Flanders and Tour de France.
Gent-Wevelgem just has to be watched from the Kemmelberg, the iconic cobbled climb that is tackled twice and often proves to be the launch pad for the winning break. Before that however there is time to go to the start to watch the riders sign-in, affording some excellent photo opportunities.
This year Bev and I managed to get to the climb in time for the ladies race and was delighted to see our very own Lizzie Armistead cross the summit in first place.
Much to our delight Lizzie went on to win the race but a real eye-opener was the effort the ladies put into dragging their bodies over the climb. Some of the girls at the tail-end of the race were literally crying as they passed by, the agony clearly evident. Chapeau to each and every one of them...
The main event however never fails to impress and this year was no exception. The Kemmelberg is a cauldron of noise as the best professional bike riders in the world take on the cobbles and the laws of gravity. What other sport gives you such unrestricted close-up access for free..? Fantastic...
Although Cav didn't achieve his stated goal and Boonen continued his dominance this year's Gent-Wevelgem remained a brilliant day out, a brilliant race and I hope the start of a lengthy friendship with Bev.
1 - Tour de France (blog)
No surprises I suppose for my number 1 road racing moment of 2012.
To be in Paris on the 22 July 2012 was a privilege. To be amongst the thousands of British cycling fans that invaded the city was immense. To be present when British cycling history was made was an "I was there" moment that will never be forgotten. Without a doubt this was the highlight not just of my 2012 season but the best day at a cycle race I have ever had.
For the atmosphere and the experience please read my blog. If you was there too I suspect you will be able to associate yourself with my ramblings, if you wasn't, the blog will hopefully give you an idea of how special the day was. Everywhere you looked the British flag was flying proudly.
If you've got this far, thanks for reading my season review. I hope to attend just as many races in 2013 as I did this year and with a bit of luck I will blog and post some photo's on this excellent site shortly after each race.
In the meantime may I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year - Neil
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