As I drove up to Flanders this weekend, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was really hard to imagine covering the Ronde van Vlaanderen without its cycling-crazed fans that pack every muur and berg in this storied race. They are, after all, an integral part of the fabric of this event. Sure, we already saw a fan-less Flanders last October. But that was when the sport was suspended in the early stages of the COVID crisis, and everything still seemed temporary. But with race returning to its traditional early-April date, I sensed the void would be more significant.
“You can see them. They are pushing each other. They are screaming. It is crazy!” Peter Sagan agreed when I caught up with him on Friday. “It is very strange not to race with fans in Flanders.”
Come race day, the lack of fans made for a certain never-ending calm before the storm, it seemed. I spent much of the day between the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, and in some ways, I saw the race differently. I was able to take in the more pastoral aspects of this race set in the picturesque hills of Flanders. But without the fans, there was little tension and no electricity.
The riders, however, showed little signs of unease, as they put on another memorable show. Deceuninck-Quick-Step — racing as Elegant-Quick-Step for this race — once again used the power of numbers to dominate the race. And then, of course, there was that memorable mano-a-mano match-up between Dutch national champion Mathieu van der Poel and Danish national champ Kasper Asgreen on the day’s final climb — the Paterberg — before Asgreen powered to victory in the final sprint.
No, make no doubt about it. This year’s Ronde will go down in the history books. It was a truly great race. But I still missed the fans! Who didn’t?
Peter Sagan and his Bora-Hansgrohe team roll down the yellow carpet towards the start. Most years, these carpets lead the riders to the sign-in at the foot of city hall in the splendid Grote Markt, but this year, it was held under cover along the city’s docks.
“Golden Greg” Van Avermaet, addresses a sprinkling of journalists at the start. The 2016 Olympic champion would show he still has plenty of fight left in him as went on to finish third.
At the start, all eyes were on defending champion Mathieu van der Poel — albeit from a distance.
The peloton rolls out moments after the start in downtown Antwerp, with fans at a clear distance.
The traditional early-morning breakaway climbs past the legendary “In ‘t Palet,” the festive eatery that sits in the heart of the Oude Kwaremont climb. On any other year, the restaurant is simply overflowing with crowds, eating, drinking, and generally being merry, before they fall out along the barriers to encourage the riders as they come by.
The Paterberg, like so many climbs in Flanders, is usually overflowing with beer-drinking crowds. This year, the banners for Kwaremont beer were about as close as it came.
Wait a minute! Who said there were no spectators? The Het Nieuwsblad giant inflated fan was there to cheer on the peloton!
The peloton makes its way up the Paterberg for the first time.
The Paterberg may have only had a sprinkling of fans—mostly local residents—but it was center stage to what will go down as one of the most memorable battles in the race, as Mathieu van der Poel and Kasper Asgreen were locked in a true mano-a-mano battle.
The rhythm of the wooden fences and barren trees were a stark contrast to the crowds that usually pack the Patersberg on race day.
World champion Julian Alaphilippe did not have the legs to win, but he played a key role in teammate Asgreen’s victory as he helped forge and drive the winning breakaway.
On many of the climbs, race photographers were only allowed to work in certain, restricted areas.
Fans that did make it to the race, had to keep a clear distance.
And while the Flemish flags could be seen on occasion, they, too, were kept at a distance.