Calais, July 9
If the words carry a double meaning, this hamlet of Le Tap-Cul, which the race swallows in the guise of an hors-d’oeuvre, could be much more than a simple point on the map: an invitation, a warning…. Because in cycling, “tape-cul” (literally “slap-ass”) means potholes and cobblestones, potholes and echelons, potholes and pitfalls — in short, everything the vocabulary can imagine as soon as the peloton rides the back roads of the North.
Leaving Calais, this Monday stage heads directly toward Flanders; at 1:30 p.m. it will cross the Belgian border. In Leisele, Gijverinkhove and Hoogstade, it discovers the country that gave birth to Vanderstuyft, Van Hauwaert, Buysse, Defraye and Deman — the five first Flandrians in cycling history. Then, from Ichtegem to Eeklo, from Lembeke to Moerbeke, the stage traverses villages that all organize their own kermesse races, with their pubs selling sausages, French fries and beer, and that indefinable odor that evokes Flemish cycling. And by the way, if the traditions of the area remind us of Brittany, the language, the cheers and the tension will leave no room for ambiguity: Here, there are no Frenchmen, only Flandrians — like Nico Mattan, Jo Planckaert, Tom Steels and Ludo Dierckxsens — who will set the tone as they do on their most challenging day in springtime, when they contest with dark eyes and gritted teeth the very difficult Tour of Flanders.
Without question, in Antwerp, the town of diamond merchants where the Tour last saw a stage finish in 1954 (Dutchman Wout Wagtmans was the winner), the succession is perfect. The massive Tom Steels leads the sprint. Is he worth betting on? At 300 meters, at 200 meters, he’s ahead. At 100 meters, he still holds the lead, and at 50, he has won the stage. A superb athlete, he straightens up and lifts his interminable arms toward the sky. Let’s repeat together: his name is Tom Steels.