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2013 Flèche Wallonne

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Flèche Wallonne is ALL about the Muir day Hooeee, or as it’s both pronounced and spelled by the local French-speaking Belgians, the Mur de Huy. Huy is a 1300 meter long & 204 meter tall near-vertical (9.3% avg gradient + 26% max gradient) hill the race goes up three times, in relatively quick succession, after first riding 100km through the farms and hills of Wallonia. Wallonia translates to West Virginia in English; speaking of translations, Mur de Huy translates to The Wall of Huy and Flèche Wallonne translates to The Arrow of Wallonne. Huy (the wall) is the arrowhead. Technically speaking Huy (on a map) kinda looks like an arrowhead—if the arrowhead is the blunt kind used for practice and if the arrowhead is attached to an exceptionally bent shaft. See map below. For serious spectators and racers and sponsors and the institution that is the Spring Classics, Huy is where the race is decided, and Huy, from the-bottom-to-the-top (but especially on the top, y’all!) is where the party at—imagine a sinuous, switchbacky, mile-long, sixty-foot wide, near-vertical, five-hour long party wearing a beer garden and outdoor stadium-sized TV screen party hat. That’s Huy. Basically, Flèche Wallonne is all about the Mur de Huy.

There is no reason, tactical or otherwise, to watch/spectate/attend/support/view/participate-in/take-in Wallonne from any place other than somewhere on Huy. And that’s why Manual For Speed (me) paid some dude named Stijn11Pronounced stain, like shit stain, the one in your underwear because you’re on the back of a motorcycle and the dude driving is driving so fast and so hairy. with UCI Moto Credentials (and a driver’s license) 308.00 American dollars to drive me for the day.

“Flèche is my favorite race, it’s all about the Mur de Huy. When everything comes together and you’ve got your momentum going and you hit that climb, you don’t really hear anything in particular, it’s just atmosphere, and everything else except getting to the top of the hill as fast possible becomes irrelevant.”

Stijn, who does not speak a “whole lot” of English, and who’s day-job is running N°7even Bikes (former sponsors of Marco Polo Cycling Team Donckers Koffie ), was pretty young, kinda reckless, a little prepared and totally awesome. Stijn claimed we’d see the race 11 times plus all three laps up Huy; in actuality we saw the race 7 times plus two laps up Huy, which, after four hours (or whatever) of doing 110km down the back alleys and goat paths of rural Wallonia was plenty. In Europe they limit the number of motos with “full” course privileges to something like three bikes. Full course moto privileges go to the same driver-photographer teams they’ve gone to since the beginning of time. While we were credentialed, we only had secondary course privileges. That meant Stijn and I were allowed to drive on the course ahead of and behind the Peloton but not up through the middle of it, which up through the middle of it is the more common or typical way it’s done, at least in American Races like the TOC, Utah and Colorado. Secondary privileges was mostly fine anyway because Stijn had a semi-sophisticated, quasi-efficient RP (routing plan) in the form of map strapped to his gas tank and a GPS unit mounted to his handlebars.

It felt like storm chasing a spandex herd in pleasant weather.

After the start we raced through Wallonia alternating between the course whenever possible and a vast, amorphous, ever-changing, ever-evolving, sometimes hidden, none-too-specific and sometimes unpaved network of “roads,” in an effort to follow and photograph the race. It felt like storm chasing a spandex herd in pleasant weather. Speaking of pleasant weather, the weather was in fact pleasant—mid 70’s and sunny. For the me the sensation was a little bit like apparating (see Harry Potter) all over Belgium/West Virginia.

There was a lot of farty motorcycle noise, lots of leaning and tilting, lots of skidding and last minute braking, lots of different road surfaces (a lot of them something other than smooth), lots of driveway 180s, lots of lapping roundabouts a few times before finally setting-off in what seemed like a random direction, lots of beeping, lots of watching new growth forests (the kind that go by in hypnotic almost-rows) rush past, lots of squinting into the wind and the sun, lots of smashed Coke cans stuffed into my back pocket sticky and dribbling, lots and lots and lots of punching into and out of invisible clouds of cow shit smell, lots of street furniture near misses, lots of passing (barely!) between cars and trucks and horses and kids on bikes and everything really, lots of reaching into my musette bag for this or that worried I might drop it at 160km/h and lose it, lots of narrow lanes, lots of paved paths cutting and arcing across a recently tilled field on an open and wondrous ridge, lots of small bridges over little creaks and runs, lots of dirt in my teeth, and lots (as in TOO MUCH!) of Stjin reviewing and assessing our RP on his map or GPS for seconds at a time which seconds at a time seemed like minutes at a time while almost driving into various shit like walls and parked cars—and but periodically we’d come out of a dreamlike nowhere onto the course, and with five or ten or whatever minutes to spare, we’d wait, then shoot the race, and then split, again. We did this all over Wallonia deferring the epic party that is Huy until the very last minute.

Photographing a race from the back of a motorcycle may be the single most disconnected and personally-disappointing way to see a race. But, it is an experience.

The race starts in the town Binche (which start is new, as it used to start in the town of Charleroi, a muncipality of Wallonia located in the province of Hainaut, Belgium—the inhabitants are called Caroliregiens or Carolos) and finishes in Huy.





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