Belgium’s major professional bike races

I’ve just been to Belgium. Yes, it was very enjoyable, thank you very much. If you’ve never been, the nation revolves around moules and mayonnaise; beer, bad weather and bike races. At least one of those warrants closer attention on this website.

Belgian day races

When it comes to professional cycling, there is the Tour de France, then daylight, then more daylight, then the Giro. However, the Belgians are more than a little fond of bikes as well. I spent most of the weekend dodging cyclists in Bruges and so it’s little surprise that they produced rather a good one once upon a time.

Belgian races aren’t like the Tour though. The ENECO Tour is a stage race which takes place in the Benelux countries, but this takes second billing to the classics – single day races which take place in the spring. If you refresh your memory as to the bike races which actually matter, the biggest Belgian day races are E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Also, of the three remaining day races on my list, Paris-Roubaix and Amstel Gold take place but a cobble’s throw away. Basically, they’ve cornered the market.

That’s a lot of races to get your head around, but we can make life easier by splitting them into two categories – cobbled classics and Ardennes classics. The former take place in Flanders, the Flemish-speaking northern part of Belgium, while the latter take place in Wallonia, the French-speaking southern region.

Cobbled classics

Everything builds towards the Ronde van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders), a single day race in April which is one of the five Monuments of cycling. E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem are a notch below that and then there are semi-classics and the short stage race Three Days of De Panne below that.

These races are very distinctive. The trees are bare, the weather is frequently bad, the road surfaces are poor and the riders are big and powerful. Many of the races are pretty flat, meaning it is the cobbles which split the peloton, but there are hills. These aren’t long, alpine climbs. They are short and brutal and you need real strength for them.

The Ronde van Vlaanderen, for example, combines cobbles and climbs to devastating effect. The Paterberg hits 20 per cent, which is worth plenty more on a road surface which is slow when it’s dry and slippery when it rains. The Koppenberg is a similar gradient, but slightly longer and often causes this to happen.

The cobbled classics attract a particular type of rider. You can see a list of recent winners here. Tom Boonen (who’s Belgian) and Fabian Cancellara feature frequently.

Ardennes classics

These are slightly less distinctive, but beer-swilling, frites-munching crowds still line the roads and attest to the sport’s popularity in Belgium. Ardennes week features three races, of which La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege take place in Belgium (Amstel Gold is the other, in the Netherlands).

In recent years, La Fleche Wallonne (literally, The Walloon Arrow) has been won by whoever’s fastest up the Mur de Huy at the finish line. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is one of the five Monuments and is a fiendishly tough race where the height gain comes via a seemingly endless series of short, steep climbs rather than the steady rises seen in Grand Tours. That said, many of the winners have also been strong stage racers, which partly reflects the lack of cobbles.

When?

April or thereabouts. Here are the dates of the five major Belgian day races in 2014:

  • E3 Harelbeke – Friday, March 28
  • Gent-Wevelgem – Sunday, March 30
  • Ronde van Vlaanderen – Sunday, April 6
  • La Fleche Wallonne – Wednesday, April 23
  • Liege-Bastogne-Liege – Sunday, April 27