The Hunters: Chasing Het Nieuwsblad

This was no slow afternoon on the Serengeti. Outside the animals were making faces now, cutting their teeth, and in the distance, but sometimes strangely above our heads, above the car rental, you heard a lion roar. It was one continuous roar.
At one point some hyenas fell back from the pack and came a little too close for our liking. The car momentarily swirled into the ditch, it was hard to keep it steady on this back country road.
“Be careful. They are from Poland!” shouted Jakob Kristian. “See the CCC on their back?”
“I see it. I see it!”
“These ones have been invited. So they might try anything today.”
I looked at their orange backs bobbing up and down. The black patterns, it was almost a stylistic vision, they were easy to spot in this gloomy afternoon light. Most of all. They were truly beautiful.
“Shoot one!”
“Yes. Yes. Get closer. Keep it there. Steady. Steady…”
Then one nasty little fella pulled over, he slowed down, coming to a complete halt. This looked like an injury, and we pulled up next to him. We were right. His back leg was severely punctured. Jakob Kristian got the camera out, but then the small orange figure turned, viciously hissing at our car.
“I’ll roll up the window,” said Jakob Kristian and pulled his camera inside the car. Then he focused and shot him from inside the car.
Yes. This was no slow afternoon on the Serengeti.

Before Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the race was called Omloop Het Volk so fans still call it that. Het Volk is what they call it. And together with another race called Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the two combined are considered the Opening Weekend of professional road racing in Belgium.
This is where the so-called Hard Men of the sport, for the first time in a new season – and this is either in the last weekend of February or in the first week of March – show up to fight it out. Or. Some do. Others won’t be competing. The average rider, those who can’t win or even compete, will stay in the peloton, together with his equals. They remind you of a bunch of small boys that plays with dolls. The peloton is their kindergarten.
The biggest stars are here to build form, so often it will be riders from the second shelf – those who aspire to become champions themselves at one point – who’ll get a chance to win. For example: if Tom Boonen wins, Fabian Cancellara will think that his Belgian rival is peaking a month too early. And Boonen might even worry about it. That sort of thinking. That sort of strategy. Still. Once the racing is on, the biggest stars – and now it gets complicated – will often get into it, into the fight, anyway. Because they are full-blown competitors and theory is one thing. So if a certain rival tries to test himself, his legs, another might just want to test himself, too, his own legs, meaning that he won’t back down, although he probably should, actually you have to, his DS might say, so he tells him no, but it’s a little difficult to accept, the mental submission, plus, and also, so you see.
This is not an easy sport.
Opening Weekend in Belgium also means foul weather. The winter wind from the North Sea might be sweeping across the flat terrain of Belgium. It will most likely rain. Or snow. There will be mud. The parcours of these two races will sometimes be mended just hours before the start due to the latest weather conditions, in fact, the previous year, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was cancelled due to snow, and this year’s poster shows Danish Hard Man Lars Bak’s frozen face, his helmet covered in blue ice, he looks like someone who has just been rescued from Svalbard, and cycling fans love all of this, because the toughness of their sport gives them more ammunition when comparing it to the overpaid, sissy-ass, football players, but if he was just rescued from Svalbard, then why would he be wearing a cycling helmet?
This is not an easy sport to explain.
For many riders, it’s about getting through the day. Either they don’t like the weather, they are not on form this early in the season, or they just don’t know how to race on these roads, with all the cornering, the constant braking and building up speed, the small cobbled hills and so forth. It will simply wear a rider out. Zapping energy out of him. Energy he also needs to stay warm. So all day is zap. Each small climb, zap. Each section of cobbles, zap.
Zap zap zap.
And there is more. Because many riders just flew in from Dubai or Oman. From training camps in Southern France, Mallorca or The Canaries. That is a temperature drop of some thirty degrees.
Here is what Brian Holm, DS at Omega Pharma – Quick Step, himself a former Hard Man of the Spring Classics, once said: Walter Godefroot, our legendary Belgian directeur sportif at Telekom, he would say before a race: “Listen up! We are in Belgium. It’s cold and it’s raining. Half of the peloton won’t make it today. They have no morale. They are scared. And the other half are out of shape this early in the season. Chances are good. Now get out there and make me a result!”

Back on the savanna, we overtook another group. We were now at a stage where the animals were scattered all over the place. Predators were chasing predators were chasing the predator. There were a lot of predators. We discussed our next move, our next stop, where Jakob Kristian might possibly shoot more of them.
“Enough of this savanna shit,” he said and took another gel. “There are 60 kilometres to go, and this is turning out to be a full-on fucking bike race!”
“Is that strawberry? You don’t like strawberry.”
And then we got lost. We were inside a small village. But now there were no riders. Or cars. Or roadside officials. There were no spectators. The race, the whole afternoon’s occasion had evaporated or just drifted away like a small storm.
“Where did everybody go?” I said. “I don’t know,” said   Jakob Kristian. “You see a helicoptor?” “Nope,” I said. “But I need another gel. Do we have more gels?” “Try left here,” Jakob Kristian said. “There is a climb somewhere ahead. Let’s get some overview. Here. We only have strawberry.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Give it to me.”
“Be careful now. You drive so fast. What if we had someone important in here. You ever think that? I sometimes think that.”
“Who in the fuck would that be?” I said, absolutely gunning the car across a green field, the piece of tarmac laid out was perhaps three metres wide. “We can barely stand our own compa… Wait. I know. Lance Armstrong!”
“Inside our car!” laughed Jakob Kristian. “There’s a thought. And a name I bet you haven’t said out loud in a while, huh?”
“Yes. Let me just say it. Fucking Lance Armstrong.”

As we approached another small village, sidestepping around one particularly slippery corner, we saw a helicoptor about a mile ahead hovering above a treeline. We sped up, eager to get back in the action, and Jakob Kristian reloaded.
“Look out!!”
I stood on the brakes, the car was sliding forward uncontrollably, the sudden shaking of the whole chassis moving forward, sliding, sliding. “Ohhh noo…” From a hidden street two riders had suddently appeared right in front of the car. Their colourful bodies becoming increasingly bigger inside the front window frame. It was all a combination of words now. Speed. Distance. Time.
We came to a violent halt. And then we sat there. The two riders disappeared around a corner, one of them took a quick look back at us.
“Jesus,” whispered Jakob Kristian. “Are we on the race course. Or are they lost, too?”
I looked in the rear mirror. Another group was coming up from behind us. There was no time to think about it. I put it in first and floored it out onto open terrain. We were a little too deep inside Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a distinct feeling that we were behind enemy lines, completely surrounded by bike riders, and that we clearly didn’t belong here. As we sat in the car feeling we had become an integrated part of the race, I began seeing visions on how Omloop was transforming into Okbo somehow. The letters in the name of the race were like a rubber wine, some sort of a creepy cartoon plant, grabbing my name, swallowing up my own letters. My name was now Okloop. No. It was Omloopkb.
“Will you shut up and just drive to the finish line?”
“I’m Okbloop,” I said.
Then the race radio said Dries Devenyns. “Wow!” shouted Jakob Kristian. “Dries is in the break.”
“I’m Okbooolpm. Wait. Okbloom.”
“Imagine if he wins! Then we’ll know a real winner of a real Belgian. Spring. Classic.”
That’s the way he said it. Jakob Kristian turned the camera at me and pressed the shutter hard, as he always does it when he gets excited. DANG-DANG-DANG-DANG-DANG.

Up ahead the race had been evolving. Riders were fighting to stay in there, the bergs had made their impact, all in all, this was turning out to be exactly what we all wanted: it was a dogfight. A cold, rainy, windy, Belgian dogfight. And nobody knew what was going on. Seen from above, the way this was spread out, with the parcours looking like a confused or undetermined drawing, a child sketch almost, riders must have been going in all sorts of directions. Yes. People had to rely on their instincts from now on.
We looked for a place to throw the car. Hopping, dancing across the small roads, these corridors, it was the old trenches. This was where Britain and Germany settled things. Whole regiments were lying here. In the countless cemeteries. Properly buried. Others, they’d just covered in dirt. Bones underneath our feet. Artillery shells. No need to clean up, history told us the neighbours would come again. The regiments and tanks had an easy way here. Totally flat this is. Like their beer.

“50 euros on Greg Van Avermaet,” said Jakob Kristian.
“Good call. But this is Ian Stannard’s race. Just wait!”
The race radio then said Lars Boom and Nicki Terpstra were leading the race.
We stood there waiting. Waiting. Waiting. A minute is a long time when you are high on adrenalin. And this was what it was all about. The anticipation. The nervous energy. This was why we were here. This was always the case with a bike race once it got underway. It was such a compressed powerful feeling standing on the road, waiting to see the riders. And you had to capture that moment. Grab it. Let it overpower you. Let their speed lift you off the ground. The moment is so short. It happens in less than 12 seconds, and then afterwards you want to shout into the air, something primal, just shout FUCK or PUSSY or, no – not pussy, maybe something else, like, erm, like, erm, well, let’s just run with pussy.
We had to stay alert now. Yes. So that we would be able to transmit this feeling. Yes. Into the pages of the magazine.
“Aren’t you glad we got down here again?” said Jakob Kristian.
“I don’t want to write about it. I just want to see it.”
“Me too. I can’t get emotional looking through the lens. And I miss that.”
“Imagine if we told people to stop reading about it and go themselves. Would we lose our jobs?”
“Stop talking. So far I have 500 photos of your right ear. I need to concentrate. Look! They are coming now! The riders are coming.”
And he was right. They were coming. Over the small hill, we could see them getting closer, passing the old windmill, the motorcycles out in front, their headlights lighting up the wet tarmac, as a double side effect, the riders, now they were a pack of insane animals again, the roar from the helicopter following them, them trying to escape it, trying to escape the weekend hunters, with all of the noise that surrounds it, this was deafening, and then, when the small group passed us, so close you get their spray of water on you, the rebounds of small rocks will hit you, and there isn’t a human sound, just the image of the twisted faces, and I never understood why he didn’t love bike racing, Francis Bacon, why didn’t he find his inspiration there, all those twisted faces, why didn’t anybody tell him to go next Sunday, just to have a quick look, besides, that’s all you get anywhere, a quick look, instead of sitting there, looking looking looking at a picture in the studio, just paint it by memory, Francis, like the rest of us, the idea is to prolong the moment in your own memory, I’d say that to him, and he’d shrug it off and order us a round of drinks.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is on Saturday, February 27. This feature originally appeared in 1 issue 52

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