The day before we drive the course, most of it. We pass citizens old and young caring for the course; primping it. They shovel and scrape horse manure from the road. They sweep-back gravel, dirt, rocks and various farm offal-type refuse and rummage. Most of them appear to be farmers and gentlemen farmers. Taken as whole the scene appears to be some form of rural civic pride for which there is no American or English word.
We also pass hundreds, thousands maybe, of sportive riders. The day before most European races, the course is open to an organized version of the public called a Sportive. Like all amateur cycling events the spectrum of bicycles and bicycle rider present is great, too great at times, and but here, on this course, the distance combined with several sections of steep and narrow cobbled roads (using the word “road” liberally) limits the field to fairly serious road cyclists, most in club kit and white cotton socks. They ride the Oude Kwaremont and ride/walk the Koppenberg; a cobbled goat path. The more serious, those with an interest in speed and it’s pursuit, take note of the course’s overall distance, it’s myriad surfaces, especially the cobble sections. The course’s pitch, it’s right-angle turns combined with a sudden narrowing of the road, by half as wide. And they take note of their time, effort and what gear they can run where and when. Because tomorrow they’ll drink beer and watch the race from the side of the course, on generator powered TV sets, also on the side of the course, from inside a pub, also likely more or less on the side of course, or from inside their low-ceilinged and dimly lit living rooms.
And while they scream and shout and generally enjoy one of the greatest days of the year, especially this year as one of their own will go on to win it, they will also compare and contrast. Maybe not consciously and certainly with no serious aims or illusions, but all the same, they will think about the extreme physical, emotional and psychological fortitude going down, and all from the context and point of view of their own efforts the day before. They will for this day be connected to Professional Speed, though like most of us, still seriously incapable of it.