It's below freezing outside and mildly blustering wind is not helping my cause, repeatedly brushing against face like a chilled hand after a long snowball fight. I'm wearing a wool sweater, down pullover and a jacket that is supposed to windproof, with my long scarf covering all but my eyes, with the occasional capability to reach my mouth.
The beer in my left hand is quite cold, but I'm at the point where I'm already frozen enough that it serves more as a stimulant than a chiller. In the other hands, the sausage is a miracle. Each bite sends a cascade of warm oil that seems to somehow permeate my whole body, down to my toes even, so long ago frozen I'd forgotten of their existence. This has gone on for an hour, and will continue for at least that time.
Regardless, on reflecting on my suffering, it really is quite minimal. I'm standing in the Sint Pietersplein, just fifteen meters from the finish line of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad - the opener to the spring professional cycling races - dubbed the classics.
As I say quite minimal, I mean it in a strictly comparative sense. The men I'm here to watch, nearly all of them heroes are in the same weather as me. Yet they don't get the luxury of the beer and sausage, the wind is amplified on the bike, in a workhorse a position they've held for the past four hours at over forty kilometers per hour. I know they're feeling - so I quit it with my self pity.
It is said that the classics are for "hardmen." The races are long and cold and an important feature of them is the pave (cobblestone). There's a huge screen at the finish line broadcasting the race and the quality is so good that you can see the bikes shaking up and down on the outdated roads. There are tricks to minimize the impact, but no matter what it is a rough ride.
Its a strong passion for cycling that brought me to Gent for the weekend, and it unites the crowd marvelously. You don't stand outside in such cold for a few seconds of action if you don't truly care. I'm a huge cycling fan, but I've never seen passion to this degree before. Before the race, older men waited outside team buses with binders full of every single pro-cyclists picture, hoping to collect every autograph by the end of the season. Children run around in too big cycling gear, hoping for a used bidon (water bottle) to add to their collection, a small token that will fuel their fire until they too race the big races.
On screen, a French man named Chavanel gets away. I would have loved to see a French win, if not American of course. But he gets caught once more by the breakaway group and soon to more go off the front, this time a Belgian and an Italian. A ripple of excitement passes through the crowd as the move sticks - nothing could be more exciting than a home win. I share in the glee, as I prefer the Belgian.
Cycling is a beautiful sport as its less about who you support, but who you don't. With its unclear line between team sport and individual, the constant reworking of teams and different types of races and riders, it is nearly impossible to have a favorite rider or team - or even a few. Nationalism is a strong indicator of preferences, but beyond that, cyclists like winners who follow the rules and have panache. An ethical winner tends to have many fans. It is easy to be a fair-weather fan in cycling, and its not a bad thing at all.
Depsite getting away from the group of about 12 riders only 30 km from the finish, the duo built up a lead of 40 seconds, and finished with about that. It is a beautiful thing the end of a bicycle race. The faces are so strained, with bikes flailing wildly underneath the powerful sprints. If not for the distance between riders, you can nearly tell the winner and losers by looking at these faces. It was possible to see in the Belgian's face - he was empty, leaving the Italian enough time to throw his hands up in the air in celebration across the line.
They took the spring on the right side of the road, where I was standing. I was so close I could have touched them. But I didn't need too. When you're that close that bikes sound as if they are underneath you, the heavy breathing gives you the illusion that you are part of the sprint rather than a spectator. Then as quickly as they approached, the race has finished and the moment passes.
Cycling is a magicial sport because the fans can emphasize so well with the racer.s While we may not ride as hard or fast or long, we reach the same breaking point on our rides, and then keep on pushing it. Its that that brings hundreds or thousands out to races, standing for hours in the cold in city squares and on country roads alike for a view of our heroes that may only last a few seconds. Its the excitement and comprehension that brings us out again and again. We live for the sport and no matter how many heroes fall of their thrones or are taken down or give in to cheating, it doesn't changing the humming of wheels, the clanging of gears shifting, the elation of flying down a descent or the thrill of a spring that leaves everything on the tarmac, either while racing or watching. The passion is based on the action, not the participants that we watch, and thus, cycling lives on.