Glancing up from my position in the Race Director’s car at the start of the 60th Edition on the E3 Harelbeke spring classic, I could clearly see Race Director Philippe Vermeeren through the glass sunroof, glancing behind I could see professional riders cycling just millimetres from the vehicle, and to the side, even more riders within touching distance from my open window.
I have watched many bike races before but never from this privileged position right in the centre of the action, thanks to winning the raffle organised by Jonathan Baxter of Baxter Cycling Trips to raise monies for the Dave Rayner Fund. The fund supports up and coming riders by providing grants to enable them to further their careers by riding abroad. The likes of David Millar (one of the first recipients), through to Adam Yates have benefited from the monies raised in memory of the successful professional rider from Yorkshire, who tragically died at the age of twenty – seven after a night-out in Bradford in 1994.
Jonathan and Philippe had also organised an interpreter; Dimitri Pieters had been introduced to me over breakfast and had immediately given me an overview on how the day would unfold, as well as tips and advice. Dimitri turned out to be a very friendly and knowledgeable guide, with excellent family connections to the spring classics with his grandfather, Sylvain Grysolle, winning the Tour of Flanders in 1945. Dimitri proudly showed me photos of the winner’s cup made from tin due to precious metals being so scarce after the second world war.
As we gently rolled out of Harelbeke through the neutral zone, I had my first taste on how skilful both riders, and drivers have to be. One dab on the brake or unexpected reduction in speed would have caused a disaster before the race even started. These skills also applied to the motorcycle riders; at one point the road narrowed and one of the photographer’s motorcycles came within a few centimetres of colliding with the side of the car. Olivier, our driver and Philippe’s son, calmly kept his cool, maintained his path and speed and somehow a collision was avoided.
Philippe dropped the flag and the race was on. We sped ahead of the riders and the on-board race radio sprang into life. Commentary and information was provided by the UCI officials in following vehicles in three languages, Flemish (the UCI always use the host’s home language), French and lastly English. As Philippe got to work orchestrating the race through his radio, Dimitri instantly informed me of the issues being so calmly managed.
I had expected to experience an atmosphere of tension and excitement within the car, but remarkably it was just the opposite. Both Philippe and Olivier were completely coolheaded, and unflustered. Certainly the first part of the race helped with any attempt of a breakaway being stopped by the peloton, and thus less organisation of safety and team cars was needed.
Even so, there were five rail crossings along the route, and with visions of the calamity that prevailed in the 2015 Paris Roubaix where several riders crossed a closed rail crossing, I watched with interest on how Philippe would control the situation.
The first rail crossing was soon upon us and the timings couldn’t have looked worse. The riders were racing at an average speed of 43.3 kph, perfect for a clash with the train that was due at the first crossing at 1300 hrs.
As Philippe calmly radioed the rail official to inform him of the situation, I prepared my camera for a world exclusive of another race delayed by a train or worse. I need not have worried as the rail official must have been a cycling fan and simply radioed back to confirm he would delay the train for a few minutes at the station. This approach followed at all other crossings whereby if it looked like there would be a clash, the rail official simply delayed the train.
The real fun started in the second half of the race. At around 93km, the first climb appeared. La Houppe (3440m, avg 3.3%, max 10%) was an introduction to what was to follow; thirteen more climbs, six of which were cobbled, all with throngs of people each side of the road, and with the more popular climbs such as Paterberg, swarms of people in the road.
It was certainly a tough course; no wonder it was traditionally known as ‘Little Flanders’. However, it is now known in it’s own right, attracting big names such Sagen, Boonen, Van Avermaet, Boasson Hagen and Kristoff to name just a few.
For what felt like the hundredth time, the lead motorcycle with the timing board showing how far the red flag was in front of the race, sped by before the next and first cobbled ascent of Oude Kruisberg, quickly followed by the non cobbled climbs of Knokteberg, then Hotondberg, Kortekeer, warming the riders for infamous Taaienberg. This is a cobbled rise of 650m, average 9.5% with a maximum of 18%. I had tackled this climb in the Tour of Flanders Cyclo last year, painful memories came flooding back. It was even uncomfortable sitting on leather car seats!
By now live race footage was being beamed into the car by Belgium television, giving another tool for Philippe to control and coordinate the race in his equable manner. It was somewhat bizarre to watch the breakaway of five riders on TV and to look over my shoulder to see them in real life.
In-between climbs we came across fans cycling on the route, who were promptly and firmly told to stop and move to the side. It wasn’t just fans that felt the firm hand of the Race Director. A VIP car that had ignored warnings by following assistant directors was told to leave the course by Philippe. All examples of the tight grip Philippe had on the ‘command and control’ of the race.
Shortly after the cobbled climbs of Eikenberg (1200m, avg 5.5%, max 11%) and Stationsberg (460m, avg 3.2%, max 5.7%), and the flat cobbled section at Mariaborrestraat, a different call was received by Philippe. It was inevitable that even following Dimitri’s advice and having little to drink at breakfast, four hours in a car which at times travelled fast over pavé, a call of nature was going to happen at some point. Dimitri made the internationally known shout “Pee pee”, Philippe looked at his watch, the race programme and route, and indicated to Olivier to put his foot down to create a window of opportunity for the call to be answered. Luckily we had just joined a main road allowing Olivier to progress safely at speed on the closed and wide carriageway. As we turned off onto a small narrow road, we soon caught up with the cavalcade of safety marshals en-route to the next hazard. Philippe indicated to Oliver to pull over into a farm drive and told us in no uncertain terms we just had one and half minutes before he would drive off. I have never felt so much pressure to perform!
With the inconvenience of the convenience – stop over, we once again sped off. Amazingly even with our sprint to get ahead and a world record stop of less than one and half minutes, the breakaway was virtually upon us.
The bergs were coming in quick succession now, we turned off a small lane to start the climb of the the Paterberg (700m, avg 12%, max 20%). Immediately crowds could be seen lining the route to the top. As we sped up the cobbles, Olivier added to the noise of the cheers and shouts by using the car horn to warn spectators to move out the way. The crowds reminded me of those seen on an alpine stages of the Tour, with a multitude of excited individuals moving just enough to let the vehicle pass. At the top the course turned sharp left with photographers positioned either side of the bend in front of the large and densely packed supporters. I held my breathe expecting to feel the crunch of our rear wheels running over someone’s toes. We were that close.
After a short and speedy blast on roads again, passing the memorial to Karel Van Wijnendaele, Father of the Tour of Flanders, on the Ronde Van Vlaanderenstraat (Tour of Flanders Street), we hit the famous Oude Kwaremont (2200m, avg 4.2%, max 11%). Here crowds were even greater, and again just centimetres from touching the car. It certainly gave a ‘cyclist’s eye view’ of what it is like to climb these bergs with the cheering crowds right next to you.
Although the cobbled climbs were over, there was one more flat cobbled section between the last two climbs of Karnemelkbeekstraat and Tiegemberg before the run into the finish.
Neatly Philippe finished his stint in the car as he started, shaking off his shoes, donning his woolly hat and standing on his seat to view the run – in from the open sunroof.
We approached the finish line with spectators banging on the advertising hoardings, as I watched the TV coverage showing our car speeding off to the left as the Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert fought for the line. Dimitri and I was on the edge of our seats as we studied the in – board TV screen to see who would win the battle. Even Philippe showed signs of excitement. As Olivier parked the car, Greg Van Avermaet crossed the line.
Race over, car parked, Philippe donned his jacket and left for a debrief with the Police and other race officials, Dimitri and I donned our coats and headed for the hospitality building!
I caught up with Philippe a little later who humbly informed me the UCI had said this was one of the best run and organised races they had encountered. Praise indeed. But then it is completely understandable considering Philippe’s experience. He has been involved in the E3 for the last twenty – five years and has held every position from Control Marshall, Lantern Rouge, Regulator, rising to Assistant Director which he held for eighteen years, before landing the top job three years ago.
For me though it was an experience of a life time, one I’ll never forget. From now, every time I see a Race Director’s car I will always think of my time at the 2017 E3 Harelbeke.