Well the weather might not be, but the racing is certainly hotting up in Belgium. The Tour of Flanders is not too far away now and much of the early race action is now geared around preparation for the biggest race of the Belgian calendar. Although not as big as the monument classics, Nokere Koerse has a good history itself and this is a racing highlight of the year for the locals, who pull out all the stops to make it a great day out.
We met up with the Navigators team before hand and they had said it was going to be fast and competitive, but perhaps a bunch sprint as the course was predominantly flat, with a cobbled hill at the finish. DFL seemed to think the same and with Russell Downing feeling strong they always have a chance of shaking things up.
The DFL team had radios checked and were looking apprehensive rather than nervous. Still fancied their chances though after a string of good results early this season and they're all looking very fit. However, some of the younger Belgian riders in other teams looked positively petrified as Frank Vandenbrouke and Jeremy Hunt were introduced to the crowd at the sign-in. There are some big names here and this is no local 'fish 'n chipper'. The race start rolled out of Oudenaarde under glorious blue skies and although the sun was bright, there was a definite chill in the air.
It was one of those races that without a 'man' to watch out for and no clear favourite it went eyeballs out pretty much from the start. The first 45km loop was done in well under the hour and then the peloton moved onto a shorter circuit for 11 laps and 11 times through the village of Nokere. The village was rammed out, but we couldn't resist camping out there for a few laps and soaking up the atmosphere. The Belgians don't just love cycling, they understand the nuances and pressures of racing too - the tactics and the fitness levels these boys have. They also like gambling (Jeremy Hunt 5-1, I'll have some of that) they also love beer, so the cafes emptied every time the riders approached and then filled up again once the race had all passed by. It's chaos.
Anyone breaking away or having a dig, receives rapturous applause - but the stragglers get the biggest cheer, it's a great atmosphere. They like their racing to be positive in Belgium, so any rider strong enough to have a go is hailed a hero, which means that the racing is 'full gas' all the time (or so it seemed to me) each lap they actually got faster on the cobbles and as the race splintered and re-grouped there was little respite from the action. True entertainment, make no mistake, with all the riders keen to get to the front and make a name for themselves.
After a few passes of the peloton and watching them shake their stuff accross the cobbles, we walked out of the town and into some typically bleak flandrian countryside, bathed in bright spring sunshine. Each lap saw a change in the action and after an early split the Rabobank boys pulled the race back together and in the process spat out the back a fair few tired looking neo-pros. Navigators still had their Irish National Champion David O'Loughlin in there (riding a very nice matching emerald green C50) and Ben Brooks looking quite comfortable, DFL with Russ and Deano and Yanto Barker looking suitably fresh(?!) but it was hard to see anyone being able to beat the Rabobank, UniBet, Quickstep or Lotto squads.
Jeremy Hunt's name was mentioned several times over the PA (sorry my Flemish is non-existant, but they certainly fancied him as a winner) and I was hoping my 5 Euro bet would come good. As the race progressed it was clear that the second breakaway of the day, now with all the main teams involved would finally stick, the sprinters were probably horrified then when Bert Roesems drifted away and nailed it to the finish. The run-in was twisty and fast and they had no chance to organise a chase. Jeremy Hunt looked a bit isolated as they powered across the fields and no one picked up the pursuit.
The race winner was 27 seconds up by the finish and Jeremy Hunt narrowly missed second. The race over and the Belgians grab their cars and rush back home or to work. The racing in Belgium carries on whatever day of the week and crowds and traffic are in perfect harmony with the organisation, it's as if the race happened every day... Oh yes, silly me, this is Belgium, so it does!
We have loads of pictures to sort out, but a gallery soon...
1. Bert Roesems (Bel) Davitamon-Lotto
2. Wouter Weylandt (Bel) Quickstep-Innergetic 0.27
3. Jeremy Hunt (GBr) Unibet.com
4. Markus Eichler (Ger) Team Regiostrom-Senges
5. Wouter Mol (Ned) Fondas - P3 Transfer
6. David Boucher (Fra) Unibet.com
7. Frederik Willems (Bel) Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen
8. Geert Steurs (Bel) Pictoflex Bikeland Hyundai
9. Mathieu Claude (Fra) Bouygues Telecom
10. Anthony Ravard (Fra) Bouygues Telecom
37. Russell Downing (GBr) DFL-Cyclingnews @1.38
54. Yanto Barker (GBr) DFL-Cyclingnews
75. Dean Downing (GBr) DFL-Cyclingnews