Come late March and early April though, the heart of every Belgian beats a little faster. It's Classics season, when the country's cycling heroes like Tom Boonen, Phillipe Gilbert and Stijn Devolder prove their mettle against the rest of the pro peloton on Belgium's narrow country roads and sharp cobbled climbs. The crowds lining the routes of the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege can be 10 deep, their cheering deafening. The weather can be unpredictable, sunny and warm one race, cold, windy and rainy the next. The cobbles can be punishing, jostling and chattering the riders, slippery when wet, dusty when dry.
The heart of Belgians' cycling passion is Flanders. Ground Zero is Oudenaarde, a cozy little burg with a magnificent ornate town hall at one end of its central square. It's also home to the Tour of Flanders Museum. Imagine, an entire museum dedicated to one bike race!
The Flanders' tourist bureau knows its customers; it's created an extensive collection of cycling route maps, and the roads and bike paths that comprise those routes are well marked by signs. As with any rainy ride, once we started to warm up, the cold and misery of the day seemed to subside. The riding was sublime, barely any traffic on mostly smooth pavement, through tidy villages, past muddy farm fields where giant white cows stood resolutely against the wind. We also weren't the only cyclists crazy enough to be out in this weather; this is Flanders, after all.
Photo, left: The cobbles of the Muur.
Which is just what awaited us at the brasserie attached to the Tour of Flanders Museum. Still dressed in our drenched, muddy cycling gear because none of us had thought to bring a dry change of underclothes, we sat on the bike seat bar stools, surrounded by photos and trinkets of cycling's great champions. We nursed our chocolate chaud and Flanderian beers and began weaving the legend of our day as Hard Men (and Woman) of Flanders.