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Gallery: Behind the scenes at the Tour of Flanders

20 May 2022

Words and photography Pete Goding 

‘Tomorrow is going to be hard work for you,’ shouts the head of press as he hands me my accreditation. ‘The police are closing off the through roads to the Kwaremont and Paterberg. They’re worried about the crowd sizes.’

My heart sinks. ‘Welcome to the Tour of Flanders,’ I mutter under my breath, though not softly enough, it seems. ‘Don’t blame us, blame the police – it’s out of our control!’ the gruff voice barks back at me.

Through force of habit I attend the race photographers’ briefing in the centre of Antwerp, where the familiar faces of moto drivers and photographers gather in the shadows of the Hilton’s corporate entertainment suite.

It seems the rules have tightened, and only a few photographers on motos can be on the legendary Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs at any one time this year – news received with a groan of discontent from those gathered.

With Covid restrictions no longer in force, police are concerned that crowds will be bigger than ever this year and are trying to make sure riders aren’t overrun by fans. Or, it seems, photographers.

This is my first race of the season and only the second time I’ve shot Flanders, something that doesn’t help my access privileges. I try to explain I’ve worked from race vehicles on the Tour de France, Tour of Britain, Saudi, Oman – name the country – but it falls on deaf ears.

I am not granted the hallowed green ‘maximum access’ bib awarded to those who have put in the work at Flanders over the years.

But I was expecting this, and know Flanders can be worked outside the ‘bubble’ thanks to the warren of roads surrounding the course that enable multiple chances to exit and rejoin proceedings.

The stage is set

The morning sunshine skims the rooftops of Antwerp, illuminating the faces of the eager fans surrounding the large stage at the start. I leave my moto driver Frederick at the start line, agreeing to meet back up with him five minutes before the start, although he would prefer ten.

But I know the later you leave the start line the better, as the favourites tend to arrive at the last minute.

The square fills up with spectators and the atmosphere is buzzing. The new guard mixes with the old as Tadej Pogačar and Greg Van Avermaet take turns gracing the stage.

I work my way from one end of the square to the other, captivated by the beams of sunlight casting deep shadows and providing a spotlight on small pockets of spectators. The atmosphere is building, grinning fans already laden with dripping trays of Belgian beer. It’s barely 9am.

As my eyes survey the third storey of jagged Flemish architecture for potential vantage points, I nearly collide with a tray piled with full beer glasses. Collision avoided, I navigate to the bar below, where the proprietor leads me up a dark staircase to a small storeroom strewn with boxes and bottles.

It seems I’m not the only one with the same idea and my colleagues wave me in, standing aside to allow me to compose my photo. At this moment a sudden rush of dread envelops me as I see the final riders leaving the stage. I check my watch to see we’re fast approaching the start. Time to get going.

Also see: Gallery: The best images from the Tour of Flanders

The hallowed climb

Frederick and I hit the road in good time, with a five-minute head-start on the front of the race as planned. Having covered the race a few times before, Frederick knows the roads and suggests we stop at the tunnel on the way out of town.

I’d like to stop and shoot an ad sign above the road as it seems so apposite – Last one in buys the round – but there is no time for friviloities; we get the first shot and move on to the next junction where we join the motorway.

I’m well prepared for the cold weather, but even under five layers of clothing the recent freak drop in temperatures that saw images of teams training on snow-covered roads makes riding pillion uncomfortable to say the least.

I first shot this race over a decade ago and my abiding memories are of the Oude Kwaremont: a 2.2km stretch nestled in the brutal landscape of the Belgian countryside.

It’s a climb I’ve been keen to return to for years – a carnival of colour and life during the race, an abandoned remnant afterwards; the long meadow grass flattened and combed where the fans had stood; torn-up yellow and black flags tattooing the landscape with their distinctive Flemish Lion.

Right now we’re in full swing, so after another stop for photos we make our way to the Kwaremont. Since we’ve been told the police are limiting access, we allow extra time to navigate the roads, but as it turns out we make it with 20 minutes to spare, having had no problems with any of the closed roads.

We both feel a newfound hope of increased photo opportunities and make our way over to the next climb. We tag along with another moto driver who seems to have a more detailed knowledge of the roads, tucking behind him as we weave through the countryside. But our luck seems to have run out. We come to the top of the hill and meet a ‘no entry’ sign.

We’re all set to turn around when a friendly police moto driver takes pity on us and chaperones us past the sign. We are treated to a police escort down to the side of the road, where we sit and wait for the next glimpse of the action.

The crowd begins to grow and I photograph a woman lying in the grass, a cigarette nestled between her fingers with her smile beaming back at me, perfectly composed next to the Flemish Lion. She beckons me over and asks for my Instagram tag.

For a while she scrolls through pictures I’m tagged in, laughing at the sheer number that is me scrambling through undergrowth at other races.

On the horizon the peloton approaches, racing towards us in a plume of dust, led by a line of motorbikes, officials and team cars, lights flashing through the haze.

I’m standing behind a barbed-wire fence when out of the corner of my eye I notice a group of children drawing closer to the road, magnetised by the melee. One young boy is grabbed by the collar by his mother just before he can get too close. Seconds later, the race has gone.

The dilemma

We hop back onto the bike, cross the hillside to the junction below and with the exit in sight it’s all going to plan… or is it? We’re immediately confronted by a Belgian policeman standing in the centre of the road with a particularly dissatisfied glare.

He tells us we must not go against the flow of the race, which in his defence is the rule of the road. Our argument is that the final car has passed, which reverses said rule.

A few words in Flemish are exchanged between my moto driver and the police officer. Worryingly, he is vigorously gesturing back the way we came, back up a hill now thick with spectators and virtually impassable.

I protest but Frederick explains this man is not to be argued with. Still, I have trouble seeing the sense of driving through a group of mostly inebriated fans when the clear road behind is surely the path of least resistance.

This change of direction costs us dearly and we arrive back at the Kwaremont minutes after the final riders pass by for the penultimate time – the race making this climb three times. Dust, kicked up mere moments ago by a procession of skinny tyres, hangs tauntingly in the air.

As I clear my mouth of the gritty aftertaste of this failure, I struggle with the question, just what do we do now?

Frederick believes we only have one option: to leave for the finish line. My phone shows we’re within 20 minutes of the finish line, not accounting for road closures and detours. The race will take 25 minutes to reach the end. We have a chance. Maybe.

I sound out my idea with the moto driver we’ve been following and I don’t need to speak Flemish to understand his reply. The permanently smouldering cigarette hanging from his bottom lip wiggles as he chuckles and stares up to the heavens as if I’m mad.

I am torn. I feel cheated at having missed the second round of the Kwaremont and the pernicious thought I haven’t done this climb justice is gnawing at me.

I could stay here to capture the third ascent but that would be to risk the finish, and the agency I’m shooting for expects me to provide the final action of the day at the finish line. Yet I also have no idea if we can even get there in time, let alone if my level of accreditation will grant me access.

My stomach is twisting, my mind running through the ramifications as if playing several moves on a chessboard. My heart tells me to stay on the Kwaremont, my head is telling me to get back to the finish line and play it safe.

‘We’ll stay,’ I say to Fredrick. His reaction says it all, but I’m sticking with the decision, and we make a plan with military precision to hot-foot it to the finish line once the first riders pass; one of them will almost certainly go on to win.

I position myself inside a cafe above the crowds, with a perfect viewpoint to pick off the frontrunners with my 500mm lens, plus enough time to get some wide-angle views as they pass beneath me.

Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel hove into view, duking it out, although it’s far from clear who will win. This is looking like a bad idea, and I need that finish-line photo.

I say my farewells to my cafe hosts, who help me to my feet and shove a beer into my hand as I leave. I graciously decline and hurry to the door, ducking and diving to avoid the exuberant revellers. The streets are still full of people, the scent of yeasty hops filling the air.

The release

As I depart the Kwaremont the sounds of chanting and cheering fade into the distance, and Frederick’s BMW becomes the new soundtrack to the next few tense minutes, humming and purring as we hurtle down the hill. The next 2km pass in what feels like an eternity, but we finally arrive at a junction directly onto the race route.

There’s a nervous exchange of words between Frederick and the police officer on guard. Frederick looks at me. I’m prepared for the worst. ‘They haven’t come through yet!’ His grin spreads from one side of his helmet to the other.

The police nonchalantly wave us through, unaware of my inner turmoil, and we’re back in the race, mere seconds ahead of the leaders ramping up the pace behind us.

I close my eyes with the wind whistling past my ears and take in a deep breath of relief, cleansing the self-doubt and tension the previous hour had burdened me with. Frederick goes full-throttle on the now empty roads to the finish line, extending our lead on the riders behind.

We pull in with enough time for a big clap on the back and a few minutes to compose myself. I nail the final shots, the imperious Van der Poel crossing the line, hand punching the air, as the 2022 Tour of Flanders champion.