This Sunday marks one of the greatest races in cycling, the 93rd running of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders for English speakers. The world championship of Flanders as it is sometimes referred is one of the toughest and most prestigious one day races in the world of cycling. It is the race that stops a cycling obsessed nation.

If you can imagine the Melbourne Cup run down streets no wider than your back laneway, lined with thousands of screaming fans, this is the Tour of Flanders. It is a race that reaches out to the Flemish people and has come to define spirit of the nation. It is the day when the “Lion of Flanders” is crowned, the embodiment of the national emblem. It is also race that meanders through a region dear to the hearts of Australians, with so many fallen Diggers resting beneath the fields.

The race itself begins in the picturesque resort town of Bruges, and traditionally runs to the coast at Oostende before turning back inland and addressing the Flemish Ardennes. After 200 kilometres of racing along flat, narrow farm roads in roaring cross winds towards the coast, the race inevitably runs towards Oudenaarde on the River Schelde, and a sixty kilometre section punctuated by sixteen steep cobbled hellingen, or climbs.

This year the race will travel inland via the student town of Gent instead of via the usual coastal route. Riders will be glad to avoid the windswept coastal lowlands of West Flanders; however the roads of East Flanders can be narrower, muddier and present their own challenges. The early spring weather is generally abominable, reducing the roads to ice rinks in the cobbled sections. The infamous Koppenberg is so steep that in many years riders are forced to dismount their bicycles and tackle the climb on foot.

De Ronde is a race for the hard men of cycling, not the anaemic mountain goats that characterise stage races such as the Tour de France.

In a country that this week was belittled as having the world’s ugliest city in Charleroi, de Ronde is a beautiful race and a monument of cycling. To ascend the Muur van Geraadsburgen, arguably the most decisive climb of the race, is a near spiritual experience.

The climb itself begins gently enough, winding its way through the town of Geraadsburgen, before entering a small patch of woods just before the summit. When the trees are in full summer leaf, thin shards of light shine through the foliage illuminating sections of the cobbles below.

As you enter the woods the climb grows steeper, and the woods darker before you emerge at the summit to find the Kapelmuur, a quaint chapel reminiscent of Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers, bathed in sunlight. From the Kapelmuur all of Flanders is laid out before you, every laneway, hedge row, canal and field. This is the spiritual home of Belgian cycling.

This year de Ronde is of special interest for Australian sport lovers because the “Racing Kangaroo” Heinrich Haussler is one of the favourites to win. If he were to win it would be a first for an Australian athlete. Not since Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix in 2007 has an Australian been feted to win such a significant European race.

Haussler’s form has been outstanding so far this season, winning a stage of the Paris-Nice stage race, and narrowly losing the 300km la classica di Pimavera, Milano-San-Remo by a tyre width to the redoubtable Mark Cavendish. This was no mean feat as he lead out the sprint from 400 metres, in a sport where hitting the wind before the 250 metre mark is generally frowned upon as a sign of poor judgment and nerves getting the better of a rider. But Haussler is especially strong at the moment; the challenge remains to channel this dominant early season form into a result of real significance in the world of cycling.

Now I use the term “Australian” in the Russell Crowe, Jane Campion sense of the word. Haussler was born in Inverell to German parents, and grew up in New South Wales before returning to Germany at the age of fifteen to pursue a career in professional cycling. His parents still reside in New South Wales and he is a frequent visitor to Australia in the off season.

Last year Haussler expressed interest in taking out an Australian licence and racing as an Australian at future world championships and Olympic games. Speaking to the website he stated “Every year I come back to Australia and I know that this is where I want to be later on.” Haussler reportedly refused to ride for Germany at the 2008 world championships with a view to riding for Australia at the 2010 world championships in Melbourne.

Betting agency Unibet has Haussler ranked third priced favourite to win on Sunday at three to one behind Belgian heartthrob Tom Boonen and Italian classics specialist Filippo “Pippo” Pozzato.

If Boonen wins on Sunday he will equal Johan “The Lion of Flanders” Museeuw’s record of three wins in de Ronde. After being omitted from last years Tour De France due to a positive cocaine test and a slew of drink driving and other traffic incidents, Boonen has struggled to recapture his best form this season. However he will be focused on a strong performance this weekend, and a victory on Sunday would sound a redemption song for Belgium’s prodigal son.

Pozatto has come into form at exactly the right time for de Ronde; however his Katusha squad will have trouble matching the firepower of Boonen’s Quickstep team, and Haussler’s Cervelo TestTeam. A challenge will also come from the other Belgian pro-tour squad, Silence-Lotto, the team of Cadel Evans. Their leader Leif Hoste has come second in the race three times in the last five years. However Silence-Lotto have been woeful in early season racing, and if they don’t get a result on Sunday heads will roll.

So on Sunday night, as your eyes grow weary and your thoughts wander towards the bedroom, spare a thought for the Racing Kangaroo in far away Flanders fields. With a little bit of luck, helpful teammates, and some good form he will be the newly crowned “Lion of Flanders”. But it won’t be easy, every Belgian boy dreams of winning de Ronde, and joining the likes of national heroes Merckx, Museeuw and Van Petegem in the annuls of cycling history.

If Haussler wins he will have conquered not only 170 professional cyclists, but the mud, hellingen, rain and wind of Flanders also. The locals will be disgusted that a Belgian has failed to win yet again, but Australia will have a new sporting hero, adoptive or otherwise. I wonder what the Diggers would have made of the Racing Kangaroo?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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