Photography: Kristof Ramon
At noon, on Monday the 23rd of May 1921, a scorching summer sun shone down upon a peloton of cycling club members from the Antwerp region, departing for the inaugural edition of Schaal Sels, organized by Parisian newspaper Le Journal. The French did so in memory of their colleague Jacques-Charles Sels, a renowned cycling journalist who reputedly wrote for 17 newspapers and was fluent in 6 languages. The year before, Sels was killed in a car crash while reconnoitring the Milan-Antwerp race for the Olympic Summer Games. The race in his honour would grow out to be a perennial monument to his memory.
So it was that on that Monday, a leading group of 14 riders sprinted for victory in the first Schaal Sels. By gentlemen’s agreement, the winner’s club had the obligation to organize the event the following year. But as victor René Vermandel’s club could not manage to do so, the race did not proceed the following year. Since then, a world war excepting, no editions were missed. (And there was a case of slightly inconvenient summer road works in 2014, on Sels’s very own Champs-Élysées, the Bredabaan, which forced a cancellation of events.)
The course had always taken place in the rural region around Antwerp, where aside from the infamous concrete slabs of road, one also encounters plenty of cobblestones. For the celebratory 90th edition of the race, the course directors (among whom Johan Museeuw) set out to include 19 kilometres of unpaved roads to enliven the spectacle even more. This, along with the 30k of cobbles that already gave the Schaal Sels its semi-classic reputation, added the race to an illustrious list that includes the likes of Paris-Roubaix, Strade Bianche and Tro Bro Léon.
The 2017 edition was won by Dutchman Taco van der Hoorn (Roompot–Nederlandse Loterij), a race that took place in a wild whirl of dust and turbulent neutralizations throughout:
“As we turn on to the final stretch, I know where I need to attack. I marked it in my mind during the recon. So we ride into the final ordeal of the day. A car passes. Dust rises and falls to congeal and add to the grime on our faces. My visage is obscured, the mark in my mind wiped away. Back in the world of the living, and the dust clears. I find myself in the leading group. I force my legs to overcome, to surmount the ordeal, and my fellow riders with it. This is how my final tribulation ends. I win the course. The course of chaos.”
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If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 18 where it was first printed.