A Real Tour of Flanders
Shit. We’re gonna miss it.
Tomás and I speed into the village of Ename. We’re rallying towards a photo shoot before the sun sets completely. It’s only three in the afternoon, but this is Flanders in February. The sky is deep grey, fluffed with even darker clouds, typical mid-winter sky cover. In this part of the world, sunless days fade into long winter nights.
I crank the wheel, rumbling onto the cobbles that skirt the town square. Ename is a small village on the outskirts of Oudenaarde, a small city about 30 kilometres south of Ghent, the urban centre of East Flanders, which is another 60 kilometres east of Brussels, the cultural and parliamentary hub of Belgium and all of Europe. But the rolling pastures and sugar-beet fields surrounding Ename are a far cry from that cosmopolitan metropolis.
East Flanders is a mix of pastoral landscapes crisscrossed with transmission lines, smokestacks, and the other industrial infrastructure that has become so common in the rural reaches of the Low Countries. Oudenaarde, which sits at the foot of the 159-metre-tall Flemish Ardennes “mountains”, landed on the cycling map during the first Tour of Flanders in 1913. Since then, the city has become a cycling centre, drawing the bicycle faithful from across the globe to this cold, celebrated corner of Northern Europe.
Veering off the cobbles, we dive into a housing development, jogging left and right through the narrow streets. A box truck wrapped in team logos and a brilliant blue, sits amongst the beige-stone homes with Tudor trims and dark gabled roofs. That’s our destination. We park, and walk around the van, peering into the open garage behind.
There stands Andy Verrall, the subject of today’s photos.
“Ah, hello!” he exclaims, “Just a moment. Finishing up.”
The 56-year-old greets us with a strong English accent, the product of his formative years growing up in Royal Tonbridge Wells, a small city halfway between London and England’s South Coast. He is a man of sturdy build, solid legs, and a barrel chest shaped by a lifetime of cycling. It’s hard to tell right now though—he’s bundled up in a blue puffy jacket with a thermal cap covering his still brown hair. His hands are thick and rough, moulded by two decades of wrenching on bikes and mounting tubular tires—the most strenuous thumb workout known to humankind.
“I find it relaxing,” he says. “Gluing tubs.”
Had decades of sniffing tubular glue gotten to his brain? No, no, no. He’d had plenty of time to come to this conclusion. “When you do it right—when the rim is prepped right, tires pre-stretched, you pop ‘em on and they center right up, spin ’em and it’s perfect…that’s a nice feeling.”
It’s a routine that he’s quite familiar with, prepping bikes during the winter months for team camps and early races as winter gives way to spring. Over his 15-year career as a team mechanic, he worked his way through the ranks, wrenching for teams across Europe including tenure at the top of the WorldTour on staff with teams like Sky and MTN-Qhubeka.
“Should we get going for some photos before the light fades?” I inquire.
“Yea Yea Yea Yea Yea,” he rattles off rapidly. Though he still speaks the Queen’s English, he’s adopted quintessential Flemish mannerisms, like their vigorous repetition of affirmation. “Just have to hang up me laundry and we’ll get going…”
He pulls a pile of cold-weather gear from the washer. It’s the bicycle clothing of a man who doesn’t fear the harsh conditions of a winter spin. Andy first arrived in Flanders in 1985 at the age of 23. After an upbringing in England, he’d followed his racing dream to the stones of Belgium.
He landed at the Ten Berge Kouter, a hilltop café in Monkzwalm, a tiny cluster of shops and houses that passes for a town in East Flanders. We hop in the car and begin the 10-kilometre drive to the birthplace of Andy’s Belgian bicycle career.
With Andy at the wheel of his Puegeot wagon, we jet out of the village, through the muddy fields, and over the rolling bergs. He’s navigated these roads for three decades and weaves naturally from one farm lane to the next as he talks about his Belgium.
He first arrived at Ten Berg Kouter in the late 80s when it was a bustling café that drew villagers from the surrounding countryside. Patrons ate downstairs next to the kitchen, while long-term guests could rent rooms upstairs. Outside, there was an aviary complete with parrots and a resident monkey that occasionally roamed free. “Not a big zoo, like in Antwerp,” he recalls on the drive, “but enough for around here. A pretty popular spot”
“Ere it is!” Andy exclaims as we pull into the mud-covered lane and park. The cheer in his voice belies the mouldy, crumbling building before us. Dirt and mould stain the white bricks. We squeeze through an opening in a haphazardly erected chain-link fence.
Andy strolls through a opening that hasn’t hung a door for quite some time, ducking his head with little reservation. Tomás and I apprehensively walk toward the door.
“Ohhhh shit!” Andy hollers from inside.
I poke my head in as decades of must waft through the air. Andy stares at the wall, grinning. “Same wall paper!”
He turns and looks at a portion of the second story that has fallen through the ceiling. “I’d take you up to me old room, but it’s fallen through to us!”
Andy looks up, moving his finger around the perimeter of the ceiling and counting, “one, two, three…there used to be six rooms in total up there. Mine had a stove and a wash basin, that’s it.” He recalls how he’d race five days a week at the local kermises, often riding an hour to the start to warm up his legs, before pedalling home and showering off in the washbasin with a bidon. Once clean, he’d toast cheese and bread, enjoying a croque monsieur straight off the burner.
“It was before the Euro Belgian Francs back then. I think I paid cents per day. That’s why me got such a shit room,” he quips with a hearty laugh. “But when it’s what you know, it’s what you do. Yeah?”
We continue wandering downstairs. In the family room, mail, books, and other trash mingle with the rubble. Andy, who still has some tubular glue on his hands, is undeterred by the environment and starts picking up letters as if he’s just dropped them on the tiled floor of his kitchen back in Ename. “I think it closed in the late 80s, early 90s,” he ponders. He grabs a letter that’s post marked to Ten Berg Kouter. 1992.
He picks up a maroon book from the pile and leafs through. It’s Volume 14 of the Groete Winkler Prins Encyclopedia, all in Dutch. I peer over his shoulder as he flips through. He turns the page to a map of the U.K. “Oh…Britain!” he says.
“Home?” I ask.
“No, no, no,” he assures me. “This is home now.”
Andy climbs back through the chain link fence looks across the concrete road, narrow and smeared with mud. “This is a real, classic Flanders view, ain’t it?” He muses. “Shitty little country lane and this…” He points toward the bare trees scratching the darkening sky.
After that first season in Belgium, Andy went home to Britain, vowing to return for longer than just a holiday. The following spring of 1986, he and a friend pitched in on a caravan and headed back to Flanders, living on the road and racing to keep the money coming in.
“It was real hand to mouth,” he describes. “We showed up with the caravan and 300 British pounds a piece in our pockets. Whatever we made from racing was what kept us going. We raced to win. We studied the courses to win.” The kermises paid 20 places deep, and every result kept Andy and his mate bumping around in Belgium in that caravan just a little longer.
Even when they ran out of money, they kept on going. “We lived off apples from people’s orchards for a little while. My mate had a girlfriend who would take pity on us and bring us food from her parents.”
We climb back in the car and speed toward the Paddestraat, a few kilometres away. This stretch of cobbles is a regular feature in major classic races, and the Flemish government has gone so far as to protect the 2.3 kilometres of cobbles as a monument. We approach the cobbles in the same direction the Tour of Flanders takes.
“The bunch go foool gas into this section. Always crashes here,” he says motioning at the sharp right-hand turn before the stone bridge that crosses the Zwalm brook. At the crest of the initial pitch, he gestures to the right side of the road and a narrow concrete gutter. “This is what they’re fighting for. All them classics men know that when you get on that gutter, you can go foool gas. But you’ve got to hop out at the right moment otherwise you get stuck. Get it wrong and you can crash. You’re fucked.”
We pull over and stroll along the stones. Tomás snaps some final shots. The light has faded. Tomás squints at his camera with consternation. Andy recalls his kermis racing days, and one of his best rides ever on that stretch of cobbles. “We rode those cobbles 15 times in one day. 15 times on the Paddestraat! They don’t do ‘em any more like that.” He laments, “Those kermis boys started complaining it was too hard. Gotten soft…” No doubt, they probably have a shower at home too.
The workable light has faded but Andy’s enthusiasm still burns. “I’m gonna take you to the Molenberg anyways. We’ll go take a look at the hills. Still gives me a buzz. Hard to ride ’em on the bike anymore.” Off we go through the darkening landscape. He points to the house of Peter Van Petegem, one of only ten men to win Paris Roubaix and Flanders in the same year, as we roll by. It was unassuming and didn’t seem much different from the other brick Tudors that dot the Flemish countryside, save for some tall hedges and a wrought iron gate.
By 1988, Andy had wrapped up his racing career. He returned to Britain and worked as an engineer and toolmaker, the trades he’d learned before racing. He spent a decade back in “normal” occupations, but always returned to Flanders for classics season to ride his favourite roads and watch the biggest races of the year.
A decade later, Andy inadvertently returned to competition. He won a contest at work that allowed him to spend the last week of the 2000 Giro d’Italia inside the team car of the Linda McCartney Racing Team, with former British National Road Champion Sean Yates as the directeur sportif. Though he was merely a guest, he couldn’t help himself. He had to pitch in. He washed the cars, re-fueled them at the petrol station, offered the mechanics help. By the time the Giro rolled into Milan, Andy had his epiphany. “This is what I want to do.”
Back in England, he spent the next five seasons volunteering for various clubs and small continental outfits, before moving back to Belgium full time in 2006. He got a job in a factory to pay the bills, and spent all his free time volunteering for local Flemish teams.
He finally got his break in 2008, landing a full-time mechanic gig with Mitsubishi Jartazi. That would turn into a two-year stint with Rapha-Condor before he finally made the big time, joining Team Sky as their Service Course Manager in 2011.
He would work for Team Sky for three seasons, enjoying the success of that burgeoning cycling powerhouse. He was there in 2012 when the team won its first Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins. “What a year that was,” he recalls. Not only had Wiggins won the Tour, but he also nabbed titles in the Olympic Time Trial, the Dauphiné, Paris-Nice, and Tour of Romandie.
Andy cranks a hard left off the main road and onto the Molenberg cobbles. Our speed make it feel as though we’re jockeying before this crucial pinch point in a race like De Ronde. The cobbles are covered in green moss as they hook a right and climb past the homes and hedges on the steepening slopes.
“Everyone lines up to watch the cobbles, but the false flat at the top is where the real damage happens. If you’re strong, you can be real naughty and put your team on the front and ride full gas on the false flat. You’re over the top and have your momentum, while if you’re in the back crawling up the 14 percent…” He points backward toward the house on the side of the road. “That’s where you go….”
With the light all but disappeared, we wind back along the ridge toward the Schelde river valley. He stops the car for a minute and looks east, where twilight has crept behind forested ridge of the Koppenberg. “When I die, I want Els to build me a bench, up in a place like here.”
The car starts rolling again and we rumble down the final cobbled lane, back home.