Post holiday blues are a real thing. We’ve all felt it, when you hit the office on a Monday morning and someone might as well have slapped you across the face with a stinky wet fish. By 11am your colleagues wish you’d never come back. Unable to shake memories of those sun-soaked afternoons quaffing piña coladas. Ok, so maybe not piña coladas, in this case it was Belgian beer, and wasn’t a holiday it was “work”. It was the week of Flanders and Paris–Roubaix. The biggest buzz being the build up to Tom Boonen’s last week of racing, before he retires from a mammoth career spanning 15 years. One of Belgium’s cycling sweethearts. Last week in a press conference Boonen was asked how he would feel on Monday, day one of his retirement. His answer–probably hungover.
Antwerp the eve of Flanders and the Belgians were just about fully charged for the week ahead. A week that would see the last three races of Boonen’s career–De Ronde van Vlaanderen, Scheldeprijs and Paris–Roubaix. The question I wondered is how does a nation mourn the passing of a hero?
The cycling culture of Belgium is one of a kind, many say it’s their second religion. The morning of the Tour of Flanders brings another dimension to the sabbath day. Spectators line the street eager for a glimpse of their worshipped one. By 10am beer is already in full flow, this stereotype is anchored with pride. The Belgians love who they are and willingly take anyone under their wing who wants to have fun drinking beer, eating mountain sized portions of frites and scream yourself hoarse at the side of cobbled roads, come rain or shine.
Luckily it’s been a week of shine, and from Oudenaarde we head to Mol, hometown of Boonen to watch his last ever race on Belgian soil–Scheldeprijs. Mol is alive, there’s Boonen face masks in all directions, it must feel like walking into a John Malkovich scene for him. The scrum that constantly surrounds him doesn’t seem to phase him one bit. Everyone wants to be able to regale on a moment of cycling history they were privileged enough to witness.
Everyone has their story, whether it be the people working for his sponsors talking of his visits to their offices that would last for hours. Stopping to talk to everyone, discussing in depth about equipment or just general chit-chat. When I asked Tom about his reaction to the support from fans around the country, he was genuinely blown away by the hoards of people that had come. Especially that day in Mol. It had meaning that he would hold dear for years to come. The decision to retire as a professional athlete is fraught with emotion. Do you go out on a high or cling on believing that there will always be one last chance.
Going into Paris–Roubaix it was clear everyone wanted that fairytale ending, that elusive 5th win that would stamp the history books. Emotion poured from everyone, his teammates willing to give everything. Journalists talked of throwing objectivity out of the window just to be able to pen that headline. Sponsors glum to lose such a spearhead, and fans–tears slopping into their pitchers of beer.
We read about fairytales from a young age to unfortunately realise that life very rarely delivers. Maybe as children it would be more appropriate to read the dictionary definition of ‘fairytale’ instead, but then such pragmatism would extirpate hope.
So how does the week after the cobbled classics feel? Well, like every year it feels like it’s ended too soon, like the hunger pang for the pavé hasn’t quite been satiated. But I guess the only question to be asked is–who will be Belgians Alka Seltzer to a Tom Boonen hangover?
Words & Photos: Hannah Troop