Gallery: Flanders without the fans

While the 2021 Tour of Flanders provided so much excitement — right down to the last 25 meters — there were few fans to witness this cobbled classic in person.

As I drove up to Flanders this weekend, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was really hard to imagine covering the Ronde van Vlaanderen without its cycling-crazed fans that pack every muur and berg in this storied race. They are, after all, an integral part of the fabric of this event. Sure, we already saw a fan-less Flanders last October. But that was when the sport was suspended in the early stages of the COVID crisis, and everything still seemed temporary. But with race returning to its traditional early-April date, I sensed the void would be more significant.

“You can see them. They are pushing each other. They are screaming. It is crazy!” Peter Sagan agreed when I caught up with him on Friday. “It is very strange not to race with fans in Flanders.”

Come race day, the lack of fans made for a certain never-ending calm before the storm, it seemed. I spent much of the day between the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, and in some ways, I saw the race differently. I was able to take in the more pastoral aspects of this race set in the picturesque hills of Flanders. But without the fans, there was little tension and no electricity.

The riders, however, showed little signs of unease, as they put on another memorable show. Deceuninck-Quick-Step — racing as Elegant-Quick-Step for this race — once again used the power of numbers to dominate the race. And then, of course, there was that memorable mano-a-mano match-up between Dutch national champion Mathieu van der Poel and Danish national champ Kasper Asgreen on the day’s final climb — the Paterberg — before Asgreen powered to victory in the final sprint.

No, make no doubt about it. This year’s Ronde will go down in the history books. It was a truly great race. But I still missed the fans! Who didn’t?