As you head out of Ypres towards Menen, stop and look at the inside of the gate. There are 54,896 names inscribed there, each a Commonwealth soldier whose body was never found or identified after World War One. There wasn’t enough room to fit all the names, so the remainder are elsewhere.
Ypres sits bang in the middle of the Belgian province of West Flanders. In World War One it was the scene of three major battles and many lesser confrontations during which rendered at least three quarters of a million soldiers dead, injured or missing. The proximity of the channel ports and the “Race to the Sea” cemented the area’s strategic importance and the opposing sides fought over it for the duration of the conflict, the front line remaining largely static as the casualty count grew and the depths of human suffering were plumbed ever deeper. Rebuilt over the ensuing 20 years, Ypres now stands as a beautiful monument to peace, where old and young alike come to pay homage to those that gave.
But in Ypres today there is no peace. Today battle of another sort is brewing. To commemorate the events of 100 years ago, for this and the next four years, the Gent-Wevelgem race will pass through the town. In the shadow of the Cloth Hall, its clock tower used as a sighting point for German artillery, barriers line the cobbled streets, there is a huge television screen, a large temporary bar, stalls selling beer and frites. Women combatants, prohibited all those years ago, are readying themselves for their start in conditions which would have had even hardened fighters praying for something to take their minds off the intense cold. They have a shorter route than their male counterparts, but still face the cobbled climbs and freezing temperatures as they pass through the town twice, before the final desperate dash into a fierce, icy headwind and the finish.
The Spring Classics are special races. We’ve had the pleasure of the Tour Down Under and those of Qatar and Oman, all packed with big names preparing to make their mark on the season. We’ve had some major one week tours, where the protagonists dance around each other before making their moves. We had an epic Milan-Sanremo, disrupted by the weather, but it’s the cobbles and Hellingen which make late March and early April so special. There is never any peace in these races: here and there a rider is trying to escape to glorious victory, the favourites eye each other suspiciously and jostle for position before each of the cobbled sections or climbs. Every shot on your television is filled with intensity, pain and suffering. Oh, and enormous crowds lining the roads wherever they can fit, and even where they can’t. This year more than ever, these northern European races have been made that much harder by freezing temperatures and icy winds, which we all know burn the muscles and lungs more than normal.
After 30 kilometres in the women pass the Menin Gate for the first time, the strain having split the riders over two or three minutes. Through the Gate again after nearly 80 kilometres they’re spread far and wide, the bus acting as a broom wagon filling fast with exhausted riders, the brutal weather and rigours of attritional racing taking their toll.
The Spring Offensive of 1918 was the German army’s last attempt to beat the allies back to the sea before the Americans arrived in numbers. With Ypres still a priority, it was decided victory would be certain if the high ground to the town’s south-west was taken. There were two battles for the Kemmelberg; the second in particular was particularly bloody. The hill was eventually captured in late April.
High ground is key in all battles and it’s no different today. The Kemmelberg, with its fierce cobbled climb and narrow descent, thinned the peloton in the men's race first time round and, by the time the riders fight their way through the screaming crowds a second time, the winning move is well clear. They race through Ypres and the Menen Gate, 32 kilometres from glory.
Through the gate the fight is back on. The peloton is fighting to catch the break, the gap tumbling. Fifty seconds. Forty. Thirty-five. Then Vandenbergh attacks, Sagan on his wheel. The second the break catches the Slovak he changes gear and leaves the others, and hope, trailing in his wake. Three kilometers later he wheelies to glory.
The battles which are fought over the fields of Flanders are not the same as those of 100 years ago. Sport may reflect the highs and lows of our lives but it is ultimately a frivolous pursuit: for some a test of resolve, for others mere entertainment. But like the Great War, these are races of attrition, where many fall by the wayside, having given their all for the glory of their leaders. These are battles of intricate tactics, where expeditionary forces are sent forward to test the resolve of the enemy, where thrust meets counter thrust, before eventually a move sticks, and alone, one man looks around unwilling to give more for another to reap the advantage. Look around this place, where so much was given and where so much changed and you will note that, as in sport, only the victor is remembered. So perhaps it’s not so different after all. It’s war without tears.