The Service Course has had a difficult time summoning much enthusiasm for professional cycling lately, an affliction I gather is not uncommon these days. After all, the sport is beset by maladies at every level, from frame stickers to radios to doping to poor governance to outright corruption.
Distasteful as the whole mess seems at times, that's not the reason I've skipped more than two months here. Anyone who thinks I can't find material in the pettiness and stupidity of this fine sport need only check the archives. No, the lull, I assure you, has more to do with real work and other commitments, including a brutal and ongoing springtime war with my back yard.
None of that is over by a longshot -- not pro cycling's tiresome ailments nor the necessity of paying work nor the seasonal encroachment of my neighbor's bamboo crop. But I did just watch the finale of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and for the first time in months, I felt the pangs.
For the damp dirt smell that tells you're finally west of Brussels.
For the synchronized beat of car tires on stones and rotors on air.
For the batshit crazy old woman who runs the Charles Inn outside of Gent.
For kids in Lotto hats with autograph books four inches thick and old men in anoraks with cigars.
For the spot on the Molenberg where Nardello buried himself for Bartoli's Het Volk win.
For the cigarette smoke haze of the Kuurne sporthalle at sign-in.
For the backslaps and guttural exhortations of the Flemish pressroom.
For the bar at the top of the Kemmelberg and the restaurant halfway up the Oude Kwaremont.
For buckets of Leffe at midnight on the Bruges square after the Ronde.
For the cough-inducing ammonia-and-piss olfactory punch of the Wevelgem press room lavatory and the unguarded phone lines in the back room.
For the amateur crit in Compiegne the evening before Roubaix.
For the cobblestones and tractors and five-car freight trains crisscrossing the Department du Nord.
For the right turn into the velodrome.
For the faux Swiss alpine villages of Wallonia.
For the howling claustrophobia of the Mur de Huy and the Cauberg.
For high-ceiling opulence and shiny faces at the Palace Liege and trash and filthy legs in a parking lot in Ans.
For the dead, empty quiet when it's all packed and gone by sunset.
And none of that has goddamn thing to do with Pat McQuaid or Johan Bruyneel or TV rights or bodily fluids or an alphabet soup of warring tribes in blue collared shirts. It's just bike racing as I've known it, and as it continues to be when you get past the pencil-pushers and get down to it. And it's beautiful.