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AND THEY'RE OFF: The Tour of Flanders     Photo: Wikipedia

Q:

Can you suggest how to follow Belgium's Tour of Flanders?

My friend and I are very interested in going to watch the Tour of Flanders in Belgium. However, rather than ride along the course, we want to find a tour company to drive us around while we watch the race, hang out with the locals, eat frites, and drink beer. Do you have any suggestions? Thomas Hilal Los Angeles, CA

A:Nice idea. What better way to see this elite cycling race than to kick back, relax, and saturate yourself in Belgian culture? Definitely much more fun than having to climb the thigh-burning hills yourself (although you can do that, too; visit the Tour of Flanders' official trip-planning section). The race, or De Ronde van Vlaanderen, follows 161 miles of cobblestone roads winding through Belgium, starting in Bruges and skidding to a finish in the town of Ninove, just outside of Brussels. Now in its 92nd year, the tour draws riders from all over the world to test their abilities on a gnarly course that includes 18 major hills, or what the locals call "Hellingen." And, as it is with Belgian beer, once you've gotten a taste of being a spectator at a world-class cycling race, you'll come back wanting more.

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Luckily, you've got a few options to take in the action. For a little more scratch but with the comfort and convenience of going with an experienced outfitter, take a look at the trips offered by New York-based Velo Classic Tours (212.779.9599; www.veloclassic.com), including its Tour of Flanders Weekend ($2,195). This five-day, four-night itinerary includes VIP access to the race start in Bruges, a three-night stay in Bruges, and transport to prime race-viewing spots along the route, all staked out by Velo Classic's well-honed team of cycling nuts. Better still, this tour includes the opportunity to get to know the hip-jarring contours of the course by riding the amateur Tour of Flanders Cyclosportif the day before the race.

This year, the race begins on Sunday, April 6 in the heart of Bruges—the Market Square. Velo Classic fills its spots early, so renting a car and following the race at your own speed may be the way to go this year. Before the race, consider staying a while in Bruges. Not only the start of the Tour, this charming city is also an architectural and culinary treasure, home to some of the world's best chocolate and beer (www.brugge.be; www.visitbelgium.com/bruges.htm). Visit De Halve Maan Brewery and get a glimpse of traditional Belgian brewing methods. Their Brugse Zot is a rich and fruity blonde ale launched less than a year ago, and is already bringing home awards for its superior flavor. While Godiva is a household name, try the sinfully-sweet temptations offered by the other locally-owned chocolatiers. Also explore the city's gothic architecture at sites such as the Basilica of Holy Blood or the Church of Our Lady, one of the world's highest brick towers.

The week before the race, pick up a race guide—plenty will be available in newspapers. (De Ronde was originally conceived by journalist Karel Van Wynendaele in 1913, who also happened to be one of the founders of the Tour's major sponsor, Het Nieuwsblad, the local newspaper.) Using the guide, orient yourself prior to the race and familiarize yourself with the route and surrounding countryside. That way you'll get to see more of Belgium and have an upper hand on race day. Pick three or four spots along the course, starting in Bruges. You'll definitely find a hearty crowd in the center of town hoping for a peek at the Lycra-clad road rats, but it's worth the effort to see the elite at their finest. Once they are on their way, follow your pre-determined route and meet up with the race again, such as at Kluisbergen, where it winds not once, but twice through the confines of hillside hideaways. Move quickly and don't lag behind—you won't be the only one trying to catch the peloton's next move.

If the thought of navigating a vehicle in a foreign country isn't on the top of your to-do list, use the train to follow the pack. After all, this is Europe, and Belgium happens to have a very efficient and extensive train network. Trains leave approximately every half hour between all major cities (www.raileurope.com; www.b-rail.be/nat/E/). Beginning in Bruges, ride to Geraardsbergen for the Muur van Geraadsbergen. The Muur is the most notorious climb on the Tour, with sections that have a chain-breaking 20-percent grade, and is also the location of a festive Flanders celebration. Local pubs offer views of this historic landmark (follow the signs) and you'll have an up-close-and-personal vantage point of grimacing faces and straining hammies as riders make a pained, last-ditch effort to pull ahead with just under 12 miles to go. Meanwhile, you can count your lucky stars that you're resting easy with another pint of genuine Belgian ale and a heaping basket of mayo-laden frites (trust us). After the riders have passed, catch the highlights on the TV or hop aboard the next train to join the celebrations after the finish in Ninove. Life doesn't get much better than this.
–Amy A. Clark

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