Most races in Belgium start at 15:00h or 3PM. In the nieuwelingen category the races last for about 1:30 hrs. Juniors race a little over 2 hrs, while beloften (U23) and amateurs have at it for 2:30 to 3 hours. A typical race will consist of 10-20, 4-8 mile loops that start in or near the village center and go out into the country side. US style criteriums are almost unheard of. Races with very long loops are rare too, especially in Flanders.
The registration (inschrijving) will happen at a cafe along the course or near the church. It is nearly always within walking distance of the start/finish. Most commonly registration is in a large room at the back of the cafe, that is also used for dancing, dinner parties and festivities (feestzaal). Access is through the bar or -more rarely- using a separate entrance around the back. There may be signs, but most often there aren't any. Local riders remember where to go from the year(s) before.
In smaller villages or in some outlying districts, inschrijving may take place in a special large tent (feesttent) that is set up for the kermis and will host the night time festivities. Officials are bound to arrive a few hours prior to start and they usually open up for business at 13:00h or 1PM. Shortly beforehand riders, often fully dressed, will line up inside the cafe with their credentials in hand. As a rule, no parents or guardians will be present in line and riders register on their own. Make sure your riders have all their paperwork handy and also bring safety pins as none will be given out by organizers.
When you first enter the village you will notice stacks of barricades and movable fences that will be used to line the start/finish area. You will see club cars and riders exploring the course and warming up. You will also see many riders and family members walking to the registration.
You may notice an overhead crane or two with placards that read aankomst (finish) or "1 km" to go signs. The important thing to do at this stage is to find a good parking spot. In larger races there will be showers and dressing rooms (kleedkamers) in the local sport hall. You can find that information on the Wiebo calendar. The sports facility may have a good sized parking lot but it is likely located outside the town proper and so it may be a fair walking distance away from the action. It is better to park closer by if you can. Many locals will ride in for the race.
Fifteen minutes or so before the start, riders will start lining up at the line. In Interclub events (where you need a team), things work a bit differently. The team managers will pick up all materials around noon at the permanentie. There will be a mandatory manager meeting and officials will go over the rules with the managers. The teams will be required to show up for a team presentation, usually two hours before the start. Team presentations are done near the start site.
Half an hour beforehand, riders will be guided into a corral for gear checks and released from there into a sealed start area. Although gear checks also happen at regular races, they are far less common.
It is important to secure a good starting position near the front of the group, especially when the race starts on a narrow road. For some events, local riders or provincial and national champions will be called out and allow to roll up to the line first.
Be prepared for a very fast start in all categories. In the nieuwelingen group crashes near the start -often before the line- are quite common and you can almost bet that a crash will happen at the first turn.
Riders will get dropped from the very first lap and the pack will quickly whittle down to about half its initial size. The younger the age group, the sooner that will happen. Crashes are likely on every lap and these usually happen in or near the same spots. An ambulance will follow the racers, but those able to walk will be guided back to the first aid tent.
Riding in the back of the pack is a recipe for disaster and the probability of getting dropped or crashing is close to 1 if you ride there.
Breakaways happen often and early, but in the younger age groups they rarely create a big gap or last for more than a lap. What is more common in these packs is a split or several splits, often initiated after a crash or near a technical section of the course. Also common is for the pack to split as soon as riders leave the village proper and the protection of the buildings. Here they are exposed to the inevitable winds on the open road.
In younger groups it is not so much that the leaders break away, but more often it is the followers who are unable to keep the pace. If the split results in more than one pack and the second pack loses more than 3 minutes, officials are likely to announce a bell lap for the dropped pack. These riders will then finish an abbreviated race and be counted at a fixed delay.
Individuals or smaller groups (2-4) are pulled, unless they end up in between two packs, in which case they may be allowed to finish as the leaders of the dropped pack. Dropped riders almost never show up in the final results, except in stage races for nieuwelingen and juniores.
In the beloften and amateur groups (elite z/c), real breakaways do happen, but it is usually only the second or third break that makes it to the end. That break is most likely to happen when the first break gets caught or shortly thereafter.
Even though interclub races are team events, very little team riding happens in the IC's at the younger age groups. It is very rare to witness true team work, such as one team mate giving up a wheel to the team leader who has a flat, or team mates waiting for the team leader (or best placed) in case of a mishap. Sprint lead outs are more common but even here, team riding is not the rule.
The one thing most US novice riders remark about Flanders is the very high and very steady tempo of the race. Races for nieuwelingen and juniores rarely show a letup and speeds are pretty steady at 42-43 km/h (26-27 mph) throughout. Given the gear restrictions these riders have to live by, that means that getting dropped for whatever reason is usually the end of the road. In the beloften and elite z/c groups races are longer and there is a relative letup after the first hour of racing. The letup is no time to sit back and relax however, and that is when important moves are made.
After the race, the winners and runner-ups are expected to stick around for the rewards ceremony. Riders also have to go back to the inschrijving to return their numbers, receive their refunds and pick up any winnings. Pay is often 20 deep and in bigger events it may run 50 deep. There are special prizes for sprints (or more rarely) climbs, as well. IC's also have club prizes, but in IC races, team managers collect all the winnings.
Everyone should also check for doping control if one is present. A list of numbers will be posted near the start-finish. Doping control is rare in small town races for young age groups.