last weekend i had the good fortune to travel to belgium to see the tour of flanders and ride in the cyclo sportive event the day before. the ronde is one of the spring classics that counts toward the uci pro tour and it has been running for 96 years.
it is a race that holds special significance for belgian riders havng started as a symbol of flemish regionalism, proven by the fact that in the 93 times it has been run, there has been a belgian winner 66 times.
the race is famous for its cobbled hills and often bad weather conditions.
so last friday morning, ted, alan, dave and i loaded up our borrowed car and headed for the ferry. by late afternoon we had made it to the centrum ronde van vlaanderen, the museum in oudenaarde dedicated to the race. the museum is curated by twice world champion freddy maertens but was a little dissappointing (i’m not sure what i expected). what was interesting though were the previous winner’s bikes that were on display, including allesandro ballan’s wilier from 2004. it was staggeringly light – like it was made from cardboard. amazingly, the bikes were just stood in stands and could be picked up or even sat on. in england, they would have been behind bulletproof glass!
the centrum ronde van vlaanderen museum, oudenaarde
after a browse in the shop (which was made prohibitively expensive by the 1:1 pound to euro exchange rate) it was time to head for ninove to register for the sportive event.
cyclo sportives are rides usually run over the route of a stage or race the day before the professional’s race. the ronde sportive is one of the biggest there is and was run over three distances, the full 256km, our 140km version or a 90km route. there were also two mountain bike versions. our route was a loop out from the finish town to the start of the closing section of the race and its climbs. we would complete all 13 climbs that the pros would race next day.
the organisation at the start was incredible. no queueing, lots of people to help, clear arrows in 3 languages – again, one couldn’t help contrasting with how a similar event would work back home…
brussels ring road, the swanky but soulless city hilton hotel, beer, calzone carbo loading, a night of coughing and sneezing and before we knew it, we were on the way back to ninove for the start the next morning. unfortunately, most of the other 20,000-odd people that had entered the event had planned to park in the same place as us. after an hour or so in a traffic jam, we abandoned the car, threw the bikes together and we rolled the 5km back into town, under the start bridge and were off…
the early stages were good fun. flat, on closed roads and huge groups of riders with motorcyclists riding in amongst us. it felt as close to riding in a peleton as i am ever going to get. all good.
then came the first section of cobbles.
so, i knew that some sections were cobbled, especially the climbs. and i’d read on the net that they weren’t ordinary cobbles – not like a block-paved driveway, more like a ploughed field. but nothing i’d read prepared me for the pounding that my bike and i got on the first section. riders water bottles and spares rattled off in all directions (thanks for the elastic band tip al) and rear mechs that were scrabbling for that lowest gear were disappearing into spokes and being torn off with alarming regularity.
flat cobbles – brrrrrrrr
my favourite description is this… ‘Pictures do not do the cobbles justice. Not even those pictures where you’re on the ground with the rocks. Nope. How do you convey a shaking that vibrates your duodenum?’
i found that climbing on cobbles was fine. travelling as slowly as you are, especially when the gradient is close to 1in4, the vibration is tollerable. it is more a challenge of maintaining traction as your back wheel bounces about. but the flat cobbles were a different story. i tried riding fast. slowly. big gears and small. holding the handlebars in a death grip. making claws and letting the bars rattle around in my hands… whichever method i tried, after 300m or so of each section, it just becomes a pain in the arse, literally and metaphorically. i wanted not only to get off and push but to give up cycling altogether. the paris-roubaix has more than 40km of these flat, cobbled sections…
the only good thing about the cobbles is the end of them. returning to an asphalted road, no matter how rough was fantastic and felt like i had lost all feeling below the neck!
the first of our 13 climbs came at about 35km. the molenberg was cobbled and 14% at its steepest. i found that a large-ish gear, holding the drops and grunting my way up was the technique that suited because the climbs, while steep, tend to be short. this first one only 450-odd meters.
there were so many people on the route, all travelling at their own pace that riding with the others in my group became pretty difficult and we separated several times only to regroup and excitedly chat about our experiences.
as with everything else on the ride, the two feed stations were fantastically well organised. the first in oudenaarde (just up the road from the museum we visited the day before) was slightly bizarre. it was housed on a warehouse for safety shoes. we rode up ramps and into the warehouse where we were funnelled past tables loaded with energy drinks, halved bananas, honey cake and best of all, belgian sugar waffles!
through the funnel we were able to hang out for a while amongst the toe-tectors
the fourth climb was the first that i had heard of and one that i was especially looking forward to. the paterberg featured the one of the steepest sections of any climb on the route, cobbled (of course) and has been the site of many classic battles in the past.
sportive riders on the paterberg
the flatter top-section
at the top, i tried to ignore the sign that informed me that it was 6km to the next climb – the most feared koppenberg
i waited for the others and watched the riders getting to the top in all states. the large fellas on hybrids in sweat-soaked cotton t-shirts, puffing away with scarlet cheeks, through the rapha bedecked, all-over tanned american group, whooping their way up to the local racers in their colour-coded kit.
really, you have to be a good rider to dress like this… don’t you?
once back together, the boys and i exchanged stories again. dave was struggling a little but happy to carry on – we were all loving the whole experience as much as the ride itself. as we discussed what was next, there was a more than a little nervousness just beneath the surface!
the next section was a roll down to a main road, on towards the next bit of higher ground in the distance. the tents, flags and banners at the top could only mean one thing. we had reached the koppenberg.
the koppenbeg is a legend. 600m long, averaging 11.6% with a maximum pitch of 22%. oh and cobbles! but these numbers tell you nothing. look at any photo from the past 40 years of the ronde and the chances are it will have been taken on the koppenberg.
i snapped a couple of pictures of the others as they turned onto the climb and then set-off after them. at about halfway, jast as the cobbles begin to really rear-up towards you, riders begin to wobble as they ran out of gears. riders going well have to weave in and out of people who’s forward momentum has all but deserted them. a guy on a mountainbike, spinning a tiny gear decided to turn right into my path, forcing me onto the muddy edge of the road where water running off the fields had spread over the tops of the cobbles. my back wheel span-up like a dragster’s and all forward traction was lost. i used some fairly international language to let the bloke know how i felt to have had to stop at this point, with no way of being able to get moving again, particularly with a mud-covered, slick rear tyre.
so i dragged my bike to the side of the track and took out my camera…
looking down the koppenberg
i’m almost glad that i was stopped. it allowed me to soak in the experience a little. on the muur later, i rode from bottom to top, as quickly as i could and i felt a bit like i missed out, like it went by too quick. on the koppenberg, i got to see the effort people were putting in. i got a real sense of how claustrophobic the climb was with the narrow track and high banks either side. i could see jesper skibby lying in the road (google it), boonen attacking and all those images of professional riders pushing their bikes up in cleated shoes, skidding and skating as the went.
from the top of the koppenberg, after regrouping and another exchange of stories, the next stage of the ride was a case of ticking off the climbs before the muur (the wall). the muur van geraardsbergen is the highlight of the race. it lies 16km from the end of the race and has seen many decisive attacks and race winning breaks. it starts with a pretty steep climb up through the town before a right turn takes you onto the cobbles and the climb proper. as you turn right and head up through the trees, there is a footpath heading upwards away from you and to the top of the climb. this gives you some idea of how quickly it rises and that unusually there are bends in the climb.
the hero factor kicked in for me once again. i gripped the drops and stamped on the pedals. a rider went past me around the outside of the second bend and so i decided to try and go with him. the crowd of spectators loved this. they could see we were racing and as we passed the bar on the left, we got a great cheer. the other rider was pulling away from me as we rounded the two turns that bring the chapel at the top of the climb into view. it was about the same time that i realised that i had been too busy posing to think much about how the climb was hurting and that maybe breathing would be good!
at the top, riders were stopped all over the road, in high spirits, recounting their version of the climb. i panted and wobbled through them and headed straight off down the strange run-out behind the chapel and on towards the last climb, the bosberg.
the bosberg is straight and fairly gentle (well, compared to what we had done already). it is also the last chance to savour those cobbles before the run-in to the finish.
this last 12km is a flat-out time-trial with everyone fully aware that the ride is almost done.
at the finish, there was the opportunity to ‘sprint’ for the line through the grandstands and flandrian flags and lunge for the line. the atmosphere was great with people comparing their experiences in half a dozen different languages – a real rush of excitement, colour and sound.
next was a gentle ride back to the college that had acted as the signing on and start point. here we exchanged our numbers for an isostar bag full of goodies or a t-shirt before making a b-line for the van selling chips and mayo.
belgium’s greatest invention.
that evening saw us all try to consume the calories we had worked so hard to burn through the day. after a quick wander around the bright lights of brussels, ted and i retired to the bar of the hilton where we made a dent in their excellent single malt collection before turning in around 2.
yup – that’s another calzone and leffe combo!
the big payback
Next day was raceday. Read about it here.