The New Year’s Day ride is a ritual for me, the year hasn’t really started until I have turned the pedals. But this year’s ride was something really uniquely Belgian, or rather Flemish.
The presence of my Kiwi cycling brother-in-law meant that we had an excuse to finish his stay in Belgium with a classic ride – one of the many marked Tour of Flanders race routes, this one taking in nine of the classic climbs from the final section in the Flemish Ardennes. The Kruisberg, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg are climbs written into cycling folklore. While I watched the race last year I have not actually ridden them and he couldn’t come to Belgium without trying one of the legends so we had the reason we needed to head off. This would also be payoff for our days of flogging through the rain and mud on mountain bikes before Christmas, this was a treat for the fans.
We had a plan to get up early and get ourselves over to Ronse for a few hours of special riding. However if you had asked me if it was going to be a top day’s cycling when the alarm went at 8am I would not have been able to give you a very positive answer, New Year’s Eve’s aftermath left me thinking that an afternoon potter through the lanes would be a much more sensible plan. However the requirement of being a good host and the promise of a special route was just about enough to get me going, or rather a pint of tea and a start line coffee did the job.
I chose the 78km Blue Route (De Blauwe Lus) one of three published by the Tour of Flanders centre in Oudenaarde, but by starting from Ronse on the Southern edge of the route we planned to cut out the flat start and finish sections in and out of Oudenaarde and make it into a 55km circular route, quite enough for a New Year’s blow-out. (map image and downloads from Routeyou.com )
It was an overcast blustery day with rain forecast later so we had to take on the mid-morning chill, but overall it was a stunning ride. The flat country lanes between the climbs were a bit muddy and horribly exposed whenever we turned into the wind, but provided enough respite to give the hills our full attention and the views from the top were great.
Kicking off on the Kruisberg with 1.8km of cobbled climbing up to 9% gradient meant we were plenty warm enough before we felt the full force of the wind on the exposed hill tops. However the Kruisberg cobbles are well maintained and like a carpet compared to what was coming. The Monte de l’Enclus wasn’t too steep or cobbled but from when we hit the Oude Kwaremont we understood the challenge.
The lower slope was deceptive as the village church could be seen on at the summit and it didn’t look too steep, but the smooth road surface was a trap for the unwary.
The cobbles soon started and the reality struck. Andrew looked smooth as if he was born part Belgian but I was labouring away finding it very hard to keep my gear moving despite a triple chainset.
The key lesson about this sort of riding is that you are denied the fallback of getting out of the saddle when the hill gets steep. As soon as I stood up to get a bit of extra leverage the back wheel started to bounce and all grip was lost, you just have to stay hard in the saddle and heave the pedals round from a seated position. This completely exposed the fact that I have never had that kind of strength, I have always been an out of the saddle climber and it was tough. Andrew found out the grip problem the hard way on the Paterberg when his back wheel just shot from underneath him and dumped him on the cobbles, but as he said “its not as it I was moving very fast”. He did get back on and complete the hill – although you can see the effort!
The Koppenberg defeated us both as the big damp greasy stones and the 19% gradient proved an impossible combination with no traction whatsoever.
We were entirely philosophical about it as the Koppenberg has seen the majority of the professional peloton walking in the Tour of Flanders, especially when wet. Fans always recall the incident in 1987 when Danish rider Jesper Skibby had broken away from the chasers and fell off on the narrow hill. The race director then promptly ran over his fallen bike with Skibby still on it, apparently to keep clear of the chasing group. Opinion varies on whether he would have done that it Skibby had been Flemish!
But here’s the thing. Once again rural Belgium was a cyclists’ paradise. Every climb was car free, we had the complete width of the roads to wobble and wander and on most of the minor roads we hardly saw a vehicle. Apart of the one or two main roads we had to cross we probably saw as many cyclists as cars and those were countable on one hand. However you are never divorced from the cycling heritage round here as this farm’s mural paid testament to the heroes of the nation.
It is also entirely possible that we might be considered completely mad by the locals. The sensible Flemish who live nearby can do this every day and it takes an Englishman and a Kiwi to get up early on a cold New Year’s morning to ride De Ronde so they left us to it. If that’s the case I accept the charge, but I personally can’t think of a better way to make 2014 a special cycling year – christened by riding De Ronde Van Vlaanderen Fietsroute on New Year’s Day.