It is hard to believe nearly two weeks have gone by since the Tour of Flanders Cyclo and I have only just found the time and energy to sort my photographs and put together a few reflections.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable cycling day and I wanted to highlight three aspects that I will really remember and recommend to anyone. The first was the atmosphere which was a product of the great organisation and the blending of riders of all abilities. Secondly the landscape, looking completely different with the streams of brightly coloured riders cutting across the hillsides. And finally – of course – the ride itself, the experience of the challenge.
Relaxed atmosphere and great organisation.
I rode the 123km version of the event with my brother Trevor who came over to Belgium for a long weekend with his wife. That’s my super fit, race winning brother who is training for a 24 hour time trial this year, so there is no way he was going to be intimidated by the ride itself. (Mainly he scares me, so we agreed “each at his own pace” so I wasn’t tempted to exhaust myself chasing him round.)
However I think we were inevitably wary of the reputation of the event and the prospect of racing round the cobbles and bergs in wet and muddy conditions chasing the hard men of Flanders on their own territory.
We could not have been more wrong, it was an incredibly relaxed atmosphere and a genuine ride for all abilities. The course was designed to so that all three start groups (70km, 123km and 250km) came together over the final 50 km of the course which meant at all times there were riders going at all different speeds around us. And because the start times were spread over a 3 hour window we were not part of a massive cavalry charge at the start which meant everyone was free to ride at their own pace. I saw families, ordinary city bikes and an awful lot of walking from people who were clearly not sporty cyclists.
Taking it to the extreme was this Czech gentleman I passed on the Kanarieberg.
It might be a bit unfair to note that the first thing I noticed from behind was the overstretched lycra, but then I almost fell off my bike when I realised he was pushing an incredibly heavy antique wooden Drasine or Velocipede, solely for scooting around the course. What a star!
Out on the course it was incredibly easy to ride. Comprehensive signposting didn’t just cover route arrows, it included detailed descriptions of each hill and the distances between them so there was never any doubt about what was coming next and there was never a need to look at my route guide.
Every road junction over the whole 120+ km of my route had a marshal or a police officer. It wasn’t officially on closed roads so occasionally they stopped us to let some traffic through but obviously the locals understood the situation because there were very few cars around so it felt like closed roads.
Three large feed stops with no queues and plenty for everyone.
And on line there was another complete service with a timing band at the top of almost every major hill, video footage at 8 points and a commercial photography service that even captured a humble amateur like me an incredible 14 times.
A new look at the Flemish Ardennes
Oh yes it was grey, cold and wet. This was not the bright spring-like day promised in the advertising!
It really was not a promising day for looking at the countryside and from previous excursions into this area there were very few locations when I remember the roads opening up into wide vistas. So I expected to be concentrating on the riding.
However what I discovered was the magical effect of thousands of cyclists on this landscape. With the route constantly switching around and sweeping back towards the Flemish Ardennes I was regularly looking across the fields to see a ribbon of colour bright against the dull greens and browns and each time I did so I wanted to smile.
Two favourites impressions were the Haaghoek pave and looking across to the Kanarieberg. The Haaghoek is a longish section of cobbles that descends and climbs over two kilometres, not a hard enough hill to make it an official hellingen but a stiff test. But what I remembered was that I had been there last year to watch the professional race and had a superb view of the Quickstep team leading the peloton right across the valley.
This time I was able to stop at the top having ridden it myself and look back at the streams of riders in the gloom. Judging by a few expressions many of them clearly finding the experience more than a little rough.
But my favourite view was the Kanarieberg. Late morning the weather was beginning to improve and even a weak sunlight appeared. After one of the few short stretches of boring main road we swung right to where we were presented with a sparkling view across the valley and a great view of the ribbon of riders all the way up the climb. I would almost have liked to be a spectator at that point, it was a superb spot.
It also turned out to be one of my favourite climbs, it was not far from the end but I was riding really comfortably and the brighter weather encouraged me to bounce up it with great enthusiasm.
Which brings me to the ride itself.
How did it go?
I would like to tell you that I heroically battled ferocious conditions, monstrous climbs and hellish cobbles, arriving at the finish with the true spirit of the warrior.
At the start that seemed quite likely because there were some grim, concerned faces in the many car parks, the rain started to fall steadily and the streams of lycra heading for the start village were wrapped in rain jackets.
Trevor and I rode together for the first ten kilometres and were very soon covered in a fine layer of mud and grit that was splashing up off the road surfaces and spraying off tyres so that didn’t bode well for another 115 kilometres.
But when Trevor and I compared notes afterwards we agreed “that wasn’t too bad was it?”
Because whatever I have done in my last four months as a MAMIL had worked. Bashing away through the wintry hills of Brabant Wallon on a heavy bike laden with panniers was clearly the perfect training for these similar short steep hills of the Flemish Ardennes, as was riding offroad for up to an hour at a time which was my preparation for the cobbles. Climbs like the Taaienberg which had really hammered my legs on previous rides were not the obstacles they had been previously. And my hard man brother with his winter spent in the hills of Yorkshire was a bit underwhelmed by the shortness of the climbs.
We had also read lots of the on line articles about the Tour of Flanders route where even the professionals were double-taping their handlebars. With my experience of riding in Belgium for three years I thought the cumulative effect of the cobbled sections and climbs on this route might be debilitating.
I must be becoming a bit Belgian because as soon as I got to the cobbles I found myself passing dozens of riders who seemed to freeze and crawl over these sections, while everything I have learned is that you have to hit the cobbles as fast as you can possible ride to stop yourself being thrown all over the place, so I actually rode as hard on the flat cobbled sections as I did on the hills. The cobbles were a bit treacherous because they were wet and at times muddy and I did see a couple of people slide off gently but I didn’t have any concerns of my own. My sturdy Continental 4 Seasons tyres coped very well with the grip, they have been a great purchase for these conditions.
What I missed a bit was the sense of latching on to some good groups of fast riding clubs and getting towed round at high speed. The atmosphere was so relaxed and easy going in my part of the ride I was surprised to discover I was one of the faster riders most of the time and I was gradually passing people much of the day. I had some great short sections riding with some nice groups on the flat but each time we got to a climb, the cobbles or a feed station the rhythm changed so we split up. I suspect the really quick riders left at 7am or went on the 250km ride, they must have been there somewhere.
Overall my most optimistic projection was that I could get round in about 5 hours riding time and I was just amazed when I cleared the top of the Paterberg with 15 km to go to see that I could get quite close to that target so I treated myself to a long hard final time trial into the final head wind all the way to the finish line, probably the hardest I worked all day. Worth it because I came in just a few minutes off my best schedule and I was delighted.
But also in that final burst was a bit of frustration. Once again I didn’t find out whether I can ride the Koppenberg. But that was not unexpected, by the time I got there it was a river of mud and a river of bodies, completely impassable on its steepest point.
I rode the bottom section but soon couldn’t pass so I walked with the others until it flattened out when I quickly got back on my bike and at least had the privilege of riding through the checkpoint at the top.
But as I approached the end of the ride I set myself up for the three climbs that often decide the Tour of Flanders race and would be my big final test. However this third time up the Kruisberg was almost the easiest I could remember and the long drag up Oude Kwaremont was much easier for knowing that it was the last but one climb.
My frustration was caused by the Paterberg. It is visible from almost a couple of kilometres away so it was one to get psyched up for.
It is the grand finale. It is a steep climb but one I know I can ride so I really wanted to fly up it as the culmination of the ride.
Not a chance. Unfortunately despite the encouragement of the organisers for the slow movers to keep to the right and allow riders to overtake the sheer weight of numbers forced hundreds of walking riders to spread right across the course and make it impassable.
I rode hard and I grunted and yelled a bit, when I stalled I balanced with my hand on a crash barrier for a few moments and tried again but it was just impossible.
No glorious finale for me despite knowing I had enough adrenaline and energy to have ridden it, hence my frustrated thrash down the valley floor to the end. Trevor rode it, it appears by getting there about 40 minutes before me the congestion had yet to peak, but there was no way through for me.
But overall – “nailed it”.
14 climbs, 1400metres of climbing, 8km of other cobbled sections – I am a Flandrien.
I am glad I trained really hard for this ride because I really did feel I did it justice. But I think I enjoyed it even more for discovering an internationally famous ride that refused to take itself too seriously, celebrating its route, its setting and the traditions of the Tour of Flanders. It is also a reflection of the cycling fans in this part of the world, the ride not a closed club for whippet thin athletes on hugely expensive bikes, it is a recreational activity for everyone.
I think this should be on every cycling fan’s “bucket list” for that reason alone.
I am sure I will do it again sometime, if only to prove to myself that I can ride the Koppenberg and the Paterberg in one day. Or maybe I will just have to go back in a few weeks’ time and sneak up them completely on my own!
(Photos are my own and the commercial shots purchased from Sportgraf which are not available for re circulation)