Super super Saturday – when cycling and rugby collide

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Way back in 2012 when almost nobody read my blog except my family and a few friends I really enjoyed writing a piece about one special Saturday. The onset of spring was its theme, marked by “La Primavera”, the classic … Continue reading

Tour de France in Belgium 2015 – unforgettable moments

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This gallery contains 12 photos.

It is now four days since I cycled to Huy to watch the Tour de France stage finish at the summit of the legendary Muy de Huy. In the way of these things the excitement of the Tour has rolled … Continue reading

Watching the Tour of Flanders by bike – great day out

Kevin and Vincent at the Koppenberg

Tpor of Flanders riders Haaghoek

I was not sure how to watch the Tour of Flanders this year. As I was going on my own I had concluded that this was probably a good day for a long spring ride from home. I would then rest at a vantage point and ride home, making perhaps my first 100 mile ride for a long time.

But with a couple of days to go Vincent from Ghent was on the email – “any plans for Sunday? I will probably bike from “hotspot” to “hotspot” between Oudenaarde and Ronse. In this way I can work on my personal condition and watch the race.”

I probably should have looked a bit more closely at the “work on my personal condition” part of the invitation as Vincent is a faster rider than me, but the prospect of company and somebody to map out a route between vantage points was too good to miss. I also knew that it would be great to ride with real fans, local riders with a passion not only for the Flemish riders but “their race”, the culmination of a season of Flanders mini-classics on their roads which build up over several weeks and culminate in the Ronde.

The arrangement was quickly made that I would go by train to Ghent, meet the guys and we would ride down to the course. This is relatively easy in Belgium because once you have bought your 24 hour bike ticket you have unlimited access to the rail network for the bike, it is not the lottery experienced in many countries. So I could plan to jump on a train home from any number of stations in the area without hassle.

Watching the race

The Tour of Flanders is one of the most spectator friendly races in the professional cycling calendar. Many of the great bike races flash by from place to place and the only way to watch is to chase the race by car or soak up the atmosphere and watch the rest of the race in a bar.

Official Route Map (from Flanders Classics)

Official Route Map (from Flanders Classics)

With the Tour of Flanders the organisers give flat West Flanders a taste by sending them off into the flat country for 100 or more kilometres, then they bring the race into the Flemish Ardennes and pack 150 km of racing into a small range of steep sided hills just 20km long by 10km wide. This is done by a complicated set of loops and laps which mean that cars find it hard to move almost anywhere in the network of lanes but by bike it is easy to plot a route to see the race several times if you have some local insight.

The organisers also cater for the spectators brilliantly by running shuttle buses up to three spectator villages with food, bars and big screens at the main vantage points. It is quite unique in sport, the crowd encouraged away from the towns into fields beside tiny villages. And instead of grumbling about the inconvenience and the intrusion the local communities fill many of the gardens with their friends, get out the beer and the barbeque and welcome their race.

Tour of Flanders

(I published several posts last year from the Paterberg that can be found under the Tour of Flanders tab below)

Our route

Our ride was a bit of a mini version of the race route which I have crudely sketched on to the map below (Blue line) By starting from Ghent we would mirror the elites by riding straight into the stiff south westerly breeze. Near to Oudenaarde we swing south into the hills to the Molenberg. From there apparently there was just enough time if we hurried to catch them again on the cobbled section at Haaghoek before a 10-15km ride to the Oude Kwaremont where we should see them twice and watch the race unfold on the big screen. About 80km/50miles I estimated for that part, my whole day was around 75miles/120km.

Tour of Flanders our route

Tour of Flanders Molenberg

This route was really good because I would never have chosen the Molenberg or Haaghoek to watch, I just didn’t have the knowledge of what to expect and they come early in the action. As it turned out they gave me some new experiences because the top of Molenberg was a tiny lane with the bunch funnelled down right in front of people’s gardens whereas the section at Haaghoek was a wider cobbled road across a shallow valley with a great view of the whole race cavalcade rattling down the stones and sweeping up in front of fans two deep on the railings.

The Oude Kwaremont is at the other end of the spectrum, one of the famous and decisive climbs with just 20km to go in the race. I have ridden it and it is nowhere as steep as the Paterberg or the Koppenberg but it just seems to go on for ages, all cobbled. It is ridden 3 times and at the end it is a great place to see the favourites impose themselves. For that reason it is of course popular, with a big spectator village at the top and you have to fight for a view at the roadside, but then we can all watch the finale.

Oude Kwaremont summit

Our ride.

Cyclists Suspension bridge GhentTo get out of Ghent we nipped through the suburbs and then up and over a superb new cyclists suspension bridge which has been built over the motorway as part of the access to a new football stadium. The stadium itself has an impressive mobility plan which encourages local fans to come by bike with lots of cycle routes and cycle parking.

We quickly joined the flat car free route beside the Scheldt river (hope of the infamous ribbelstroken) and soon knocked off the kilometres towards Oudenaarde. I was already grateful for the company given the surprising strength of the wind, especially when I realised that my original plan would have seen me riding 50 miles into this on my own.

IMG_4018Leaving the riverside we were quickly zig-zagging through a maze of lanes that I would never have found on my own and relatively rapidly came up a tiny side road to the top of the Molenberg. Everything seemed very quiet, then suddenly the final climb was covered in parked cars, telling us the race route must be nearby. Great navigation because we popped out right at the top of the village and joined a mix of locals and visitors by the roadside, all being handed flags with the black lion of Flanders.

The next part of the ride was the hardest because after standing around for half an hour we suddenly had to dash across several small folds in the landscape and by the time we reached the top of the final one my legs were groaning and my lungs gasping to keep up with Vincent and Wouter. We actually got to ride a very short stretch of the course just ahead of the race as we cut through but we were mainly on some lanes which looked lovely with the spring blossom everywhere, a year ago I watched under snowflakes and spring seemed quite distant.

A good crowd was gathered at Haagenhoek because of the excellent views and the extremely well placed bar where the party of Dutch cargo bikers were refuelling.

Tour of Flanders Haaghoek

We weren’t there long before the race came through so this time I didn’t stiffen up so much before we were back on the bikes to ride a longer section to the Kwaremont. Again the benefits of local knowledge were apparent, would I have gone down an apparent footpath between two houses without Vincent leading? No chance!

Short cut to Tour of Flanders

Cycle touring path near OudenaardeThe stiff wind was still in our faces but by now it was clear that Wouter is a strong rider into the wind so I was happy to be tucked up behind them when we cleared the lanes and joined an excellent cycle route that ended up on an former railway line that sliced across the open fields in the flat valley of the Scheldt. This was a good way of taking in the topography of the area because as we rolled west the hills of the Flemish Ardennes were lined up to our left and we could look across and spot the bergs, knowing the riders were out there somewhere sweeping up down and around the fiendish final 100km of the race. Our route cut right across the foot of the awesome Koppenberg that completely defeated me earlier in the year so we stopped for a photo-call to prove we were there, but maybe another time for the climb.

Shortly after the foot of the Koppenberg we were into Berchem, the small town below the village of Kwaremont which looks down over the valley. We were running a bit tight for time to get up the climb before the riders so the suggestion was a detour to watch the field come down the new main road which bypasses Kwaremont. This turned out to be inspired because again we saw another aspect of the race that none of us had seen before. The bunch was jockeying for position before the key climb which means that they spread out across the whole road and descended past us at just extraordinary speed. (80kmph/50mph at least) Given that they were only a few metres from a road narrowing and a sharp right hand bend the sight was even more terrifying. As bike riders ourselves we appreciated how much skill and confidence in each other the pros must have to do that. The day was dark, gloomy and threatening rain so the lights of the cars and motorbikes only emphasised the impression.

Tour of Flanders Kwaremont

Once they were past us Wouter suddenly suggested that if we were quick we might actually catch them again at the top of the hill because they had to go down, through Berchem and up the long cobbled climb while we “only” had to go up the main road to the top. My legs were aching again from the combination of riding and standing so the other two soon left me behind even though the slope was not steep. However I was soon bumping my bike across the field with the big screen to get to the barriers and see the bunch in time.

We were then able to hang out, refuel (essential frites) and watch the race unfold on the big screen. Then with just 20km to go it was a rush to get a great spot by the barriers and hopefully see the decisive moment, then back to the screens to watch them climb the Paterberg and then the run in to the finish at Oudenaarde.

Tour of Flanders on the big screen

The race

The race itself was a cracker. For the first time in three years the two strongest riders of recent years were both fit and the Flemish were very excited about Tom Boonen’s prospects. There were also a host of strong riders from what might be called “the new generation” sniping at the heels of the favourites and several of them are Belgian.

The break of the day went away early and held on for a long time but it was clear that on home soil Boonen’s Omega Pharma Quickstep team meant business, they were massed at the front every time we saw them and the crowds were getting very excited.

Look its Tom Boonen at Tour of Flanders

In the final 30km it was the new generation that appeared charge and home fans were excited to see Greg van Avermaet of BMC pulling away in front of us on the Kwaremont with his Quickstep shadow Stijn Vandenbergh, also Belgian, and more excitingly for the locals he was from a village nearby.

Belgians attack on the Oude Kwaremont

But ominously a pair of riders came up just behind them and one of them was Spartacus, Fabian Cancellara towing Sep Vanmarcke who had pushed him so hard in last year’s Paris Roubaix.  In the final 20km we almost saw Van Avermaet get away on the Paterberg and the other Belgians took it in turns to attack but they could not shake off the Swiss master. Every Belgian attack was greeted by cheers and shouts, but to a huge groan from the crowd Cancellara took the sprint from the three Flemish young pretenders.

However what I liked is that even as we walked away the talk turned to what a great race it had been and respect for Cancellara. Not only because he is a great rider but because it is clear he respects the race and its traditions. One press report I saw said that he even apologised to the host Belgian broadcaster in his post-race interview for beating three Belgians! A real nice guy by all accounts and one of my favourite riders. (Click here for a video of one of his greatest descents – awesome stuff)

In summary?

I am sure I had something complicated to say, but it’s all here. Put simply – every bike fan should come to the Tour of Flanders at least once. And if you can do it riding in the company of knowledgeable Flemish bike fans you will enjoy it all the more.

Thanks Vincent and Wouter – great day out.

Day-dreaming of cycling in Florence

Florence cycling

I’ll be taking advantage of some lovely early autumn weather to cycle in Belgium this week as I have a few days when I will be at home for a while.

But all the while I will be daydreaming of Florence and Tuscany.

Glorious city of art and culture.

Part of the Tuscany cycle tour that I convinced Mrs Idonotdespair to take part in as a first tour, and strange girl still married me two years later.

The city in which my current adventure started when I was approached to consider joining ECF as a staff member, almost exactly two years ago.

So I shall be visualising rolling hills and cypress trees, olive groves and city walls. A city I love visiting and hope to go to many more times.

But these images will be the backdrop to my other cycling passion. Classic bike racing. This year’s World Road Cycling Championships that has got me more enthusiastic than for many years because there are so many angles and interesting battles to consider, especially now I am not just looking through a British filter, I have been listening to the Belgian and French build-ups as well.

On Sunday the team time trial gave a taster as Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin led their team squads into action while Bradley Wiggins was away winning the Tour of Britain. The aerial photography showed stunning views of Florence that looked wonderful.

Time Trial at Surbiton

So on Wednesday I will be glued to the results as the big three go for it with all of them on form for the first time in two years, the proper rematch for the Olympics when Cancellara was injured and Martin maybe a bit off form.

Then at the weekend we have the road races. The women’s race is a bit of a formality, on this course it is impossible to see anyone beating Marianne Vos.

But in the men’s U23 there are some incredible young riders including Simon Yates of Great Britain who is a real star in the making and there is a resurgence in some of the other countries such as France, while the Italians have been known to pack 1-2-3 in the past. Throw in the wild cards who are still emerging in this age group and anything could happen.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen PaterbergThen on Sunday it will be hard to drag myself away from the men’s road race as the intensity builds up all day. I will probably have to go for a bike ride to distract myself or I will have spent the whole day in front of a TV.

I have no expectations of Chris Froome beating the star puncheurs of the classic’s scene. But Cancellara is on record saying that this is the race he really wants to complete his collection. Sagan is flying. Defending champion Gilbert is coming back to form and the Belgians were by far the best team last year. Vincenzo Nibali was not in full form at the Veulta but is on home roads in Tuscany. Will the Spanish all ride for Rodriguez?  There is a brilliant group of young French riders coming through and yet they have selected cycling’s top gurner Tommy V to be the sole team leader. Loads of possibilities.

Much better than football – only 2 choices of winner!

Dreaming of Tuscan hills.

“I do not despair” experiences the Tour of Flanders (2 – frites, fans and chicken suits)

Tour of Flanders

IMG_0707

This is the second of my Tour of Flanders updates, this time focussing on the fan experience, what it was like to be by the roadside for this celebration of all things Flemish.

For my post on the race click here. The final post will be a little touring post about my first experience of riding through the Flemish Ardennes. (And next week we start again with Paris Roubaix!)

As I said yesterday a big thank you to Vincent Meershaert who told me The Paterberg was one of his favourite places to watch. I don’t know why but it really didn’t ring a bell with me beforehand, I knew about the Oude Kwaremont, the Koppenberg and the organiser’s controversial decision to leave the Mur de Grammont out of the route.

Only on final research did I discover that the Paterberg would be the key climb, the last before the finish. However as we approached the apparent spot my father and I cycled up to the hill on a tiny country lane and even when we were within the last few metres all we could see were a few cars parked on the edge of a field. I was really quite worried that I had got completely lost or that we had misunderstood the advice until we climbed over the ridge and suddenly looked down on a mass of people, barriers, flags, banners and tents sloping away down a steep hillside.

Paterberg Ampitheatre 4

Then we understood why this spot would be the prefect vantage point in any bike race. The steep slopes formed a banked terrace with a chance to see the riders on the climb and as the road surface was not a sunken hollow so spectators could get right to the edge of the road on both sides all the way up and there were no embankments or hedgerows in the view. Pretty fierce hill, only 400 metres but 20% at the steepest point, averaging 13% and cobbled all the way.

Tour of Flanders

Belgian TV

In addition the hill also looked out across the countryside as the riders swept across our view along the valley descent to the foot of the Paterberg. Belgian TV obviously knew this too because one of their fixed cameras was halfway up the hill and we could see the strung out peloton on TV several times from this key vantage point.

However all those things are just the physical setting. What made this such fun was the party atmosphere up and down the hill. The audience may have been majority Flemish judging by the number of beery conversations we almost had in Dutch but there were a lot of other voices present too.

Tour of Flanders

Boldest, most colourful and definitely the most excited were the Swiss-Italian Fabian Cancellara fan club who had staked out their corner with Swiss flags, banners and posters fighting for position with the black lion of Flanders. paterberg summit

IMG_0770

Tour of FlandersBeer and frites were in plentiful supply and I can vouch for the fact that the frites and mayo were excellent despite the prospect of a cold hilly ride putting me off the beer. It didn’t seem to put anyone else off though and as time wore on it certainly took its effect.

Tour of FlandersThe other stars of the day were the residents. One house at the steepest point of the hill laid on novelty entertainment and music as two increasingly inebriated men in chicken suits managed to keep dancing for almost three hours.

And because the profile let fans get right up to the edge when the riders did come by it became funnel of sound, fans right up in the riders’ faces yelling and screaming. Maybe not all over the road like some Tour de France stages but because of the speed the riders flew up these shorter steep climbs it would have been a nightmare without the barriers. Even patting bums seemed to be in order here, but that could have been the effect of the beer.

fans 5 fans Can I tweak your bum

A lot of very windswept happy customers left together at the end of the day to wend their way back to whichever field hid their car, bike or shuttle bus having shared the Ronde Van Vlaanderen experience.

Just a personal note to my Dad to close. Because you tipped Cancellara for the win doesn’t give you an automatic membership of the fan club. He does get carried away you know!

Tour of Flanders

“I do not despair” experiences the Tour of Flanders (1 – racing and riders)

Tour of Flanders

I am still buzzing from my visit to De Ronde Van Vlaanderen on Sunday, it was a top day out.

And many thanks to my followers and tweeters who loved the photo of Cancellara attacking Sagan on the Paterberg. Key moments in cycling can be spread out over hundreds of kilometres, that’s why it is sometimes a better sport on TV than live but now I have watched the TV highlights a number of times I realise even more what a privilege it was to be there at just the moment when the race was won.

For the full “I do not despair” experience I have selected three blog subjects that summarise my memories of my first Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

  1. The race itself. It really was top drawer single day classic racing with the top guys going mano a mano, no negative racing here.
  2. The location. A big shout out to Vincent Meershaert, cycling fan and transport consultant from Ghent whose advice on where to go and how to get there was spot on. The Paterberg was not only the key climb it was a perfect setting for watching and it attracted a boisterous crowd who brought the authentic atmosphere of Flemish cycling.
  3. Riding through the Flemish Ardennes. We chose to park and ride a round trip of about 40km through the countryside to get to the race. Thanks to guidance from Vincent we had a stunning ride on almost deserted roads which only added to the occasion.

Post 1: The race.

I really worried that we might be stuck on a hillside without a sense of the race unfurling, getting just fleeting glimpses of a peloton of riders until a final thrash up the Paterberg and then they would go away and we would only find out the result later that night.

Not a chance. A big screen was visible most of the way up the hill which combined with the chatter of the fans in multiple languages and regular updates on Twitter meant that we were in touch the action the whole time. Plus the position of the Paterberg at the centre of the closing circuits of the race meant that there were circulating helicopters alerting us to the approach and location of the riders throughout the final two hours of riding.

And the Peterberg itself gave fantastic views of the riders snaking down from the Oude Kwaremont at high speed before they hit the bottom of the vicious cobbled climb where the riders funnelled so close to us you could smell the pain. Oh the indignity, some of the hardest riders in world cycling grovelling up among the cars.

Breakaway group

So here is a small gallery of my favourite racing shots as the race unfurled.

186km gone and the break of the day sweeps down from the Oude Kwaremont and then battling up the Paterberg, great team effort by Lotto, especially big Andre Greipel who certainly isn’t built for this. In this picture you can see not only

Breakaway group

the group from the front but the camera tracking them on screen.

And then the peloton, carefully controlled by the strong teams but not yet flat out on the climb, Welsh rider Geraint Thomas well to the fore and looking settled.

Tour of Flanders

Tour of FlandersOnly when enlarging a photo did I notice that Cancellara and Sagan were already inseparable, the wise old head keeping an eye on the younger man.

219km, second time up and the pressure was on, the much smaller bunch was straining and there were a lot more riders down in the team cars. Thomas had crashed and despite flying up the climb he was already being baulked by cars and backmarkers, his game was up.

Tour of FlandersTour of Flanders

Finally we saw the race unfold on the big screen as Cancellara hit the afterburners on the Oude Kwaremont and only Sagan could hold him. They caught Jurgen Roelandts and then we watched the trio fly down the valley below us and then heard the noise erupt along the roadside. 243km and just 13 km to go, this had to be the moment and everybody knew it.

From my viewpoint I suddenly saw Sagan come in to sight on the far side of the road and knew I had a great photo. I didn’t know just how great until Cancellara burst in front of me absolutely flying, just in time to click. I didn’t dare study the picture until the evening, I had the sense it might be special, especially because we then saw him ride away to the win from that point.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen Paterberg

Meanwhile our vantage point gave some great views of the following pack, straining their every sinew to form a chasing group. Not many sports let you get this close to the best. This selection includes Alexander Kristoff, eventual 4th with Johann Vansummeren 20th, Marcus Burkhardt 22nd and Geraint Thomas who lost 2:49 to finish 41st. At the top of the page are Lars Boom, Flecha and Jerome.Tour of Flanders

Tour of Flanders

Geraint Thomas

Everybody moved down the hill to watch the finale on the big screen where a burst of sporting applause from the Belgians and cheering from the Swiss accompanied the pictures of Cancellara crossing the line.

They don’t call the great races “The monuments” for nothing, and this was a classic worth of the name.

The moment the Tour of Flanders was won

Ronde Van Vlaanderen Paterberg

If I never take another cycle racing photo again I will be happy.

The Paterberg, Tour of Flanders. The final climb where Fabian Cancellara attacks Peter Sagan to break away and win the race.

At the very second I pressed the shutter.

The only thing the camera cannot show is the relative speeds. Look in Sagan’s face – he knows.

A full report on a brilliant day out to follow, but I just had to share.