I am having a MAMIL moment. Apologies, normal service will be resumed shortly.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

My aim with this blog is to keep a balance. A wide variety of cycling content mixed in with some travel, food and Belgian life.

On the cycling side it means that I try to balance my personal love of for sporty riding like great races and mountain biking with rides for everyone in amazing locations and great company.

However regular readers may have noticed a trend creeping in over the past few months. Since December I have been doing a lot of long hard rides. Thankfully you have all been very appreciative of the long touring days, the hard cross country and recently the excursion to Taiwan’s mountains.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

I am having a MAMIL moment. I am a Middle Aged Man in Lycra, racing around the countryside in search of cycling achievement.

Here is my confession.

I ended last summer feeling good about my riding and I was determined to keep it up over the winter for the first time since moving to Belgium.  The idea became firmer when I found our club’s previously secret winter riding gang that would get me out on Sunday mornings, just like back in the UK.

However that innocent aim got hi-jacked by a moment of MAMIL madness. I was clicking around the web one evening when I found the site for the Tour of Flanders challenge ride on the Saturday before the legendary classic. The race I have been visiting since I got here, only growing in my estimation now I live in Belgium.

Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen

Click, enter your details. 130 kilometres, all the famous climbs, I can do that, click. Enter credit card, click. (I would like to blame mixing Belgian beer with a double espresso, or similar over-stimulation, but I suspect I just had a moment.) And with that I went off to bed dreaming of becoming a Flandrian.

Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen

A couple of days later I made my true confession. “Well I may have just sort of….” and “I was just thinking maybe I could ride an event Easter weekend.” “The Tour of Flanders Cyclo….”

Once again Mrs Idonotdespair showed the insight into my behaviour that kept our marriage happy for twenty five years. She cut straight through my woffle, gave me a withering look and said “Oh no, you are going to start training aren’t you?”

I promised that it wasn’t the case. No obsessive behaviour. No doubling the food bill. No sneaky rides at inappropriate moments. Because I had no doubt I would not be training for this ride. I would try to “get fit”, but in my head that is a process of just a few longer fun rides on top of my usual schedule.

Training is what you do when you become slave to an objective. Faster, higher, stronger. To beat a time or a rival. No I am not going to be training, I am just going for a long ride.

Reality bites.

About a week after I signed up for the Tour of Flanders ride I began my schedule by setting set out for a thrash up a few hills on Saturday morning. This did not go well at all and I promptly came down with flu and then a chest infection which lasted almost through to Christmas. Best winter in years? No chance.

So I did the only realistic thing in the circumstances. I panicked.

Well almost. I had 13 weeks to create the man in my head who was bouncing up steep cobbled hills with enthusiasm and energy, not somebody crawling to the line in pain and suffering. Yes the Tour of Flanders classic allows for fun riders who can take up to 12 hours to do just 70km, something I can handle even when totally unfit. But that’s not the point for me, I want it to feel sporty, I want to be able to follow bunches of other riders, I want to be able to look at it on the TV the next day when the pros ride and I want to be able to say “I did that”.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

It has however been really hard, especially in my head. It is five years since I last got myself anywhere near this level of fitness, in fact probably nearer ten. The body forgets. I have ached, I have groaned, I have been wet and cold rather more times than I wanted. I was much more tired than I had expected as I stepped up the riding/training.

Riding with the club’s winter group I found myself struggling unexpectedly to keep up. People I rode with all last year were dropping me on Sundays. I blamed my old winter bikes and the fact that I was riding 3 or 4 days in the week to so I was more tired than them, but if you had asked me at the end of February “How’s it going?” I really was not happy. And perhaps that’s my main point, the stress of the target took a lot of the shine off the riding, it was something I “had to do”, not “wanted to do”.

I think I might have been training. Oh dear!

Rewards.

March arrived.

The mornings offered a hint of spring.

I extracted my best bike from its winter hibernation and enjoyed the swish of lightweight tyres on dry roads.

My strategy for surviving the annual diet of jetlag, late dinners and over-consumption at the Taipei Cycle Show paid off brilliantly with the two extra days for cycling acting as a wonderful final warm weather training camp.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

And then I went out on a Sunday and whizzed round with our fast group, something I could not possibly have done a year ago. And as I started enjoying myself the aches and pains eased away. I am about 4kg lighter than I was in October and a hell of a lot fitter, I really can enjoy this.

Maybe, just maybe I am ready for my MAMIL moment on Saturday.

Lessons learned.

I have no enthusiasm whatsoever to turn training for cycling into a way of life again. I intend to keep my rides nicely balanced with a return to regular city and gentle touring rides.

Photo by Andrzej Felczak

All credit to the veteran racers and born again MAMILs that bring so much energy and passion to their cycling. Yes I am going to try and keep fairly fit. I can see some great rides coming up over the rest of the year and as I am in Belgium I will stretch out for some more links to the classics.

But I am going to keep it fun. If the wind is howling and the rain coming down horizontally like it was this morning, I will roll over, take an extra hour and go for the train later.

Probably.

Part 2 of my guest post for DiscoveringBelgium.com “New Year’s Revolutions: The Best of Belgian Cycling for 2015”

Part 2 of my guest post for Denzil Walton’s www.discoveringbelgium.com has been published today.

Last week it was all about places for you to ride.

This week its “Watching cycling with the Belgians – beer, frites and the most passionate fans in the world” 

I have suggested some of the best cycling to watch this year including the Six Days of Ghent, the great settings for cyclocross races and  of course the road classics.

An extra bonus for 2015 is the Tour de France which comes to Wallonia in July.

www.dicoveringbelgium.com

For links to my own accounts of visiting the various races mentioned click the tabs at the bottom of the page.

Thanks again Denzil for the opportunity to spread the word and for the great ideas on your blog.

 

Paris Roubaix – I Do Not Despair experiences the “Queen of the Classics”

Paris Roubaix 2014 Arenberg dust Arenberg Paris Roubaix 2014

“I didn’t really understand the point. Putting a race over all these all tracks just so they can race over cobbles. But now I have seen all this I know it has to be preserved.”

The words of my father as we joined the crowds to watch the Paris Roubaix bike race at the legendary Trouée d’Arenberg, the Arenberg Trench.

Occasional observers of cycle sport probably know that the way the fans watch cycling is to set off for the big hills so you can see the decisive moments and the riders spread out over a distance, just like I did last week at the Tour of Flanders. At Paris Roubaix there are no hills, their symbolic place in the race is taken by notorious stretches of old cobbled farm tracks and minor roads in the north of France. A hundred years ago when the race was founded they were the standard road surfaces but today sections have to be discovered or “restored” to retain the integrity of the route. Restored means “made lumpy, muddy and brutal to cycle on”.

Today the Arenberg is one of the stars of the show. This was a former service road to the old mines of Wallers-Arenberg, discovered hidden in forest by a former rider who not only lived nearby but had worked in the mines. When local roads were improved and made too easy Paris Roubaix diverted over this section and a legend was born.

The route is traffic free all year round and shaded by trees so moss grows on the stones creating havoc in wet conditions. The closeness of the fans and the trees gives it the appearance of a tunnel, heightening the impact. It was actually kicked off the race route for a few years because it became too dangerous for even Paris Roubaix but the local community rallied round and paid for the stones to be restored.

It isn’t the decisive moment in the race because there is still 100km to go but it is known as the place where the main action starts. So when I was choosing a place for us to watch our first Paris Roubaix I had no doubt at all where I wanted to be, I have seen it on TV so many times I wanted to be part of that atmosphere.

When my research found that there is also a fan village run by the community with the obligatory food, drink, hospitality area and big screen the decision was confirmed, we could watch the race come through and then follow it through to the finish on the screen. The backdrop is the mining museum which celebrates the heritage of the area.

Watching Paris Roubaix at Arenberg

We parked about an hour’s ride away and pedalled our way around and through the forest on some delightful car free roads and tracks until we popped out of the trees onto the course.

Foret de rasmes France

entrance to the Arenberg paris Roubaix

From here the spectators walk along the 2km of arrow straight road that form the route, or as we did they thread their way through the surrounding forest on foot and on bikes.

Paris Roubaix 2014

Almost by luck we found a great spot. Almost 2km from the fan village there are slightly fewer spectators and the line at the barrier was not as deep, plus we came out by an official service area which meant there was a bend in the barriers.Waiting for Paris Roubaix 2014

By standing on the corner of this bend we had an almost unobscured view right down the course which was great in itself, but what we realised was that desperate riders being battered by cobbles will seek any sort of refuge and even 20 metres of smooth path is a huge temptation so they would actually be riding straight at us for a few seconds.

And then the atmosphere built up rapidly to an explosion of colour, noise and yellow dust.

First a few service cars slewing sideways on the cambered cobblestones, then the police outriders on special trials motorbikes used only for this event. The arrival of the TV helicopter overhead says the race is upon us and the first three riders in a breakaway group hammered by, grimacing as their bikes bounced and clattered over the stones.

This is however just an hors d’ouvre. Two minutes behind the breakaway comes the peloton and there are 100 riders going flat out, probably over 45km per hour despite the cobbles, the dust, the slight uphill. At the front the leaders’ team riders were grim faced, spread across the road hammering out an incredible pace each hoping that the centre ridge or one of the gutters is marginally smoother.

Paris Roubaix Peloton 2014 Arenberg Close up Paris roubaix cyclists

And at the back of the string the body language was one of complete desperation with riders going through hell just to follow the wheels of the hard men while being hammered by the surface. Noticeably many of the long tail were the small riders who suffer horribly in these conditions compared to the big power men at the front.

Paris Roubaix 2014 Arenberg

And all the time the dust, made worse for the later riders by the team cars trying to get through to people with punctures and mechanical failures caused by the terrain.

Within minutes it was over and the noise subsided to the excited chatter of the crowd as they melted back into the woods to trudge to their cars and head for home to watch the final two hours on TV. We expected a huge crowd to gather at the big screen however we were going completely against the flow as most French people left, having had their moment and knowing that there was still over an hour to go to find a place to watch. This meant that the crowd down at the fan village had a strong international flavour with the Belgians loudly cheering “Mr Paris-Roubaix”, Tom Boonen, and even a lot of Brits giving a shout when Bradley Wiggins featured in the final kilometres. Final shout of the day was left to the Dutch when their man Niki Terpstra broke away to win the race.

A lovely and unexpected feature was when Terpstra crossed the line our whole crowd just broke into applause. A huge appreciation of what we had seen, and knowledge that Paris Roubaix has never been won by a poor rider.

And then my final treat, if you can call it that.

With the forest quiet except for the service crews clearing the barriers and bagging the rubbish the Arenberg Trench was going back to sleep for another year. The crowd were clearing off towards their cars and I realised I had the whole road to myself. Time to ride the Arenberg!

Arenberg Trench Paris Roubaix

Dad made it very clear that he wasn’t going to ride the cobbles, but the side path was now open so he could ride on the smooth section while I went for it.

What a ride. I stuck it into the biggest gear I could turn and just hammered down the centre ridge as hard as I could, which was not very hard at all. More of a wobbly plod in fact. I could say I have ridden worse cobbles in Belgium. I could say I know some roads round my home with bigger potholes. But kept up for 2km, slightly up hill much of the way, funnelled into a relatively narrow width it feels unrelenting. I was puffing and sweating like I had just climbed a mountain for ten minutes.

Cycleottignies a Paris Roubaix

Then I imagined the riders doing 45kmph, after 150km, with another 17 sections of pave to come. They are super-human at times.

On 9th July Tour de France fans will see these roads in a special 1st World War commemorative stage from Ypres to Arenberg. The occasional watchers of the TV coverage may wonder what all the fuss is about but those who have seen the “Hell of the North” will know that they are witnessing something special. The favoured Tour riders who hate these hard roads of the north and spend these weeks of the cobbled classics riding in Spain and Italy could suffer a lot on a day like this.

For my part I will be glued to the coverage because I can say “I was there”. Another unique cycling experience added to my collection.

What an extraordinarily diverse machine the bicycle is. I do not despair!

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.

Many ways to watch the Tour of Flanders

There are many ways to watch the Tour of Flanders.

Stand in your garden and go “Oh look, its Tom Boonen”

Look its Tom Boonen at Tour of Flanders

Or

Watching the Tour of Flanders

There were even the Dutch guys who brought a lorry load of delivery bikes to cycle between bars.

Tour of Flanders Bakkiefietsen Tour

I was invited by Vincent Meerschaert and friend Wauter to join them on their 100km dash between the bergs, which is almost certainly why my legs ache so much this morning.

So we got to take in some superb Flemish cycling infrastructure such as the brilliant new suspension bridge near Ghent,

Cyclists Suspension bridge Ghent

Arrow straight touring routes

Cycle touring path near Oudenaarde

And to hang around the legendary spots like the Koppenberg and the Oude Kwaremont to take in the atmosphere and see the race unfold.

Kevin and Vincent at the Koppenberg

I will post a few more photos and a more about the ride, but it is fair to say I had a great day out once again with the Belgian cycling fans. It is an amazing sport that we have which lets everybody feel so close to the riders and become part of the race. Surely Flanders is one of its spiritual homes.

Tpor of Flanders riders Haaghoek

 

Mayne rides to solo victory in the Fleche Waltonne

Trevor Mayne Photo Geradline Walker

Even those who don’t follow cycling as a sport recognise the victory salute of a winning rider as he or she crosses the line, preferably having dropped your breakaway companions and soloed to the line with time to sit up and do the full arms raised salute. Someone may even take your photo in victory.

A much smaller number of people know what that actually feels like, even within the sport. I never did it in about 20 years of racing and I am pretty sure that I am not going to now. Oh sure, I dreamt it a few times and I have certainly felt like I lived every pedal stroke when cheering a favourite rider to a win on the TV. But to actually feel it? I wish.

So full credit to my brother Trevor. He still races to a high standard in the UK and in his 50th year he set himself the goal of winning a road race. He has accumulated a whole range of awards and trophies in time-trialing in the past few years but said his season’s goal was a road race.

Well he only went and did it in the first event of the season.

As the report of Leicestershire’s Fleche Waltonne says:

C/D Race

The wind played havoc in this race and after only 1 lap the field was significantly strung out. A break of 5 established itself quite early containing Paul Caton Trevor Mayne and Karl Moseley amongst others. Mike Twelves attacked from the pack to try and bridge to the leaders , and got within 10 seconds of them before reinforcements from behind came up , these riders included strongmen, Andy Eagers and Jon Stephenson. Eventually, a very strong group of 6 were well clear of the rest.

In a move that was a copycat of the A B race, Trevor Mayne attacked in Walton village with just over 1 lap to go. Trevor, an expert timetrialist, pushed on alone to a fine victory by around a minute and a half.

 

Words from http://lvrc.org/race_results.asp?r=1072&y=2014

All credit to him. And putting any sibling rivalry aside I am not only very proud of his successes, but in this instance more than a little envious – because that’s the way to do it.

The only cautionary note is that having completed his season’s target in the first month of the year his excuses for avoiding DIY tasks have significantly diminished. Peaked too soon maybe? However I clearly need the training, so I’m off out on my bike. Maybe I need to practice my victory salutes a bit, just in case.

Dream on.

A special New Year’s Day Ride – the classic climbs of the Tour of Flanders

Belgium, Ronde Van Vlaanderen fietsroute

Ronde van Vlaanderen Blue route

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.

Andrew on the Paterberg

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.

Bottom of the Oude Kwaremont

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!

Suffering on the Paterberg

The Koppenberg defeated us both as the big damp greasy stones and the 19% gradient proved an impossible combination with no traction whatsoever.

Ronde Van Vlaaderen Fietsroute

Tour of Flanders Cycle route

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!

The descents had to be treated with respect too, the roads were drying out but these are tiny agricultural lanes with quite a bit of mud and gusty cross winds stopping us taking full advantage.Tour of Flanders Cycle Route Ronde Van Vlaanderen Fietsroute

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.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen Mural Flanders Belgian cycling heroes on mural

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.

Tour of Flanders Cycle Route