Easter in Flanders – a cycling pilgrimage

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This gallery contains 16 photos.

Time for a quick gallery of photos from Tour of Flanders weekend! It is the first weekend in April and there is only one place to be for cycling fan in Belgium. Once again I had the best excuse to … Continue reading

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

Favourite cycling photos of 2015

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This gallery contains 11 photos.

To complement the small selection of nice travel and home photos that I published two days ago I now compiled a similar selection of 2015 cycling shots. Many of the travel shots were also taken on bike rides around the … Continue reading

Reflections on the Tour of Flanders Cyclo 2015 – the cycle challenge for everyone

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This gallery contains 20 photos.

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 … Continue reading

Gallery Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo/ Tour of Flanders Sportif

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This gallery contains 21 photos.

I have just received my links to the official photography provided by the organisers of the Tour of Flanders Cyclo on Saturday. As well as individual rider photos they also throw in a nice collection of atmosphere shots which show … Continue reading

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.

Flanders cycle tour day 3 – Bicycle Paradise.  Geleen, Maasmechelen, Hoge Kempen National Park, Genk and Hassalt.

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This gallery contains 17 photos.

I keep wanting to write that that this trip was a “Tour of Flanders”. However the cycling traditionalist part of my brain keeps telling me that the name Tour of Flanders is reserved for Ronde Van Vlaanderen the great one … 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.

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

 

Friday night Flanders ride

Kattenberg climb Flanders

Vlaamse Ardennen Route

Cycling out into Flanders

As a result of an invitation from Vincent Meershaert of Traject Mobility Management in Ghent I spent last Friday evening on a scenic ride out from Ghent into the Flemish Ardennes and some bits of the Tour of Flanders race route.

Only my second time there on a bike after my visit in spring to watch the Tour itself so I was very much looking forward to new discoveries, especially with hosts who were rightly proud of their cycling heritage. I got an invitation because like Vincent I am one of the “odd guys”, people who work in the field of cycling for transport and mobility but who also have a love for sports cycling. That may not seem too strange to an English speaking audience but in Europe it is actually quite rare, they are usually two different worlds. 

What a great way to start the weekend with a beautiful 80km route put together by Vincent’s colleague Kristof. And to see first-hand how big the Wielrenner (sports cyclist) culture is around Ghent, even though it was Friday after work there were lycra-clad riders all over the place, clearly enjoying a warm, if overcast evening.

However we were not the only ones out, we found this great group of “seniors” out by the Scheldt too.

Friday night in Flanders

The ride managed to throw in a whole mix of riding that seemed to capture the area extremely well. As we were returning from the ride Vincent and I were musing again on the fact that Belgium is so little known for cycle touring, a combination of lack of marketing and the competition from the surrounding countries I am sure.

The only people I know of who would consciously head for this area to ride bikes would all be like me, drawn by the legendary black and white images of mud covered racers battling across cobbles in the spring classics. (See earlier post about the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Museum on Oudenarde)

Flanders Cycle route signsWhat we actually got was almost car free country lanes, excellent cycle paths, a 4 metre wide car free route along the river Scheldt and outstanding signposting and route choice. The tidy flower-filled villages and towns reflected the fact that this is a more prosperous area of Belgium and that civic pride is alive and well. Above all else the Belgians I ride with and talk to in both Flanders and FlandersWallonia are genuinely surprised when I tell them the very best thing about being here is just how deserted the minor roads and lanes feel to a visitor and tonight was no exception.  OK, we crossed some major roads but away from them it was peaceful cycling with almost no need to ride single file at all. Our group were sports cyclists, so our route took us well into the Flemish Ardennes by design, but flat earth riders could easily have stuck to the valleys for a very leisurely and attractive tour.

None of the climbs we did was a monster, the low lying countryside allows only about 100 metres of ascent each time and the climbs we did were mostly

Flanders flower

well surfaced and no more than 5-8% grade with occasional steep corners. Not to downplay it, 100km of these coming back-to-back with some of the steeper cobbled beast climbs thrown in would be a really tough ride, anyone completing the Tour of Flanders sportive deserves respect.

Friday night bike ride Flanders

But that wasn’t why we were here, we were enjoying fun climbing to get lovely views over the countryside with its patchwork of fields, trees and church spires in every direction.  It was great to dip and roll with the landscape, both climbs and swooping descents. Some pave, but only one section was the full on experience of riding on a pneumatic drill for about a kilometre.

By the time we got back my legs knew they had been in a ride, but I was glowing with pleasure.

So once again I can issue the call to fellow cycling travellers. Come here. Get out of Brussels and Bruges, avoid the main industrial cities and try real rural Belgium, it is a great place to be a cyclist. More challenging perhaps to get the tourist authorities to market the area effectively to the outside world but I suspect that is part of a wider malaise in Belgium, it certainly seems to pride itself on “under-stated”!

The RouteThat way - map reading in Flanders

Kristof put our route up on line so you can follow the route and the profile which at this scale does look a bit like shark’s teeth, but it wasn’t quite so fierce, honest. http://ridewithgps.com/routes/2711551

The main Tour of Flanders climbs we did were:

Slijpstraat – Kortendries (Length 2200m, %max: 9, %average: 3);

Rekelberg  (Length 580m, %max: 10, %average: 5);

Kattenberg (cobbled, length 800m, %max: 12, %average: 6)

Into the heart of Flemish cycle racing – Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen

OudenaardeRonde Van Vlaanderen CentrumAnother week, another cycling fans’ café.

This week I am sipping a coffee surrounded surrounded by memories of Flemish cycling. Perhaps fittingly it is grey and raining outside which matches the grainy black and white photographs which decorate most of the walls.

Tour of Flanders centreThis is the Brasserie des Flandrians, the nice bar and restaurant in the Tour of Flanders Centre in the town of Oudenaarde. I had been expecting to write you a rant about how the Belgians were stupid enough to close a tourist attraction on a public holiday Monday because their web site said the museum was closed. But when I arrived to meet some friends who are cycle touring across Belgium to spend a few days with us I was delighted to see the lights on and I could immerse myself in a hundred years of history while I waited.

No need to write much, the pictures and images do most of the talking, but a few of my personal picks are underneath this pictorial homage.

Tour of Flanders Museum Oudenaarde

Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen

Centrum Ronde Van Vlaandren

Ronde Van Vlaanderen CentrumCentrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen

Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen

The museum guide is a familiar face to local fans, former Tour of Flanders winner and world champion Freddie Maertens was putting on a very animated performance to a coach party of adoring fans who doted on every word and anecdote, I only wish I spoke Dutch because it sounded like fun. Here he is today and in the 1970s.

Freddie Maertens Ronde Van Vlaanderen

For British fans and old bike geeks Tommy Simpson is remembered, both by his 1962 Gitane with its Brooks saddle, and by a bust next to his Flandria cycling shirt.

1962 Tour of Flanders Museum

Tour of Flanders Museum

Breaking away from the impression that this was as much about Flanders as it was about the race was hard, the introductory film was great for atmosphere but its roll call of double and treble winners managed to ignore anyone who wasn’t Belgian! Similarly buried in a corner was a small section which acknowledged to a small extent that women exist with some photos of the recently introduced women’s Tour of Flanders. I was delighted that its principle star was Nicole Cooke, I have a feeling her “all or nothing” riding style endeared her to local fans.Nicole Cooke Tour of Flanders

The interactive elements were popular with kids large and small, especially a static bike mounted on some asymmetric rollers which were supposed to simulate riding on the cobbles. Very funny expressions, lots of noise and plenty of cheering and egging on when the coach party got to that section.Cobble simulator

And I have to say there was a gentle sense of humour running through the place with plenty of cartoons and a rather delightful drinks menu at the café which made me smile.Brasserie des Flandriens drinks Menu

Flanders BelgiumOudenaarde itself is not a town known for much else but it has an attractive market square and a very impressive church towering over the centre. For the cyclist it is however at the heart of a massive network of cycle touring routes, not least the three Tour of Flanders waymarked routes which if done as a complete set would give any of us a good workout. The steady stream of riders through the brasserie obviously thought so too, although the number of bikes on cars in the market square rather suggests that the weather was playing havoc with riding plans on this particular day.

Oudenaarde MarktClick on the links for my previous posts about the Tour of Flanders and riding in the Flemish Ardennes.

In praise of a good hedge.

Hawthorn Hedge

Cycle touring BelgiumWhen I am beating my head against a headwind on the open fields of Wallonia what I really want is a good hedge. A nice embankment and a proper bank of thick bushes to break up the monotony. A couple of weeks ago I rode nearly 50km into head winds and it was a pretty painful experience, I would have been happy to hide behind a single tree towards the end.

Belgian farmers seem to have adopted the trend that British farmers got into from the 1970s onwards when every hedge had to be removed to allow the plough to get as close to the edge of the field as possible, regardless on the impact on landscape or wildlife, partly encouraged by EU subsidies that used to pay subsidies to farmers by the productive metre.Belgium cycle touring

Later we learned just what that was doing to biodiversity and erosion and some farmers started restoring them but here the message doesn’t seem to have got through.

And of course when they need the hedge to keep in animals the cheap response is to put up a wire fence with an electric charge round it which isn’t a lot of fun for any human or animal that happens to bump into them. Poor Murphy found that out in the last two weeks since livestock got introduced to the field next door. He spent two days in the house refusing to come out after the fence bit him.

http://static.royalacademy.org.uk/files/hockney-press-image-sheet-1088.pdf

Royal Academy Press Release. The Big Hawthorne, 2008. Courtesy of the Artist. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

And the loss of those hedges is just such a shame right now when the blossom is out and there are wildflowers everywhere. Last year the highlight of my visit to the David Hockney exhibition “A bigger picture” was his series of paintings of hawthorn hedges in East Yorkshire throughout the spring. There is a man who really understands the power of the hedge in the English landscape.

One of the best talks I went to when I was a member of the Chilterns Conservation Board was a great presentation by our farming officer who explained “what makes a first class hedge.” Sounds like something for gardening geeks but it turned into a fascinating presentation about the role of hedges as “wildlife freeways” allowing certain plant species, wild birds and small mammals to survive and to move about between communities in shelter and protected from predators.

They make a wonderful feature of some areas of traditional English countryside and help create that patchwork quilt effect so beloved of artists and painters but photography of the landscape during the 20th Century shows just how much they have disappeared.

A good hedge for a cyclist also has many other uses:

Austria

Tour of Flanders

The perfect hedge is just right.

Thick enough to provide a windbreak and a shelter.

John Morley, Dumfries 2006

And exactly shoulder height for a cyclist, which means it is far too high for a motorist to see over, but low enough that we can enjoy secret views everywhere we go.

When we come back from a ride we can wax lyrical about something they have never seen and will never see. That’s a perfect hedge and Belgium needs a lot more of them.

Cycle touring in the Flemish Ardennes, home of the Tour of Flanders

Geoff Mayne

One can have too much of a good thing so I’ll stop banging on about the Tour of Flanders after today. I promise to post something about daily cycling and the “30 rides in April” Challenge at the end of the week, but be warned that I am hoping to go for a complete fix of race watching in the next few weeks with visits to Paris Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

What I am really looking forward to alongside the race experiences is an excuse to cycle in parts of Belgium and northern France a bit further than I can reach on day rides from Lasne and perhaps a bit off normal tourist routes.

Actually I have to confess that I don’t know what a normal tourist route is in Belgium. Ever since I got here I have felt horribly unprepared to become a Belgian resident because I knew so little about the country. I know I am not alone because so many people I have spoken to had experienced holidays or business trips to the more celebrated European countries or tourism areas such as France, Spain and Italy or they have visited popular capital cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Those that have been to Belgium mostly visited Brussels or Bruges in search of beer or a statue of a peeing boy and experience almost nothing outside the cities.

As cyclists we experience countries in a different and more intimate way than other visitors. This may be seeing cities above the dark tunnels of metros and free from the congestion of surface transport or seeking out the most rural routes and tiny villages away from the hot spots. Wherever I have lived I even find myself driving non-cycling visitors round the routes I have cycled because I feel I can explain them better and I know where I have stopped, looked and felt the terrain.

So I feel embarrassed that I knew nothing of what Belgium had to offer the visitor or the touring cyclist just a few months ago and my learning curve is enormously steep. Cycling really helps however and this weekend was typical of that sensation. The only images I had of riding in Belgium before I moved here came from those classic races on television but I could not put them in to context without riding the area a bit and tasting the countryside. I know my local area better now but I should know more.

The area where the Tour of Flanders finishes is known as “The Flemish Ardennes”, presumably because it is the lumpy bit of Flanders which is generally the flatter part of Belgium. I am sure the naming has nothing to do with the first rule of Belgian politics which is “if they have we one, we want one” in the battles between the Dutch and French speaking communities. So if the higher hills of Wallonia get more widely recognised as the Ardennes then the Flemish need to steal a bit of the branding too? Of course not, cynical me.

BelgiumHowever it was a really nice place to ride a bike. We started our ride from the neat market town of Frasnes, just over the border in French speaking Wallonia and set off north to ride across a range of hills to Ronse, one of the towns on the Ronde route. Then we had been pre-warned that we would have a hard climb out of Ronse to get up to the route of De Ronde.

The most important thing to say was that the countryside was absolutely deserted. It may have been Easter Sunday, freezing cold and the cycling was on but I can rarely remember a ride with so little traffic. It was absolutely great to drift through small hamlets and farmsteads feeling we were the only people around. And once we started climbing up through the small forests the world was silent except for the gusty breeze in the trees.

Even when we dropped into Ronse it was hard to imagine that this was a town about to experience one of the world’s major sporting events this weekend, the town was like a ghost town. It would have been hard to improve on those first 12 km but actually we did.

First we had to find our way out of town without getting blocked by the race. Vincent had plotted me a route that bisected the various loops of the race perfectly. It was also great to see that the route was part of a permanent Ronde Van Vlaanderen route, obviously a tribute to the race.

Flemish Ardennes

Firstly a chance to channel your inner Cancellara by climbing the Kappellestraat out of town, up a steep climb through the houses and out onto a high wooded ridge where we wound our way through some beautiful houses and gardens overlooking the town. Steep though, as you can probably see from Geoff’s grimace!Geoff climbing Flemish Ardennes

At the top we were able to cross the course of the race and then set off into a network of narrow lanes. My confidence was boosted by a sign that said this was the Eddie Merckx cycle route but other than that it seemed to be another deserted road.

BelgiumJust a kilometre down the road we reached a crossroads which produced further surprise because Vincent’s recommended route took us down a dirt track which wound past a farm and then up a draggy climb. It all seemed as if we might be going down a completely wrong direction but the views from the top were great.Belgium

Tour of FlandersAfter that we switched around what seemed to be a few cars parked in country lanes and suddenly emerged at the top of the Paterberg.Flemish Ardennes

If I combine the routes we rode with the all the possibilities shown by the route of the race it is pretty clear that this will be a superb place to ride a bike for the occasional touring ride and cycle tour too. Strongly recommended by our guide Vincent was the Route do Collines which looks as if it will be a fantastic ride.

I quite fancy the idea of the some of the sportives that criss-cross the area too. Ultimately I really hope one day I might be fit enough again to take on the Tour of Flanders Sportive itself but that is a whole different story.

Cycle touring in Belgium – clearly one of Europe’s undiscovered secrets.

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

Tour of Flanders

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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

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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