Tales from the cobbled peloton, April 2, 2006
Or, Ronde van Vlaanderen - voor Wielertoeristen en Mountainbikers if you happen to be Flemish...
Having ridden the Tour of Flanders for cycle tourists four times before, I thought it was about time I shared my experiences with Cyclingnews readers. Until now Id only done the 140km course, which starts near the finish and basically heads straight for the bottom of the first climb and finishes the race course. I figured that as I was covering it for Cyclingnews, Id better step up to the challenge of the 260km, the complete course that the pros were riding the following after.
Had I known in advance that Cyclingnews Chief Online Editor, Ghent resident and - by definition - Flandrian hard man Jeff Jones was also riding the full distance (read all about it here), I might well have bottled it and settled for the comfort and familiarity of the 140. As it was though, the Brugge hotel was booked and paid for, arrangements had been made, so I was well and truly committed...
The morning began at about 5:30 with a nice cold can of rice pudding, before going downstairs at six for a specially arranged early breakfast of bread and cheese - with loads of strong black coffee. Of a group of 13 of us whod travelled together from Brighton and London, only two of us - my clubmate Paul and I - had been foolhardy enough for the full course. The rest were currently still sleeping like babes in Geraardsbergen - they were doing the shorter courses, so were getting up at a much more civilised time.
"Ronde Van Vlaanderen for cyclists and mountainbikers... "
Paul and I planned to start as early as possible - this being a tourist event not a race, start times are open - so we rolled into the Grote Markt in time to set off at seven, only to find that around two thousand others had had the same idea. We found ourselves rolling to the back of the biggest line Id ever seen, and proceeded to wait our turn to get our control cards stamped. I was feeling pretty nervous - as I had been since I entered the event back in January - so was anxious to get going. Ive done the hills on this course four times now, so I knew I could handle them - Ive also done the full Paris - Roubaix course so I know I can handle the distance (and the cobbles). What I wasnt sure about was that I could combine the two and get round the full 260km as well as being able to climb the 17 hills on the way...
Eventually our patience wore out and we decided to just start without getting our cards stamped, so we left the line and joined the steady trickle of riders cruising out of town. Paul and I had planned to ride together for a while, but as we cruised along through the streets of Brugge watching the sun rising and waiting for bunches to form, I saw a nice fast wheel to follow and didnt see Paul again.
At this point I was coming to realise that this was going to be unlike any of my previous four trips to this race. For some reason, this famously wet and windy race, where epic struggles between the hard men of the north were only matched by their struggle against the hail and sleet that was blasted in their faces had been really kind to me and Id enjoyed almost unbroken sunshine. This year, though, was going to be very different. Wed already been rained on during a warm up ride in Geraardsbergen yesterday, and the heavy skies were about to bring my Flanders experience down to earth with a bang. Still, I was finally doing Flanders properly, and with the impending weather systems I was really going to go the whole hog!
After about 20km I started to feel the water on my face. Trouble was, the roads were so wet that I couldnt work out how much of the water was coming up, and how much of it was coming down. The brown splatters appearing across my arm warmers and overshoes convinced me that most of it was coming from my - and everyone elses - wheels. by the time I realised it was actually raining quite hard it was too late - I was soaked to the skin. Id got myself into a nice group by now, so I didnt want to jeopardise that by stopping to put my jacket on, and the speed that we were doing - in the crosswinds - I wasnt going to try and sit up and do it on the move!
So far my ride was going to plan - to arrive at the hill zone after 150km with some energy left in my legs. Id got myself into a group of riders all willing to share the work; no one was doing too much work - especially me - but no one was really shirking and we were cruising along at a pretty good average of 30 kph. I was having a pretty good time actually, despite the weather. This was my first experience of proper Flemish echelons. A pretty strong wind was coming from the front right hand side, and there I was in the front row, six people from the curb and putting in no effort whatsoever!
After five hours of flat roads we could begin to see the Flemish Ardennes in the distance - the hills were coming, but first we had some lovely cobbles to deal with. Finally I was really beginning to enjoy myself - I was being bounced around, managing to carry most of my speed from the roads. These cobbles - while far from smooth - are not the same as those in Paris - Roubaix. In theory they are the same kind of roads, but these ones are at least fairly well maintained and are pretty much free of mud and water. They were very wet though, with a thick brown liquid coating requiring full concentration - but this kind of thing is why I came!
Finally a long cobbled road brought us to the edge of the town of Oudenaarde - the very centre of the hill zone, the location of the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen museum, and the start point of the womens version of the Ronde. We skirted the town's suburbs before turning onto a road that I was familiar with from my experience on the shorter course. We were approaching the first cobbled wall of the day: the Molenberg.
This was to be the first test to see if I was capable of completing the course. Having ridden over 150km (around 100 miles) by this point I was about to find out if my legs would get me up the 14% cobbled gradient in any meaningful way. The cobbles were still wet from the mornings rain but by staying in the saddle my back wheel kept its grip and I ground my way to the top. Excellent! That was by no means easy, but from my memory of the last four years, it wasnt much more difficult than before.
From here the hills come thick and fast - all 17 of them are squeezed into the last 110km so theres barely enough time to recover from one before you have to tackle the next. Before the next climb there's another long sector of cobbles, rising slightly to sap the power from your legs before pitching you into a strong headwind. No sooner have you finished the sector than youre descending to the bottom of the second climb - the Wolvenberg - a short but very sharp bit of tarmac peaking at 19% but not going on long enough to cause too many problems. From the top of this the course turns down the hill into the centre of Oudenaarde for the third of the control and refreshment points.
Out of Oudenaarde the course follows a completely straight road for a few kilometres, directly into the wind. Sadly for the poor bloke on the front in this case we were strung out along the cyclepath well away from the road, which was only wide enough for one at a time, so no one could come past him even if they had wanted to! Luckily for him it didnt go on for too long and we soon arrived in Kluisbergen and lined ourselves up for hill number three. The Oude Kwaremont is a nasty one; it only has a maximum of 11% gradient, which is pretty mild by Flemish standards, but its 2200 metres long and really saps your legs. Combine the gradient with the fact that its cobbled for all but the first few hundred metres and it really leaves you beaten up by the time youve at the top. I took the opportunity here to send my wife Liz a text message to tell her how I was getting on. The chance to have some food and drink without being on the move was also welcome.
I composed myself for a few moments and then moved off. I was now approaching the two toughest parts of the course; the Paterberg and the Koppenberg! In 2002, when I first rode these hills, the Paterberg had really taken me by surprise and Id had to walk half way up it, and in 2004 when wed had a bit of light drizzle earlier in the day Id had to walk up the Koppenberg. Otherwise Id always managed these monsters only 65km into the 140km course, now Id find out if I could do them with 175km in my legs...
Thankfully, the exposed position of the Paterberg means that it seems to dry up pretty quickly, so that was one blessing. I took the right hand corner at the bottom and quickly clunked my way all the way down to my 26 sprocket. This hill is more like doing a weights session than riding a bike (for me anyway) - each turn of the pedals is more like another rep on a machine in the gym. I got up, pretty well too! I felt a real euphoria as I crested the top and it took an act of will not scream my lungs out as I rolled past the other riders who were congregating and regrouping at the top.
I wasnt so lucky on the Koppenberg though...the weeks of rain and the sheltered position of the road had conspired to deposit a nice layer of mud over loads of the cobbles. There was a small stream running down the left hand side of the road and I found myself drifting towards it as the front of my bike wobbled over on the cobbles at such a low speed. Finally my rear wheel lost traction and I had to force a foot down or do an impersonation of Jesper Skibby (without the car). So I, like most of the others around me, was forced to push my bike up the remaining few hundred metres - in fact the only ones I could see that werent walking were those on mountain bikes, or had triples.
Walking up a slippery 22% cobbled gradient, while pushing a bike, wearing stiff, smooth soled shoes with large plastic and steel cleats attached isnt as easy as it sounds. It took a long time to slip and slide my way up to the top, thankfully I didnt have to keep out of the way of too many riders coming up, because everyone else was walking. I got to the top feeling a bit annoyed - especially with the probable damage to the soles of my brand new overshoes! - but I didnt feel like too much of a failure as I was only forced to do the same as everyone else.
The hills now come thick and fast; the Steenbeekdries - a blip in the middle of a long stretch of cobbles, featuring a descent that is scarier than the climb is difficult, the Taaienberg - a pretty little cobbled leg breaker up through a small wood, and my personal favourite for some reason; the Eikenberg - a fairly benign cobbled drag that almost pitches you onto the main road, but you turn right just before the top to descend to the bottom of the next climb and the Boigneberg - a fairly reasonable tarmac climb, but getting quite difficult considering what youve just done.
As you crest the top of the Boigneberg and roll out on to the main road, any local knowledge you have reveals the real cruelty of this course. If you went straight on across the road, onto the stretch of cobbles, after a few hundred metres youd find yourself on the earlier part of the course, just before the Wolvenberg! If Id turned left before instead of right I could have saved myself a lot of pain!
Instead of going straight on and repeating the last eight climbs I followed the course along the main road towards Brakel. After a few more kilometres theres a sign that divides the course; the 140km course goes straight on, whereas the 260km course turns right. This is another cruel point for anyone who know where they are; the full distance course descends to the bottom of the Forrest climb before tackling the Steenberg and coming back on to the same road a few kilometres further on, the 140km course just cuts this out and follows the main road to the next part.
Theres nothing to check whether or not you actually followed this course, so I could have easily gone straight on and missed these two climbs...but, Im here to do it properly, so armed with lots of clichés about only cheating myself I turned away from the easy option and prepared to tackle the next two climbs.
I was really beginning to surprise myself by now. Ive never been a climber, so I was tending to grovel up most of the hills in the smallest gear possible, but I was not grovelling any more than I had done in the past. I was beginning to find the bits in between the climbs a bit more difficult, but by now Id done well over 200km for only the second time so that was to be expected. Almost before I knew it I had passed the Leberg, the Berendries, the Valkenberg and the Tenbosse and had arrived at the last control.
Id arranged at this point to call my wife Liz so she could get to the finish in time to meet me. I think I surprised a few people when I called though, as they werent expecting to hear from me until about seven oclock and it was now about five! Id been riding with a target of ten hours in mind all day, which was not possible now due to various stops, but my ride time looked like being under that quite well.
All that stood between me and the finish now was about 30km and two hills - its just that those two hills happened to be the legendary Muur-Kapelmuur and the Bosberg. Apart from a nasty drag up through Parike, the road to Geraardsbergen is a mostly downhill blast - especially today with the tailwind so strong! Ive done the Muur quite a few times - Id even done it the day before on our warmup ride - so I knew I could get up it, but today of all days its really important to make it look good!
For some reason - maybe theyre friends of the riders - there are always loads of people on the Muur to cheer us all on! I wonder if theyre crazed fans whove come a day early to get the best spot on the climb for the pro race! What is certain, though, is that they always give everyone the same level of support and its about as close as Ill ever get to being a pro. Unfortunately you no longer get to follow the course all the way through the towns as the race does - presumably the town got a bit fed up with the constant stream of 15,000 cycle tourists bringing everything to a halt, so the first part of the climb is tackled in the back streets.
I got a lovely surprise as I crested the first part of the climb and made my way on to the cobbles for the Muur itself. Instead of going straight to the finish, Liz had come here to see me first and shed brought Tris and Jay - two of our friends whod done the long MTB course - along too. Having my own personal fans on the Muur was amazing and I climbed it like Ive never climbed anything before, especially considering the distance Id come - they even tried to run alongside me for a while but couldnt keep up!
With the Muur completed there only remained the Bosberg, which I didnt actually fly up, but once at the top I couldnt help giving the air a little punch. With only around eight kilometres to go, Id completed my toughest challenge to date. The last few kilometres breezed by; I hardly seemed to touch the pedals, even the slight drag out of Denderwindeke that Id been dreading for weeks didnt cause me any bother. Amazingly, apart from a very dry chain that was making my whole drive train creak and a pair of slightly frayed overshoes, Id had no technical issues at all - despite all the punctures Id seen along the wayside, none of them had struck me.
Liz was there at the Ninove PTI to record it all for posterity, and to buy me a couple of well earned beers! My face was so covered in mud from the mornings rain that the man with the certificates asked me which MTB route Id done! Ive finally done the full Flanders - I think that makes me an official Flandrian hardman now!