Tales from the cobbled peloton, April 2, 2006
So what's it really like to ride the Ronde van Vlaanderen? 256 km doesn't sound like that much in a bunch, does it? And the climbs aren't so long, and the roads are a bit bumpy, but how hard is it actually? On little training and even less sleep, Jeff Jones decided to put himself - and his bike - to the true test.
My alarm went off at 4:45am, south Gent time, which was strange because I swear I'd only set it four hours previously. But once I got a coffee and a bowl of porridge down me, I knew I'd be ready for the biggest ride of my life. Yes, against a lot of common sense, I had decided to do the full 256 km version of the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor wielertoeristen en mountainbikers. It's a cyclo-sportif ride held the day before the Ronde, over pretty much the same course. Well, there are several shorter options (140 and 75km) and the mountainbikers can do 25/50/75 km too. But to get the true Flanders experience, you gotta do the whole thing, right?
I decided to enter into it two weeks ago, because I've done the 140km version a few times already, and although it is also quite hard, I've always been interested in the longer one. My training wasn't quite up to scratch, with most of it being two hour rides and the odd roller or spinning session, because the weather has been fairly ordinary, even by Belgian standards. The number of three hour rides I've done this season I could count on one slightly deformed hand. I'd have to double that and add a bit more, I figured. I can't remember the last time I did a 200km ride, but I do remember a stupidly long 270km training ride in 1997. Or was it 240km? Muscle memory is a great thing.
It was disturbingly easy to enter: go to www.sport.be/cycling/rondevanvlaanderen/2006/eng/ and enter. It cost €20, but you get 5 of that back on return of your number. You get a number, some info, and a card that you need stamped at every checkpoint. There were four this year: Ichtegem (km 48), Waregem (km 105), Oudenaarde (km 170), and Parike (km 245). You hand in your stamped card at the end and get a certificate to prove that you did it. It also proves something else that will become apparent, if it hasn't already by reading the photo caption above.
Meet my guide, Jo
I had filled two bidons with water, stuffed my pockets full of food (two small dextro energy packs and a carbo gel, none of which I used), and decked out my bike with a mudguard and a tail light. My guide for the day was to be Jo Vandenheulen, who has done this several times and I often bump into him out training. He did 170km a few weeks ago when it was snowing, whereas I took the soft option and only did 80 km. Cycling, like any sport, is all about one upmanship, and I was bitterly disappointed with myself that I hadn't managed to crack at least 120 km that day.
I knew the weather wasn't going to be good, so when I stepped out the door onto dry roads at 5:30am, I knew something was terribly wrong. Fortunately, my sense of reality wasn't disturbed too much as it began to rain almost immediately. I had to get to Jo's place by 6:00, and managed to do so, somewhat damper. A friend of his, Jan, drove us out to Brugge for the start, dropped us off, and bid us farewell. We wouldn't see him again for nearly 12 hours, but he was available if we had a disaster.
It was still dark when we reached Brugge's Grote Markt, although it had not started raining there yet. There was a big queue of riders (2000 of them, in fact) waiting to go up on stage and get their cards stamped before setting out. I also got a free packet of dextro energy tablets. Cool! That done, we were on our way at 7:15 as riders trickled out of Brugge at dawn. One of the best moments of the ride was going through the city gates at first light. We had started our ultimate-cycling-a-bit-like-the pros-experience!
It goes without saying that it started to rain after 5 km. There was a big black cloud ahead of us as we punched our way into the head/crosswind out to Oostende, and it didn't look as it was going away soon. The idea for the first part was to get in a group that was going at a good pace, to avoid most of the wind. It was a good idea to stay near the front too, as echelons were the order of the day.
We were soaking wet by the time we reached Oostende, and I was already looking forward to the first stop at Ichtegem. We'd actually deviated around Oostende, adding a few corners and kms to our route, just for fun. There weren't many happy faces at this stage, but the Vlamings are used to this weather, and they just soldiered on. We then headed further south, through Gistel, and the crosswinds became worse. We were fanned out all over our side of the road, and I was pleasantly surprised to note that most people knew how to ride in an echelon. Ours was a steady state one, because there was a guy in a Pepsi jersey on the front who was hammering, and who were we to deny him his training?
By Ichtegem, it had stopped raining and we could see a hint of blue in the sky. Oh joy, I thought, as I scoffed down my first Isostar and Belgian waffle of the day. We left after 15 minutes or so, found another group, and navigated our way through Torhout, Lichtervelde, Hooglede, around Roselare, through Rumbeke, Izegem, Lendelede, and finally Kortrijk, where we turned east and had the wind behind us. While it was interesting to go through all the little towns, it certainly wasn't fast. We stopped at all the traffic lights and tried to get around the Saturday morning traffic without falling off. Incredibly, I only saw one minor crash during the first part, although Jo already had reports on the radio that there were numerous casualties among the 140km tourists, who had reached the hill zone.
We cruised in a big bunch along to Waregem with the wind at our backs and the sun starting to shine. It lifted the spirits, even if we were still wet and cold from the road. Much to my dismay, there were no waffles at Waregem, and I had to make do with Isostar, oranges and fig biscuits. Another stamp, another 15 minutes, then we were on our way again. Immediately, we found ourselves alone. Any vestiges of a bunch were gone, so we just set our own pace and prepared to meet the first of 20 km of cobbles at Wannegem (km 111). These were a bit rough, but mercifully short.
The next section at Doorn (km 115) wasn't. About 1700m of lumpy, slippery cobbles greeted us, equivalent to what you'd find in Paris-Roubaix. Luckily there were hardly any other riders around, which was good because to pass someone, you'd have to go off the crown and into the wheeltracks, and it wasn't conducive to maintaining your speed. I was glad when they were over.
It was a nice tailwind run up to the Paddestraat near Zottegem (km 133), and these cobbles were almost a breeze compared to the first ones. Uphill, but we had a tailwind. I tried riding in a gutter but it was a bit too muddy. The roads were starting to dry up a little though. Jo and I were taking it steady, knowing that we'd only come halfway, and there were still 17 climbs to tackle.
The first climb - the Molenberg - was approaching, and we bashed our way back into the headwind again to meet it. It was nice to be on familiar roads at this stage, because you know what's coming up, and how to avoid it if necessary. We collected another medium-sized group, but I was wary about climbing the (wet) Molenberg with a bunch of others, and took off with Jo on the road leading up to it. With just the two of us, it was quite safe, and I was even entertaining thoughts of getting up the Koppenberg later...on the bike. But I discovered that I had been a little - careless - with my gear set up after putting on a new chain/cassette this week. The 39x25 worked, which was good, but everything down to the 16 didn't. Oh well.
I hadn't used the special pin to attach the chain, either, going against the manufacturers recommendations. And I'd left my chain breaker in the car. Unfortunately, both these happenings were to have consequences later.
After the Molenberg, it was up to the 3000m of cobbles at Mater-Kerkgate, still into a headwind. These are probably the second worst set after Doorn, and they weren't nice, to say the least. You couldn't ride on the footpath because the barriers had been set up somewhat perversely, teasing you with 30m of smoothness before you were forced back onto the cobbles. It wasn't worth it; I got annoyed when a a couple of cars overtook me and then almost stopped when we turned the corner at the top.
We had climbed a bit, so that meant we had to descend in order to do the Wolvenberg. It's smooth but steep, and I suffered on it, despite it being only climb 2. I was running low on food but I knew I'd make it to Oudenaarde for the next checkpoint where I could stock up. This would have been a good time for my onboard rations, but I'd forgotten about them. En route to Oudenaarde, we stopped at the Flanders bike shop (sponsors of the inimical team) to get some oil on our chains, which were running dry by this stage. They generously gave us a can of teflon spray, and suddenly we sounded good again.
With 185 km on the clock in Oudenaarde, including the 25 km or so of neutral plus riding to Jo's - it was further than I'd ridden in years. So I enjoyed two chocolate waffles, more Isostar and anything else I could see. I can eat a lot and still ride on it, but Jo ate too much and suffered quite badly over the next hour. Now the fun would start.
The hill zone
To get to the Kwaremont (climb 3), we had to head back towards Kluisbergen, into that bloody headwind again. I think we found a sucker to lead for most of the way, and it was no surprise to pass him later on in the day. Pacing for a long ride is quite important, as a trip into the red zone can quickly destroy you. Fortunately, the Kwaremont was fairly easy because there was so much rider and vehicle traffic on it. You could only go at a slow pace, because there was no room to pass, and I was glad to get that 2.2 km monster over with, too.
Jo came up a few minutes later, suffering a bit with cramps after everything edible he'd inhaled in Oudenaarde. But there was no time for complaining, as we had two more tough climbs to conquer. The Paterberg had to be done on the cobbles, as the gutter had been barricaded, but it was thankfully dry and navigable - the Koppenberg, on the other hand, wasn't at all.
We turned onto it and I could quickly see by the mess of bikes halfway that we had very little chance of getting up it. I reached the steep part and I saw why: it was covered in greasy mud. Even sitting in the saddle, in my 39x25, there was no way I could even get traction. Even with someone pushing me. Unless the mud is cleaned off before tomorrow, I'd be surprised if any more than a handful of pros makes it to the top on their bikes.
I walked most of the way to the top, somewhat disappointedly, waited for Jo, and we were off again. At least it was over. I left him on the Steenbeekdries and did the Taaienberg on my own, using the down time to take some pics at the top. Seven climbs down, ten to go, and it was quite sunny now. I even felt a little overdressed. Typical Belgian weather!
It was back down over some more cobbles to the Eikenberg, a fairly good climb to do, as there are smooth bits you can ride on. Then it was the steep but short Boigneberg, when my chain started to complain a bit more. At the top, we were very close to the Mater cobbles, and I voiced my opinion that we'd come full circle. Across to Schorisse and the difficult Foreest climb, followed by the easier Steenberg. There were only six more climbs to do, and we felt a sense of accomplishment now that we had well over 200 km on the clock.
There was just one short headwind section left back to the Cafe 'in den Trap Op', before turning right and right again onto the Haaghoek, a 2000m section of cobbles that goes down, up, down, up. I felt good with the tailwind and flew along it, knowing that it was the last long section of kasseien. I turned straight onto the Leberg, which is one of the easiest climbs in the Ronde, changed down halfway and dropped my chain.
In my efforts to shift it back onto the chainrings, I realised that I'd really dropped it. Broken it, in fact. Quelle bugger. I propped it up forlornly against someone's driveway wall and waited for Jo to tell him the bad news, while watching the various faces of pain as people struggled up the climb. I had a chain breaker in the car, so he called his friend Jan to come and try to rescue us. I believed I could repair it by taking a link out, enough that it would get me to the end at any rate.
As we were waiting, the owner of the house came out and we started chatting. He asked us what was wrong.
"-De ketting is kapot."
"-Ahh. Ik ben ook een wielertoerist, and ik heb een gereedschap voor de ketting." [this is not verbatim]
Does anyone not ride bikes around here?
Thus, the chain that was broken was reforged in a highly bodgy fashion by me! We called Jan again and told him not to bother trying to find us. As long as it didn't break again.
Onward and upward
After that, I took things very gently on the climbs, using the 39x25 as the first choice, and trying to avoid any gears in between. Another spray of oil would have been good at this juncture, but none was to hand. Jo was feeling better after 20 minutes of non-cobbled digestion time in our saviour's driveway halfway up the Leberg.
The Berendries was kind to us, but the Valkenberg was tougher than I remembered. It was probably the headwind and the fact that I was terrified of my chain snapping again. The bottom bracket was making some interesting noises too. The sort of noises that you get when all of the grease has been washed away by Flemish rain. It's not a good noise, or a good feel.
We looped back to Brakel and I was gradually getting more confident that my bike would finish this ride. I wasn't the problem at this point, as I hadn't been pushing it. Our average speed had fallen from a bit over 30 at Waregem to a bit over 28, which was a bit slower than we wanted, but given the conditions and everything else, it wasn't too bad.
Once over Tenbosse, there were only two more climbs to do, and a nice tailwind downhill into Geraardsbergen. But first we had to stop at our last checkpoint in Parike, and I almost ended up staying here after spotting a trayful of Mattetaarts, a specialty of this region, and very yummy. Unfortunately I only spotted these after I'd had a bottle of Isostar and a few more chocolate waffles.
And in the full realisation that I probably didn't need any more than that with just 25 km to go, I didn't hesitate and ordered a Mattetaart and a coffee. They were both gone in about 2 minutes, as I listened to Ravel's Bolero blare out of the speakers and watched some wielertoeristen get stuck into some beers. They looked as though they had parked here for the day, and who am I to deny them simple pleasures?
We tacked onto another group going into Geraardsbergen, then prepared for the Muur. It was dry and quite passable, but I could feel either the chain or the bottom bracket, or most likely both, threatening to break on the steepest section, so I had to leg it to the top, where there was no Red Bull.
One more climb! The Bosberg, a nice, wide cobbled road through the forest. We had a good tailwind at this juncture, and after our group flew past us again on the descent leading into it, they all cracked at the bottom and we didn't see them again. I could feel the chain again, but didn't get off this time, and Jo and I crested it together. Then it was time to take full advantage of the tailwind for the last 12 km home. 53x12, 45-50 km/h, flying past lots of tired looking riders, and lifting the average speed again. I thought of tomorrow, and how advantageous this section will be for a solo breakaway.
As my rear tyre started to go flat, we reached the finish in Ninove-Meerbeke at last, and were very happy to have done so. Amazingly, I finished with more food in my pockets than I started with, and my legs were by no means toast, although I would say I was in negative calorie balance. As we collected our certificates, Jo described it as the hardest Ronde that he's done. With the weather conditions probably the same as this on Sunday, the field will be in bits. I have a lot more respect for how good the pros are now.
Congratulations (and commiserations) also to Cyclingnews correspondent Ben Atkins, who also finished the full Ronde. When he recovers, he may write something too.
The numbers on my computer
Total distance for me: 290 km
Ronde van Vlaanderen distance: 270 km, including neutral zone
Riding time: 9:25:00 (28.4 km/h) (pros will average 40 or more)
Total ascent: 2000m
Cobbles: 20 km. Roughly.
Average heart rate: 130 bpm (65% of max)
Calories burned: 7000 kcal
Waffles consumed: 5, plus a mattetaart and three dextro energy tablets
500 mL Isostars drunk: 6 or 7, plus a coffee
Mechanicals (all on my bike): 1 broken chain, 1 puncture, 1 fairly ruined bottom bracket
Physicals: Slightly sore arse, back, and fingers.
Yeah, it was worth the money.