The Ronde van Vlaanderen (or Tour of Flanders as it is more commonly known to English speakers) is the stuff of legends. On the TV you see the pro riders grinding their way up the steep cobbled climbs, grimacing. The Tour of Flanders is one of the Belgian spring classics and a veritable chess match played out over the hills and lanes of Flanders, with the check mate moves usually coming on the Oude Kwaaremont and the Paterberg, with Fabian Cancellara being the Grand Master in recent years.
Ever since watching the race live last year, I had wondered whether I’d be able to emulate the efforts of the pro riders, whether I’d be able to conquer the cobbles and the troika of legendary climbs that is the Koppenberg, the Oude Kwaaremont and the Paterberg. Luckily, there is the opportunity for us mere mortals to give it a shot because most of the spring classics offer a sportive often the day before the pro race. And so I found myself entering the middle distance route (140 km) of the Tour of Flanders Cyclo at the back end of last year.
I did not take this challenge lightly. 140km is among the longest distances I’ve ever covered on a bike and the prospect of climbs kicking up to a 20% gradient had me seriously pondering what was required to complete this ride. From January onward, I had put myself on a training plan for a 100 mile ride, which meant churning out 3 hour turbo sessions while it was still cold and wet out (I firmly believe the monotony of this greatly helped with coping with mental fatigue during my half marathons). I had my bike set-up checked by Tim from Speedhub, and decided that I needed a climbing cassette on the rear since I had gotten rid of my compact in favour of the power meter. The three weeks prior to Flanders, I went out on some 70 mile rides with friends. The dress rehearsal for Flanders came in the form of the SRS Events Burgess Hill Spring Classic, which is hilly and contains the infamous Cobb Hill, a 20% climb. As it turned out, I was still smiling on top of Cobb Hill, which meant, I was ready for Flanders. Or so I thought.
The Tour of Flanders
We arrived on the Friday to pick up our numbers in the “Cubus” in Oudenaard, which is essentially a vast multipurpose indoor space. The number pick up was arranged in number batches and it wasn’t very busy. However, the first thing I was told was that my number was not there. So I went to the information desk, queued with a colourful mix of Belgians, French, Italians and Germans, and had a new number issued to me. The chip numbers have several purposes: they trigger photo and video cameras along the route, trigger automatic Facebook messages so your friends and family can track you, and they loosely keep track of time.
Oudenaard is a nice little town with a big heart for cycling as we discovered on the search for food. The market square was all ready for the sportive cyclists and for the start of the women’s race. Then it was back to the hotel outside the Northern French town of Lille for dinner and an early night.
It was an early start as our plan was to start riding at 7.30am. However, we had not paid attention to the opening times of the parking lot. So it was back to bed for an hour. In the end this played to our favour as the start of the day was chilly and overcast. When we got to the Cubus, I assessed the weather again and decided it was Endura leg warmers, Sportful No Rain arm warmers, Endura overshoes and Craft windproof gloves kinda weather. I even wore my Windstopper jacket to start with. Better be able to take stuff off. Last panic visit to the loo, and off we went.
You can start the ride any time because your chip gets triggers the timing gates. It is all rather relaxed. We ambled along the first couple of miles and found a group to hang on to along the first bit of river. Fairly early on we had a stark reminder that some riders were taking this more seriously than we did and that focus and concentration were vital no matter what, when we came along an ambulance that looked after a rider who had crashed badly and nearly fallen into the river. And this was on the flat.
A couple of more miles in and we hit the first incline, a mere 5% and on good roads, yet on the top of it, I felt like going home.
My bike started making a funny noise, we stopped. Turns out my bottle cage had come loose. So we stopped, fixed the screws, off came the jacket. This was before the first cobbled section. Oh dear!
Back on the bike around the corner and without much warning, the first cobbled incline. This is a theme of Flanders. The map they give you, only specifies 4 cobbled sections and a bunch of hills. What it doesn’t tell you is that most of those hills are cobbled and occasionally a section pops up, that’s not on your ride map. But that’s half the fun!
I made it up the climb with a smile on my face, the cobbles hadn’t been so bad. How much worse could this get? A lot. Next up a looong cobbled section. Flat. I tried to keep my arms lose. Like on the track bike I tried to keep my legs ticking over. Someone shouted ‘Bum on seat’ – good point, thanks. If you lift your bum on the cobbles your bike takes on a life of its own. It’s great fun, and loads of locals have come out of their houses with various implements to make some noise for the riders and lounge in the glorious sunshine. 25 miles done, first feed stop. And I notice, I’ve forgotten to restart my Garmin when I stopped to fix my bottle cage. Nooo!
Now the feed stops are excellent. Lots of different types of food, drinks to refill bottles, plenty of toilets, and lots of happy faces, mostly. I munch on honey cake and caramel waffles, decide it’s my food of choice from now on. Off we go again.
The next section is starts flat and the major highlight comes early on: the Koppenberg. We follow an old railway line and then you can see a long line of riders crawling up on the left. We turn the corner, I drop to my lowest gear, grip my handlebars, the cobbles and the trees start: Hello Koppenberg!
Just ahead, someone crashes on the climb, I start hoping that I can find a gap to get by, because if you have to get off or lose grip on those cobbled climbs, that’s you done, you walk to the top. There is no getting back on. Fortunately, the bulk dissolves, no one injured, I continue stomping and pulling on my pedals, stay on the left, finding a tiny gap among those walking two abreast up the hill. Generally, people are very considerate about giving you space, but a couple of times riders get vocal, because some people don’t pay attention. It hurts, but you can’t stop. Don’t stop turning the pedals whatever your bike does. Stay cool no matter how hard it hobbled and shifts about. Last push, big smile. I own you Koppenberg!
The rest of this section winds it’s way through the countryside, the sun is out, I’m enjoying myself, pushing on a bit. A few cobbled sections thrown in where I try to implement what I’ve been told by other riders: try to keep the pace up to minimise the impact of the cobbles, it sort of works. A cobbled downhill, which I’m totally not a fan of. Some more cobbled climbs, which I’m actually enjoying because they’re fairly well rideable. At the bottom of each hill, there’s a sign telling you it’s name, the length and average incline and the maximum incline. It can read like: 800m, 5%, 13%. Ah, well, at this stage I’m considering this peanuts. My mind is already wandering to the last two big climbs: the Oude Kwaaremont and the Paterberg. We clamber up the Kruisberg and I see the posters from last year and the place where we watched the finish last year on the big screen. Familiar territory.
The last feed stop is at the top of a climb. By now the arm warmers have come off and the sun is tingling my arms and face. This is not standard Flanders weather, which is usually more like freezing and wettish. More honey cake and caramel waffles. 20 miles to go and only 2 hills to climb.
Oude Kwaaremont and Paterberg
The run to the Kwaaremont from the feed station is a short 4 miles. The bottom half is tarmacked and uneventful, but then it kicks up and the cobbles start. The incline isn’t so bad, but the cobbles are rough, people are tired, lose focus. It’s all about keeping the pressure on the pedals, not slowing down unexpectedly and not panicking. The Kwaaremont is a cheat. They tell you you’re at the top, then it climbs some more, and when you’re getting onto the flat in the village, you think you can relax. But you’re harshly kicked in the teeth, because you’re facing one of the longer cobbled sections that they fail to tell you about. My arms are tired, my hands aching, but there’s nothing for it. The Paterberg waits in another 4 miles after a nice little descent.
I’m tired, I’m losing focus. My bike handling goes downhill on the descent, I’m on the brakes, lots. I don’t care.
You can’t really tell the Paterberg is coming because it starts after a sharp right hander. But you can hear it, and you can see the line of colourful dots crawl up the hill. This is it! The final battle. The hill where in the pro race, the race is usually won or lost. Let battle commence! I get in the lowest gear, this is what I really wanted it for. I find my rhythm, just tap away, take in the surroundings. People have made signs and flags, spectators all the way up the hill, and we’re only riders, not pros. People screaming. Someone shouts ‘Come on, Australia!’, it clicks they mean me because I wear an Orica Green Edge jersey. It gets hard, the Paterberg saves its steepest sections for last. You see the top and with every pedal stroke it seems to move further away. I don’t think I can handle my bike anymore, don’t want to steer because I think I might topple. I start shouting to alert other riders, nearly there. The camera! Force a smile! Hooray! I made it! I made it!
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who’s excited. Some bigger groups decide to stop right at the top of the Paterberg, where the road is rather narrow. They haven’t thought about that very much. I shout to get some space to get past. I don’t think I could’ve unclipped.
From here it goes straight into another downhill, but I’m too tired to relax and enjoy it. I just want to stay upright now, so I brake. Finally, I hit the flat. From here it’s just over a 10 miles to the finish. I’ve recovered a bit and decide to have some fun… Let’s time trial it home. I acquire a companion, but don’t really notice. Finally catch up with my club mate, Steve, who’s very kindly been waiting for me along the route and pulled me along a couple of times. 5 miles, we push on. Enjoying the sun. A long straight with the official finish gantry at the bottom. A little Sprint for the line which we have to abandon prematurely, because people stop to take pictures at the finish line. Except it’s not. We’ve got another 4 miles.
Back into Oudenaard, we pass through the market square which is packed with riders sitting in the sun, having a beer. I wonder if they’ve been to the actual finish. It’s slow going. The last bit is over a narrow windy cycle path, under the train. I get a bit snuggly, must be hay fever. The finish gantry, for real this time. We’ve made it!
After the ride
We trundle back to the race village. I want food and a beer. Chips with ketchup & mayo. And beer. I don’t fancy beer very often, but it sounded very attractive in the sunshine. After we’ve recovered a bit, we head back to the car. Talking about the adventure. I have trouble staying awake. At the hotel, we plan where to watch the pro race the following day and settle on the little town of Ronse and the Kruisberg. We figure, we’ll get really close, with easy get away options, rather than being caught in traffic. Early night after dinner.
The next day, the weather is more Flanders-style. Overcast, a bit blustery, but we’re hoping the rain holds off. When we get to Ronse, we’ve still got hours. We find the Kruisberg. I can exactly recount how I rode it. Identify the house where that whole family including the grandpa in the wheelchair had been outside cheering for the riders. We head back to town, there’s supposed to be a big screen and a public viewing area, but the town is dead. We find some food, the places with the Ronde on telly don’t do food. Man! Back at the Kruisberg, we walk all the way up to find the ideal spot to watch – and find the public viewing area with the big screen, beer and food. Excellent! As they are 5 miles away, we go and claim our spot on the cobbled section of the hill, mount the East Sussex flag on a tree. The rather boring caravans flies past, finally the motorcycle convoy. Action time!
We shout and scream at the breakaway group, even louder at the pursuers containing Cancellara and Sagan. We hang about encouraging the stragglers. And then rush back to the big screen so that we won’t miss the Kwaaremont and Paterberg. The breakaway is still out, but come the Paterberg Cancellara does his thing, drops Sagan effortlessly, now onto the chase of the breakaway. It’s one of the most exciting Flanders finishes ever, the race being decided in the sprint. Awesome!
We trott down, back to the car, and off we go. Ronse has been the ideal place to watch. And while yesterday, I was saying I would never do this again, because I was tired and sore, the day after I’m already talking about coming back and doing it again, despite my hands feeling like those of an arthritic 90-year old. The Tour of Flanders is definitely one of the great cycling challenges and I’d recommend you try it yourself.