Flanders is flat. Everyone knows it. Everyone said it was flat when I told them what I was planning to do. And they were almost right. Even the grizzled old chap in one of many Gent chippies told me. "Flanders is flat. Apart from the hills." So what brought me to Gent on the first weekend of April, with a slightly sprained wrist - not ideal for the challenge ahead!
Last year I signed up to join a trip to De Ronde Van Vlaanderen with Penge Cycle Club, Pride of SE London, with 59 others. The fantastic organiser David said it was open to anyone, so I decided to go. I'm no athlete, I ride for fun & cake, usually pretty slowly, and take the more sedate rides out occasionally. I knew I probably wouldn't be able to train that much or lose that much weight, but I'd give it a go. Because I knew very well that Flanders was *not* flat & that riding the Tour of Flanders sportive, then watching the pros do it the next day, was an absolute bucket list cycling experience.
What is this Tour of Flanders, some of you may be wondering. It's one of the 5 monuments of cycling. Just like tennis isn't all about Wimbledon, neither is cycling all about the Tour de France. There are many kinds of races - the big 3 week grand tours - Italy, France, Spain. Shorter stage races like Paris - Nice. One day classics. And the Monuments - also contested over one day but steeped in tradition & history. Paris-Roubaix - the Hell of the North, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Milan - San Remo, Lombardia and Flanders. These are the big five. Just as some cyclists specialise in the grand tours, others as climbers or sprinters, a whole breed also exist to put themselves through the unremitting pain & suffering of the classics. They're all incredibly tough, but Flanders is the one. Flanders is the toughest. Because not only does it have cobbles - lots of them, it also has bergs - hills. And not only does it have bergs, it has cobbled bergs! These aren't nice smooth hills zig-zagging up the side of a mountain at manageable gradients. These are tiny lanes, barely wide enough for a tractor, which go straight up whatever is in front of them!
Cobbles makes it sound quaint, doesn't it? But these cobbles are not nice & smooth & uniform. They are jagged & bumpy & uneven. God help you if they are wet! Did I mention how steep some of these bergs are? Even the pros sometimes end up walking, to hoots of derision from the hundreds of thousands of Flandriens lining the route, especially if they slip or someone falls...once you have unclipped, it's very hard to clip back in & continue. Anyway. Enough build-up.
On Friday we all gathered in Sydenham with our gear & boarded the coach to Gent. The journey passed without particular incident & we got to Oudenaarde in the late afternoon to sign on. Due a combination of factors & a soupçon of fatalism, I'd decided a few weeks previously to do the 74km ride. Other distances were available, but I had decided the 74km was better suited to my shite level of fitness & preparation, and also gave me the best shout of getting to the hills without too many crowds & a fighting chance to get up then unimpeded by anything other than my own lack of ability! Oddly, we had to pay for our medal in advance - usually they dish them out as you finish - but I obviously had to get one.
Then it was back to the bus for the short journey to Gent to our hostel. We were all bunking up with others - sorry about the snoring lads - and after a pasta meal together & a potter around the town in search of frites, we retired to bed.
At 5am the alarms all started going off and we dragged ourselves downstairs - to find the door to the reception area where our bikes were being kept was locked! Mild panic swept the hostel until "le patron" David found we could access the room from the other side - panic over!
Strangely & unusually for me I wasn't in a state of anxiety or having the sweats. I'm not sure why. Before the epic fail of the Etape 8 years ago I was crippled with nerves the night before. Maybe it's because I had decided that this was going to be a ride for me. I wasn't going to fundraise off the back of it - that'll be later in the year - I just wanted, for once, to do it for myself, without the extra pressure, just because it was there. I'm so glad I did.
We gathered outside the hotel ready for a Grand Depart of 0545 for Oudenaarde - 20 miles away along the canal. We were supposed to try & ride together, a 60 strong peloton of Penge's finest, and me. This was the plan, and as usual with plans, it disintegrated almost immediately! Several people slipped on the tram tracks and came off. Traffic lights caused a split - as did the ferocious pace at the front! Never mind, it all settled down as we made our way out past the broken glass & drunkards coming home, then we hit the beautifully tranquil canal paths, with the dawn still a while away, and the birds getting into the swing of things. We shot along at a fair old lick, the only other signs of life being an occasional jogger and a couple of barges - one of which had such bright headlights that it was like Close Encounters. (one for the teenagers there!). After about 12 miles we turned off the canal path & took the more direct route along the main road to the outskirts of Oudenaarde & to the unpreposessing industrial estate start.
There were 5 of us who had decided to do the 74km distance - Fran, Loren, Jonathan, James & me - and we'd also decided to try & ride it together if we could. Out on the road a 6th rider was to join Team 74, Jonathan C. We set off together but soon found that many of our fellow riders suffered from a strange malady known as Dickitis. Symptoms included going through spaces which weren't there, on either side of you, shouting at you to move out of their way - as they obviously had more right to that bit of road than you, and not taking turns on the front when riding in groups. The first rule of life ignored - don't be a dick. To be honest though, annoying & dickish as some were, there were plenty of cyclists behaving normally, plenty of that masochistic black humour you get when you're all suffering the same, and the dicks did not rule the day.
Off we went, initially along the canal then over a bridge & back down the other side. It was good cycling weather - overcast & cool - which maybe didn't show Flanders in all its glory, or maybe it did exactly that! We sped along nice smooth quiet roads, knowing what was to come but enjoying the phoney war while it lasted. We stopped briefly at a feed stop to get some breakfast & had a quick chat with a lunatic doing it on a single speed bike...seriously mad! He had calf muscles the size of actual baby cows though, so who can say...all I know is that I rode past him on the Koppenberg, and he was pushing!
As we rolled along after the food stop it became apparent that the hill which had appeared from nowhere was the Koppenberg, and was approaching rapidly. I took a quick FB live video of the run in, only to be scolded by a watching Winnie, so got back to the task at hand. The Koppenberg is one of the fabled climbs in the Tour of Flanders. It used to be in such terrible condition that the pros complained & it was removed until they fixed it. As it was, we could see it rising sharply away to our left as we approached the right angled turn & got our first teeth rattling taste of the cobbles. You could see the whole thing snaking away through the trees & even from the bottom the steep ramps & walkers were already evident.
As we were early in the day (later riders had to queue at the bottom before being let on), it was relatively sparse, so up we went. I'm not much of a climber - being a fat knacker isn't conducive to flying up hills - but I can be quite stubborn when I want to be & I was determined to get over this first climb. Even if all others were flops, I wanted the bragging rights of getting over at least one of the big boys! I ground up it in my lowest gear, jumping around on the bumpy cobbles, trying not to think about my slightly sprained bandaged wrist, or the folk cutting past at speed on both sides, or the riders who were walking. I just wanted to grind it out, especially with shouts of encouragement ringing in my ears. Up we went, and it got steeper & steeper. Eventually I had to stop for a breather, at which point the bike started to roll backwards. It was that steep. After a few seconds respite I had another go & somehow managed to get moving & clip back in. More of the same until I needed a second breather & then I pushed on to the top! Jeez I felt sick from the exertion. Like I said, I'm not very fit. However, I wasn't as sick as an English lad leaning up against the portaloos & throwing up his breakfast, but still pretty rough. Took a good few mins & a lovely sweeping downhill to recover!
One down, one of the hardest bergs, with a mere 9 to go. We had a sticker on the crossbar & we were mentally ticking them off as we went. The organisers had also kindly put up signs telling us how far we had to the next one was as we finished each of them!
The next challenge was another go at the cobbles along Mariaborrestraat, then up Steenbeekdries. This just seemed absolutely relentless - flattish through a small hamlet then up the hill & down the other side, cobbled all the way. The relief when we got back to a smooth surface was palpable! How they do it I have no idea - going fast seemed to help but I have no idea how they did that when we were just struggling to control the bike as it bounced around the cobbles, rattling everything! Downhill was worse. Still, all good things must come to an end, and so do cobbles.
After a brief pause to laugh our heads off at the insanity of it all, Team 74 forged onwards. The organisers were sneaking in some definite hilly bits without advertising them, the swine, but the next one on our list was Taaienberg - not too long or too steep but plenty of cobbles to keep us interested, and a bunch of folk at the top cheering us on. This is always very helpful! 3 down, 7 to go. I don't remember the next one, but the one after was Kanarieberg, steep but cobble free - and also the halfway point - happy days! Even happier was that there were food trucks at the top, so we stopped for a bit of lunch. Yes, it was fried. I almost had to quit at this point, such was my devastation that the bratwurst truck had electrical problems & was unable to provide sausage, so it was a bitte-ballen sandwich instead. I rallied & we pushed on, spirits high & ready for the second half.
This started with a quick water stop in the main square of Ronse, which had been turned into a feed station & massive outdoor disco pumping out what can only be described as oompah techno! We tore ourselves away before Plastic Bertrand came on, and up the next 2 hills towards Karnemelkbeekstraat, which was a long but manageable drag up through the woods. At the top we got talking to a local lad who gave us some insight about what was coming up with our last 2 climbs - short version, nothing good! We also met one of the original club founders, Pete, riding with VCL.
Next was Kwaremont - the longest stretch of cobbles, going on for what felt like an extremely long 2km, uphill all the way. We came back here the next day to watch the pro riders bouncing & bumping over the very same cobbles at significantly greater speeds! There were lots of people cheering us on in the middle, some even mendaciously telling us the worst was over - spoiler alert, it wasn't! Our old friend Jamie from the Koppenberg went past us at the top, still battling on. We had one left. The Paterberg...
As we came along the top of the ridge, around the corner & down the hill, we could see a line of caravans & flags across the valley, at a curious angle...marking the final berg of the day, and I think the steepest one. At least the ramp in the middle felt steeper than anything else, and judging by the amount of people walking, they felt the same way! I decided my best chance here was not to look at it, and fix my gaze resolutely on the front wheel & the cobbles immediately in front of them. And this was a good plan, but like all plans, as we have established, it fell apart once we hit the steepest part of the climb. I got slower & slower & eventually ground to a halt. There were too many bikes to get going again, so it was the walk of shame for me, exchanging witty bantz with the locals about the flatness of Flanders. Still, as Meat Loaf once said, 9.5 out of 10 ain't bad.
After a brief pause for the all important FB live for our adoring fan(s?), it was downhill all the way to the finish. Apart from the final 6km along the flat into the wind, which got a bit dull. I was feeling chivalrous so decided to take the wind for a few km to give some of my Team 74 pals a rest. When I stopped at the 1km to go mark to regroup, a French chap nipped past with a cheerful merci!
With all 6 of us still together, James wanted to ride over the finish in formation...but some mug ruined it by accepting the lead out then sprinting past for the win! I slowed down to try & reform the group but it was too little too late! Sorry team. I won't do it next year! But finish together we did and what a great feeling that was. To survive one of the toughest sportives out there, and to do so in the company of your friends & club mates. Everyone had dark moments, particularly on the cobbles, but we stuck together & got each other through. Penge Cycle Club, truly the Pride of SE London.
We found a space in front of a cafe & got food & beer & waited for others to come in. This club has some fantastic athletes & there were some stunning performances from them - Kate was the second fastest woman, Tash was 12th. Phenomenal. After a while we decided to head back to Gent, and the final great plan of the day - to ride back - duly went awry as the wind picked up & we got tired. But it turned the day into an 87 miler, so every cloud! The rest of the weekend was fantastic too - watching the pro men & women go past us on the Kwaremont was thrilling, enjoyed with beer, currywurst & great company, then the ride into Bruges on Monday morning, when the amazing Tash saw that I was struggling with the pace & eased up a bit & sat in front taking the wind & chatting away. Her price? A beer. Absolute class.
I loved it all. Getting to know people you nod hello to outside the shop. Riding with stronger riders & learning from them. People being generous with their time & patient with Wahoo questions. The support for everyone from everyone else. This club has built a really great ethos, and I feel privileged to be a part of it.
Thanks to everyone - but especially David for organising a wonderful trip, Emily & James M for the encouragement, all the riders in Team 74 on Saturday & Team Tash into Bruges. And Gareth for the soundtrack & the title of this write up!
Roll on next year!