Friday, 8 April 2011

Riding in the wheeltracks of giants

The 14th Sunday of the year is one of the key dates in the cycling calendar. It's the day of, arguably, the toughest one day race in the pro schedule. It's Ronde Van Vlaanderen day.

De Ronde, or Tour of Flanders, is 260 odd kilometers of cobbles, steep climbs, twisting country lanes and pain! The list of winners of the 95 editions reads like a register of hard men. Very few names are on there by fluke. Merckx (of course), Van Looy, Van Steenbergen, Museeuw, Boonen, Cancellara, Devolder, Van Petegem, Raas and Godefroot are just some of the riders who've conquered the "bergs" and "pavé". Even Kelly could only finish second!

Of course, cycling has an advantage over other sports in that it takes place on the open roads so even a legendary "parcours" like Flanders is open to anyone to have a go, at least when the pros aren't using it. So on the day before De Ronde, the organisers put on the biggest cyclo-sportive in Europe and 20,000 odd riders get out into the Flandrian countryside to try to emulate their heroes. It's a bit like opening up Old Trafford or the Bernabeu for a kick about!

This year I was one of them.

The plan was hatched over the winter on the roads of County Dublin. Myself and Stephen decided to make a weekend of it. Fly on Friday, ride on Saturday and then watch the race on Sunday. A perfect cyclists weekend. Even Dad decided to come along for the trip as helper, although really he just wanted a chance to see the Koppenberg up close.

Over the winter,on and off the bike, Flanders became our obsession. Finding steep hills to climb, hoping they were steep enough, and getting our distances up, dominated every weekend ride. Although the opportunity was there to do the full pro route we were realistic enough to opt for the 150km version. That way the distance would be within our grasp, given our limited training time, but we'd still have all of the tough bits to do. As well as on-the-bike training, the email traffic was flying back and forth arranging flights, digs, a car, tyre choice, bike bags and all the other details we needed to cover. There were quite a few YouTube and photo links too. Maybe if we looked at enough pictures of the Muur it mightn't be as hard on the day!

The week leading up to the trip was hectic. Naturally, just when you need your bike in one piece, things start to go wrong. So thanks a million to the boys at The Bike Hub in Howth for pulling out all the stops to source and fit a bottom bracket and headset just on time for me to get the bike shod in it's new pavé-ready tyres and packed away on Thursday night ready for flying on Friday.

Despite nearly missing the flight, we made it to Ninove on Friday evening to pick up our registration packs. Even the day before it was clear this was going to be no small event. The start village was all built up and the town square was full of camper vans all parked up ready for the off from 7am next morning.

We'd planned an early start but our elderly landlady was horrified at the thought of a 6am breakfast so we compromised and settled on 6:30. By 7:15 we were on the road, taking local advice and avoiding the main road to Ninove. As we entered Ninove from a different direction we met the early riders already on the road. Instead of a peloton there was just a constant stream of riders coming from the town, taking the bike lane out towards the country. And when I say constant, I mean constant.
Stephen surveys the river of bikes coming from Ninove.

We parked up about a kilometer out, got our bikes ready, changed our clothes, prepared our ride food and even had time to take a few photos, and still the stream of riders continued past. A quick spin to the start village to make sure our timing chips crossed the start line and we joined the stream, off into the morning sun, nerves tingling with excitement at the challenges to come.

The first few km were pretty uneventful over gently rolling country lanes, through still sleeping Flemish hamlets, but it wasn't long before we rounded a corner and hit the first section of cobbles in or around Zottegem.

Wow, what a wake-up call! There we were, ambling along in the morning sun and now, all of a sudden, we're hanging on as our bikes try to shake loose beneath us. I'd, of course, read all of the advice on how to ride the stones, but nothing prepares you for that moment. The extra effort required to just keep moving, the concentration to make sure you apply the right technique, the fear that you, or someone around you, will  make a mistake and the sheer rush of it all just wash over you. And then the road was smooth again. You could feel the adrenaline coursing through the group as we all tried to settle back into a normal rhythm back on the concrete and asphalt.

Shortly after we were on the first of the 13 categorized "bergs", or hills, for which De Ronde is famous. On our 150km route that was the non-cobbled Rekeleberg. To be honest, on fresh legs it was pretty easy really. A handful of short ramps up through a village and out across a ploughed field and that was it. I happened to find myself alongside a Swords CC rider, Dermot Moyne, I recognised from my racing days so I ended up not even really noticing the climb as we chatted about mutual friends.

The Rekeleberg was quickly followed by the equally smooth Kaperij, certainly steeper but again not too hard and over before you knew it. At the top a motorbike came up from behind to pass us. Seeing the TV cameraman hanging off the back of it really brought home that this was no ordinary Saturday ride.

Down a sweeping main road and we arrived in Ronse, scene of the World Championships in 1988, and the first food stop. What a site. It looked like an army of ants swarming in and out, carrying away bananas and waffles and energy bars. For us it was a chance to shed some layers to Dad, waiting patiently for us, to ensure we weren't oveerheated on the toughest section to come.
Anyone got a waffle?
Orwell Wheelers on tour

Through Ronse and we hit the next climb, the Kruisberg. No sooner had I assured Stephen that there were no cobbles on this one than it made a liar of me. Around a left hand bend the surface changed and we were on our first ever cobbled berg. If the first set of flat cobbles was a wake up call then this one was a big slap! Climbing any hill is tough but when the surface is determined to drain any momentum you might have it's tougher still. All you can do is grip the bars and keep grinding the pedals.

Coming out onto the spectator lined main road at the top was a big thrill. Now I was in Flanders! But any exhilaration was short-lived because we knew the next hills on the list were the famous, and feared, Paterberg and Koppenberg. Both of them hit over 20% in places and both are cobbled. The Paterberg is the (relatively) smoother of the two but what it lacks in roughness it makes up for in steepness. The Koppenberg is just rough, in every sense of the word.

The approach to the Paterberg is down a narrow, sweeping descent to a sharp right hander and then you gasp. I'd seen plenty of photos and videos of this climb but the sheer wall of people rising up before me really did take my breath away. The Flanders sportive is famous for crowds on the climbs but this was something else. And then there's the gradient!
The Paterberg

I got a decent way up before the severity of the slope and the crowd just made it impossible to move forward. It was time to join the many, many walkers. But not normal walking. Cycling shoes on steep cobbles have about the same degree of grip as slippers on an ice rink. Think climbing up a childrens slide in your stocking feet pushing a bike with one hand and trying to hold on to a barrier with the other and you're getting close to what it felt like. As the gradient eased a bit the bottleneck decreased and I was able to get back on and ride the last part of the climb. Even better Stephen was at the top with his camera so as far as the photos go, I rode the Paterberg!
Some walked all the way up.

The Koppenberg was even worse. This time the traffic jam started before we even reached the climb. There was a 50m queue of riders in the tiny village of Melden, patiently waiting the chance to get around the corner and onto the most famous of them all.
Queuing to ride the Koppenberg
I'll take the 11.6% please.
How did he get through?

Once again I got a respectable distance up before the lane narrowed and the number of walkers in front made my slow progress impossible. Some of the fitter riders had the lungs to shout and bully their way through, and the legs to handle the changes in speed required for that, but I didn't. Once I slowed there was no going on at that part of the hill. But, after slipping my way up a bit in the mud on the edge of the cobbles, the crowd soon thinned and I was back on, cresting the Koppenberg on two wheels as nature intended.
The top of the Koppenberg is "en fete" ahead of the upcoming race. 

The curved descent back to the main road was one of the highlights of the day for me. The sight of one long line of riders snaking down the side of a hedge-less Flandrian hill in the spring sunshine was one of those images you just wish you had a camera ready to capture.

Next up was the Steenbeekdries, a long, wide, gentle-ish cobbled slope but not too difficult, followed by the first real cobbled descent of the day. If you think riding the pavé on the flat is bone-shaking, wait until you try descending on them! Not to mention the hairpin bend over a level crossing at the bottom.
Starting down the Steenbeekdries

A couple of km further on was the Taaienberg, steep and cobbled but ridden in the gutter, just like the pros, then the Eikenberg, not so steep but the longest cobbled climb of them all. I'm sure I'm not the only one who plays races in my mind when training alone but one of the joys of riding such a famous course is that at points along the way reminders from real races past are everywhere. As I climbed the Eikenberg the race in my head was De Ronde of two or three years ago when David Millar and Stijn Devolder stormed up the very same road.

Over the top of the Eikenberg there was a sign saying it'd be another 14km to the next climb, the Molenberg. What it didn't mention was that the best part of a third of that was cobbled. By the time we reached the bottom of the climb we'd been well and truly shaken.

Just like the Paterberg and the Koppenberg, the Molenberg is short, steep and rough. It starts through a very pretty hamlet then turns steeply up to the right before a straight, but very badly broken up, ramp. As we got to the corner a rider in front lost it and went down. Stephen managed to get around on the left but I had no way through on the right. Another walk to the top! Coming up to the summit the road was completely blocked by riders entering a marquee for what we all thought was an official water stop. In fact it was a private affair, cashing in on the hot day by selling very small bottles of water for €2 apiece!
Wind turbines, Flemish style.

Onwards we rode, over many more cobbles and up the Leberg and Tenbosse, into a very welcome food and drink stop. I've never enjoyed a handful of orange segments so much in my life. And I was going to need them. We were now on the road to Geraardsbergen and the biggest climb of them all. The iconic Muur De Grammont has been a decisive point of the race on many occassions. We'd been talking about this one for months, looking at YouTube videos trying to anticipate what it would feel like after more than 70 miles of riding. We found out soon enough.

As you approach the sharp left hander at the bottom of the climb you can see the walls of the houses opposite sloping up. Even before the bend it was clear this is steeper than it looks on the telly. Turning the corner confirmed that fear. Instead of the expected gentle slope through the town we were looking straight up a steep narrow street. All you could do was shift down and keep the legs going. As we rode on up, past cheering onlookers, the concrete turned to cobbles and the crowd thickened. On a bit further and we were in the park leading up to the famous chapel at the top. This is where I realised why this hill influences the race so much. It's ferocious. I had to do the steepest ramp on foot and I can't even claim to have been blocked. Quite simply the Muur defeated my tired legs.

Once it'd levelled out a little a very nice man gave me a push start and I was riding again. I may have had to walk a bit but I did get to experience the thrill of rounding the last left hander and seeing the domed chapel coming into view.

Now there was just one more climb to go. The cobbled Bosberg always looks relatively flat on TV but with so many miles in your legs it definitely isn't. I was determined to ride this one and thankfully managed it so was able to crest the top with a smile on my face. Barring a disaster we were sure to finish now.

A tailwind all the way to the finish was the icing on the cake. We flew the last 10 miles in the company of a group of very nice people from Clitheroe Bike Club in Lancashire but made a point of riding the familiar finishing straight, all set up for the pros next day, side by side. We'd done a lot of miles to prepare for this moment and it was great to cross that line together. It'd be churlish to say which front wheel crossed first!

De Ronde is one of the sports five Monuments. I've watched it countless times on TV and had schoolboy dreams of riding away from the rest on the Muur. So it really was nothing short of a lifelong ambition to ride it's roads. It was every bit as hard as I expected, and more. The hills were steeper and the cobbles rougher than I thought and I suffered a bit in the unseasonal heat, but I really can rank it as one of my favourite days on a bike. If there's one lesson I have learned it's not to base my expectations on watching the pros on TV. They really do make it look easy.

Next year I'll know better.


  1. Jaysis, fair play man. Sounds gruelling! Hoping to head to Flanders in July for a quick tour. Although I'm having seconds thoughts after reading that. :-)

  2. Do it Colly. It's a lovely place and steeped in cycling history. The hills will be more manageable without the crowds. At least you'll get a clear run at them.

  3. It really was the weekend of a lifetime for Stephen and Ronan. Talk about children let loose in a sweetshop! Driving the hire car around much of the route was incredible.I've never seen so many bike riders,male & female,young and,well,mature in the same place in my life.I can still the long line of riders on the cycle track beside a roadway as they stretched back at least two kilometres-like a long line of ants on the move,seemingly never ending. The lads are already planning to return in 2012 - but ensuring they shed at least two more kilos in the meantime.
    Sean Fox

  4. Great story! You were wise to do the 150 km route since that is the most interesting part of the Ronde. My experience was pretty similar: I walked most of the Koppenberg and a good section of the Muur, but I was caught so unawares by the Paterberg turn, I lost my chain and fell off! A great ride for every cyclist to do, but better on 25 mm rubber and with all the bolts tightly fastened!

  5. Hi Sprocketboy. Thanks.

    We got away with 23mm but it was very dry.