In late March, 259km is a long way to go, and all the more so at the tail-end of the coldest, least cycle training-friendly March for half a century. Actually, it’s a long way to go at any time of year when it includes the cobbles and climbs that litter the route of the Tour of Flanders, one of the Monuments of professional cycle racing.
So it was with a heavy heart that I checked the 133km box on the online entry form; in my two earlier participations I rode the long route and nobody likes to fall short. Entry for the medium and short rides – the short one covers a still-respectable 83km – is box-check easy; those wanting to ride the full-length route must also book and pre-pay for passage on one of the coaches that transfers riders to Bruges, where it starts. Space is limited and, once the coaches are full, so too is entry.
The ride number that arrives by email allows its recipient to collect the rider pack from the event HQ. Currently it is in the pleasant town of Oudenaarde, which is also the home of the Tour of Flanders museum. This is well worth a visit, not least because it offers the chance to spot former world road race champion and, still, greatest-ever roadman sprinter Freddy Maertens, who is often there.
From the rider pack envelope I pulled the usual selection of leaflets along with a plastic card ride number and zip-ties. The number incorporated a thick strip along the back, which I took to be the timing chip. Er, no. Had I taken the trouble to read the relevant leaflet more closely, I might have learned that I needed to pay a further five euros for a timing chip. ‘Might’, because it’s not clear from the leaflet. In any case, the number plate merely gives entitlement to supplies and makes life easier for the event photographers.
As it happens, there may not have been much point to having a timing chip. I turned up at the event HQ at the Qubus with riding companion Juan and together we slowly rolled off in search of something over which to ride, both of us assuming that our ride numbers incorporated chips… After a kilometre or so in the company of others without seeing a timing mat, we assumed we were on the course and set about riding it.
Frankly, the first few kilometres were ditchwater-dull, literally in places as we rode alongside the brackish marsh bordering Oudenaarde’s river, the Schelde. Soon enough we left the town’s outlying industrial estates and headed for the hills or, more accurately, the Koppenberg.
Only recently re-admitted to the Tour of Flanders after a lengthy absence, this forbidding cobbled climb goes straight up the side of a steep slope. It is perhaps most infamous for the moment in 1987 when a race car drove over the fallen Jesper Skibby’s wheel, only narrowly avoiding his foot.
It is a nasty little climb that can force a dismount even on a quiet day. With many thousands of sportivistes queueing up for a crack, it was completely clogged with the walking. This was bad news for those wearing full-on road shoes and cleats, many of whom were forced to scrabble for a foothold. Several of the more serious-looking riders around us were seriously cross at finding themselves unable to tackle their dream hill undisturbed; overall, the Koppenberg lived up to its reputation.
By the top I was beginning to wonder if the forced walk was something I’d be repeating on the many narrow cobbled climbs still to come. It wasn’t. Judging by the rate at which we were passing other riders, Juan and I were going pretty quickly and, after a couple of hours’ riding, we found the bunches of riders ahead of us thinning out.
Look back in anger
I was struck by how few of them tried to take our wheel. In past cyclo-sportives I have ridden in Belgium, a faster back wheel has always been an invitation to take a ride. Maybe nobody is that bothered these days, or maybe fewer riders know either how to do it or why. I was also struck by the poor roadcraft of many riders. It is one thing to have to stop on a climb, surely another to do so without a thought for those coming up behind who may not want to have to do the same.
On tarmac or kassieien, the result is likely to be the same; if too close to the person who stops, perhaps for a handed-up can of Red Bull, you too will have to stop. The answer, where it is possible, is careful choice of line to ensure that your trajectory takes you wide of any obstruction likely to pop up in the next 50m or so.
This is, if anything, even more important on the flatter sections, where closing speed is much higher. Especially when following ‘Juannosaurus Rex’ on his first visit to Flanders cobbles, which he invariably attacked with great enthusiasm and power.
On the longer sections, of which there were several including the draining Mariaborrestraat, the invariable result was a textbook demonstration of the importance of pacing, as the mighty Juan’s initial speed proved too hard to sustain. There’s a lot of talk about ‘surfing’ the cobbles or suchlike; go fast enough and you start to skip across the tops of the bumps rather than drop down into each gap between cobbles, or something like that.
Of course, the problem is that it requires a minimum speed before it takes effect, much like when a boat ‘planes’, and although the result is a more-or-less noticeable diminution in vibration and discomfort, the effort required to reach the required speed means that it can only be sustained for a short time. It’s a bit like sprinting up a hill; if the legs tie up before you reach the summit, you may have to stop completely. On flattish pavé, you will simply slow to a near-crawl and must wait for the next section of tarmac to recuperate.
Later in the ride Juan’s superior fitness prevailed and I was left to my own devices, which included spending several kilometres on the wheels of a trio riding knobbly-tyred full-susser downhill mtbs at high speed – while the tarmac lasted. Back on the kassieien, they slowed right up, leaving me to wonder at the wisdom of their machine and, more importantly, tyre choice. Road bikes rule on the cobbles.
At the top of the Karnemelbeekstrasse lay the final feed. Time to wolf down a few waffles, suck a few orange quarters and refill the bottle before heading for the finale. Having ridden the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg double whammy many times, I was dreading what lay ahead.
Long and draggy precedes short and very steep, but by adopting the slowest speed I could maintain without actually stopping I kept the agony to a minimum and cleared the Paterberg – my own choice for worst climb of the ride – without having to dismount. Unlike many of those around me.
The Paterberg precedes a fast descent to Berchem and horrible long drag back into Oudenaarde, on which we enjoyed a proper block headwind. On this leg of the ride, the only other rider using the ‘drops’ was the young French chap who caught me halfway along and kindly towed me to within 500m of the finish, where I found the strength to help out.
It was a suitably low-key finale to a ride that isn’t quite what it was when I last rode it over a decade ago. Firstly, even the long ride no longer follows the precise route of the pro Classic race that takes place the following day, and secondly, the event is crowded – for the early climbs at least. There’s a great atmosphere, but the sportiviste who wants to savour the cobbles and climbs but without the clamour and crush would do well to choose another weekend.
Sportive Sound bites
“Flanders, a great ride that tests the resolve of your gear and your legs, started with a melée of riders jostling for space leading to the first cobbled climb which was a gentle walk not a ride. Thankfully, the climb seemed to tire out legs as the hordes began to disperse afterwards, allowing for a stunning rolling ride through lanes and over cobbled sections that rattle you right down to the eyeballs. Each cobbled section drains more push out of your legs, making sustaining speed across them increasingly difficult and the last cobbled climb a fight with your legs to work at all! Brilliant ride – can’t wait to do it again.”
“Riding the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders was great fun and it is truly a must-do sportive. The sportive is well organised, with a relaxed start and a well marshalled and signposted route. You don’t have to do the long route to get the full experience as I did the medium route of 133km, which takes in all the major climbs. For the perfect weekend, I stayed over for the Tour of Flanders pro race the next day, and could really enjoy the Belgium atmosphere watching on large TV screens, drinking beer and cheering on the riders”
Monica Da Plenza
“The Tour of Flanders has been an amazing experience. I chose the 140km distance as I wanted to do it quite fast. Riding on cobbles was quite hard, especially on the downhill, now I understand how the professionals feel when they are riding on it! I loved every moment; well, maybe less on 21 per cent hills but the atmosphere of the sportive and watching the ‘big boys’ the day after was fantastic!”
This article was first published in the April 25 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!