Last weekend, myself, Morro and Weave all set off for the Tour of Flanders (or Ronde Van Vlaanderen) in Belgium. The plan was to travel to Dover on the Friday, short ferry trip, then 2 hrs drive to our hotel on the outskirts of Brussels. Then, on the Saturday we’d head into Ninove, (about a half hour drive), and ride the classic 140km cobble-laden Tour of Flanders sportive. Followed on Sunday by watching the pros ride the same route (except they will have already ridden 100+kms!), then back home on Monday morning. Here’s how it went….
TEAM CAR!! The unveiling of the first ever EpicMobile, as Weave picked us up from Morris Towers. It’s chilly and foggy, but we don’t care because we’re off to Belgium. Cue cheesy photos in team tops standing by car…
We’re off! Riding in the team car is ace – people (especially kids) seem to stop and stare. We clock people admiring the car and team bikes as we pass them on the motorway. Pros for the day! High spirits and jolly banter all the way to the hotel, which to our relief is actually very clean and conveniently located right by the motorway. Which I can assure you is a godsend, because the Belgian drivers are bloody awful. It seems the only thing you need to pass your driving test in Belgium is… a) a car b) not much else.
To Morro’s delight, we discover that there’s a Greek restaurant opposite the hotel, so after prepping our bikes and making them cobble-proof, we head over the road for some carb loading and excited pre-ride chat.
It’s bloody foggy. And freezing. Well 5 degrees anyway, which is near enough when you were expecting 15 degrees and sunshine like the previous afternoon. At least it’s dry though. Anyway, after several trips to the breakfast buffet, and a last minute clothing faff we load up and head to Ninove, the start of our ride. As to be expected when there are 19,000 participants, the roads leading into Ninove are already looking like a Friday evening outside Craven Arms chip shop. That is, cars parked everywhere, gridlocked traffic and people millng around chatting in a strange language. Undeterred, and not falling in to the classic trap of trying to get a parking space in the middle of town, we dock Epic One on the hard shoulder of the busy main road, along with a few thousand others. We get changed – nervous excitement in the air – and mount up for the 5 mile ride to the start village.
The start village is packed, but not as busy as it probably was an hour earlier, which is why we’ve delayed our start slightly (you’re allowed a 2 hr window in which to start, like most UK sportives). We sign on, attach our numbers then, then make our way out of Ninove.
The first 15 miles or so take us along meandering lanes and through villages to join us on to the actual race route that the pros will use the next day. We start off nice and steady, chatting away, carefully sweeping past some of the slower riders. Before long we hit our first stretch of infamous cobbles. Now this is what sets this sportive apart from all the others – the pavé (cobbles) and the hellingen (hills). Nothing quite prepares you for your first ride over the cobbles. It’s like riding over a 3km cattle grid. You feel every single stone, right up through your forks, into your hands and into your arms. Not to mention up through your seat tube and up into your arse cheeks. The trick is to keep your speed up, which is easier said than done because it feels like your riding through treacle. Not that I’ve ever ridden through treacle, or any other cooking ingredient for that matter, but you get the idea. Normally the best place to ride is on the smoother cobbles found on the crown of the road, or where the cars tyres have worn them down. Or you can of course ride in the gutter. Now I’m not opposed to pros doing this whilst in a race – but to come and ride the Tour of Flanders sportive and avoid the cobbles is like going to a swingers party and keeping your pants on. Not that I’ve ever… well you know.
Being seasoned cobble-meisters, we’ve already bent in our bottle cages, meaning our bidons remain in place, unlike countless others, who are flailing around trying to gather their spilt bottles. Flanders TIp #1 – bend in your bottle cages.
Soon, we reach our first climb, the Molenberg – a 20% ball-buster, which seems almost strategically placed to scare the crap out of first-timers. We crest it without problems and cruise along to the first feed stop.
After a short stop for water top-up and a heartbreaking waffle-dropping incident, we’re off on our merry way. The bergs come thick and fast and there’s an interesting mix of riders on the road, ranging from handy club riders to Big Time Charlies who clearly have all the gear (never seen so many complete Quick Step ensembles) but sadly very little idea! Flanders Tip #2 – Don’t bail when you’re half way up a climb and stand motionless in the middle of the road when the Epic train is steaming through!
We’re ticking along quite nicely by now, nothing silly, but we’re not hanging around. We pass through some lovely villages, along long narrow cycling paths. Still no sunshine, but at least there’s no sign of rain which would turn the cobbles into a slippery nightmare. Over the Koppenberg, Kwaremont (where we’ll be watching the pros the next day), and Paterberg – all brilliant fun. Keep it in the biggest gear you can turn – to keep the chain from getting loose and flying off – dodge the slow boys and just give it some welly.
Flanders Tip #3 – Don’t try to convince everyone that you are a pro when you’re not – otherwise you’ll annoy Morro. And rightly so. We noticed a few Heinrich Haussler wannabies. Head to toe in Cervelo Test Team kit (including socks, glasses and helmet) with little pro-style race numbers mounted from the seat clamp. These guys were a complete pain in the ass it has to be said – bombing past on the flat then utterly imploding as soon as they hit a hill or cobbles. Morro instigated a chase down of one such Heinrich, who looked a little peeved when, after spinting past us like a flash arse, he noticed Morro was stuck on his wheel and not interested in taking a turn into the headwind. He didn’t do it again mind! Epics-1, Heinrichs-0.
We approached the last cobbled climbs of the day all together. On the twisty run in to the Muur, Weave slipped off the front – as casual like – into a crowd of jerseys. It wasn’t until we hit the climb itself that Morro and I realised that it might have been a stealthy strike for home. (We found out the next day that’s exactly what it was). No problem, we’d work together in the last cobble-free 8 miles and reel him in. So up and over the Muur. Flanders Tip #4 – Savour the atmosphere on the Muur. It’s brilliant. The only time I’ve ever ridden through cheering crowds three deep at the roadside. A real highlight of the day and having ridden it three times now, it’s my favourite part of the route. When you see the pros fly up the 22% slope the following day, with thousands of screaming fans alongside them, it reminds you of your own experience the day before and give you goosebumps. Unforgettable.
No sooner had we got our breath back, then we were approaching the Bosberg. This is the last bit of cobbled road, and although it’s not as long or steep as the Muur, your legs are burning before you’re even half way up it. A quick regroup a the top and it’s game on for the chase.
We crank up the pace, bit and bit averaging 28+mph on the smooth road. It’s hurting but the sense of speed is awesome. We’re joined by several other riders who want a blast back home and before we know it we’ve got a good chain gang going, although it has to be said the Epic boys are driving it. But then again we’re the ones who want to catch the sneaky escapee. We’re hitting 32mph in places, perfect roads and very little traffic – the only way Weaver can hold off this train is he’s tagged on the back of a pro team!!
Two minutes up the road, Phil is tagged on the back of a pro team. B*llocks. Well, perhaps not pro – more likely semi-pro, or at least the kind of team that, according to a thoroughly smug post-ride report, can average 32mph whilst laughing and joking with each other. So despite mine and Morro’s efforts, and it has to said the contribution of a couple of team Bio-Racer riders, Phil and Team Dickhoff (no seriously that’s what they were called) held off our chase. Oh well, we had good fun trying. We hit the outskirts of Ninove and after a few narrow winding streets, turn onto the finishing straight, which is the same as the next day’s finish – same finish line and famous yellow ‘Ronde Van Vlaanderen’ gantry. We even managed to outsprint one of the Heinrichs! (2-0 to the Epics). Weave is there to capture the moment, although apparently I was sooo fast he couldn’t get his camera out in time ;-). Either that or there was another rider blocking Weave’s view – I forget which ;-)
What a fantastic ride. We chat to the two Bio-Racer guys as they come over the line – it turns out Phil actually knows them, and that they are the guys who set up the club kit for production! Small world. Then, we’re approached by a nice young lady from Cycling Weekly, who takes our photo and wants some soundbites for the mag. And guess what – Phil knows her too. So, keen to push on before we get cold, and to go someplace where Weave doesn’t know every other person, we head back to the start village, where hotdogs, cokes and Flanders goody bags await. A triumphant spin back to the car, and as Epic One’s thunderous engine crackles into life, the heavens start to open. Couldn’t have timed it better. Once at the hotel and all cleaned up, we head over to the Greek restaurant opposite and fill our faces. Feels like we’ve earned it.
Sunshine! A bit bloomin’ late, but can’t complain. A slightly more leisurely breakfast today, and Weave manages to empty the coffee pot for the second consecutive day. Having a tried and tested plan for today, we head off for Oude Kwaremont to watch the pros, traditionally the place where the race tends to kick off. A few preliminaries – hotdogs, piddle in hedge, camera check and we’re in position on the grass verge looking down onto the road. The helicopters above indicate the race is near. Anyone who’s watched a pro race on the continent knows this feeling. It’s the buzz an the atmosphere beforehand that’s half the fun – but you’ve got to stay alert, because if you’re not careful, latecomers turn up and muscle into your line of sight. Flanders Tip #5 – Defend your space with elbows out and a good wide stance! We notice that two latecomers who try their luck are two Heinrichs from yesterday, one of which the one Morro chased. They see our Epic tops, we see their Cervelo caps. We recognise each other from yesterday. Stand off. But team Epic have the higher ground, and therefore the better view. (3-0 and the match to the Epics :-) ).
Before we know it, the race is upon us – two knackered looking escapees come through first, then about a minute later comes the pack, all strung out as far as the eye can see. Cervelo are at the front driving the pace – always humbling to see how effortlessly fast the pros ride. It’s chaos – riders are jostling and elbowing for position. A Skil-Shimano rider brushes a spectator below us and almost hits the deck, out of sight an Astana rider bites the dust just round the corner. They keep coming through in dribs and drabs. Some of them are broken. Some are going slower than we rode over that same stretch the previous day – the day’s frantic racing clearly taking it’s toll. Last through are a couple of ‘we’re only here because of our Pro-Tour obligations’ Euskatel riders, bravely holding off the broom wagon, which is literally right behind them. They get some sporting encouragement from the crowd, but we all know their cards are marked.
Once the last of the never-ending line of cars has passed, we stroll down into Kwaremont itself, where there’s a big TV screen in the square, and beer and waffles are served from stalls. There’s a wonderful atmosphere… cheering, singing, beers flowing – the Belgians really know how to have a good time on days like this and it’s hard not to ge caught up in it. A massive roar goes up whenever a Belgian rider attacks, and sure enough Devolder’s attack on the Muur send the crowd into overdrive. And then, that’s it, it’s all over. There’s over 10k to go, but Quick Step have a lone leader with a 50s gap, a rider in the 3 man chase and another rider in the next group back before what’s left of the bunch. There’s almost a lull as everyone knows that Devolder has it in the bag. But then when he does cross the line, there’s an almighty cheer, Flandrian flags waving everywhere.
All that’s left for us is to swipe a couple of souvenir cobbles from small pile at the roadside, and head back to the EpicMobile. We take the long way back to Brussels, avoiding the smaller roads that everyone else will be using. We see all the team cars and buses heading the other way – amazing how seeing a group o brightly painted team vehicles can make a bunch of grown men so excited. Then again, they’re probably all thinking the same thing when they see Epic One thundering along in the opposite direction.
We decided to head into Brussels for a bit of sightseeing, as our hotel is right on the doorstep. So we visited the impressive Atomium, then off downtown to check out Le Grand Place, then into the nearest pizzeria to check out le grand menu, as by now we’re famished. A calzone, quatro fromaggio, Napolitano, three dame-blanches and three cappuccinos later and it’s back to the hotel. A quick internet check and we’re greeted with the news of Dave’s triumphant day. A top day for the Epic boys!
All in all, an unbeatable trip. The ferry was £63 for the car and the hotel for 3 nights (inc breakfast) was £70 per person. Just add food/drink and some petrol money and you’ve got the best bang-for-buck cycling weekend out there. We all rode our new team bikes, and they never missed a beat all day. The ride wasn’t as harsh as you’d think for a race frame and little things like 25mm grippy tyres @90psi and gel padded bar tape really make a world of difference on the cobbles. The stiffness of the frame comes into it’s own when you’re trying to power over the climbs too. I would recommend a Tour of Flanders jaunt as much as any Alpine, French or Italian trip, and it’s a fraction of the price, especially if you book it yourself. (We chatted to a couple of guys on the ferry home who paid £300 with Baxters). Plus, it opens up a world of cycling that I for one never knew existed until I first experienced it – that is the fanatical obsession for the spring classics by the Belgians. It’s every bit as captivating as the biggest of grand tour stages and something every cyclist should experience at least once. Unless your name is ‘Heinrich’ :-)