Wednesday 29 May 2019

My Cycling Year So Far - Tour of Flanders

Belgium Bound

Cyclist central at Oudenaarde
Another high point of my year so far has been my trip to ride the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders. It had been a few years since I last cycled this event. The last time I rode this Spring Classic was in 2007, and had a great time there. I hadn't intended to to leave it this long before going back again.

Since the time when I last rode it, they had moved the start and finish from Ninove to Oudenaarde, and they had reintegrated Koppenberg, which had been removed from the course for refurbishments.

Apart from that, the atmosphere, fanfare and zeal of all the racers was just as present as ever.

Away from industrial Asse and now in Denderleeuw
I travelled to Flanders by Eurostar to Brussels and then cycled from there to Oudenaarde. The route I took was nothing to write home about, as it passed through some industrial areas around Anderlecht and Asse.

It was only after Denderleeuw that the landscape began to look like the pretty Flandrian scenes that we see on television. I guess when you do these types of rides you get to see places as they are - warts and all.

Word on the street - cycling on Belgian roads

The road conditions were okay. Getting out of Brussels was easy enough. Even though there were bike lanes I still needed to be careful as vehicles would still park in the bike lanes. Some of the bike lanes were so narrow that on occasions you were riding in the gutter, so it was better to ride further out from the kerb, in the flow of the traffic and on a decent road surface. You also need to be careful of crossing side roads, and make sure that cars aren't turning across your path.

In short, riding through Brussels was not bad, but it was not this cycling paradise that people claim is so much nicer than riding along streets the UK. People can be too quick to say that cycling in Europe is better than cycling in the UK. My experience is that in all countries you get good bits and not so good bits. You get good drivers and careless drivers everywhere.

Once into the Flandrian countryside I was on trunk roads that had cycle lanes which was great, though bear in mind that on many side roads that were not trunk roads there are no cycle lanes, the roads are not especially wide, so the conditions are no different from riding on a minor road in the UK.

Riding up Koppenberg

Some local riders at Koppenberg
After a pleasant 40 miles I arrived at my lodgings which were just outside Oudenaarde, and around the corner, literally from Koppenberg. That area was quite busy as lots of folks were practicing it ahead of the cyclosportive and before the crowds arrive. It was a good opportunity to chat to various folks - who seemed to have come from everywhere. Of course there were people from the local area, but there were folks from the UK, France, Germany, Italy, even a group from South Africa.

Saturday was the big day, at least for we amateurs, so I rode the three miles from my bed & breakfast to reach central Oudenaarde, from where I began my ride.

As I was a little late getting up, and I knew I would  need to be back in time to see the professional women's team presentations, I decided to do the 74km option. That wasn't an easy ride though, because it still included around 14 bergs. The tough challenges of Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, and Koppenberg were included, with the latter being tackled barely 10km into the ride.

Koppenberg didn't fail to disappoint, It was a 15-20% gradient, with cobbles everywhere, and crowds of other riders. Being on my cross bike meant that I felt more comfortable in my riding position, and the tyres offered that bit more cushioning - quite important for my 50-year old bones!

For me, it was just important to keep a good core stability, stay relaxed, hold my line, and be ready to shout "on your left/on your right" very assertively.

The tactic almost worked, but then a woman in front of me, who seemed to be riding well, fell over. She was Italian and her cycling buddy had been shouting words of encouragement to her [Dai, dai] and she seemed to be feeding off that, but then suddenly, bang! She hit the deck, and I had no where to go, so had to dismount quickly.

That was a bit annoying as I was near the top, and thought I had conquered the beast. In my bloody mindedness I walked back to almost the bottom of the climb and decided to attempt it again. The area was quite thick with riders and spectators, and a few people offered to give me a push as I remounted my bike. Then they all shouted Allez, Allez as I strained to get up the climb for a second time, through gritted teeth. This time I did it, and felt like I had won the Tour of Flanders!

Feeling old after Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg

This gave me the confidence to cope with the other bergs to come. Our route didn't include Geraadsbergen or Kapelmuur/Mur de Gramont, but we had enough to be getting on with. Oude Kwaremont was not so steep, but it went on for a long time, and the cobbles seemed sharper and disordered compared with other bergs, so it was a bumpier ride. It was definitely the area to be though, as a spectator as there was loads of pumping music, and a massive beer tent of the same name, and loads of people who seemed to already be on the way to getting drunk.

A word of warning - the descent from Kwaremont is lovely and fast, but then you round the right-hand corner and you are met with this steep cobbled uphill. That was Paterberg. I could have stayed on the bike, and quickly tried to find my low gear, on the hill, but I didn't have the legs to cope with the change of gear. So I just dismounted and manually changed gear in order to comfortably tackle the ascent. Once again, it was a case of being mindful of the folks who were dismounting on the hill once they ran out of gears, as well as those who chose to walk in the middle of the road. This climb felt as steep as Koppenberg, but was not long. However, I still felt quite tired after the previous exertions, so it was harder work for me.

Feeling happy after riding Paterberg (and Oude Kwarement too)
It was a relief to have been able to do those tough three bergs, as well as the other ones. I just had to put my head down and hurry back over the remaining 15 or so miles to get to the finish line. My lack of fitness began to show, and I felt quite tired. A few people past me, and I wanted to jump on their wheels, but I didn't have the strength to hold their wheels. So I just rode back at my own pace.

It was just great to see the finish line, knowing that I still had the ability to ride even the tough bergs.

A good day out in Flanders

Flanders is a great place to be when the bike races are on. At the lovely place where I stayed, Enjoy B&B Today, there was a group of Irish guys, and some Italians from Turin as well. Around Oudenaarde and the surrounding area there were also lots of people from the UK, and I recognised jerseys from local clubs like Kingston Wheelers and Dulwich Paragon. There was a large contingent from my club, Penge CC, though I travelled separately from them. It was good to bump into Dougie Fox and other riders from Crawley Wheelers. I don't get to talk to them much when I'm in London - so it was just ironic that it took a cycling event abroad to get us to sit down and have a chat with them over a beer! But that's what the Tour of Flanders does.

Feed station at Ronse, where you bump into people you know

Related Posts
Tour of Flanders ride 2007

Mallorca vs Flanders

Surviving the Paris Roubaix cobbles

Annaleena does Paris Roubaix in winter

No comments: