The Tour of Flanders defines this region, and for many fans it defines the Spring Classics themselves, but the race would be almost nothing without its steep nasty bergs, and of course… the cobbles. Countless words have been written by countless scribes to describe, explain, and understand the essence of the cobblestone, and why it’s so important to our sport. I’m not sure how much I can add to the dialogue, but I do believe they’re something different for each of us.
This was my first time back to the northern Classics since 2004, when I rode the Flanders Cyclosportif also for the first time. Back then I’d only done the shorter 75km route, and ever since have regretted not manning-up and doing the 140km course.
Regardless of my questionable fitness (my longest training ride was about 68km) I was ready to rock the 140km course, confident that the adrenalin of the day, the fresh roads, and that reward of a frosty Belgian beer would get me over the 15 hills, and around 2Okm of cobblestones that so much define this race.
I was also in good company – having been invited to join SRAM to test ride the new 2012 RED gruppo, on a Cannondale equipped with Zipp’s new 303 Firecrest carbon clinchers, and Quarq’s power meter crankset (More on that coming later). With the bike biz being so international, those of us in the media tend to meet only a couple times a year, usually at exotic and exciting events like this one – and scheduling a ride is always new business item #1. Maybe it’s because our time together is so compressed, but friendships seem to develop quickly, it’s always good to see familiar faces in unfamiliar locations.
The day started cold and gray, and rain was forecast… not ideal conditions for a 6+ hour day in the saddle, but once we rolled onto the course at 9:30AM, it was only a few kms before the full scope of enjoying this epic ride replaced any thoughts of being cold. The skies stayed dry, and the ride was on.
Like any group ride, the first kms were fast and nervous – maybe just excited, as our pack of 16 riders split up while we each found a suitable pace. SRAM’s pr man Micheal Zellmann and Zipp’s Andy Paskins turned up the gas on the first flat section of cobles – and while it wasn’t that long – it was enough to snap me into a reality that I’d best save my matches for what lay ahead. I immediately slowed up and made myself comfortable.
With a reported 20,000 riders doing the event – I’d expected it to be a lot more crowded, but there was always someone new to talk to or ride with. English is spoken by everyone here (it seems), and it’s easy to pick out a familiar accent from the bunch. And like any quality day on the bike – you end up with more friends at the end than you had at the start.
Quarq’s Troy Hoskin provided some on the road tech support for my Garmin.
I spent a good part of the early ride with Quarq’s Troy Hoskin, whose Australian accent and good humour never fail to entertain. He also helped me set up the screen on the Garmin computer so I could easily track my speed, distance, time, and watts on one screen. Troy’s fitness was slightly below mine – so with me stopping to snap pics, we played leapfrog and enjoyed a good start to the ride.
I wish I could tell you the names of all the cobbled sections we rode, but with the sportif route varying slightly from the race course, it was hard to keep track of each one. With so many picturesque ridges and valleys along the route, it was easy just enjoy the view as the ride wound it’s way though one postcard-style town after the next.
The grayness of the day cast a certain spell over the ride, and amazingly the groups ebbed and flowed, so a few times I found myself completely alone on a stretch of road. Not for long of course, but enough to realize that this mecca for riding is really much better appreciated away from the crowds.
The cobbles. Yes, watching the pros ride these on tv is so misleading – sure we ‘know’ they’re hard to ride, but exactly how hard can only be understood by turning your own pedals over the ancient stones. The cobbled sectors ranged from 350m up to 2200 meters long – and I can tell you that’s a looonnnngggg way. There’s little no respite, and what gutters do exist are either almost as rough, disappear after a few pedal strokes.
The key is to get into the biggest gear you can turn – and ride as fast as you can. The higher speed allows you to almost bounce over the tops, without taking the full force of each cobbled edge that happens when you ride too slow.
Then you’ve got the bergs – the 16 ‘hellingen’ that make de Ronde really special, and provide the stages for race defining moves. They’re not that long – most are under a 1000m in length – but the hardest ones reach grades of 10-20%. That’s steep enough on a road – but pave that road with Belgian cobbles and it’s a whole new ball game. The only way to get over is to power up in the best gear you have – all the while dodging the guys who fall off in front of you, unexpectedly veer directly into your path, or have already bailed and are walking up the middle or left side of the road. I did witness plenty of idiotic riding behaviour – but that’s what you get when so many people show up – there’s always that certain percentage that just don’t know how to ride in a group.
The steepest of the bunch is the famed Koppenberg, and as you round the corner at the bottom, the whole thing just rears up before you. What was a flowing stream of riders becomes a logged-jammed damn bursting at the banks. Expect to walk, because no one rides it with crowds like these. I stopped for a few pics at the bottom, then shifted into my 39×28 (Quarq promises a compact version is coming), and struck out to see how far I’d get.
Turns out it was not that far – and I wisely unclipped while I still had room to get off the bike. It’s kind of comical – everyone huffing and puffing, their feet slipping all of the cobbles like some sort of odd slapstick – it could have been a really weird dream. I found my way to the right side to the road, and used the muddy gutter to get some traction under my cleats. I could see cleaning this – with a lot of effort and on a day without all the crowds.
Over the top you’re back into the fields and countryside. By now I was alone and settled into a different stage of the ride, just plunking along by myself until we came to the day’s first feed about 40km in. A ride this long takes on many lives within itself – the day played out as a series of different stages, all wrapped into one big Ronde. Each stage was punctuated or defined by whatever berg, cobbled sector, or people I was riding with.
Some 6 hours in on the Paterberg.
Just after the Eikenberg I hooked up with Neil from CylcleSport mag, who’d asked to rock a PEZ Cap on the ride, and I was happy to oblige. This was somewhere around halfway and we’d spend the rest of the day taking in a variety of encounters with so many riders and kms still ahead.
No good ride is complete without making some more friends on the road.
We also hooked up with Andy and his brother (down from the UK), and in spite of them both not knowing what the hell PEZ is, we became fast mates anyway…. Cool how a bike ride will do that.
It was all damn good fun, and in the end I clocked in at 6hr 29 mins for the 140km – and I felt pretty good the whole way. Trying to take in such a big ride in such a special place is hard thing to do – and for me impossible to distill in just one ride. Jered & Ashley have the right idea of setting up camp here for a month and riding every day.
For me it was more of a chance to get reaquainted with Flanders – enjoy the beautiful countryside and towns, revel in the fresh roads and different scenery, and just feel a step closer to this sport that I love. Like so much of what makes cycling special for us – you really do need to see it for yourself to truly understand.
• And BIG thanks to SRAM, ZIPP, and QUARQ for hosting a fantastic event on some fantastic gear.
– Thanks for reading –