It feels good to be back in the saddle with Velo Classic Tours, repeating the trip I did back in 2005.
The Flanders Cyclo Sportif is one of the biggest ‘fondos’ in the sport, with somewhere in the region of 20,000 riders taking the start. It’s a ride for everyone: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters; semi-pros, ex-pros, wannabes, amateurs and shamateurs.
We roll out of the Gent Marriott at 7.45am sharp, bound for a secure, top-secret holding area outside Oudenaarde where the Sportif starts and ends. This allows the VCT party to make final preparations in peace and quiet, without having to force a path through the growing human tide in the town below. All I can tell you is that a very friendly and ideally-positioned restaurant is the base.
Tyre pressures are checked, extra layers piled on and pockets are filled for the day ahead as the temperature plays chicken with zero celsius ° is it going to jump below or just hold its nerve at +1°.
Three event distances are posted: 256kms (the full Ronde course) is available for the suicidal or the clinically insane; 133kms with a more or less full smorgasbord of bergs from the race course; 83kms for the less-prepared or less-ambitious.
Peter gives us our instructions about getting back to the meeting point, and we’re off. The sun is threatening to push through the chilly mist of a Flanders morning.
Lisa of Velo Classic Tours is my guide for the early part of the ride, but as I’ll be stopping to fire off photographs, I’ll probably ride it on my own, on my own time. I take the wiser, if less adventurous, 83km loop, so we roll out of base camp and take a sharp left onto the top of the Eikenberg, gliding through open fields, with distant church spires barely visible through the haze below us.
The next climb is the Taaienberg at a maximum of 15% which is number five on the Ronde course, but second for the 83km loop. Already, people are unclipped and walking as the gradient bites into unwary legs, limbs that haven’t spun a pedal for too long.
The other thing about the Taaienberg is the way the wind rips across the mid-section. You come out of the shelter of a garden hedge and get sucker-punched from the right. Riders wobble ahead of you, struggling to hold a line.
Off the top of the Taaienberg, you have a beautiful descent before a sharp left-hander up onto the one-kilometer long Kappeleberg, which leaves a static posse by the roadside rehooking their chains after being caught out by the sudden shift onto the small ring.
The Varent is next on the menu and offers a chance to bail out of the 133km loop if your legs aren’t up to the job. This climb is shorter and not as hard as the previous Kappeleberg, but the cumulative effect is gnawing at knees and thighs.
The feed station is the most organised chaos I’ve seen at an event like this. It’s an identical buffet on each stall: honey cakes, waffles, bananas, energy bars. This means everyone behaves, clumping round, becleated, like very hungry, multicolored penguins.
Off the top of the hill and you’re pushing it down towards the base of the next climb. I glance back and the sky is a peculiarly Flandrian slate grey. It looks like snow, so no time to mess about. Head down. Go.
The clue for the next climb is in the name, as we corkscrew up through trees â€“ the Foreest protects the riders from the wind, and even if it’s better surfaced, it’s still a brute with a 13% maximum. The fatigue and cold is starting to weaken the legs and lungs.
A freeze-scalded football pitch demonstrates how hard this winter has been. Much more mud than, grass, hardly any green stuff threatening to poke through. Not a place for slide tackles.
The Berg ten Houte was so painful I couldn’t take my hands off the bars to snap a picture, and I wasn’t for stopping over the maximum 21% slope, although the 1100-meter average was only 6%.
A well-known sports drink manufacturer has a pop-up booth by the road handing out freebies in bidons. Unfortunately, this only means that the next few kilometers equal bidon roadkill, discarded bottles rolling around the cobbles and lolling in ditches.
The Kruisberg might not be the best known of the Flemish climbs, but it’s almost the quintessential helling. The road starts up a suburban street; old men pass the time of day with newspapers tucked under their arms; old ladies chitter-chatter; families with toddlers spill out of their front doors as the multitudes of the Flanders Cyclo Sportif grind, creak and rattle past their homes.
The locals are getting bulk supplies in for tomorrow’s party Easter weekend, Belgium on holiday next week, the Ronde on the doorstep. What more excuse do you need? Towards the summit, the cobbles are like a vagrant’s mouth, there are more gaps than there ought to be and you just don’t feel like you want to be in the same zipcode for too long.
I skip feed zone two and it’s a sharp shock as I see the yellow warning notice: next climb in four kilometers. It’s the Oude Kwaremont. A berg of fearsome reputation, it’s on the Ronde route three times for a very good reason.
First, there’s a breath-sappingly cold drop down a bullet straight road, then right off the main road, and right again, and you’re climbing.
It starts out hard on tarmac and gets worse, much worse, as the cobbles are brutal. You bounce along your chosen line. You can’t stand up because you’ll lose traction. You just have to sit in and grind it out, hands piano as possible on the bars and pushing as thunderous a gear as you can imagine.
A third of the way up, there’s a little stall selling massages, snacks and drinks. There are enthusiastic fans cheering the riders past, but when one guy tries to stop for a rest, they holler and grab him before bodily shovelling him back onto the climb to hell.
The Kwaremont is just nasty, nasty, nasty, and even when it flattens out the punishment doesn’t stop, the cobbles kick and scream, the bike bucks underneath you, but you’ve just gotta stick it in the big ring and scrape your legs round.
I’m headed for climb seventeen, the Paterberg. It’s the last one on the route: it’s by far the shortest, and by far the hardest. It’s a lightning fast whip along a single-track road, barely wide enough for a car, then fling the bike right and a seemingly vertical wall of stone rears up in your face.
The lady directing riders onto the ascent is the sort of steward that you just don’t argue with, so when she fixed a glare on me, I had to humbly accept that I could wait no longer to hit the climbing.
The Paterberg is narrow, a trifling 300 meters long and it pitches up to near 22%. The average is 13%, harder than the Koppenberg. It’s barriered to stop the fans spilling onto the road and the barriers are lined on the inside by shattered Sportif participants, hanging on for dear life.
Others are sort-of-walking: clumping disconsolately skywards, slip-sliding on the slopes. The biggest challenge is actually picking a line through them, and trying to avoid getting shoved over when bigger guys topple to a halt.
It’s still fourteen clicks to the finish so I just jump into a group of black-clad locals and get down to drilling it. The long drag to line is wide and windblown, so it’s maybe not the dramatic climax to such an iconic race but it’s for hard men and strong women. The Ronde finish barrier looms overhead and I resist the temptation to embarrass myself by celebrating the kicking I took.
But the Cyclo sportif ride finish is further on, into the heart of Oudenaarde and left past the Ronde museum.
I’m destined for one last climb, taking a road bridge and a right away from Ronde-ville, blasting on up the Edalbareberg towards our secret Velo Classic Tour hideaway.
There’s pasta, beer and warmth waiting after what was a great ride. It was cold, windy and fearsomely tough. My legs hurt, my wrists ache, my insides are shaken to the core. Would I do I again? Absolutely!
Thanks to Velo Classic Tours for the invitation to join them.