“What do I have to do?” I asked.
“Get to Belgium, chase the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix, get taken care of by Velo Classic Tours, ride the Flanders sportif, hit the cobbles, drink the beer and write about the experience,” replied the Pez.
“Are you kidding me?” I replied.
5 minutes later my flight was booked and I was set. I was going to Mecca.
I’m sat here at a riverside terrace bar with a Westmalle triple by my side, the air alive with the smell of pommes frites with cyclists whizzing by, hearing Dutch, French and Flandrian and having a little trouble processing it all.
Maybe I’ve died and gone to heaven…
I was met upon my arrival at the very swish Marriot Ghent by the affable Peter Easton, who runs Velo Classic Tours, and after being introduced to the other folk on the tour (one a former participant in the women’s Tour de France, more about her later in the week), we set off for a cobweb-loosening ride then headed out to dinner.
Within 30 feet of leaving the hotel I noticed a young guy with ginger hair strolling around the corner, and I might have thought nothing of it until I noticed the bandage on his left arm. Looking again, I recognized him – it was Tyler Farrar.
Nothing out of the ordinary, you know, just happening to bump into one of the most famous cyclists in the world – welcome to Belgium!
The evening meal was right across from the hotel in beautiful restaurant with a modern design set in a building that was over 300 years old, with a menu designed to satiate the pickiest foodie’s palate, all washed down with as much beer and wine as you could handle, and all covered by Peter.
Now that’s what I call taking care of the customers, though the waking up part next day was a little troublesome, to say the least. The perfect cure for a hangover, they say in these parts, is a 90km ride over bone-shaking cobbles and an ascent of both the Valkenberg and the Kappelmuur.
And, it just so happened, that was exactly what was on the menu for the day.
The Valkenberg arrived after about 30km, the first real hill of the day, and was over just about as soon as it takes to say ‘ouch’ – a couple of hundred times. It’s not that long at all, really. In fact, it’s quite short, but the thing kicks up enough to make riding it in a 39×21 pretty testing.
Thing is though, the pros hit this climb after several more kilometers, and what the amateurs don’t realize after reaching the top and saying ‘Oh that wasn’t too bad’ is that, for the guys in the Tour of Flanders, the approach to that climb will be at about 50km per hour with 100+ other guys trying to get ahead of you.
And some of them do it in the big ring.
Riding in Qatar and Oman I got a glimpse of what it’s like when the fight for position gets intense – your knuckles on each hand are literally embedded in the buttocks of the guys alongside you. One false move will mean a tumble and one nervous touch on the brakes will mean ending up at the back of the pack in a heartbeat, effectively, in many an instance, ending your race.
Never in my life have two hours of riding passed by so quickly, it was that much fun, and we weren’t even half way through the ride.
Next up was the Kappelmuur. Known more simply, far and wide as the “Muur”.
Now, if I say ‘Muur’ to a non-cyclist they’ll look at me like I’ve just insulted them. But say it to a bike geek and their eyes will gloss over like every erogenous zone in their body has been assaulted simultaneously. It is that iconic, that embedded in the cerebral cortex of the lycra-cladded throng.
The Kappelmuur (muur is “wall” in Flemmish) is not that long at all, but crikey what a climb. The cobbles shake your skull and make putting power in the pedals a serious effort, and that combined with dozens of other riders making their way up make it a real test.
The chapel that sits at the top almost made an atheist like me want to enter and pray for having survived with both my lungs still intact. Romantic, heroic, the hill that decided so many great races, the fact that it is no longer in the race is truly a travesty.
Chatting with Peter about the Mur and the change of the route, he told me that the new race director had visited the owner of the café that sits on the Mur and asked for an ‘economic gift’ to ensure that the race continued to ascend the climb. Being rebuffed, as of course he should, the organizer took the Mur out of the Tour of Flanders. Make no mistake, the route changes that the participants themselves decried was driven by nothing more than a desire to make money.
Maybe we need to start a petition, or a protest, or – something. Riding up that hill I was aware that there I was on these steep curves that have provided the decisive moments of so many great editions of the Ronde. A travesty, truly.
The ride finished on Oudenaarde, the home of the museum dedicated to the Ronde. Despite very little of the text being in English accompanying many of the fascinating artifacts housed there, the visit was well worth it.
Two things that hit me are, firstly, just how much the 2014 edition of the race is anticipated here. In one area was a film screening that covered the history of the race and ended with a two minute sequence covering the various successes and failures of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.
The other thing was that there seemed to be a bias at the exhibition towards the Swiss rider, with what can only be described as a shrine devoted to him, including a jersey from each year of his career presented in a room that had a video of him talking about his victories.
It seemed a little strange that, when you consider that Boonen is actually Belgian and has won more Rondes than Cancellara.
The museum had some very interesting relics, including the Flandria and Molteni team cars, and some images of the old boys from the Ronde.
On the way out of the museum as we headed back to the Velo Classic vans, I was passed by a man running along as if late for an appointment. It was none other than Johann Museeuw.
Farrar in the morning, Museeuw in the evening. Just another perfectly normal day in Flanders!
Tomorrow we ride the Tour of Flanders sportif then we will attend the race at various points along the route on Sunday.