The advantage of speaking Flemish is that weather forecasts make a little more sense – a lot of people stayed home today which should have told us something! I was primed for a swarming sea of humanity on the Ronde van Vlaanderen cyclosportif ride – numbers seemed lower than normal but the good side of humanity was shining in the murk.
Once you see the old church atop the Kappelmuur, you’re only 20 km from the end… no problem.
Fortified by a breakfast approximately 438% more beneficial to health than yesterday’s fried horror show in Glasgow airport, we headed down to discover that Velo Classic Tours leaders Peter and Lisa Easton had been up since ‘x’o’clock loading the bikes onto the van – human kindness for people (like me) who think 10am is a bit of an early start.
When the VCT convoy rolled down to take the start, the day was doing its best impression of a Scooby Doo mystery. Temperatures were reasonable (low 50s) and it was dry, but you just knew that those high clouds hid some super nasty rain showers.
The week with Velo Classic Tours included riding the cyclosportif version of the Ronde – a must do for any Classics fan.
Unlike Shaggy, Velma and Fred, we could all see it coming, but the crew rolled out regardless. Pretending to possess advanced meteorological skills, I opted for the “lesser” 75km ride, which still included the key features of rain, mountain bikers, more rain, and 6 climbs – Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Tenbosse, the legendary Muur/Kappelmuur itself and the final launch pad of the Bosberg.
What’s the point of travellingto the Spring Classics if not for a little ‘hard-man’ weather?
All those on the VCT trip to the Cobbled Classics headed out together. After about 15km of rolling, the harder core, led by Peter, and ably abetted by sparring partner Rich Bastone, split for their trip into purgatory with 15 climbs.
I’d been expecting to be flattened by squads of ruthlessly drilled Flandrian pensioners in matching club colours, humiliated as the local under-8 year old ‘C’ team drops me on the flats, or be fighting elbow-to-elbow for every last gasp of oxygen – but it wasn’t the case today. Having said that, I still inhaled plenty water from the rain.
Numbers were down which made things way more enjoyable but the 140kms group saw more traffic. You needed to concentrate, but it wasn’t the full-on Woodstock frenzy it might have been if the sun had shone.
A little of that Belgian ‘liquid’ sunshine….
Everyone was riding two abreast or in single file, and there was no hassle because all the riders out today were on a mission to finish and finish safe. We rolled the next 15kms round twisting roads as the heavens opened and blessed us all with 2 Biblical rainstorms.
Noodling along, an English accent shouted: “Hey!! Pez man!!” It was Martin from Cambridgeshire, over for the ride with some buddies and club-mates. We had a chat about good times in the rain and what would possess some people to do the full 260kms distance on a day like today. The rain was so vicious it could even have made Ludo Dierckxsens grimace.
Flanders means cobbles, too, and although we only hit 4 sections today, everything you hear about them is true …. unfortunately. Firstly, there IS only one way of riding them – attack hard, and keep motoring. Secondly, you never get used to the feeling that God is trying to tell you something about what you’ve been using your nether regions for. Thirdly, when you watch Tommy B or Hincapie gliding along like they’ve got hovercraft instead of bikes, it is OK to be in awe.
Support for Lampre’s Allesandro Ballan under threatening skies.
The Berendries was a steady drag, enlivened by a LOT of cement celebration for the still insanely popular VDB. An enterprising soul had set up a water stand at the top – selling snow to the Eskimos comes to mind.
Valkenberg and Tenbosse came rapidly, both spaced at 5km intervals, before we had a 10km wait for the Daddy of them all.
We hit the Muur at a fair pace – you could tell because riders were starting to wobble – and ploughed on up. The first section is a good surface and a steady gradient, before you cut right and, after looking down onto the famous church scene, hit the cobbles. (The pros will take a more cobble-heavy route tomorrow.)
Things get very interesting here, and my very brief fantasies of being a pro rider kicked in for the few seconds it took to compose my facial features for the photographers out for the cyclosportif.
Everyone who completes the Cyclosportif Ronde gets souvenir accreditation to take home.
The Muur isn’t a long climb, and it isn’t soooo hard ….. if you’re coming at it with 55kms in your legs. But it’s sure as Hell going to be different tomorrow for the racers who’ve battled through the wind for the best part of 5 _ hours. The cobbles on the Muur were very slick this morning, and standing up would have been a big mistake. On a wet day like today, you just sit tight, keep it in a 21 or 23 at the back and go steady.
If you need a push, you’ll get one because Belgian people are very accommodating, but lots of people were walking up the last sections. It’s a dreamlike feeling to be looking around at the dozens of suffering riders who look like sinners kicked right out of the church door at the top.
The Bosberg seemed harder than the Muur, but maybe it’s just how the roads were. Lungs filled with damp air, pungently scented with odour of farmyard, it was tough to make decent pace, because riders ahead were struggling to hold a line in very low gear.
The Bosberg, where Edwig van Hooydonck gained his Eddy Bosberg nickname with two race-winning attacks in ’89 and ’91, is cobbled. Today, those cobbles had a lot of sand, mud and crud between them, and it had been lashing it down beforehand so it was super slick.
Lisa Easton guided us back to the VCT battle buses before one final and miraculous surprise. The lady just up the road had opened her doors for us to wash, warm up and get changed. All because she felt like it – this is what the Ronde van Vlaanderen cyclosportif is going to mean to me when I get home.
Don’t be surprised Belgian bike fans like these weclome you into their home to warm up after a chiily day.
Mien, Hannah and Frodo the Alsatian were so welcoming, and all because we were bike riders. Just because the Ronde is THE biggest event in this part of the world, and trying to ride even a part of it is enough to be heroic. But it’s way more heroic to open your house to tired, wet and cold people.
Being part of a common cause is one of the most human experiences you can have – and that’s the cyclosportif ethos. It doesn’t matter if you’re riding, getting soaked as a marshal or opening your house. It’s all about the people.
PEZ is travelling with Velo Classic Tours during this first Classics week. For more information, log on to
www.VeloClassic.com or call 212.779.9599 2006 color brochure and itineraries are available.