Riding a famed Classics route with 12,000 other cycling fanatics is an experience that must be … experienced. Velo Classic registers their Clients as part of the trip, with options to ride 75, 140, or the whole route, 257 kilometers. Richard Davies, Velo Classic client and a Brit living in Vienna, joined the trip last year, and gives a first person account of the April 2004 ride…
The Velo Classics crew ready to set out on a very memorable day. That’s Richard Davies in the orange vest.
– By Richard Davies
Dateline Belgium, April 2004
Weather in Europe last week was unseasonably hot and when I arrived at Brussels airport Thursday night it was 20 deg C. Was this Flanders for the Classics or had I slipped into a parallel universe?! After a quick transfer to the hotel with the excellent Pete (Mr. V to you) and his lovely wife Lisa (the Mrs. C of Velo Classic Tours), Friday dawned characteristically cold wet and windy. Yup, this was Flanders in April after all. All we were missing was the snow.
A few more Billies [British slang for other guests.- ed] arrived on Friday morning and a warm up ride was set for the afternoon. Nice cruise in the rain out to the Muur de Grammont (17th and penultimate climb of the race) The Muur came up quickly as we entered Geraardsbegen and showed what we were in for. Long, cobbled and horribly steep, this was where Peter van Petegem launched his winning attack in 2003 [and Steffen Wesemann in 2004 – ed]. Little did we realize that it was in fact an easy introduction to what was to come.
Randall Butler makes his way over the famed Kemmelberg – another of the cobbled monuments visited by Velo Classic Tours.
The Tour of Flanders is one of the great one-day spring classic races and at 257Km and 18 tough climbs mostly on cobbles it rightfully deserves the title of a classic, but on Saturday an amateur race or cyclosportif is run with 12,000 riders taking part on the same course.
We chose the 147Km version, which meant we would get all the climbs of the pro race, without the long drag out to the sea and back. By 9:30 we were off on our way and the Velo Classic Tours riders stuck together for the first 30 minutes. That is when the first “train” rolled into town and three of us jumped on board. If you are not with a big club, the trick in these events is to wait until a major Belgian club rolls through and then jump on the back for some free speed. Well, it is not exactly free, as several other riders have the same idea, and you need to be prepared to go elbow to elbow with everyone else and fight for your place in the line up or echelon. This means plenty of shoving, pushing and generally groveling in a Belgian gutter to stay out of the wind until your turn at front.
Our ride lasted the next hour until the group disintegrated on the first cobbled section. You’ve seen it on TV, you’ve dreamed about it, but nothing prepares you for just how difficult this is. We’ve all heard Phil Liggett talk about how you need to put it in a heavy gear and spin with power “just like Johan”. Let me tell you this is incredibly hard to do. Vibration is so bad you are seeing double and it is impossible to hold brakes or change gear without a supreme effort. The first hill was at 8% and about 1.6 Km long, followed by a further 2 km on cobbles. I really thought the bike would break up and the road was already littered with bike parts!
Don’t feel bad – even the pros push their bikes up some of these ‘bergs.
But you survive it, and our little group was down to just another Velo Classic client and Pez-Writer Randall Butler, and me. The hills then started to come thick and fast, some with stretches of 22% grade, mostly cobbled. Wet, greasy and slippery, riding in the gutter was a must. Twice crowds on the hills forced us off the bike, but I was relieved to see the pros including, Johan Museeuw, stopped on the same climb during the pro race.
Rainstorms came through with regular timing and a horrible intensity and we were battered by gale force head winds. We had to ride hard across the flats, as every time the wind came up it seemed to coincide with our being in a slower group or where no one else wanted to work. If you worked plenty of people seemed happy to jump on including a mountain biker who liked to ride in the shelter with his bar end jammed in my leg! This was a man who would not get a tan if the sun was out he spent so much time in the shadow. Was this revenge for our “free speed” of earlier in the day? But we were slowly making our way forward and before we knew it, the sun was out, and we were in a seriously fast train of about 20 riders and we only had two hills left, The Muur De Grammont and the Bosberg, both etched in memories of classic attacks.
The Bosberg – it may not look like much here, but it pitches to about 8% on those cobbles and as the final climb of this ride – it’s no cake-walk.
Randall and I dispatched both with what felt then like alarming ease and we were off the Bosberg and on a massive chase down on the last 8 Km to the town of Ninove and the finish. This stretch is down hill and we had a big tail wind. 53×11 all around and in a group of 5 prepared to work. Speeds touching 55 kph-this was fun. Randal suffered the final indignity of the day puncturing 500m from the finish, but the boy brought it home on the flat.
How do I feel now? Elated, tired, had to wear shorts the next day as I couldn’t stand trousers touching my legs, hands and feet still hurt 2 days after, but this is an event that is defining in any cyclist’s career. Can I go faster? Need to wait till next year.
Note: For this year, Richard will be taking on the Amstel Gold Race Cyclosportif event as part of the Spring Classics II trip being offered. It’s sure to be another classic day.
For more information, log on to www.veloclassic.com or call 212.779.9599
2005 color brochure and itineraries now available.
Velo Classic Tours
15 E 32nd St 5th Flr
New York, NY 10016
Read The PEZ’s account of this cool event here.
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