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Tackling The Tour of Flanders

Simon Ward tackled the the Tour of Flanders earlier this month, here's his story...

The Tour of Flanders is one of the five iconic cycle races designated as a “monument”. As the first of the early season classics in northern Europe, Flanders locally De Ronde van Vlaanderen -  is a race that all of the one-day specialist pro’s want to win.

Amateur riders also get the chance to ride all or part of the tough course. In essence you get the opportunity to ride the same roads - and more importantly the exact same cobbled sections - as they do on the Sunday race and all for €35.

The pro race starts in Bruges and the first 60-70 miles is a fairly uneventful tarmac route heading towards the finish town of Oudenaarde after which there are effectively two different loops of 60km. The first brings you back almost into Oudenaarde before taking you out into the countryside again for more hills and cobbles and then back to the finish in the town centre. This means the amateurs have a choice of the full 230km, 130km or 70km routes.

In the last few years myself and a group of friends have enjoyed this early season trip to the continent for a fun weekend away to enjoy some Belgian beer combined with an opportunity to do an iconic ride.

Back in November when we entered I was all fired up to do the 230km version but the small matter of a bike crash at Christmas leaving me with a badly broken collar bone and five broken ribs looked to have put paid to that.

My first visit to the hospital confirmed four things:

1.     It was quite a bad “displacement" fracture with the clavicle in four pieces.

2.     I did not need surgery.

3.     The recovery was likely to take several months.

4.     It was unlikely that I’d be riding my bike outdoors before April.

Basically Id have to forget about riding in Flanders.

I didn't give up though. This is when a CompuTrainer comes into its own. After a couple of weeks, I was able to sit upright and ride for 30 minutes each day although wearing a sling made it uncomfortable to breath and also got very sweaty.

After five weeks the sling came off which made life a lot easier. I built up to seven hours riding each week with the longest ride of three hours. I was fit even if I couldn't ride outdoors.

With a couple of weeks to go before the event I tried a short MTB ride outdoors which was fine so I got more adventurous, heading for some rough stuff the next day. Still fine.

Next, onto the road bike with a more extreme seating position and narrower handlebars its surprising that the things you take for granted every ride do have a big impact on the body when its not working properly.

Anyway the first ride ended OK so the final test was to find a hillier route with some cobbles. I headed out towards the famous cobbled main street climb in Haworth - a good test for Flanders. Throw in some steep descents on poorly paved roads, crosswind and a bit of heavy rain and it was a great test. I was ready.

My physio wasn't quite as keen.

“What if you come off and land on your bad arm?” It was a reasonable question but like all optimistic athletes I brushed it off.

“Thats never happened before. Don't worry!”

The Flanders Trip

The overnight ferry from Hull landed us in Belgium on Friday morning. Its only a short drive to Gent which meant we were in town by lunchtime.

The sportive is based at an industrial estate in Oudenaarde on the edge of town which means there’s loads of parking for event day and registering is an easy process. I would recommend staying in Gent (less than 30 minutes drive away) because it if you stay for a couple of days there’s more to do. Gent is a lovely city.

Like most sportives you rock up on Saturday morning and have a two-hour window to get started. I planned to ride the route with my mate JB who also hadn't done that much riding in the previous few months. This would be no race, just a gentle pootle around the Flanders fields.

The organisers helpfully issue a little adhesive information strip which can be attached to the top tube. This gives the mileage from the start to each cobbles section or hill. The writing is quite small so if your eyesight isn't good its actually not that helpful. Poor JB hadn't a clue were we were most of the time.

Most people mistakenly think that Belgium and Holland are flat. Some parts are but around Oudenaarde its undulating and there are little ridges with some steep little climbs. Most are less than a kilometre and if you live where we do, in Yorkshire, then they present no problem at all… under normal circumstances. Normal circumstances being dry and with no other people trying to ride them.

We had a perfect day for riding - dry with minimal wind -  but I can imagine that trying to climb a cobbled hill when the conditions are damp to wet would be treacherous. If that had been our weather, I wouldn't have ridden: too much of a risk of falling and damaging the shoulder again.

What did bother me was the sheer number of people riding. The 130km route is the most popular with several thousand riders setting off in a two-hour window. Add to that the riders from the shorter route that you catch up after three hours and its a recipe for mayhem…which is exactly what it is at times. There are some closed roads but in the main you are riding along public highways.

Some are narrow country lanes and others are quire wide roads but here you are often directed to the bike paths which are narrow and not designed for packs. As long as everyone rides sensibly its no problem BUT there are always idiots. Here are some of the actions that had me a bit nervous

   Overtaking on the inside while descending at speed.
   Doing so without communicating what you are doing - OK they might not speak the same language but its enough to shout rechts or links (right or left).
   Weaving between riders.
   Assuming that the person in front will carry on riding a straight line on the cobbles (which is impossible as every one is trying to pick the smoothest path and once you’ve found a line it always looks like the other one is better so riders are constantly moving).
   Descending at speed, approaching a sharp turn, overtaking on the inside and then realising you cant make the turn and riding straight through a group of riders (narrowly avoiding all of them) and then sliding to a halt before hitting a parked car.

Of course I was feeling quite precious about my shoulder so eventually my frustration turned to road rage and I chased this Italian guy down and then spent the next five minutes gobbing off at him using Yorkshire vernacular. He just shrugged his shoulders, gave me the finger and rode off. We eventually chain-ganged up to him, returned the hand gesture and dropped him. Yorkshire 1 - Italy 0.

So, be warned, the biggest danger is not the cobbles its the other riders. Too many and too reckless.

Cobbles are an interesting concept

Have you ever ridden them? If not, you should give them a try. There are cobbles in the UK but they are more plentiful in northern France (Paris-Roubaix) and Belgium (Flanders). Most are farm roads but some are deliberately placed in villages as traffic calming measures. Others have been specially preserved to retain the romance of these cycle races.

Cobbles can be brutal. On some parts if they have been dislodged from their setting they can be 3-4cm proud of the others. Hitting one is literally like trying to ride up a kerb. Luckily bike wheels are tough. Mine have survived both rides now. Use bomb proof wheels rather than lightweights.

To ride them is to learn a new technique.

   Power through the flat sections.
   Ride the ascents smoothly applying power. Any quick acceleration leads to a slip of the back wheel and a potential fall.
   In Flanders there are some downhill sections, not that steep, but enough to rattle everything.
   By the end of these bits your forearms feel like Popeye’s and you wonder if you’ll be able to hang on for the rest of the day.
   Pick your line and try not to make sudden changes of direction.
   Think carefully about riding in the gutters at the side. Yes they are less bumpy, but also the rough stones tend to end up here and most of the punctures I saw occurred when hitting a stone not a cobble.
   Trust your bike - on your first section you wonder how the wheels will survive, why you don't get punctures and whether the frame will hold together for the whole route. You can hear chains rattling as well as internal cables pinging against the inside of the tubes. Anything that can rattle will and all the while you’ll be waiting for it all to fall apart.
   Fear not. Your bike is made of strong material.

I’ve done both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix on the same bike and had just one puncture!

It’s a titanium Planet X which I use as my winter bike. The only adjustments I made were to use 25mm Continental GP4 season tyres at 90psi and double bar tape.

In addition, I had one cheap tight fitting bottle cage (there are feed stations every 25km so you don't need more than one water bottle). You see lots of bottles (and cages that have rattled loose) so that was lesson learned from Paris-Roubaix.

The water bottle is quite important to me because on rides like this I usually exist on gels washed down with water. At each feed stop Its simply a matter of filling the at bottle and adding energy drink in powdered form (its easy enough just to carry around a couple of sachets). The week before the event I had the bike thoroughly checked over and after that it was good to go. If you have a carbon bike with deeper section wheels don't panic. I saw plenty of those on the ride and they seemed to fare OK. I definitely didn't see any in bits by the side.

Hills in Belgium are known as bergs and the most famous of the Flanders ride are the Koppenberg, the Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont. The Kwaremont is where Sagan made his break in the years race. Its not steep but its 2km uphill and its quite rough in places. There are lots of beer tents near the top and its a popular place to spectate on race day because the pros climb it three times.

After a while we nicknamed the other hills to suit our mood

The Rattleberg
The Knackeredberg
The SoreKnackerberg
The KnackerClackerberg
The Slippenberg
The Crampenberg
The Loadofoldcobblersberg
The MarkWahlberg
The Toppleberg
The Knockoneoffberg
The Battenberg... Well it kept us happy!

The Koppenberg is the one that you’ve probably heard of. It comes 2km after a feed station and so there are always loads of people on it and its very narrow. The result is that its almost impossible to ride it all. You can only get so far then the rider in front will get baulked, fall off and you come to a stop. Thats what happened to me and rather than fall off I decided to touch down. The sheer weight of numbers means its impossible to get started again and you have to push up to the top.

Everyone tries to walk on the right, but the cobbles are slippery in bike cleats, even when dry. The added slime from a small damp patch made the right side almost impossible to walk on, but walking in the middle or left restricts the room for those trying to ride it.

I stopped to take a picture and so I had a good run at the bottom with the nearest rider 100m ahead. Even that didn't work. I just hit the sea of bodies halfway up.

Occasionally a rider would come up, shouting aggressively for everyone to move and once or twice, like the parting of the Red Sea they did and he got through. But not often. Usually it ended in failure, lots of gobbing off in Flemish and they too had to push.

The Paterberg is the final climb and after that its just 12km back to the finish. It took 5 hours 50 minutes of steady riding, a tiny bit of pushing and a few nervous moments but I made it and so did JB. Later our intrepid mates riding the full distance completed the event in just over ten hours.

More amazing was our friend Louise who rode the whole 70km route towing her eight-year-old son in a ride along. Awesome! I think she got some of the biggest cheers of the day although her son Oliver took the glory.

Would I recommend this event? You bet! Go on Thursday night, register Friday, ride Saturday, have a few beers while watching the pros on Sunday, visit the Flanders Fields war museum and the WW1 war cemeteries on Monday and each night take in a nice restaurant. Its a great early season trip and you’ll have a lot of fun.

Simon Ward - TheTriathlonCoach.com

PS the shoulder was fine and my physio relieved. When I fully described the event in the days following she thought I was mad. Sometimes you just have to do it and ask for forgiveness later!

 

25 April 2016

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