After the craziness of chasing De Ronde van Vlaanderen, Mark McGhee goes for a ride to find a different craziness… the craziness of Belgium, or more precisely, Flanders. On his 100 kilometre ride, Mark takes in some of the iconic climbs and cobbles of Flanders, all in preparation for an evening of Belgian food and drink for our voyeur pleasure of course.
Like everyone else, I thought I knew what Flanders was all about. I’d heard about cobbles, I’d heard about mud, about rain, wind, the bergs, the mad Belgian crowds and everything else that goes towards making these Spring Classics into the very icons of a sport that we all think of as our own. But I was wrong. If you’ve only ever experienced these ‘monuments’ via websites, newspapers and magazines, television or video then you may think you’ve managed to get a handle on how hard it is but the reality comes nowhere close.
What is it about a cobbled road that fires our imaginations, and that produces some of the very best performances to be seen in cycling? We’ve all ridden on cobbles somewhere, right? Well, I’d love to say ‘take it from me’ but I suspect you’re not going to because I never did. These tracks are the singularly most difficult rides I’ve ever done in my life…and I’ve done some mega-routes over the years. Let’s take a relatively easy aspect of a cobbled sector like the Haaghoek. It’s 2.5km long and starts with a downhill run-in but by the time you’ve reached the bottom of the slope after 500m everything hurts. Your hands are bouncing about on the bars just trying to hold on. If you grip too tightly your arms can’t take the pounding but if you try and relax your hold you risk losing control. And then you start to climb the rise and your speed gets slower and slower as you fight to find a lower gear. By this time your back is in spasms, your feet are buzzing and your eyeballs are jumping up and down making it hard to see…and the sector just keeps on going. And then suddenly you’re off onto smooth tarmac but your body is still buzzing unable to believe that the hammering you’ve just taken has finished. And it takes a few hundred meters for your bike to feel right again as you check for possible flats and things which make have worked loose.
And for the pros they also have to face hundreds of fans lining the narrow sectors of pavé. And these are no ordinary fans. These fanatical Belgians (and other nationalities let’s be honest…quite a lot of Americans if truth be told) have just dashed through the back lanes to get to a good spot…and most likely been drinking some of the great beers from this region. They are incredibly vocal and with the helicopter overhead, the team vehicles speeding up the climb and the professional riders going at breakneck speed, the noise is deafening and the atmosphere is electric.
Of course Belgium, and Flanders, is not solely known for cycle sport. There is a somber atmosphere which hangs over certain parts of the country and this of course is because it was the scene of some of the worst fighting to be seen in the Great War. On Monday Pete, our host from Velo Classic Tours, took us out to the area around Poperinghe in an area once known as the Ypres Salient, the bulge in the British lines which saw them surrounded by German forces on three sides, all of them on the high ground. This is an area which differs dramatically to the pavé climbs near Geraardsbergen and it’s an area where if the crosswinds are blowing, any race will be ripped apart. We visited the Commonwealth graveyard at Tyne Cot Cemetery and paid our respects to the fallen before heading for the infamous Kemmelberg.
And it’s infamous for a very good reason. It’s a super-tough climb; not so hard by cobbled standards but it goes on for quite a while before bringing you out near the monument at the top.
And then the plunge down the other side into the small town of Kemmel, not surprisingly a town that has quite a German feel to it. However, while it may give the appearance of being German it displays a feature which seems to be unique to this small country of Belgium. For some reason, Belgians absolutely love dressing up their statues. We’ve all heard of the Manneken Pis, the small bronze sculpture in Brussels that has its own wardrobe of outlandish outfits. Well, Kemmel seemed to have its own, and this being Easter Monday, the locals had dressed it in some sort of outfit which looked a little like Yoda from Star Wars. In the end we could only agree with our riding companion, the former Garmin professional Martijn Maaskant when he stated that ‘these Belgians are crazy.’ Although he lives in Belgium, he can get away with that because he’s actually Dutch.
We’d been riding a large section of the Gent-Wevelgem course and with the Kemmelberg behind us, the worst of the day’s climbing was now over…but not the suffering as we still had to contend with the crosswinds. Despite legs which were screaming out for respite we kept a decent pace and as we neared the official finish at Wevelgem, Pete led out the sprint only to be pipped by John Nielsen at the line…sweet revenge for John as Pete had triumphed at Oudenaarde when they came to the end of the Flanders sportive.
Then it was back to Bruges for a beautiful main at yet another fine restaurant. Being a vegetarian you would think that I might suffer finding things to eat in a country famous for its food but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised as everyone has gone out of their way to make beautiful courses. The country produces great asparagus, cucumber and the ever-present dill but carrots, pasta and parsnips have all been done in very inventive and delicious fashion.
It had been a 97km day with a lot of climbing so what better way to spend the evening that relaxing in a fantastic restaurant, with great company and beautiful food. The aches of the day were fading fast as we strolled back to our hotel, through the historic heart of Bruges.
Next up, we ride the Haaghoek again (to see if it’s any easier this time) and then it’s onto that all-time classic climb, the Bosberg. And we’ll have motorcycle photographers treating us like stars and grabbing pictures as we go. Stay tuned to Pez.
Thanks to Peter and Lisa Easton at VeloClassic Tours for showing Mark some of the hidden gems of Flanders. Check them out for yourself at veloclassic.com