What's Cool In Road Cycling

Classics: Confessions of Vlaanderen Virgin!

This year the PEZ-Crew’s Tom Underhill made the pilgrimage to Flanders’ fields to witness first hand the opening Classics, and ride our sport’s most historic roads. He rode the Flanders’ route the day before the race with 12,000+ other riders, and then watched the pros do it for real. Let’s all go next year…

By Tom Underhill

Riding up one of many steep cobbled climbs that day I slipped the chain up to the twenty-three sprocket, stood up in the pedals and wrenched the handlebars from side to side. My whole body ached and the noise from the roadside and my fellow ‘Ronders’ became panicked – ‘richt, richt, up, up’ – as wheels spun, feet slipped and gonads hit handlebars.

I did my best to maintain my balance and momentum before a giant Belgian fell
into me causing me to crash down hard on the stones – welcome to Flanders and the De Ronde van Vlaanderen cyclo-sportive.

Clutching my Lion of Flanders flag in the car on the return journey and having witnessed a fine victory from Tom ‘Booooooonen’ Boonen I was hooked –
I’d been taken for the first time by the Ronde and I liked it….

Heading Off
Heading in to Ninove in the Old Girl (a twenty-year old Volvo estate) the buzz and anticipation was awesome – every other car contained a roof rack with steeds and wide-eyed riders, even though it was still before eight o’clock. We parked up and cruised in to town for the start of the Tour of Flanders cyclo-sportive, a one hundred and sixty-kilometre ride on the actual race parcours.

Although it’s not as long as what the pros ride, it does take in all seventeen climbs and all the cobbles that make the race so special. The sign-up area was crazy and pens a rare commodity but we somehow got in and out in 10 mins and armed our bikes with our big green speed inducing number plates.
After waiting for our teammates from the Finsbury Park Cycling Club from North London and the obligatory ‘before’ photo we rolled through the start beeping the start buttons on our cycling-computers as we went.

Tom Boonen moments after his historic win.

Anything Goes
In a word the ride was awesome, truly awesome. Initially we rolled along some, well, rolling roads and chilled out in the lovely countryside – very tranquil with very neat houses. After stopping in possibly the worst possible place for a comfort break the heart took precedence over the head and we upped the pace…..with over 100km and all the climbs to go.

Cycling is the national sport in Belgium and what really hit me is just the extent to which it’s embraced. Not only were the faithful out to watch the race but also for the Sportive you had guys and girls dragging out their old bikes to ride the course.

Coming from England where cycling is relatively specialist I found the ‘have a
go attitude’ of many of my fellow Rondeners truly humbling. Everyone rides a bike in Belgium and my rather unscientific observations would suggest that Belgians all look pretty healthy and there is very little evidence of obesity. Everyone needs a bike and the previous day we’d been to Walter Goderfroot’s bike shop – lot’s of pink and black bikes, I wonder who’s this is? Or is it really?

Bump, bump, bump
A few moments and sensations from the ride stick in my head but most of
all I remember the pave. I ride a short section of cobbles on my daily commute. This, along, with the cyclo-cross I do misdirected me in to thinking that I’d be both a natural and in my element. I wasn’t bad and I would say I enjoyed the first sections, but to be honest by the end of the ride I was looking for anything – the gutter, mud on the side of the road or even grass to save me from the body jarring, bone shaking ride of the pave. The only way to ride is in a big gear, hands on the tops and flat out. All I can say is it’s like nothing else I’ve ridden –
riding is believing.

Short, Sharp Shocks
And then there were the climbs! In isolation all were do-able and not too bad but put together they were a killer. Many seemed to follow sharp turns that would sap your speed before the cobbles got you. I rode almost all of all the climbs in my lowest gear (39 X 23) – out of the saddle. As my club-mate, Nat, rode away from me for the eighth time that day I began to regret the day I first laid eyes on Chocolate Hob-Nobs. Nevertheless, I made all but one climb when a big Belgian guy rode into and then fell on me but I still managed to get going again – I think it was the Koppenberg but they all blend in to one by the end of the day.

The Mighty Muur
…And then there was the Muur!! I was told there were thirteen climbs (I didn’t check the route). So when we reached the second checkpoint after climb number fifteen I was checking my facts. The route card showed that we had thirty kms including both the Muur and Bosberg. After a few buttery biscuits, orange slices and energy drink handed out free at the checkpoint (interesting choice guys) we turned over our tired legs for the final furlong.

The church atop the famous Muur de Gerardsbergen.

Before you get to the Muur there’s actually a bit of climbing on asphalt that we did flat out before hitting the cobbles. The Muur must be the longest and prettiest of all the climbs as it winds itself up to and through a little village with a church. The pain of riding up was immense but it was so pretty that I could have ridden up that road all day – a strange sensation. I got a real buzz and feeling of belonging to the race when I later saw Van Petegem attack and Boonen close him down knowing that I’d ridden pretty much the same line just twenty-four hours earlier.

The Aftermath
After a stomp up the Bosberg it was all plain sailing, except for the fact that we tried to wheel-suck two top Belgian amateurs. Big time grovelling was needed as we blasted in on the flat roads at forty-four kilometres an hour. I felt quite good until they started talking to each other! At the finish I was treated to an excellent massage in return for a donation to a relief charity.

It was up and at ‘em on Sunday for the second leg of our adventure which
involved seeing the pro-race. Having ridden up so many climbs we decided that you could have too much of a good thing and opted to go straight to the finish and watch proceedings unfold on a big screen right on the finishing straight. We arrived early and headed for Victory bar just after the finish line for a couple of Leffe’s – highly recommended.

Assume your Positions
With forty kilometres to go it looked like the winning break was going to stay away and we were in for a treat. We crossed over to the ‘other’ side of the finish straight opposite the majority of what must have been a few thousand supporters in the finish area. We not only anticipated a great view of the finish but got a great view of the crowds to boot. As the break navigated the last few climbs the home crowd looked like they were unlikely to be disappointed with both Boonen and Van Petegem represented in the break. However, the two Telekom riders were clearly a threat….

With the bunch on the run in you could cut the air with a knife and even the big beer tent behind the stands was pretty quiet. Then Boonen attacked after Kilier had tried to go clear and a massive cheer from the crowd went up. The gap grew quickly and the hair on my neck began to stand on end. The big finish screen flashed between Boonen and his pursuers, fingers crossed and nails were bitten. Then finally with two kilos to go the gap had grown from ten to twelve seconds and the crowd began going crazy all the way until the big man entered the finishing straight and then they roared their new lion all the way home. What a ride and what a celebration!

A fine finish to a fine weekend – Next year I’ll be back for more.

Read The Pez’s own account of this great ride from 2004.

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