What's Cool In Road Cycling

BELGIAN PEZ #5: You Have No Idea.

I had no idea. I thought I did – watching hours of the cobbled races in tv, knowing the riders and their specialities for these northern races. I thought I knew what these races are about. Then I went to Belgium to see, and ride, and learn. Here’s what stood out for me…

Best thing I can tell you is to get over here, because these ”experiences” must be witnessed by you, firsthand, to be really, truly understood. The weather, the roads, the people, the beer, the climbs and the infamous pave. I can only offer my singular vision and memories of what transpired in the past 10 days, so that maybe you’ll get a sense of what being here for these great races is really about…

It’s 7:09 AM on April 12. I’m sitting in the Brussells airport waiting for my 10:30 flight back home, and what will surely be another epic day. My 10 days at the Spring Classics are over, and all that happened seems as blurry as my vision on Sector 13 of the Roubaix pave. Seeing these races has been astounding, incredible, … indescribable… worth a review of the hilites…

I landed in Brussells 11 (12?) days ago, here to see the Tour of Flanders (the Rhonde), Ghent-Wevelgem, and the Queen of the Classics – Paris-Roubaix. Sure I’ve seen the Tour, and the Giro, and other big races, but I’d never witnessed firsthand the racing in Belgium and northern France. I was here to take it all in, and see for myself what the riding in these parts is really like.

Like everyone who hasn’t been here for these races, I wondered just how tough they are, and wanted to know more about what makes them so special, and why cycling is so revered by the average, cigarette-smoking Belgian.

It rained almost everyday, but the conditions during Ghent-Wevelgem were so bad that 75% of the peloton dnf’ed.

Thewind in Belgium has a two fisted fury… one hand holding you from behind, and the other punching you in the face. The winds here blow STRONG – are constantly cranked to “11”, and as much a part of true Belgian tough guys as eating cobbles for breakfast. One day we rode for 2 hours into a minor gale force wind, and managed to cover 35 measley kilometers! It’s not so much having to deal with a strong wind now and again, but when it blows here, it sucks the will from your wheels, and turns that carbon frame of yours into solid lead. The upside, is that they’re not always in your face, and when you point in the right direction, you’ll be spinning in your 53×12 like a pro.

Classic weather view from the Monteberg – it’s always raining somewhere, and at least once per ride, you’re in the middle of somewhere.

And we were not disappointed by the rest of the week’s “Classic” weather. You ALWAYS take a rain jacket, because most days it rained, usually on us when we were riding. It would roll through in these “Spring” showers, that generally soaked you in about 5 minutes. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the daily hail storm – I’m sure a standard feature across Belgium, and again, apparently targeted at our rides. We even drove through an accumulation that looked like snow on the transfer back from our Ghent-Wevelgem pre-ride.

The sun does come out, again usually every day, but you gotta be quick or you miss it. And because there are so many clouds – basically the whole shy is full of ‘em – you never know exactly where the sun is, which means you usually don’t know which direction you’re headed. And if you’re as geographically “specific” as I am, this can take some getting used to. Hey – you can’t fault a guy for wanting to know where he is…

Quickstep demonstrates the preferred technique for pounding the pavй… ass back, hands on top, and big gear.

I can’t say enough about riding the pave, yet I barely know where to begin. We rode a joint-jarring, denture-smashing selection of northern bricks, cobbles, and pave, and learned that not all pavй is created equal. The cobbled sections of de Rhonde were generally newer, having been re-cobbled in recent years as the Belgian government works to preserve the roads that are cycling’s heritage and monuments to the sport. Our first day riding the cobbles seemed tough (at the cyclosportif version of de Rhonde), but now seem so tame when compared to what Roubaix slammed us with.

The race-making Muur de Grammont in Flanders. You gain 77m in less than 1km, and hit pitches of 20%. But it’s all rideable – if it’s dry.

The Roubaix cobbles are much older, the road surfaces more decrepit, the gutters deeper and the ridges higher. The Rhonde cobbles were evenly spread, relatively flat, and not as sharp. Across the landscape that is Roubaix, you encounter a vaguely connected patch-work of ancient cobbled paths – complete with ancient cobbled old-guys. There is roughly about one a-c-o-g per pavй sector, who would appear wandering in the middle of said sector, then vanish like a ghost after you’d ridden past them 25 meters… seriously, you could look back and they were gone…

The Roubaix pavй never really ends, actually – you’ll be feeling it for days and dreaming about it forever.

Much like riding Alpe d’Huez, yet completely different, you have simply got to get to Flanders and ride the cyclosportif amateur “Tour of Flanders” the day before the actual race. Velo Classic Tours includes this as part of their Spring Classics package… and it’s just you and 12,000 cyclists, mostly Belgians, riding the closed course, and your choice of 75km, 140km, or the full-meal-deal 260km road routes. There are even routes for mountain bikers, of which there are plenty… The challenge is to ride at a pace that allows you to soak in the history, and magnitude of what you are doing – riding the Rhonde WC course and it’s fabled bergs – while still being tempted to jump in with a group of fast guys and hammer. After about 3 hours, I got the mega-itch and had to let the dogs out, so when two semi-pros came by at 50kph, I couldn’t resist jumping in. It was full-on, full-speed, total rush – 53×14,13 – major hammer – passing riders all over the place… you know what I’m talking ‘bout…

On your mark, get set… Actually, you roll out when you’re ready, and enjoy the cyclosportif Rhonde at your own pace.

And the Bergs – the defining feature of Flanders – these hills are rough, tough, and just around the corner. I wish I’d ridden more of ‘em, but the thrill is true, true – you can’t avoid the adrenaline blast you get at he the foot of each climb, you know your heros have attacked in these very places, and made history on each one… you just gotta let ‘er rip. Sure you’re DOA at the top, but in the amateur de Rhonde, you’ll also find the Red Bull girls, passing out free cans of that sweet gassy juice, and you’re always surrounded by other “Rhondeurs” to share the suffering. Do this ride – I command you! – you won’t regret it.

Yesterday we were cobble-side for the Roubaix action. We started in the Arenberg Forest, and waited with thousands of cycling fans from all over for the race to tumble past. This is not really the hardest sector of cobbles – there are some worse later on, but the damp, mud, and darkness of the forest makes them Frodo-worthy.

The race passed by in a few short minutes, but we saw intense flashes of action that lasted only for split seconds each. The looks on the faces of the riders – the guys in front – van Petegem, Museeuw, Hincapie – all flew by looking intensely focused but comfortable – ready for the 14 final sectors. The race passed by in small groups – there was no peloton, only riders strung out, dangling by threads connecting them to the bike ahead. And the faces changed drastically as the each riders’ pain-o-meter increased with their position in the race. I saw the faces of Antonio Cruz (who chatted with us at the Flanders start, and Floyd Landis, – glimpsed only for a split second – their look, the pain, I felt sorry for ‘em. We guessed about 40% of the bunch failed to reach Arenberg, only the 7th of 22 cobbled sections.

I was astounded by the speed of the riders. Having done these cobbles myself, it just makes me admire ‘em that much more. These guys can fly.

The riding with Velo Classic Tours was a focal point, with guided, well-mapped, rides scheduled everyday.

An excellent, and ever more popular way to see and ride the great races is with an organized tour company. We traveled with Velo Classic Tours, who are actually one of the few tour companies offering vacations to the northern Classics. Aside from benefiting from their knowledge of the local area and culture, probably the best part of being with them was the camaraderie and friendships made with them and their guests. The people you travel with can make or break your trip, and maybe we got lucky, but as a small group of 8 diverse individuals, sharing a common love for riding, we all got along famously, and the nightly stories yucks around the dinner table were a hilight.

Peter and Lisa of Velo Classic Tours.

I’ve traveled with several tour companies in the past, and have seen how the “mood” of the trip is usually set by the leaders, and Peter Easton and his wife Lisa set the tone for a lot of laughs, which made the experience that much better. Pete can quote any Seinfeld episode at will, but he’s also a strong rider, had mapped out detailed rides everyday, entered us all in the amateur Rhonde, educated us on tasty Belgian cuisine, and picked some beautiful towns to stay in. Hotels were located near pretty town squares, and local pubs and cafes were always easy to find. Lisa was ever the picture of calm, organized control. Traveling around Europe is never “easy”, and Factor X can surprise you around the next turn. But no matter what unexpected deviations popped-up, Lisa & Peter always found a quick solution. Being able to respond quickly to the unexpected is something they both do well – which is critical to enjoying your trip.

I’ve been riding the Co-Motion Ristretto – on “exclusive” PEZ World Cup test while in Belgium. The bike is a hand-built aluminum frame, Reynolds carbon fork, Rolf Prima Йlan Aero wheels, tight racing geometry, steep angles. Bottom line – very responsive – very light – you think fast and it goes. For the cobbled Classics, the bike worked well. Sure I got the snot beat out of me on the pavй, but unless you’re riding dual-suspension, everyone does. Our group had bikes made of steel, aluminum, ti, and carbon, and no one was less than destroyed by the pavй. My feeling is that you need a bike that can take a pounding and not let you down, ‘cuz when it comes to the beating dealt by the stones, it’s all about the rider, not the ride.

The Ristretto held tight – no flats, no broken spokes, no broken seat posts (inside joke to PEZ-fan and Velo Classic client Chris – who suffered two mechanicals caused by ill-fitting carbon seat-posts.)

I’ll be completing the test in the next couple of weeks on some bigger climbs and varied terrain back home, so stay tuned for more.

BEGLIAN BEER – Mmm Mmm Good!
Anyone following our interviews with Belgian “insiders” like Bert Roesems and Matt Hayman will know yours truly was on mission off the bike as well. That was to see out new forms of beer, to boldly go, and to drink these beers with hearty abandon! Truth be told – I did choose rto accept the mission and it was a fully-carbonated success.

Actual evidence of what the high-power Belgian brews will do to your vision.

Now, we were told more than once to order the “trappiste”- a suped-up version of regular Belgian beer, which is legendary in many places. Trappiste is a “full-bodied, rich, slightly sweeter” Belgian beer, originally made by monks (don’t quote me on that, but it certainly is a possibility) that runs about 7.5% alcohol. The deal is you have a couple of these and you are, as the Belgians like to say (inset your own Belgian accent here) “under the table”. So I tried one, and I liked it. But then I spied some other offerings from our Flandrian-friends – like the Duvel beer – 8.5% alcohol – and behold the Chimay at 9%! We’re not talking steepness of climbs here – we’re talking Belgian barley sandwiches, super-sized! It’s good stuff for sure, and just like the climbs, you gotta get over there and ride ‘em!

When In Belgium! In the Brussells airport, waiting to fly home, I had time (at 9:45AM) to enjoy my last official beer and croissant…

So that’s it – the tip of the iceberg of memories – I’m pretty sure it happened because I’m really tired… and I’ve got the photos as proof. Thanks again for reading along at home, and add this trip to your list of stuff to do before you jump in the broom-wagon.


Check out the websites for
Velo Classic Tours

Co-Motion Bicycles

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