Now in it’s 101st year, the Tour of Flanders or Ronde van Vlaanderen is best known as one of the two major cobbled cycle races of the season. Although the race route has changed over years one thing has not – the steep, cobbled bergs through the Belgian countryside. Often a defining career moment for those that manage to defeat the pavé.
Spectators come out in droves to cheer on the crazy professionals who take on the challenge each year. And amateur cyclists far and wide turn up to see what the fuss is about – god knows why, because the head-sized cobbles are pure evil! But one thing is for sure, it’s damn worth it.
We stayed in the town of Oudenaarde – starting place for the Women’s version of this year’s race and home to the race’s very own museum and restaurant. It’s a typical Belgian town with a cobbled market place over shadowed by the old town hall. It’s here we started our ride, following the sign-posted blue-route, out along the river to start before darting into the rolling countryside.
There are 3 sign-posted routes in the area of varying distances, many which loop allowing the opportunity to break or finish early, which is exactly what we did with the yellow route on the Sunday. Maps can be picked up in the Museum shop or GPS files can easily be downloaded.
There were 9 cobbled climbs on our route, including the famous Oude Kwaremont, Koppenberg and the Kruisberg. Probably 9 too many! Nothing can quite prepare you for the first attempt, let alone the rest and certainly no training at home can either (let’s not talk about pot-holes here). For those that have watched the races at on TV, you’ll be familiar with riders hogging the gutters and for good reason. The terrain of the Pavé is brutal, not only to our beloved bikes, but to our legs, arms, hands, back… you name it! We’re not talking the fancy cobbles you get on pedestrianised high-streets these days, but huge 40x40x40cm chunks of stone placed as close together as possible, with a decent grouting-trench sprouting weeds between them – enough to almost sink a skinny tyre. This means one thing – you MUST keep moving!
The most surprising take-away for me was just how much lactic acid build up I got in my arms…my arms! My legs could keep spinning and grinding away on the 15-20% climbs, but my arms were doing just as much of the work. Stopping to take photos half way up was a welcome break and quickly became an excuse. And after the second or third set of cobbled bergs, we were looking for that gutter!
Thankfully we had the sun with us all day, which meant we could take our time and even enjoy lunch outside. This made for an even more enjoyable ride. 3 years of cycling back in the UK and I’d forgotten why I loved cycling in Northern Europe so much. The wide-open spaces of the Belgian countryside; hedges lacking you can see for miles beyond. Green upon green and windmills to suit. And the roads, to quote Björk, are oh, so, quiet! Even when we did come across a car they were patient, giving us the right of way. I was back in love with cycling again.
Don’t feel prepared?
For those who may be a little anxious at the thought of cycling on the most terrible terrain (I say that ironically) so were we, especially with such a lack of training so early in the season. But we had nothing to be afraid of. We all agreed ahead of our ride that no matter what, we were there to have fun, to experience something different and if anything to take our time. It wasn’t a race. We didn’t need to be first up the climb (well, I didn’t!) and neither did we have to pedal the whole thing in 4 hours. As a side note, I also did this on my carbon di2 steed – no special CX/ cross-terrain bike or adjustments. Just my every day road bike.
Drifting home after 90kms we cancelled our dinner plans in town, slumped on the sofa and ate well earned pizza, prepping ourselves to hit the road again the following day for a shorter 50kms before heading back to Dunkirk to catch the ferry.
Belgium is highly accessible from the UK and allows for a weekend or extended break easily. We took the ferry from Calais to Dunkirk (2hours) and drove to Oudenaarde (2.5 hours) where we rented a great Airbnb house that easily entertained the 6 of us (we took 2 spare air-beds with prior permission from the host).
Total cost per person (2 vehicles, ferry, accommodation and some prepped food shopping) was £136. Not bad for the memories we bought home.