Doing Flanders

The Flandrians proudly label it “the toughest one-day road race in the world”.

For the sportive there are no time-chips – “just getting round is good enough”.

262km. 15 climbs. The day before I had worked out the total climbing and had vaguely reassured myself that only 600m or so over that distance could not be that hard.

The weather was not forecast to help the 20,000 of us at all. It didn’t. The Pro’s were luckier the next day.

I had a co-rider, Paul, from La Fuga and together we decided on strict energy-conservation over the first, flat part of the race, combined with a shrewd tactic of hiding in a bunch to keep out of the wind.  He had ridden the short version before, but had never done the whole thing. In fact he had never ridden that far, ever. At least the distance didn’t worry me. The pro’s deal with the pressures of team expectations; us mortals deal with the pressures of (often crazy) personal ambitions. I had come to do battle with The Cobbles. I had put off for years doing this ride because of les pavés, but now I felt ready in some undefined way:  something to do with a list of names and tick boxes on it, really.

Having ‘signed on’ on the same stage as the Pro’s would use the next day, in the impressive Market Square in Brugges, we head off nonchalantly in search of our first group. No mass-start here. It’s a long way, and no-one seems in a rush to get to those hills. We’re soon up with a big group. Too big, in fact, since our speed seems to constantly bunny-hop from 30-40kph. Motorway-concertina effect: an almost predictably regular swing from semi-panic-chasing of some invisible breakaway attempt to  free-wheeling / brakes-on / watch-that-wheel-in-front congestion. But to go to the front and try and get across to a distant group ahead seemed both naïve and impolite. 

In Belgium, unless you are a Pro, when there is a cycle path The Law says you use it. Most of the time all 20,000 of us did. This provided the main challenge of the first 120km of the event. Speeds varied from 25 to 40 kph on these and it was only rarely that you were the one who chose that speed. Bollards, S-bends, sharp curbs, potholes, gravel and mud all made for a spicy cocktail of hazards. Add to that lot a blinding, car-wash dose of road spray once the rain really got going on us, and you were lucky to stay upright. Which we didn’t.

After about 100km of this, and having seen and avoided a series of tumbles, it was our turn. To crash on a cycle path doesn’t sound too cool, but when some idiot cut right across my co-riders’ wheel, he was straight down right in front of me and there was nothing I could do. Too close, I had no time to react either and having used him as a launch pad, took off up-and-down-and-onto the road. Shouts went up and surprisingly a mass-mess was somehow avoided. The group left us both to lick our wounds – which could have been a lot worse, and inspect our bikes – which after some twisting, pulling and knocking of bits, had traction once more and seemed miraculously as if they were ready to still carry us to and up those hills. Minor rips on clothing; just a bit of blood and bruising. It could so easily have been Game Over. Was this really such a good idea to inflict so much rough treatment on both bike and body?

We breezed past two feedstops, where there was a promise of food and drink, if you were ready to get in line with a few hundred others. On a mission like Doing Flanders, no way am I going to queue! We had been warned of this, and had pockets duly stuffed. On the second stop we did use one of the very efficient  ‘pissoirs’ though, obediently respecting one of the event rules to “..not pee outdoors”. 

After 150km or so a ridge of hills came into view and I felt ready to go into battle. Then an unexpected flat 2km section of cobbles hit us and proceeded to hammer a good chunk of that confidence right out of me. Bigger riders seemed to have found the secret to floating across these cobbles and sped on past; all 63kgs of me were being bounced all over the shop, even when I tried to force the pace a bit. All that did was cause one of my bottles to fly out of its’ cage, in disgust probably. The cobbles were still wet and slippery even though the sky had cleared a bit by now, but worse was to come.

The first climb followed shortly after and was far less brutal than the flat section I had just survived. In fact it was almost disappointingly easy (who’s being hard to please here?!) with its’ smooth tarmac and soft gradient. But all the others made up for that one very quickly. Gradients between 15 and 20% seemed part of most of the climbs, in varying lengths. But it wasn’t the gradient that provided the challenge. That was just one factor to deal with on the list of ‘problems’ on most climbs: steep camber; icy-like slippery mud; ruts between the cobbles that suck your wheel in; rebel single cobbles that suddenly jut out at your wheel  intent on stopping you on the spot; and that’s without dozens of other cyclists weaving their ways (across and) up the narrow climbs making it impossible to even see ‘the line’ (if there ever was one) let alone try and follow it. 

I gradually find some kind of technique and get to the top of all but one of the climbs un-mudded and still on two wheels, more due to good luck than good cycling. On the Koppenberg, though, I was beaten. A layer of very greasy mud had built up on this legendary steep, embanked climb and as soon as I turned the front wheel slightly to go for a ‘line’ through the walking cyclists, I was down in the mud. Even walking up it was hard enough.

The Molenberg was a close one too, with ruts easily wider than our wheels between almost every cobble, it seemed, and since at 18-20% I was not going that fast, cycling up here needed acrobatic skills at times. 

By the time we had reached Gerardsbergen for the penultimate, and usually race-deciding climb up the Muur, (which it was the next day), the other climbs had become a blurred memory of  battlefields of mud, gradient and guts. But I was still riding and felt victorious already. Being urban, rather than very rural and agricultural, I was hoping for kinder, more civilised, cobbles on the way up to the infamous Kappel at the top. I was right. The climb was the first one I really enjoyed. I even saw its’ beauty. It twists gracefully as opposed to most of the brutal straight-and-up climbs previous to this. Not that many Pro’s would see it like that.

There is no better way to watch a Pro road race than being by the road-side having just ridden that same course the day before. As I squatted on the bank of the Muur climb on race day and watched Boonen and Cancellara fight their way into history, I was in sheer awe of their strength and skills, aware of every kilometre they had just raced over.

As we mortals banged on the pedals for the final 12km of flat after the Bosberg, knowing that we had won our own battle, Paul and I both felt capable of touching a small part of that ocean of emotion that must fill a riders’ mind when he is sprinting home for victory. We saw just that the next day on Cancellara’s face. As I watched him on the big screen in Gerardsbergen, my throat swollen and tight with emotion and a big smile across my face, I knew exactly why I had put myself through all that on Saturday and would do it all again next year.