Friday, 8 April 2011

Ronde Van Vlaanderen

On the first weekend in April every year nearly twenty thousand amateur cyclists descend upon the Flemish Bergs to take part in the Tour of Flanders sportive, better known as the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

Two cars with four members each left Kent bound for Brugge to take part in the arduous 150km route over 17 cobbled sectioned of Pavé.  Danny, Ian, Chris and Nick all got to the hotel long before Kev, Don, Diesel and myself due to our advanced driver and co-pilot getting a little complacent with the technology of a sat nav. We were however greeted by the welcome site of a buffet that had been put on for the Lotto team that were also staying in our hotel. Over a big pasta dinner and a couple of Belgium beers we spoke briefly about the route and I shared my little knowledge of riding the Pavé from a previous Thornton rode trip to Flanders.

A few of us hadn’t entered online, which turned out to be a good move as it seemed to take longer to get through the start if you had pre-entered. With all of us stocked up on the huge buffet breakfast from the hotel, we rolled out in what turned out to be the hottest day any of us had cycled in for a long time. I had stupidly only packed my Roubaix fleece lined tights, so too say I was a little over dressed for the conditions would be an understatement.

Ian and Chris set off a little ahead of us to get settled into their own pace.  With Thornton being a relatively unknown team in Belgium, Danny thought it would be a good idea to get some good exposure out the front of the main bunch of our modest outfit and claim some air time with local media that would be covering the event for the regional news stations.  Nick was also keen to take up some domestic duties should Danny need any assistance.

Like me, Don had also miscalculated the weather reports and suggested that maybe we should all pull over and remove a few layers, so now did we not only have our pockets full of energy gels and red bull shots, we had to find room for hats, base layers, arm warmers and overshoes.  Don did however have to make do with the wind tex fleece jacket to keep out the Mediterranean-like breeze.

The next few kilometers threw up another big surprise: whilst negotiating a White van in the road Diesel attempted to overtake and tuned the cranks to be greeting with no resistance.  Diesel’s tiny mind was quite perplexed for some time whilst he stared at his rear wheel wondering what the matter could be. Anyone that knows Diesel will also know that he knows absolutely nothing about bike maintenance, but this will not stop his determination to tinker a little. Sadly this instance was nothing to do with maintenance.... the wheel just gave up before even reaching the first cobbled section.

Kev, Don and myself carried on and settled down to a nice steady pace. Then we hit the fist section of cobbles and all the memories of the bone shaking experience I had on the first time I rode them came flooding back. It’s really hard to explain how it feels to someone that has not ridden them. They are hard on your legs, hands, shoulders and arms all at the same time and as soon as you hit the Tarmac on the other side you fly and realise the power you were putting in to get across them with a decent amount of momentum. Any advice you ever read about riding the cobbles is to ride them hard as it really is the momentum that takes you thorough.

We proceeded to ride together at a comfortable pace and once we hit the Kruisberg the following 12 sections came thick and fast. The more kilometers we got through the more congested the cobbled sections became.  I felt I had enough energy and power to climb the full length of the climbs but had to step off a couple of times due to the fact there was just too many cyclists on too narrow sections to pass. A major frustration I found was people choosing to ride the gullies at the side of the rode for a smoother ride only to change there mind at the last moment or run out of steam and almost come to a complete standstill.  This becomes an issue when you are following that wheel and are forced into deviating across the cobbles into the path of other cyclists.  This sportive is mentally exhausting due to the fact that you really do have to keep your wits about you to stay safe. I was so pleased it was not raining like my fist Tour of Flanders which made me choose the shorter 75km route.

Having done that shorter route I knew what was to come and what I had been looking forward to all week. The Muur-Kapelmuur is my favourite cobbled climb. It's 475m with an average gradient of 9.3 and a maximum of 19.8, anyone that knows me knows I’m not a fan of climbing, but this one I do enjoy. I loved it the fist time I rode it and knowing what comes next I loved it even more. Once you hit the town of Geraardsbergen and turn left you begin to climb nice and steady on tarmac and whilst everyone is clicking around trying to find a comfortable gear ratio, now is a good time to push a bigger gear and get some distance from the crowds before you turn onto the narrow cobbled section. As I said above, it's the momentum that gets you over and if you pick a gear too small you are going to have tougher time passing the weaving cyclist in front of you. I had a clear run on the Mur and the steeper it got the happier I felt, as you know you are nearing the church at the top of the famous climb.  I think slot of the power comes from the adrenalin from the many spectators at the side of the road cheering you on, and no matter how tired you feel by this point you don't want to give up with so many people watching you.

With around 15km to go there is only the Bosberg to go that could cause you any problems. I thought it would be a breeze as it's not too hefty in comparison to what we had just done, but for me this was the worst one as the distance was now taking its toll and my legs were starting to cramp up and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep that momentum going. After lots of shuffling around out of the saddle and on the saddle, I finally arrived over the top onto the tarmac.  Kev, Don and myself regrouped and we set off on the home straight run into Ninove where we had left some 6 hours earlier.

Images and Words, Stephen Bunn