Tour of Flanders ‘09 – Part II

The official pictures are up already.  Here’s one of me demonstrating how easy I found the climbs.  Here’s me hardly breathing :-) .

Anyway, we went back to the hotel and freshened up.  There are few greater pleasures than having a decent shower after a good bit of exertion.

We wandered into Aalst on the prowl for some lunch.  After a pretty good bowl of pasta and a glass of wine we wandered around town for a bit before deciding it was time for dinner.  A plate of meat and a pizza later we wandered back to the hotel for an early night.

We got up early for breakfast and checked out  hoping to find a nice bar showing some coverage of the race.  Interestingly the QuickStep team were checking into our hotel.  The life of the pro clearly isn’t that glamorous.  In fact, there was a bag clearly marked ‘Devolder’ – the winner of last year’s race and, what we didn’t know at the time, the winner of this year’s race too.

Setting off in convoy we went in search of a bar.  Bar found, we set about reading cycling magazines, reminiscing about the previous days ride and watching the GP with Dutch commentary.  At one point everyone dashed outside, we followed to watch the tail end of the ladies race.

Finally 13:00 came around which was the schedule for men’s race to come through the little town we’d settled in.  Finding a decent spot we waited for the sound of helicopters. 

And finally the riders came.  I’ve never really seen pro racers up close.  Torn between taking photos and taking in the scene I did a bit of both. I can’t really justify the experience with words, but seeing 190 pros power past was genuinely impressive.

An awesome display.  Pro cyclists are a funny breed – most of the guys do not have great, big muscles but somehow they seem to generate so much power.  Amazing.

However, great spectacle or nay, it was over pretty quickly.  We had to calculate whether to risk driving to another spot and seeing the race pass again as it was cutting it a bit fine to catch our schedule Eurotunnel crossing.  Sense prevailed and we joined the traffic jam to the next spot.

Perched on the side of the descent from the Koppenberg we waited for half an hour or so, enjoying the sight of the big cows and the spring sunshine.

We were treated to a much more fragmented field with the main breakaway really going for it.  Deeply impressive.  It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to be ‘on the rivet’ in a breakaway in an important race – but it looked bloody fantastic.

I said to myself during the cobbled sections "never again”.  But for all of the discomfort of the day, the positives were massive.  Seeing the pros race on the same roads that I did the previous day was brilliant.

Tour of Flanders ’09 – Part I

Phew.  Great weekend.  And great timing.  I’ve done a lot of training lately and not much in the way of organised rides which are great for providing a bit of feedback on progress.

Friday

Nice simple brief for Friday; get to the hotel in Aalst good time.  This involved finishing work a little early, picking up AndyC, bundling the bikes up in the motor and heading off to Folkestone to get the Eurotunnel.  Being a bit of a connoisseur of the Eurotunnel service of late it was astonishing to see it operating at something like capacity.

We arrived at the hotel and it did not match my mental image at all.  I thought it was going to be a nice town centre hotel right by the start line.  Instead it was a rather dull out-of-town place on the edge of nowhere by a dual carriageway.  Anyway, we got checked in and settled in for a very noisy and barely passable meal with a load of British riders who seemed surprisingly boisterous given the challenges that lie ahead.

We met up briefly with DaveC and PaulS for a quick de-brief and were soon off for an early night.  Alarm set for 5:40 which, without wishing to go on, was 4:40 as far as my body clock was concerned.

Saturday

Could that be the alarm already!  For sure too soon but it did end a miserable cycle of dreams foretelling a Clockwise-style day of administrative and organisational bungling.  We got to breakfast for 6 and helped ourselves from the buffet.  No porridge alas, but when you’re about to ride a hilly 140km you can permit yourself a pain au chocolat or two.   We jumped in the car and headed off to the start.  I’m not sure how many riders started this year, but it’s said to be 15,000 and the race numbers looked to go up to 30,000.  Either way, there are a lot of people around somewhat overwhelming the infrastructure of the small town where the race started.  We parked on the hard shouldery bit of the dual carriageway and got our kit on and assembled bikes.

Andy might have told me that I had a sign sticking out of my head!

We rolled into town and then to the start.  AndyC and I had to pick up our numbers and secured them to our handlebars.  Thousands of fellow cyclists were milling around and enjoying the banging house music, even if it was 7:30 in the morning!  All ready we headed off.

It wasn’t entirely clear where the official start line was to be honest but we dutifully followed the signs and got on the road.  There was not much in the way of hills for quite a while, but it was windy and this offered a bit of challenge.  We set off at a decent enough pace, spurred on not a litte by the constant targets in front of us.  No matter how many groups of riders we passed, there were always more just up the road.

The atmosphere on the ride was great.  The signage was (mostly!) great and there were plenty of marshalls and police along the way assuring a relatively smooth ride.

The route took in a mixture of minor roads, very minor roads, main roads, cycle paths and disused railway line.  It was a little way into the ride that I got a taste of what the ride was all about – cobbles.

(photo courtesy of DaveC)

At the foot of a climb we crossed a junction and then, wallup, a section of cobbles.  It was not as if I had not prepared for them.  Double handlebar tape.  Gel gloves.  But I was not prepared for them.  Christ.  The noise.  Poor bike rattling like crazy.  And the feeling of being shaken as if riding a pneumatic drill.    I had nothing to compare this too.  It was frankly horrible.  Fortunately this first section was quickly over but gave me a taste of what was to come.

We pressed on once back on the asphalt – ooh, has a bit of smooth road ever felt so good.  About time for a hill I thought.  And so it was.  A sharp right turn and then straight up. Cobbled, a little wet in places and steep.  But with a lot of people around the pace was only so-so and I was easily able to keep up.  And this set the scene for the rest of the climbs.  Mostly short, pretty steep and taken at a forced comfortable pace by the hundreds of other riders around us.

The weather is a major factor in how comfortable this ride is.  If it rains I imagine it would be pretty miserable to say the least – how often do you see pro cyclists walking up hills!  Fortunately, I think though the hard core looking for a real ‘classics’ experience would disagree, we had a dry day.  A little chilly first thing, and cloudy, but dry.

And so the ride went on.  Relatively flat of rolling sections, some asphalt (yay) and some cobbles (boo!).  AndyC lost a water bottle on one of the cobbled sections – not an uncommon event given the amount the bikes are shaken about.  I stopped to collect it for him.  Boy did I pay.  I struggled to get my cleat back in for ages and had to work hard over the cobbles for a good few minutes largely one-handed until I finally managed to catch up and hand the bottle over.

We gave the feed station at about 50km a miss as it looked like too much trouble to get in amongst it so we pressed on.  My legs felt great and we took turns on the front driving the pace on a little bit.  Finding groups to work with and shelter behind, but never settling down too much.  The conditions or the temptation to jump along to another group up the road too much.

The hills came and went and I felt suprisingly underwhelmed.  The reputation of the ride is pretty fierce and the climbs didn’t really match up to this.  This is not bravado by any means; I’m nothing if not a coward, but the hills simply didn’t compare in length or difficulty to some that we regularly ride here in boring old Kent.

Even the great Koppenberg was tough but not really tough.  Admittedly the pace was slowed by the abundance of riders on the climb, many on foot, but by the time I got to the top I was whizzing (well, almost… in my imagination anyway!) between other riders to get to the top.

At about half way the four of us got split up.  AndyC and I tagged along with 3 Belgian riders who were setting a decent pace.  Totally mad.  Chatting, shouting.  Calling out to women spectators and generally being, well, very un-British.  We stayed with them for quite a few miles before they peeled off.

The high point of the race was the climb of the Muur; I think the toughest climb of the day.  I hit the bottom of the climb pretty hard so was labouring a bit at the top.  There were a whole load of spectators too so I thought I ought to turn it on a little.  By turn it on I mean grapple with my bike in an ungainly and undiginified manner setting no more than a mediocre pace.

AndyC had a better time weaving through the ‘human traffic’ than me and got a bit ahead.  Somehow both of us missed a crucial turn and ending up bombing down a hill for a couple of kilometres in completely the wrong direction.  Oh how pleased was I when I realised I had to climb back up the hill to rejoin the race.  AndyC, alas, had gone even further so ended up behind me.  I was not aware of this so pressed on hard for the last 15 or 20 miles of the ride.

Riding mostly on my own but forming brief alliances I made it to the end strongly and feeling great – aside from a bit of knee trouble.  The end was a bit of an anti-climax to say the least.  We rode the final section as the pro’s would passed the spectator stands but then had another weird few kilometers on busy roads and junctions before making it to the actual end back where we started.

I arrived alone which was particularly galling as I spotted within 2 beats that the next house tune was Moloko – Sing it Back.  Not that anyone would have been impressed but it’s nice when your feats of minor genius have third party corroboration I find.

For dull reasons I did not have my phone so I ended up doing a couple of laps around the finish area not finding any of the guys before conceding defeat and riding back to the car.

Overall the ride was great.

Cycling in Belgium is brilliant.  I can’t imagine living in a country that is so cycling-friendly.  There are cycle lanes everywhere and they are well designed and maintained.  The police brilliant and motorists incredibly tolerant.  I was speculating with AndyC on the way home just how much this is down to Eddy Mercx…

I loved the atmosphere of the ride and the sheer volume of riders.   The hills were punchy and good fun.  And the cobbles…  Up hill cobbles are fine.  On the flat and down hill – no.  Horrible.  Unpleasant.  Not fun.  Surely bad for bike, body and soul.

One slightly disappointing aspect was the lack of riders really going for it.  Maybe we started a little later than the more ambitious riders and maybe the event is treated more like a festival than a race, but there simply didn’t seem to be many locals pushing on that hard.  I don’t recall, but I could easily be wrong, being passed on the road by anyone (with the exception of AndyC up to his old tricks), but instead passing (literally I suspect) thousands of riders.

Part II to follow…

Tour of Flanders ’09

Well, I’m all packed up and ready to go.  Just two thirds of a day’s work then I’m off to Belgium.

I’m not sure what to make of the Tour of Flanders just yet.  Frankly I’m not in the league of brave cyclists and I certainly don’t enjoy the rougher surfaces of the tired Kent country lanes.  My winter bike is now equipped with double bar tape (crudely applied) and cool, green trim, Vittoria Pave tyres – on loan from DaveC.

Statistically it’s not that difficult – 140km or so, and only 1,300m total climb.   But it’s the difficultly of the climbs that should make it interesting as we’ll be riding on ‘pave’, ie cobbles.  Fortunately it looks like it’s going to be dry this weekend, as when it’s wet even the pros look to struggle!

The amateurs ride on Saturday (about 15,000 of them!!) and the pros do the longer course on Sunday.  Lance Armstrong was planning to do the ride but has pulled out which is a bit of a shame but it will be interesting to see pro riders for the first time on the road.

A full, self-aggrandising report to follow no doubt…

Packing List

I’m always a little paranoid packing for a cycling trip – one critical missing item could ruin the trip.

So I made a list.