Tour of Flanders ~ UCI Round 1
The Ronde van Vlaanderen is regarded as the toughest classic of them all.
With 18 brutal climbs crammed in to the last 120k, half of them cobbled, for the club rider it's a test like no other.
Nothing can prepare you for
the relentless battering your body takes from the climbs and the cobbles.
And when you get a cobbled climb, well the pain and the suffering just gets compounded to a higher level.
Add in rain, cross winds, echelons and riding down cycle tracks at 30 mph in a 150 strong bunch, well it doesn't get much better.
Race to The Base
The event starts easily enough with a "gentle" (maybe by Belgian standards) ride to the Rekelberg at kilometre 28. You're riding at a comfortable Jersey race pace then after half an hour people suddenly start flying past you.
Suddenly you realise what's happening, click up a gear and hope you don't blow. The race for the first hill has begun and you have absolutely no idea what lies ahead.
Then a Belgian Bonne Nuit appears and you realise why you need to be at the front. You hit it so fast that it's a good thirty seconds before you realise you're still on the big ring. Clicking down the gears you find your climbing rhythm and just as you get to what you think is the top, and your physical limit, the cobbles start. The shock of what's happening to your body is just beginning to register when you reach the top.
The descent is something else. A kilometre of wet cobbles with around 200 riders on it. I take a quick drink, as does everyone else, and decide I'm not going to brake on the descent, unlike everyone else.
Suddenly I'm doing over 40 mph, well I saw a 4 on my computer you can't actually see numbers because of the vibrations, riders are coming backwards at me quicker than a space invaders game and bottles are bouncing down the road like a scene from the dam busters.
I survive the relatively straight descent; then a hairpin, correction, cobbled hairpin bend appears from nowhere!
Through a combination of skill, judgement, bravery, and more luck than a national lottery winner, I use more lives than your average cat and survive to tell the tale.
The adrenalin pumps through my body, which is just as well because the Molenberg and Wolvenberg are heading our way. With sections at 17 and 19 percent respectively you need more than low gears to get over them. But these monsters are only warm ups for the torture to come.
The Classic Climb?
The Oude Kwaremont appears to be a doddle. It's 2.2 kilometres long and averages 5%.
It's starts okay then after half a kilometre it turns to cobbles and 11%. You get to the top, take a swig and start the descent.
You haven't even swallowed your drink when the cobbled Paterberg starts, the climb isn't so bad because you can see the top and the 20% gradient in the middle.
What does play on your mind is the Koppenberg which comes next.
Three miles after the two hardest climbs so far, comes the hardest climb so far. It appears from nowhere, without warning.
You think you're heading down someone's twisty drive, you can't see more than 50 metres before the next bend.
Then you turn right. Right in front of you going straight up, and I mean straight up, is the dreaded cobbled death climb, The Koppenberg.
Crowds of cyclists are gathered at the bottom staring in awe, not knowing what to do.
I knew people were in awe because I could here some Americans saying “awesome”.
But for once they were actually right.
People are riding round in circles clicking for their smallest gear and taking a drink. I'm with a group of Dutch, who've done it before, and I decided, well they told me, to follow them.
We hit the climb flat out threading our way through dense crowds of cyclists of all shapes, ages and sizes. You remain in the saddle and pull on your bars in an attempt to get all of your power through the back wheel. But the front of the bike begins to come off the ground as you suddenly realise you've found the tipping point between forward motion and disaster.
If at all possible the hill gets steeper, so steep you could test a London Bus on it. After a particularly vicious swing to the side, I decide to get out of the saddle. I'm half way up, still on a Dutchman's wheel and we're threading ourselves through the slower riders, walkers and mountain bikers.
The back wheel spins on the wet cobbles and I almost go down, the pedals are now at six o'clock in the "dead" position and somehow I manage to get them turning again.
All appears to be going well. There's a 100 metres to go and we can hear the crowds at the top cheering and shouting. Then bang. A rider, three in front of me, snaps his chain and is down on the floor.
I'm in the left hand gutter and stick my arm out on the bank with my front brake full on and sliding backwards. I hit someone behind me who stops my slide. I turn around to apologise and see that every single person on the hill has stopped. It looks like 200 riders are leaning, sliding and falling on one an other and I impress myself as to how far up I've made it.
All around me people are trying to push their bikes up the hill (in cleats remember) while the culprit is staring at his chain in disgust. Not for the first time I've been stopped by someone else's snapped Campag 10 speed.
I'm so glad I stayed with 9 speed. I try to get going again but there is no way I can get forward momentum. I give up and begin to walk. I get 50 metres and there's a lamp-post. I brace myself on it and try again but to no avail.
All of a sudden a spectator appears from nowhere and gives me such a shove in the back that I manage to get enough forward motion to complete a pedal rev. I pick up "speed" and manage to make it over the top, thanks to my anonymous benefactor.
Bang, Bang, Bang...
The other bergs and cobbled sections come thick and fast. There is literally no respite and you know the Muur is coming. Then, you come around a bend and you see it. You spy the chapel at the top of the climb and instead of sanctury, it spells pain. And lot's of it.
This is sooner than you thought and you're not physically or mentally ready for it. Which is just as well because instead of following the pro's and riding over the motorway bridge directly to it, you turn left and follow the motorway. Either way the damage has been done and you've just seen your worst nightmare.
After ten minutes riding the back roads you find yourself on the Muur-side of the motorway and again as though by magic you find yourself unprepared and at the bottom of a massive berg.
This is yet another historic climb and you don't want to let yourself down, but boy is it steep. There are so many spectators shouting and encouraging you from the road-side, the bars and the cafes that you find the strength to appear "comfortable".
You get past the first hideously steep part, on to the flat of the cafe area and then you see the cobbles. You remember that this is where the attacks and the famous photos take place. So history dictates that you dig deeper.
It's so much steeper than it appears on the TV. Next time it's on watch the pro's and see how even they struggle on this massive never ending monstrosity. You pass around the back of the bar at the summit then do a "Devils Hole" type cobbled climb to the very top where girls pass you an opened can of Red Bull.
You take it, drink it, bin it all in one movement and head for the Bosberg. You're so close now you daren't stop.
After what you've climbed before, you wouldn't think that 11% and 475 metres would present a problem. But after 130 kilometres of back breaking climbs and knuckle breaking cobbles your perceptions and abilities have a difference of opinion.
This is the last climb, it's covered in spectators and you want to finish on a high. Then you hit a wall, a cobbled wall. This hill is like an aircraft carriers ski slope; the closer you get to the top the steeper the slope. Your speed falls as the gradient rises and you clear the top at a snails pace. Drained but happy.
Then, miraculously, the Red Bull kicks in and you head the ten kilometres home in to a screaming headwind. Suddenly you recognise a landmark and you know that the flamme rouge is just around the next corner.
The police are stopping traffic everywhere as you're guided towards Meerbeke and the pro's finish line. The grandstands are full and you find someone to sprint against, although the energy rush soon disappears as you cross the line. Totally exhausted and one of the best day's cycling you could ever imagine.
It's a 3k ride to the reception centre, and start where you grab your goody bag and find the car. Once changed you can walk the 50 metres from the finish to the town centre of Ninove and have the best Panini you've ever tasted and a passable cup of tea in a 50's style Rock Cafe.
You can then sit in the window and watch the 14,000 other participants ride past in a constant stream of Ridley's and Raleigh's for the next couple of hours while you listen to Elvis and try the local pastries.
Could life get any better? Next stop, Amstel Gold, round two...
Listed below are the 18 bergs and the kilometre at which they occur.