Being a mountain biker at heart I don’t follow road racing much, but I’ve heard people telling stories about the classics of Roubaix and Flanders, tales of cobble stones as big as football pitches where the cracks between them get so wide that if you fall between them you’ll probably end up at the centre of the earth. Also short sharp climbs that are so steep that rope and crampons are seriously worth considering, plus a constant driving wind from the coast that unless you are tightly shackled to your bike will pick you up and blow you far away to some distant land. The Ronde Van Vlanderen is the Flanders sportive that takes place on the Saturday before the professional race the day after, it’s a great opportunity to ride the same hills as the pros and to feel like a true Belgian for the day and suffer for the fun of it, you also get to soak up the atmosphere with all the locals cheering you on.
A few of the guys from Madison had already signed up for this year’s event, so I decided to get in on the action and to experience what a weekend of potential pain in Belgium had to offer. The call of the day for everyone seemed to be the 138km course, but I thought if I’m travelling across to Belgium for one days riding then I’d make the most of it and sign up for the full 244km version, so without much thought I duly did.
To give you a little background of me, by my very nature I’m a very last minute sort of guy, I spend too much time pondering, day dreaming and talking to people, then suddenly realise a particular event is fast approaching and Ill rush and flap around like a mad man to get there, inevitably I end up being a little (or a lot) late , I spend more money than I have to and generally it’s a bit of a whirlwind but I do always get there. I like to think I’m just meandering along with the flow of life, the reality is I’m just not someone who is very good at being organised and I have to work hard at it but there is a part of me that hates the thought of my life being too scheduled and planned out as it just seems to remove a bit of the beauty and mystery from the journey.
So, with only 2 days to go until the ride I realised I had no transport to Belgium sorted and no accommodation booked. I promptly got on-line and booked myself and my van on to the Eurotunnel which cost a small fortune. Accommodation for the weekend would be the back seats of my truck. I would travel out on the Friday afternoon and return back to the UK on the Sunday night.
The Belgian cobbles had planned to be the final testing ground for Prototype Equilibrium Titanium tarted up with Shimano Ultegra and some lightweight DT Swiss wheels but a week before the ride disaster struck! I rode very quickly into the back of a parked car and in the process I bent the fork and the headtube beyond repair. RIP Ti Equilibrium! Why would someone crash into a parked car you ask? Well, I hadn’t had Gin for breakfast that morning (not on a week day), I just wasn’t concentrating on the road ahead, I was too busy looking over my shoulder at the police car right directly behind me with lights flashing which was trying desperately to get past. I went round a corner and turned round to wave them past but I obviously took my eye off the road for too long because when I faced forward again I was 3 yards being a parked car and I was doing over 20mph. Bang! I hit the bumper rolled up the boot and finished on the road! The police car shunned to a halt, two police men ran over to me and checked I was ok, they calmed me down, picked up my bike and recommended I went off to hospital. I persuaded them I was fine apart from cuts, a little blood and some bruises, so off they went to continue their mission at full speed. I called Big dog Brattle from work to come and pick me up who was only too happy to come and rescue me. I walked through the office a bit blooded up, told everyone I was fine, cleaned myself down, got changed and got on with the day. By about mid afternoon I was pretty sore and very stiff, my ribs were hurting when I breathed and I had a permanent dead leg. The only cure would be a weeks rest and hope that I would be healed enough to ride a week later.
A week passes and it’s Friday morning and I’m flapping about in my office desperately trying to get my Equilibrium 20 fully serviced and race ready before heading to Belgium that afternoon. The bike hadn’t been loved for some time so it needed some work doing on the gears, fresh brake pads and a good old clean. The last big ride I had done on it was LEJOG (Land Ends to John O Groats) back in September, we did the ride in 4 days 15 hours averaging 176 a miles a day so I knew the steel Equilibrium would be more than a match for the 244km of Flanders and the comfort of the bike is second to none. Nothing rides like steel, not even Titanium, a good steel frame is like riding on a cloud. The one thing I was desperate to change was the saddle, I still have nightmares and shudders when I think back to the week of numbness I had in the downstairs department after the LEJOG ride!! Dark times.
Servicing done, I ran down to the van Friday lunch time and drove to Folkestone to get on the Eurotunnel, I pulled up to the check in booth with minutes to spare and was quickly told that Id booked the van on as the wrong type of vehicle and that I exceeded the height limit of a car. That makes sense now, it is a van after all. Just as I was about to start repeatedly knocking my head against the steering wheel the kind woman at the booth told me not to worry and free of charge she got me booked on to a train 2 hours later. I put my feet up for an hour, drank coffee and began to load up on carbs and sugar, in the form of sandwiches, snickers and Haribo.
3 hours later and I’m in France and cruising up the motorway towards Belgium. In the early evening I arrived in Oudenaarde and could immediately see the grandstand and event village where the race would finish. I saw a sign which pointed towards parking so I followed that, parked up and decided that would be where the van would stay until Sunday. I meandered up into the main part of the town, spent some time looking around, then found somewhere to eat and eventually headed back to my van just as darkness fell. I filled my water bottles, got my riding kit ready, set my alarm for 4.30am the next morning and curled up on the back seats for a good old sleep. Why did I have to get up so early? Well the 244km ride actually starts in Brugge so the organisers lay on buses and bike trailers that transport the riders and their bikes from Oudenaarde to Brugge.
The next morning my alarm goes off, its cold outside but I reassure myself it will get warmer once the sun rises, so I decide I’ll wear bib shorts and knee warmers down below and a normal short sleeve jersey plus arm warmers up top. First things first I strapped up my aching ribs with sports tape which I hoped would help keep the aching bearable, especially over the cobbles. I set off from the van shivering but I was convinced it would warm up so I worried no more about it. I quickly spotted a couple of guys riding through town and caught them up and asked if they were heading to the busses for the Sportive, one of the guys looked at me, grinned and said “Why else would we be riding bikes at this time in the morning?” He had a good point, but with all the tales I’d heard about the Belgians I thought they might just be out for their daily morning punishment before a breakfast of punching themselves in the face followed by ten lashings. Anyway, I ride along with the two guys and 10 minutes later we were at the fleet of busses. I stuck my bike into the trailer and climbed on board.
I found myself a seat and looked around to see what people were wearing, worryingly everyone had either long sleeved wind shells on or at the very least a wind proof Gilet, I suddenly felt colder than ever and wondered whether it was fair game to hit an unsuspecting Belgian round the head, lock him in the bus toilet and steel his layers? I decided it probably wasn’t fair game so I tried to warm myself up by thinking of log fires and warm beaches, it didn’t work, funny that! Actually made me colder if anything! I pulled a pastrie out my back pocket and waffled it down, I then closed my eyes and fell asleep for a while. The next thing I know it’s 7am, the bus has stooped, it’s now light outside and we’ve arrived in Brugge at the football stadium where the ride will begin, I get off the bus, grab my bike and follow the crowds to the sign in desks inside the stadium. I lean my bike up and get in the queue, I’m quickly at the front and I hand the lady my confirmation email and in return she hands me an envelope which contains my number board and checkpoint stamp card, she then smiles and wishes me luck.
At about 8am I started riding and got my head down and tried to warm up as quickly as I could. Within half an hour I felt nicely warmed up and I was in my rhythm. Friends had told me that the key to riding the first 100km was to find a bunch travelling at the right speed and ride with them. Sounded easy enough but I’ve never ridden in a peloton and I was finding it really un-nerving being about 2 foot away from the wheel in front, so I decided pretty early on that I would man up and solo the whole thing. I’d get out on my own, go at my own pace, take the wind in the face and battle my way round. After about 50km I reached the first feed station and joined the queue. After a short wait I got to the food and was handed Belgian waffles, honey biscuits, bananas and honey cake. Lots and lots of sugar basically! I quickly ate a waffle and a banana, stuffed the rest into the back pocket of my jersey and cracked on before I cooled down too much. The next hour and a half passed quickly and before I knew it I was at the next food station, I didn’t need much so I just filled up my bottles and carried on as i still felt good.
I rode up alongside some English guys and had a quick chat with them, they informed me that we were about to hit the first of the hills and that the rollercoaster would soon begin. Slowly but surely, the hills came, nothing too steep to begin with but enough to get the legs , heart and lungs working a bit harder. Then came the first long, flat stretch of the infamous Belgian cobbles, they didn’t seem too bad at first but boy did they become annoying quickly! It’s hard to get a rhythm going and it’s oh so tempting to drop into the little ring but you know it will just make things worse, so I kept it in big ring and ploughed forward trying not to grip too hard but inevitably the upper body takes a bit of a beating.
Then with about 120km to go you hit the first of the 16 marked climbs, mostly cobbled, all between 360m and 2200m in length and up to 22 degrees in gradient. Most of them are short, sharp and horrible, the longer less steep climbs are just annoying, they are cobbled and frustrating. All however are perfectly climbable and as long as you avoid the traffic you are ok, it’s a slow drag at times but you get up them.
The 16 climbs:
From that point forward it is all a bit of a blur, I stopped feeling fresh and declared to go to war with the course, I kept my mind thinking happy thoughts, sucked up the pain, rode whatever was in front me, just kept pedalling, grabbed food and drink from the food stops when I could and just kept pushing on.
By the 200km mark I had found myself riding side by side with two Swiss guys, one was called Casper, the other his name escapes me, but we’ll just pretend he was called ‘Swiss Tony’. We chatted on the flatter sections and we had a good laugh together, it was good to take my mind off things and to have company for a few miles. We talked about London, football and they were intrigued that I was riding on a steel bike and not on carbon, our mainland European friends really love carbon! Above all they were both great guys and I enjoyed their company for those miles.
Me and Swiss Tony:
The miles passed by, the final cobbled climbs came and went and by early evening I was riding down the finishing straight and into Oudenaarde. I love that feeling you get when you cross the line when you know you have suffered for it, but that it was totally worth it and that you’ve come out the other side feeling proud of yourself and what you’ve achieved. It is that little bit of pain and suffering that reminds you that you’re alive, that life is precious and it helps to keep you grounded.
10 minutes after crossing the line I was eating chips and mayonnaise, 30 minutes after that I was laid flat out in the back of my truck fast asleep, probably with a small smile on my face.
Looking back my strongest memory from the day was when I was nearly facing disaster after I had realised I had run out of water and knew that I had some way to go to the next feed station. I saw an old man ahead of me who was parked by the side of the road with his boot open and was giving someone he knew a drink. So I stopped by his car and kindly asked if he could spare me some drink for which I said I would happily pay him. He turned to me, put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, smiled and said “You pay with your honour”. The temptation to hug him at that moment was strong but something in my mind said “Don’t bother Dom, he’ll think your weird”. He promptly filled my bottle, gave me a banana and sent me on my way.
As for my old faithful Equilibrium 20, it’s an amazing bike, it is just the most comfortable , forgiving and smooth riding road bike I’ve ever ridden. I obviously would say that, but honestly it is a bike that I will turn to over and over again for this type of riding. Steel is real, it has soul, never forget it!