Many fans of cycling make an annual pilgrimage to Belgium in spring for the early season classics; an opportunity to test oneself on some of the toughest sportive routes, watch the pro race and of course sample some final local beers. I’ve been going to Belgium every April since 2013 and this year I joined a group from my cycling club, Kingston Wheelers, to take on the Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen as it’s known in Flemish.
With its cobbled sectors and steep bergs, the Tour of Flanders tops the bill as one of the most exciting one day races on the calendar. For 2017, the full sportive route comprised 240km from Antwerp to Oudenaarde, with the infamous Muur van Geraardsbergen featuring for the first time in five years.
The last time I did Flanders was back in 2015, when a poor choice of gloves in rain and near freezing temperatures caused me to take shelter in a medical tent to get some warmth back into my fingers. Two years on and the memories had softened, so when I saw that it was starting in Antwerp and the Muur would be back, I couldn’t help but sign up for a third attempt.
Our group met early on Friday morning in Surbiton to drive down to the Channel Tunnel in Adam’s VW Transporter, perfect for taking several bikes. The journey was fine until we hit the outskirts of Antwerp and got stuck in traffic for a couple of hours, but we finally made it into the city centre and once we had navigated into our one-way street after several attempts, we were able to unload and prepare for the ride the next day.
Some of the guys went off for a bike ride whilst Alex and myself went to the shops via a bar to prepare a pasta dinner. There was much nervous anticipation of the ride ahead, with conversation centring on whether it would be knee warmer or knees out weather. Some (including myself) were liberally seeing off Belgian beers, whereas others opted for an alcohol-free evening ahead of the race – apparently there are performance benefits to be had!
The day of the ride brought a fairly mild morning, even at 6am it felt warm as we assembled outside our apartment in Antwerp. Adam had coincidentally booked a place next to a strip club and as we prepared to set off, we were able to have a good chat with the local clientele and hostess smoking outside about the chances of Boonen in the race.
The start was fairly chaotic compared to Bruges, and we had to navigate some large crowds to get to the sign on and collect ride numbers. We attached our numbers to our bikes then joined the large queue of starters to drop our bags. After a good 30 minutes queuing we realised the bag drop was just round the corner and ducked out of the queue.
Bags dropped and we were finally underway! Queue torrential downpour, causing new my new white socks to immediately turn grey, but also a certain happiness in my decision to keep my knees covered. To keep warm in the rain we turned up the pace and we were soon dragging along a fairly large sportive paceline.
The first 100km is always a little stop/start, but it was warming up and the sun was even threatening to escape through the clouds as we approached Oudenaarde. By the time we reached the first sector of cobbles it was bone dry, allowing us to ride them with gusto in attempt to skim the stones (in reality, it was more like thumping over them).
Our group stuck together for a little while before we lost Mark who got caught behind a police car, then it was pretty much me, Adam, (young) Mark and Tim. Adam was on top form and powered away on one of the cobbled climbs mid way through, with the rest of us soon splitting up to ride in solo or with other groups.
My climb of the day was the Koppenberg, finally getting up there on the third time trying (I had to walk in 2014 and 2015). The Muur was also a fantastic experience, starting fairly steep and rough, before levelling out allowing for a nice turn of pace. There was some great support along the route, with a lot of punters getting prime spots for the pro race the next day.
Overall I found the ride a lot more enjoyable than previously, with the weather gods playing nice and long distance training paying off for this kind of route. There was a bit of sketchy riding out of the course, but no more than you’d expect from a mass participation event involving 16,000 people.
At the finish we regrouped at the ‘QUBUS’ to grab some beers and frites. Unfortunately Alex had been taking out near the finish line (wheel hooked in an overeager sprint train) and had to be cut out of his bib shorts and head to hospital for stitches, which he gamely did on his bike – probably for the extra kilometres.
We caught the coach back to Antwerp and it was pretty late by the time we were all back and showered, meaning that most of us ended up going to Quality Burger for dinner. Not ideal. After a few beers we had a relatively early night ready to catch the race the next day.
On the Sunday we saw the pro riders being presented in the square before before heading off to watch on the Kwaremont, which the peloton passes over three times. It was a glorious sunny day and the beers were flowing and the Belgian rave music was pumping. A good time was had by all and there was a lot of cheering when Gilbert won solo with an attack from 60km out.
In summary it was an epic weekend with a great bunch of club mates. Not dissimilar to a stag weekend with a long bike ride thrown in. Special mention to Adam for a big stint of driving and sorting all the logistics, proper Belgian hardman.