We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Ronde Van Vlaanderen Voor Wielertoeristen 2011, 140km

Getting the three of us to Belgium - me, Neil and Egon - and to Ninove to sign on, and then over to my mate Lode's Nokernote B&B south-east of Brussels in time to get some quality rest and relaxation before Saturday's ride had been organised with military precision. To such a degree perhaps that Neil metamorphosed into a conscientious objector the day before: instead of being with us for dinner in Nunhead at around eight as planned, he rolls up from Nottingham gone eleven. Why? His passport - I'm surprised he remembered he needed to bring it - had expired. So, instead of an easy mid-morning drive together to Folkestone to get the remarkably reasonably-priced Eurotunnel shuttle, he had to go first thing in the morning back into Central London to collect an emergency passport (£££) and then get the Eurostar to Brussels (£££) where we'd divert in and pick him up. OK - we had a Plan B, so I was convinced that I should just relax a little and think to a future time when we'd look back and chuckle about how amusing the experience had been. Except now, Neil, armed with valid passport, arrives at St. Pancras, slightly cocky with his ordeal seemingly over, treats himself to a glass of Sancerre and some pan-fried halibut (he even sends us a photo, which we pick up around Calais), and promptly misses his train. As his adopted older brother, the faux sibling that got the stress gene, I'm not best pleased. I know that scares him.

This, however, is where our luck starts to change, since he's found the Eurostar staff on a good day: they stick him on the next train for free. So, rendez-vous arranged for Brussels Eurostar terminal later that day - bless the TomTom God and installed Maps of Western Europe - and then on to sign on and collect our frame numbers in an increasingly atmospheric Ninove. We're finally starting to feel like riders, and the passion for cycling surrounding the place is palpable. Even the fact I'd forgotten my spare tubes doesn't faze me, since we find a massive cycle warehouse near Nokernote that has everything we need, and a lot more besides. I note a display copy of Cor Vos' 'Emotions' on the counter, call Neil over to look at the amazing images inside, and the shopkeeper asks me if I'm riding the Ronde the next day. I tell him yes, he asks me if I like the book - the response is obvious - and next he says I can have it. I'm perplexed. Surely a joke (it was April Fool's Day after all), but no. I walk out of the place even more excited than it's possible to be, Cheshire-cat smile and a burning desire to lock myself away somewhere quiet and pore over the iconic photos. It'll constitute a wonderful addition to my cycling book, DVD and magazine collection, as detailed in the Ride Journal article I had published last year, and eventual pride of place in the B&B we, like Lode, plan to set up, but with an emphasis on bike riding.
So, quite an eventful trip to this point, and we haven't even started the ride. Next morning saw a necessarily early start, fantastic breakfast after a good night's kip and a bit of pre-race stretching, and off to Ninove around an hour back west. The short 5km warm-up ride from where we parked on the ring road and back into town was perfect, and then it was a case of just riding through the start area and we were on our way. I just wish, with hindsight, that we'd made a note of where we parked the bloody car. Not dropping a pin in the iPhone's Map app because I'm too tight to pay 'substantial roaming charges when using email, web browsing, and other data services' abroad is not something I want to repeat. I'd probably saved around £2, but lost six months off my life for releasing the inner child later that afternoon. I'm surprised I had the energy, to be honest; I was obviously 'overly tired', a reason parents often use to pathetically excuse their badly-behaved offspring.

We'd made an agreement to wait for each other and try an ride as a group as much as possible. Well, I'd insisted that we ride like this, and I'm so glad that Neil understands what I'm driving at, despite him being race-fit and clearly wanting to mix it up a bit and test himself. I've got the competitive instinct burning within me somewhere, but there are certain times, like today, where I want to ride more sociably, taking in the surroundings and trying to soak up the history as so magnificently detailed in 'Emotions'. We're here, in Flanders, about to ride over these iconic climbs that we've seen so often in magazines and on television, and I really do want to drink it all in, rather than be chewing the bars alongside 18,000 other nutters, oblivious to everything. If I want to ride like that, I could simply go out on an Old Port's club run on a Sunday morning. 09:30 at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill, West Wickham, for those interested in silent, painful anti-social experiences (apologies to my good friend Dave Hickman, but it is true).

Home-made routecard, intended for stem,
left languishing in rear pocket. Berk.
As well as a fabulous weekend away, I really wanted to get a taste of how hard this event is, an insight into what the pros put themselves through, but I don't think it's actually possible. Here we are, for the most part enthusiasts riding along in a good-natured group whose objective is to get to the finish in one piece, over a shorter course, with none of the pressure to perform or lose our livelihoods that those in the cash ranks have to endure. The next day's event would see a pack of marauding, focussed, competitive athletes, where winning is their job, racing - really racing, with all the contact, flicking, agression and mind games that implies - moving at ridiculous speeds, jockeying for position on these narrow, muddy cobbled lanes in what amounts to a bare-knuckle fist fight on two wheels. It'd be hard enough if were just that, but past editions have additionally been run in cold, lashing rain and sleet, freezing fingers and toes into useless, cold flesh-stumps, rendering the kinderkopjes even more treacherous. Imagine that, and contrast it with our bone-dry, 23-degree-sunshine unseasonal experience. So, at the finish in the late afternoon sun, tired and emotional, I stood amongst the elongated shadows of the ugly concrete lamp posts that populate the landscape around here, and realised that I hadn't got anywhere near them. Really, really, bloody hard men, these Flandriens, proper men, in the old-fashioned sense of the word - forget the asinine comments about shaved legs - and my sporting heroes. I now respect them even more, if such a thing were possible.

After a fairly benign preamble, the Rekelberg, Kaperij and Kruisberg passed somewhat uneventfully, the apparent ease of riding in the bunch and the comparative shallowness of these first climbs tempting me to consider maybe pushing harder. Should I get into one of the faster-moving groups we'd see come up on our left shoulders every now and then, to be a racing cyclist? I was beginning to question my negative strategy of riding so much within myself, but then I quickly reminded myself of what my untrained limits would be when faced with what I knew what was coming up on the route: the next climbs of the Paterberg and Koppenberg were everything I was expecting. Massively steep, these cobbled climbs were jam-packed with Wielertoeristen, despite the police and marshalls' attempt to hold us back and set us off in groups, each one trying to pick their way through the crowd, either on foot, or even more bravely, still on the bike. I'd been mortified at the thought of trashing the C40 in a pointless fall, but that's what was happening all around me: riders desperately attempting to get up the climbs, running out of momentum or running into other riders, and falling in painful slow motion either onto the muddy banks either side of the narrow lane, or out onto the bone-jarring cobbles, further holding up progress. I resigned myself to walking up these two, disappointed at the perceived failure but trying also to convince myself that there was nothing I could really do. Neil and Egon faired marginally better, but as I've said before, their superior fitness counts for a lot. Confidence included.

A welcome respite from the cobbles
Back to my ride. Ideally this would mean hands lightly gripping the middle of the bars or on the hoods, absorbing vibrations, riding a big gear hard and fast to effectively hover over the saddle and fly over the cobbles, per the well-documented advice. It's the only way to ride on this stuff, by throwing caution to the wind, not worrying about braking, but instead picking your line and pushing on, and pushing hard. I saw groups of riders doing exactly this, seemingly floating as their bikes clattered beneath them, passing me with apparent ease. Despite knowing it was wrong, my tentative, slower, almost fearful riding was counter-productive. A real dilemma: ride hard like you should, burn more energy and have nothing left for later, or ride like I was, conserving energy, but wasting more in controlling a slower-moving bike, nervously worrying about colliding with other riders as I was jolted left and right. I didn't have the legs, or perhaps the balls, in both senses of the word. My poor old nads (apologies) took a right hammering - the bouncing bike must have highlighted my less-than-perfect outstretched position, and I was left riding in severe discomfort for the last 70km or so. Maybe Rohan is actually right: what's a 1-metre-70 bloke doing riding a 140mm stem anyway? A Moser-esque flat back may look good, but unbearable discomfort downstairs isn't going to help you ride like him.

Foot out of the pedal near the top of the Kapelmuur, but at least I wasn't
seen to be walking ( ... when the photo was taken)
To be honest, in spite of me really being aware of where I was and what was going on in the intervening kilometres, coming to write it down now is a bit of a blur. Nothing stands out particularly other than a growing sense of possible cobble-induced crytochidism, a steep tarmacked descent where a rider in front misjudged a sweeping corner and ended up doing a headstand in a muddy field, and a cobbled descent that freaked the bejeezus out of me. How could you actually race down this? Is this what they mean by mental toughness? I rode down it at about 10km/h, absolutely paranoid, being bounced around all over the road. Racing down this in the wet? Lunacy. I do remember the run in to Geraardsbergen and beyond really well still, and was motivated by two thoughts: I was getting near the finish and still felt good, and more importantly would soon be riding on the iconic Muur and the final climb of the Bosberg. Not only was my heart pounding out of my chest from the effort, I was getting wonderfully excited and emotional about the prospect of finally seeing and riding on what, to bike riders all over the world, is seriously hallowed ground. I've done the Ventoux many times, L'Alpe d'Huez and the Galibier, and always thought of myself as a climber, but today I so wanted to be a one of those riders who lives for the Northern classics. Not riding up 20-kilometre long well-surfaced 7% mountain passes, but rather big-effort pushes to the top of comparitively short 18% cobbled bastards. A different climb, for a different type of rider, one who would undoubtedly be seen riding in the Autobus come July; here they are the Kings of the Road.

Christ: the Muur and Kapelmuur; the hair is standing up on the back of my neck just thinking about it now, six months on. Loads of spectators at the sides of the road, urging us on as if we were pros, and just as I hit the steep section of the climb as the cobbled road bears right towards the final slog to the chapel, I slowly pass a parapleagic in a handcycle grimmacing with the effort to get to the top. I'm humbled, speechless, but only for a moment. As I pass I well up with emotion once again, of near self-hate and guilt for being able-bodied but pathetic, for all the rides I've done where I climbed off, where I packed, where I threw in the towel. I'm riding next to someone who would probably pay me money to be able to feel the pain I have in my legs. My voice trembles as I shout something crap like 'Come On! Keep Going!' in English. I'm sure he understood just from the tone, probably had no need whatsoever for the encouragement, but I felt like I may have contributed in some way to the sense of genuine bonhomie that had pervaded the entire event, a feeling that you wanted everyone to finish, everyone to feel proud of themselves for completing the ride. OK, it isn't just the pros that are heros - there are plenty of them out riding today.

Up over the top of the Muur with only one dab due to a faller in front of me and a struggle to get my foot back in, down a short and steep white-knuckle drop that you never really appreciate on the TV, and along the straight undulating roads towards the Bosberg, a climb I don't remember looking especially hard, and even if it was, it'd be the final one. I was going to go nuts up it I decided, really empty the legs in one last push. The cobbles on the steeper section nearer the top were preceded by road-side placards with cartoon drawings of former winners - amusing - but I was focussed on the top, which I figured was no worse than a cobbled equivalent of the top of Beddlestead Lane, regularly used in the aforementioned Old Portlians' Sunday ride. Now was the time to go, and I sat back in the saddle and churned my way up and over the top, feeling strong, feeling elated.

Full beans on the Bosberg
The run-in to the finish for me was somewhat of an anti-climax, to be honest, filtering us back into the centre of Meerbeke via several different approaches it seemed, and predictably for me I got lost and ended up performing a couple of detours around bits of the town, riding through barriers as I saw fellow finishers on adjacent roads. Eventually I was on the right path to the aankomst, and surprisingly finished ahead of Neil and Egon: they'd waited for me at the top of the Bosberg, but I'd not managed to find them amongst the masses of riders up there. That's what I told them in any case, and they believed it. So, a hard-fought win for me, as I waited beyond the line for my runner-up compatriots. They'd done well, and I congratulated them on a hard-fought battle in which I had emerged the winner.

As mentioned before, after my almighty carbo-deficiency kiddie-tantrum about not being able to find the car, we packed up and made our way back to Lode's B&B, all of us tired and hungry, bilious on energy drink and gels, but very much 'up'. A superb evening meal of Belgian-beer meat stew made by Lode, some final packing up and we were all in bed early - overly tired, exhuasted, but still buzzing - ready for the early start the next day to get back over to Oost-Vlaanderen to watch the pros.

Lunch in Oudenaarde and a chance to catch the live action on the TV, and then a short hop to the Eikenberg nearby to watch how it should be done: where we'd been twiddling up what would be the pros' twelfth helling, here they were big-ringing up it as if it wasn't there. It looked as if the race was very much on at this point, as the strung-out bunch chased down a small breakaway. Watching blokes speed by on bikes is, to the untrained eye I imagine, quite an unedifying prospect. However, I've always found that it's the mounting anticipation as much as the passing riders that always remains in my memory of events I've attended. A roadside of ambling spectators, armed with their Vlaamse Leeuw flags and crackling radios, chatting to each other in the same way that they'd do on any Sunday stroll, are transformed, as if conducted by the increasingly loud chop of the approaching TV helicopter rotors, into an integral part of the race experience. On the road, a klaxoning phalanx of support vehicles opens the way, creating a moving wall of human and mechanical noise that gets louder and louder as it snakes its way towards you, flags and banners are raised from waist height and waved frantically, and the air bursts with a cacophony of cheering voices and clapping, air horns and race radios.

The riders pass, we're done, the enthusiasm of the previous few minutes replaced with a post-coital awkwardness: what do we do now? Right - how do I get down of this steep bank I climbed up to get the best view? It doesn't look that steep ...I start down the bank, lose my footing, fall on my backside, and to general laughter end up at the roadside, quicker than I had intended. To bastardise two famous WW1 poems, and I apologise unreservedly, there is some corner of my jeans that is forever Flanders Fields.

Will I do it again next year? I absolutely loved it this first time - Rohan has always maintained that the first time is really special, and a massively emotional experience - but recent news that the finish is moving and the Muur and Bosberg missed out, whilst probably not making the pro racing any less exciting (indeed, repeated climbs of the viciously steep and cobbled Paterberg will be an awesome spectacle) has certainly left me with second thoughts. For me, and all the years I've watched the event, it's these last two climbs, and in particular the Kapelmuur, that have symbolised the whole race: they are certainly the ones I'll always remember most from our trip. To ride the event again and not experience the deep satisfaction of cresting the both of them just wouldn't be a true Ronde Van Vlaanderen.