Tour of Flanders Sportif 2010
News: Just what the Doctor Ordered - Mud, Climbs and Cobbles, by Craig Dick
The logistics of getting to this event have been fine tuned over the last 3 years and I thought I had them all sorted out, down to sending someone for the bags at the airport while I go and get the car hire sorted out. Unfortunately Ryanair (get the spittoons at the ready) threw a financial spanner in the works when they decided to weigh the bike boxes this year and wanted to charge £20 per kg above 20kg – I shall not reveal the inner turmoil that occurred when the scales touched the 35kg mark. Suffice to say we made it there, and back, avoiding the cost of a new set of wheels for additional carriage charges.
There were 4 of us heading over for this event from Glasgow; Brian Digby, Andy Christie, Torquil MacLeod and myself (I am in the process of recruiting the former 3 for the Wheelers), and I always meet up with Brian Kilbride (St Tiernan’s – Dublin) and an entourage which includes Seamus McDonnell of the Limerick Wheelers.
The time schedule is tight; arrive Friday 1400hrs Charleroi, get car 1500hrs, drive to Brugge 1700hrs , build bike 1800hrs, start sweating as you can’t find the bag with the pedals in it 1805hrs – was it in the jettisoned items that were thrown overboard at the airport, enlist help of smug friend who has his bike already built to find them 1806hrs, consider phoning wife/mother to ask where one would find such items in bike box, consider greetin’ for mother. Breath a sigh of relief as the steed is assembled and you head out the door for the Italian with Ballan’s signed jersey on the wall. With one eye on the weather and the other on the forecast I headed off to bed around 11pm with the prospect of a 6am rise and a can or two of rice pudding for breakfast.
Grey skies, but no rain greeted us as the alarm went off and we began the continual process of eating that was to last the rest of the day. I said my farewells to the rest (as they were heading off to Ninove for the 150km route) and headed outside to meet Brian. The scene at the start of the Ronde is fantastic on both the sportive and pro-race day. Crowds meet in the emerging light, there is the familiar cackle of cleats going into pedals, vans are parked around the square as support vehicles for the numerous clubs that ride this event. As usual we headed over to take in a bit of the atmosphere, borrow a track pump, and survey the hardware on display. Even at 7am, 6C with darkening skies, wet roads and 260km to go there were riders with shorts on, clearly feeling the part.
With the usual interviews on the stage taken care of Brian and I head out of Brugge for Oostende, before making the turn away from the coast and heading south on a lazy S shaped route to Oodenarde where the real business awaited. This was a route I’d not taken before and we are treated to a beautiful sunrise sending the dock cranes into silhouette on the horizon. The first 80miles are on flat, open country with occasional villages and farm communes dotted through them, at the worst of times we are abandoned in semi-industrial farm-land between groups, with a strong cross wind or head wind coming out of the south east. At the best of times there is a tale wind and the countryside is pleasant and well maintained, the fields are ploughed and although there is the air of World War I battlefields all around the sun breaks through and quells the upsurge of desperation that can grip you when you consider what went on here not so long ago. Large groups form and there is a lot of fighting for position this year; the wind is strong, some people are obviously attuned to rubbing shoulders in a bunch others are new to the game, inevitably there is a clatter in front. From the back it looks as though someone has parted the curtains in a large theatre and Brian and I head to the gutter to avoid the upcoming casualties. There is a lot of shaking of heads; nerves, novices, seasoned campaigners it’s a meaty stew and this will not be the last of the ‘chutes’ with another 80miles to go.
There’s not a lot of chatting in the bunches this year, but those that I speak to are generally Belgian – they favour Boonen for tomorrow, but are fearful of Cancellara. I want Devolder to win again, but they are more ambivalent towards him and I get the sense that the Flemish like someone who races more and prepares less – hence the reason for Gilbert’s popularity here. Its great to be in a country where cycling is king even for a few days you feel understood, there is no need to explain why you go out on a bike for so long.
All of a sudden we are at the second feed station and I know that despite the fact I have conserved myself well you cannot ride 90miles and not get a bit fatigued. Up until this point some miles have whizzed by and others have expanded. I expect my universe to continue expanding for the foreseeable future.
Looking at the race route I saw that Peter Van Petegem had back loaded the last 50miles and there are non-stop Bergs or cobbled sections . The role call is familiar, however, a new hill for me – Den Aast is thrown in at the start, then the classices appear; Kluisberg, asphalt with a nasty steep section in the middle and a baying crowd at the top; Knokteberg; surely this has been in a carry-on movie at some point, asphalt again – don’t worry there have been the cobbles of Vaernstraat to contend with in between. Now there is the critical section for the pros; Oude-Kwaremont, Paterburg and Koppenburg. I always wondered why this was so important before I rode it - the reason? As soon as you finish the Oude-Kwaremont there is a fast descent on dual carriageway followed by a drag up and a sharp left onto a farm road that narrows and drops off the side of the hill that you’ve just climbed. It gets steeper and more winding the further you go down, so any gaps increase and then there is a sudden right angled turn into the Paterburg. Anyone at the back here will have an effort to get back into the lead group over the next 30km, an effort they would rather not have made.
Did I mention it has been raining for the last 3hours? I’ve always made it up the Paterburg without walking, but not today, someone steps off in front then another then there’s nowhere to go and no way of getting back on again until the top. Unfortunately the same fate befalls me on the Koppenburg but this time my back wheel somehow skids round before I ride into the banking on the side- utterly baizarre! At this point Seamus, whose pedal is hanging off limps up to the crest of the hill and Brian appears too. We express disappointment, mines is slightly milder than the expletives I uttered at the top of the Paterburg as I was photographed making the walk of shame. Brian points out he was disappointed not to have to walk sooner, but people kept on getting out of his way. A more enlightened viewpoint given the conditions.
Well lady luck has had here chance – you either get up these two or not. Now its down to you, do you have the legs, have you been eating enough, mental fatigue starts to take its toll and more than anything the pave rattles the life out of you. On we roll, expecting Seamus’ pedal to give way under him at any point until we reach the foot of the Taienberg and Torquil appears. Things are grim, Torq’s blood sugar is less than 6 and has been all day. I semi-force him into running for home after another two bergs, and the prospect of some company in the form of Seamus is enough to seal it. Afterwards Seamus said the road back to Ninove, looked like the remains of a Napoleonic defeat. Mechanical and biomechanical failures abounded.
Brian and I plod on awaiting the prospect of the primes on the Muur-Kapelmuur and the Bosberg. Last year it was a close run thing and there was a full range of Belgian tactics employed, the commissaries were consulted, there was testing – both of us were positive thankfully and relations were sour between Celtic nations for a period. This year I decide to attack from the bottom on both and hope for the best – its uncharted territory for most people – how are your legs going to stand up to 22% sections after 150miles. This is the adventure in riding such an event, there is an element of the unknown every year. Thankfully the gamble pays off and I am chatting to people who have a barbecue going at the top of the Bosberg when Brian arrives. Unfortunately a new sprint prime has been introduced at the 100m to go mark – I lead out, and as I turn to assure myself that I have dropped Brian I watch him go by with relative ease. Like Brian’s slightly more famous countryman Sean Kelly I have over-rated my strength on the uphill sprint finish.
Now for the reward –straight into the bar at the finish line for the first brew. As I park the bike a middle aged woman asks me am I really from Glasgow (wearing the club colours), yes indeed. I expect her to ask about Robert Millar, or given her age possibly she had a crush on Billy Bilsland when he was here. No. Do you know Susan Boyle she asks, such a beautiful singer! How could I argue with that.
It would be unfair not to mention the glamour of the next day because this is what makes me come back to the Ronde each year. I was delighted when I woke, the heavens were opening, I watched Lance look miserable during a TV interview on the stage and then trotted round to the start 100m from the hotel to see the great man come round the corner in front of us. Torq and I shouted on David Millar and told him we’d be looking for him on the Muur – he more or less scoffed at as and raised his eyebrows in an ‘Aye, right’ fashion. Off they went, it dried up, we ate omelette, frittes and got on the train for Geraardsbergen and the Muur again.
On the train I got the impression that Andy and Brian were a little let down by the weekend so far, but I was hopeful that the spectacle of the big race and the knowledge that they had ridden the course would breath life into the day’s events. Sure enough the atmosphere was infectious and our regular status in the bar on the lower slopes was only marginally overshadowed by the presence of Jan Raas taking a brew in at the table behind. I have no idea how Cancellara got back on after his bike change – this for me was a critical section of pave, with the Molenberg appearing shortly after it. The warning bells must have been ringing for the rest of the favourites after he re-appeared at the front. After a bit more race viewing on the TV we headed out for the real thing, plus some sausages!
This year it was right to the top for us and 30minutes of outdoor drinking before the race arrived. The crowds are vast here, the mood is buoyant and the mix of people is incredible – children, grandmothers, racers, ex-pros, local dignitaries, all of them given over to the Ronde’s passion. Who won is history, but for me the highlight of the day was hearing Millar’s name on the radio and watching him arrive in 5th position on the Muur as we promised we would. Surely he must have been thinking of us – but having seen his picture at the end I’m not sure he was capable of thought at that point!
Same again next year I think, hopefully without Ryanair this time. This is a great trip, its also a long report but so is 260km over pave!