So, as planned, we did the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Cyclo on Sunday. This was my very first cyclosportive, so I did not know what to expect really. In three words: a great experience!
The first good surprise was the weather. We were expecting some rain, or at least a drizzle. On Saturday, the PROs had it pretty rough, with strong winds and heavy rain. On Sunday, it was windy all right, but sunny and a pleasant 7-8°C. A second nice surprise was that the organizers had signaled the way from the recommended parking spot to Sint-Pietersplein, which made it very easy to do those 2 km to the start. This might seem silly, but there’s nothing more unpleasant than circling in a city you don’t know very well, instead of riding a cyclosportive… It also provided a good sign of the quality of the organisation.
After paying the 8€ entry fee, we set off. We were probably amongst the last ones to leave (which meant an uncrowded sign-up area). After a quick ride through the city, we were soon riding along the Schelde. Being used to the rough jointed concrete pavement of the Brussels-Charleroi canal, the tarmac along the river was a bliss. The landscape is also really beautiful there. Also, the parcours was well marked, with numerous orange arrows. This first section felt like a fast-paced training ride with good marking, basically.
At Nederzwalm, the 65 km and 95 km loops separated, and we left the river to go into the countryside. After a while, I decided to eat something and took out a cereal bar. These things are kind of tricky to open with winter gloves (without using the PRO method of course, which involves ripping it open with the teeth and spitting out the little plastic pieces that inevitably come off). Then suddenly, there was a left turn, which took me by surprise.
And here I was, at the bottom of the Molenberg helling (462m of cobblestones at 7% with some parts at 14,2%), with my large chainring and a small sprocket and a cereal bar in my hand. The cobblestones were relatively dry but my rear wheel was slipping. People kept on coming up, panting. I decided to put my foot down. My advice: don’t put your foot down on a helling.
I somehow climbed back on the bike, fell down, picked myself up and rode up to the end. My friend handled this much better and was patiently waiting at the end. I am very disappointed by my performance (I would have loved to pull a Cancellara on the Molenberg), but at least I learned something. Repeat after me: don’t put your foot down on a helling.
After some more riding, we encountered our first pavé section, the Paddestraat in Velzeke. It has been a road since the Roman times (part of the Boulogne-sur-Mer/Köln road) but thankfully they have redone the cobblestones since.
“On cobbles you tend to ride a big gear. It just feels good and it’s easier to keep constant pressure on the back wheel so it doesn’t start bouncing. Of course this is a good thing but it will cost you a lot of energy doing this for a long time so it’s important to ride on a smaller gear early on to save your legs. (…) When going all out on a cobbled section ride the big chainring but, as always, too big a gear is never good!: put on a gear as large as possible and just ride hard.”
So I rode as high a gear I could, and it was actually quite fun. You don’t feel your legs or your hands really, it is tricky to change your gears and your are like glued to the road. But at the same time, it feels fast. As I said, quite fun.
At the end of the cobble section was the feeding station, which was welcome (on the menu: bananas, pain d’épice, as well as cereal bars and a sports drink provided by Sports Control).
Now that we were on the same route as the 95km loop (since the Molenberg, actually), there were a lot more people, which made it feel more like an event. Since it was super windy, I was thinking of trying to draft behind a peloton. But for that, you need to be really close and I was way too scared to ride 30-50cm behind people I don’t know. Riding in a peloton is a technique I will need to work on, at one point or another. I read somewhere than you can win 40% more power by drafting.
The rest was pretty uneventful (except for a couple of pavé sections), and we got to the end after riding for 2:20. We parked our bikes (there was even a sort of valet service) and went for a beer in the Flanders Classics tent.
I really loved this first experience, and will clearly do it again. As expected, I did not get anywhere near my limits with this 65km ride, but that was never the point. It was a really nice entry into the season. What is certain is that I will be riding more cyclosportives this year!
Next time I ride on the cobbles though, I will try mounting wider tires (700×25 instead of my 700×23) with more grip. And not put my foot down on the helligen.