So I did it, the whole 140km of it! It was a great experience, painful, crowded, but very fun.
I had promised my partner I would be back by mid-afternoon at the latest, so I set off from Brussels in the whee hours of the morning, at 6:15, after a rather short night. (Le Coriandre is a great restaurant by the way, really recommended).
I followed the recommendations from the website of the Ronde, skipped the highway and took the Ninoofsesteenweg from Brussels. Again, following instructions (I am Swiss, I can’t help myself), I parked in the designated parking area, along the Vlaamse Expresweg. I quickly got to the start area, following the flow of cyclists. Registration went super fast, and off I was.
The first 30 km were pretty relaxed, cruising along at a pace of 30-35km/h. The weather was really nice and the Flemish countryside was gently waking up. Some guys were going pretty fast and on the smaller roads you had to stay focused not to be pushed aside. But generally, the mood was great.
Before the hills, I had a chat with an old Flandrien in a green Landbouwkrediet jersey, about the “mountains” that were coming up and about who would win the race the next day.
And then the real stuff started, with the Oude Kwaremont . It was very crowded and the cobbles were greasy and very slippery. I did not insist and walked it up. If you want to ride it up, you have to be bold and pretty much elbow your way around the slower cyclists and undisciplined walkers (“on de kant!”) and have grippy tires, to at least avoid having the back wheel slipping.
Then came the Paterberg. I was a bit cooled off by the previous hellig, but was determined not to walk up and tried to push hard. But quickly the crowds slowed me down again and my wheel just started slipping. I went down, hurt my knee and got a violent cramp in my calf. I stopped on the side of the road, had an energy gel and a drink from my bidon.
Next to me, on the field, two middle-aged Flemish ladies were watching the suffer-fest, comfortably sitting in foldable chairs, chatting and commenting. This made me smile and gave some motivation to start walking up the Paterberg.
After that, it was just one hellig after the other, with a few kilometers between each to recover. The crowds must have been thinner, because I don’t remember walking.
And then, on the cobbles, I realized my hand was hurting, more than what one would expect from riding on cobbles. I took my glove off and understood: I had a big blister on the side of the hand. On closer inspection, I also had blisters on my thumb. But it was actually all right because the slightly more acute pain made me forget the pain in my knee and calf.
Soon after, the road became very familiar, and I started downshifting and smiling: I would get to try the Molenberg again, after my miserable failure during the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Cyclo!. This time, no slipping, no falling and, to paraphrase Jens Voigt, I was just smoking, you know, just …*puff* go easy to the top.
Later, after riding on the unpleasant jointed cement roads, trying to find new creative ways to position my hands on the handlebars so that I wouldn’t hurt, came the Muur. The first part is just a street in Geraardsbergen. Steep, but nothing very impressive. Despite my total lack of classics culture, I knew something harder had to come afterwards. That was the Kapel Muur proper. It was really fun, with (what felt like) crowds looking on and sheering.
The last hill was the Bosberg and after resting a bit on top (I did not go for a beer and fries on the Frit Kot, even though I was very tempted), was what seemed an interminably long ride back to Ninove (thump, thump, thump, thump), with a continuous bunch of cyclists riding at a slow pace.
The arrival was a bit of an anticlimax, amongst the crowds, but that was totally irrelevant. I had made it! I was tired, I was hurting, I was sunburned, I had just spent 7 hours on the bike, but I had made it!
I got to the arrival zone, took my “Official Flandrien” tshirt, my Het Nieuwsblad and medal and just kind of stood there, a bit dazed, just happy. I had a chat with a French guy who had done it last year, in pouring rain. I’m not sure I would have done the 140km in those conditions. He told me that most people walked up the helligen and that many were on MTB. We had been lucky with the weather.
It was a great first experience. I will clearly do it again.
Edit: Don’t miss Cycling Inquisition‘s take on the cyclosportive and his week-end in Flanders.