The alarm clock went off at 5:00 and my girlfriend pushed me out of the bed. A shower, four slices of bread with butter and jam and a good cup of coffee later, I was in my friend C.’s car with our bikes and all the gear.
We drove easily out of Brussels and along the E17, all the way to Gent and then down to Oudenaarde. The cars were already cuing up to get into one of the five parking lots prepared for the cyclo. We found a parking spot and got ready. I just could not make up my mind as to what to wear. It was still dark, but already overcast. The weather forecast for the morning was cloudy, humid, with a light breeze and 8°C.
I was hesitating between my versions of what the bicycling.com “what to wear” engine is recommending for those conditions and 5°C (long sleeved thermal Craft underwear and winter windstopper) and my version of what they recommend for 10°C (jersey, arm warmers and a rain jacket). In the end, I went for the second option: I knew the bergs would eventually warm me up. And they did.
We went for the 87 km route. This was the second time I was doing the Tour of Flanders Cyclo (on the first time: read here). I was not ready to queue up at the bottom of the hellingen like last year. Hence the solution of doing the “short” route. The decision was easy to take this year, since it only meant losing four hellingen out of fourteen. Last year, the short route only contained three out of fourteen, which would have been frustrating. I mean, so much less pain for so little less distance?
I also have had less time to train this year, with my second boy coming in December and all. I have a much better basis, of course, because I have now been riding seriously for one and a half year, and not six months like last time. But I was afraid my knees would not survive the 134 km course.
Plus the friend I was doing it with, C., was less than enthusiastic about doing more than the « small » 87 km course for his first Ronde. So the decision was an easy one.
So from the parking area we took off to reach the start. Since we had done the pre-registration on the web and gotten our number plaque, we just took off. The first kilometres were really pleasant, we just enjoyed the ride. First along the Schelde and then on a converted railway track. After a while, we looked back and a good group of ten-fifteen people were shielding themselves from the wind behind our back.
After about half an hour, we turned left and there it was, the Koppenberg (600m at 10% on average with a maximum at 19%).
Our legs were already warmed up, but were clearly unprepared for that helling! The cobblestones were nice and dry and the road free of cyclists. But it just hurt and my heart rate went through the roof. And the people who were shielding behind us just flew up the hill.
From there on, it was just up, down, a few kilometres, up, down, a few kilometres. Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Kapelleberg, Varent, Foreest, Berg Ten Houte, Kruisberg. Some with asphalt roads, others with cobblestones. But it was really fun, with the dry cobblestones and the unpopulated roads.
The fields on each side were already covered with huge installations for the VIP areas for the race the next day. That is really when you fully realise that the Ronde is a big deal in Flanders! The berg itself was relatively flat (2200m at 4% on average with a maximum at 10%), but the cobblestones pretty rough.
The last hellinge was the Paterberg.
A massive hill for the finish (360m at 13% on average with a maximum at 20%). I ground to a halt and with the cobblestones, almost fell off. I decided I would just walk up the remainder. Not very proud of myself, but I certainly did not want to fall off (and hurt my precious bike) just for the sake of having done all the bergs on my bike. C. was more courageous and strong, and he zig-zagged his way up, on the bike.
We finished the last 13 km of flat roads by getting the hammer down and time-trialling back to town. The road was closed to cars for the last couple of kilometres and we sprinted the last two hundred meters to the finish line. It was amusing seeing Tommeke, Pozzato and Ballan do the same thing the next day, on TV. Sort of the same thing.
Anyway, we then rode into Oudenaarde. There you directly witness the importance of the Ronde in Flanders: almost every bar and every shop window had bikes in them or on them, portraits of cyclists, team kits on mannequins, flags, etc. And of course, you pass the Center Ronde Van Vlaanderen located directly on the centre square, right across from the town hall.
So all in all, it was a great experience, like last year. It was very different, shorter, less populated and thus less stressful. Plus without the sun, a mild breeze and 8°C, it was less … Californian.
I know I’ll be back next year!