The Tour of Flanders (Sportive) from the gutter

A beginner’s tale of riding Flanders for the first time.

I knew riding the 133km Ronde van Vlanderen over Easter 2013 was going to be a big challenge from the first moment the idea took hold.

The decision was made months before and our places were booked from January. By my standards I rode a lot in the three months leading up to the event – over 1,600km in fact. I was and am fitter than I’ve ever been at this time of the year. I knew I would need to be. I even managed to dodge the bullet of the winter cold until a day or so before the ride.

Flanders rightly has a place in cycling’s folklore. As everyone knows, Belgian riders are hard men that ride hard roads. Belgians are racers and live to ride hard in all weathers.

I however, am a recreational rider, who likes riding in good weather over rolling hills and had never even seen a cobble close up, let alone ridden over some. I am far, far from hardcore, perhaps the stereotypical definition of a MAMIL/gentlemanly leisure rider on my nice bike (no Rapha though). I am not and have never raced and I’ve never learnt how to go deep into the red to hang onto a wheel or to carve through other riders on the road to keep up.

This was always going to be a great adventure for me and looking back at it now, it’s by far my greatest experience in cycling and one that has changed my perspective in a number of ways – all for the better. I am a complete convert to the Spring Classics in a way that just enjoying them via Eurosport could never have achieved.

Playing about for a local Press Photographer before the ride...

Playing about for a local Press Photographer before the ride…

For me, this years event was a unique opportunity on many levels. I travelled to and from Belgium with one of my favourite cycling journalists, Dave Arthur (@davearthur), as we’d decided with David Alvarez of Stoemper Bikes that there could be no better, nor more authentic way for Dave to review the Stoemper Taylör than to take it to its spiritual home and ride it hard over the cobbles. We were even more fortunate in that Flanders drew out another couple of survivors of the legendary Stoepid week, that helped launched the Stoemper brand in Jeff Lockwood (@ThirtyTwo16) and the great cycling photographer, Chris Milliman.

After a few mix-ups on the way to the ride we eventually rolled out, Dave, David, Chris and myself to begin the adventure. Chris Milliman is a big guy and a very strong rider who likes to ride as hard as he can. The two David’s were both up for that too being both competitive and racers. The three of them were veterans of several rides at the Ronde, so they knew what was in front of us and how to attack it.IMG_2452-001

It became quite clear to me that from the first 5-10km, what I’d trained to avoid was definitely going to happen. I had trained specifically to try to avoid being dropped and left behind but I knew early on, that it would be a mistake for me to try to ride like the other three – attacking and carving through the thousands of riders on the road. If the other were riding at 90-95%, I didn’t think I could risk riding at more than 80-85%.

I don’t have the experience of carving through other cyclists, group riding and certainly not attacking the ride like the other guys. But more importantly, I didn’t know the course, I didn’t know the cobbles, I didn’t know what was in front of me and I didn’t want to blow myself up trying to keep up and pushing too hard. For me, the sensible approach was to ride a bit within myself to ensure I could cope with whatever appeared in front of me.

Shortly before we hit the first climb of the Koppenburg, Dave Alvarez told me “you have to ride the cobbled climbs seated”. Anyone who’s ridden with me knows, whenever the terrain tilts up, I’m straight up out of the saddle. Always. Honestly I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

Nothing could have prepared me for the cobbles. It may sound melodramatic but I don’t mean it to. They are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced as a recreational rider. Right from the bottom of it, the Koppenburg was a shock and I found myself thinking – just how many miles of cobbles are there on this ride! I’ve been thinking about how to describe them to someone who’s not had the “pleasure”. The closest I can get is to say, you know that feeling when you hit a good sized pothole – the shock through you and the bike. Well it’s like that every 3-4 inches for up to a couple of kilometres. It’s probably a bit dramatic but it’s the best I can think of right now. Also bear in mind that the cobbles of Flanders are the ones that get looked after. The ones at Roubaix don’t and are apparently much worse.

It’s almost impossible to climb on the cobbles standing up – as soon as you stand up you lose traction, momentum – it’s just hopeless. Even when the cobbles are dry, there’s very little grip standing up and if you think you can just change to a low gear and spin your way up, think again. That doesn’t work either. Then when you add in having the road almost solidly covered with cyclists,  many of whom are even less competent than you, falling over, walking up, weaving, wobbling all at slightly different paces, you start to get a feel for it. Actually the steepness of the Koppenburg or the length of it were almost secondary issues.

We got lucky with the Koppenburg, it was the only cobbled climb we all rode and finished mostly together at the top and we managed to ride around the traffic too. Jeff Lockwood, who I mentioned earlier was riding with some other friends and hit the climb 5 minutes later and it was impassable. They walked up. Seriously it doesn’t take much for each climb to snarl up. When one person falls, there usually seemed to a small domino effect and what looked like a path through the crowd,  disappeared in the blink of an eye.

I’m so glad they put the Koppenburg near the beginning as one of the first climbs – fresh legs helped enormously. As we regrouped, I felt like I was in shock. My plan for riding them was completely wrong and I lacked the confidence to attack them and to attack the traffic. I also still had about 120km to go at that point, with a bunch of famously challenging cobbled sections in front of me. I didn’t know when or where the next attack of the cobbles would come from.

Riding off the cobbles onto “normal” Belgian roads felt like the smoothest most wonderful tarmac you’ve ever found. Absolutely bliss. I so chose the right bike to ride as well. My steel Stoemper Taylör was immense and absolutely perfect for the challenge. It laughed off the cobbles and I can’t imagine a better bike to ride on the roads of Flanders or any spring classic type of ride. This is leaving my professional bias aside, I was there as a beginner and as an enthusiast and the bike was simply fantastic for the job. I’ll leave Dave Arthur to give his professional perspective on the bike soon and you can make your own mind up.

Every time we hit cobbles though, I struggled, not the bike. My technique was less than ideal, I didn’t push hard enough or typically ride a big enough gear and I kept holding back, wanting to save a bit of energy for the climbs near the end – the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg which I knew to be close together at around the 120km mark.

On the normal tarmac sections, I was absolutely fine, the ride was impeccably signed and marshalled by both the Belgian Police and volunteers. Given there were 16,000 of us doing the ride, there was always someone to follow.

The pattern of the ride for me was chase (relatively speaking) to try to catch the other three up after each cobbled section – usually without success. They would wait for me every now and then. We’d then stay together until the next cobbled section and they’d be gone again within about a minute.

I have to say when I could watch the three of them, the two Dave’s and Chris carving ahead of me, it was a fantastic sight to behold and a terrific lesson for me in the differences between those of us who have raced and ridden rides like this before and those of us who haven’t.  An entirely different style and approach and I loved watching it whenever I could stay in sight long enough.

But in almost no time at all they’d be gone again and I’d be trying to figure out how to make the cobbles pass more quickly and less like I was all at sea. I kept trying to stand out of the saddle on the climbs and it kept not working. I kept picking my gingerly around other riders rather than trying to blast past. I kept keeping something in reserve for later. Sitting down I found my front wheel leaving the ground on the climbs, standing up the rear wheel spinning. I kept trying to pick a low gear to spin my way up and that kept not working either. I guess in a way, I kept trying to ride my normal style and Flanders kept telling me “you’re not from round here are you” and “look fella, we ride differently here”.

Every time I came to a cobbled section I wondered “how long is this going to last for? I hope it’s a short one”. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. It was always hard. I never once rode hard enough or buried myself trying to get across as quickly as possible. In hindsight, this probably wasn’t a great strategy, but it was also the one the vast majority of riders were using. Pick your way through and hope for the best.

Dave, David and Chris were still chasing each other across the course. Well mostly the two Davids were chasing Chris, who was riding hard. I could tell Chris was a bit frustrated with having me lagging behind and them having to wait but I knew my strategy of riding a bit under my potential pace was the right one for my first time at Flanders.

At about 100kms, the Police held riders in large groups to negotiate a busy dual carriage way. I caught up with the guys while they waited to cross and they said they were going to go for it for the last 33km and they’d meet me at the end. This was cool with me. They shot off and I picked my own pace.

The last 33km included the Oude Kwarement and the Paterberg and over 10kms on the flat into the finish, which I’d been warned was likely to be into a headwind for much of the time.

By this time, I’d embraced the gutters in the cobbled sections and was actively seeking them out. Gutters, grass verges – they were all fair game. I’d seen pros do it and although it’s not pure Belgian riding, it made a huge difference when you used them. Rather than bouncing with little momentum on the cobbles getting into the gutter meant you could accelerate, get your momentum back and get some brief respite from the juddering of the cobbles.

Once I got to the top of the Oude Kwaremont, there was only one mean nasty cobbled climb left – the Paterberg. I’d been very lucky in that although it had been tricky, I’d managed to ride up every climb without stopping even with people falling over, the traffic and the general chaos that ensued on each climb. Sadly my luck ran out on the Paterberg. About a third of the way up, a couple of riders fell over within metres of each other and in the traffic jam that ensued, I had to stop. I was gutted, as I was confident I would have ridden all the way up but it wasn’t to be. I got off and walked/slipped in my shoes and pushed my bike for about 100m until it was clear enough to remount and finish the climb.

From there we wended our way down some little lanes until we got onto the flat run into Oudenaarde and the finish. Having left some matches un-burnt, I still felt quite strong right until the end and rode at a reasonable pace (for a leisure rider, not a racer) all the way to the first finish line. At points we were stuck in cycle lanes in traffic but outside of these, I was quite happy riding across to groups in front into the head wind and leapfrogged groups most of the way to the finish line you see on TV. With about 500 metres to go (past the flamme rouge (which was blue)) traffic got very heavy as people stopped at the finish for the pro race. The two David’s were there waiting and said they’d only been waiting a few minutes (which was nice to hear, even if I still don’t believe them). We took some photos and I said I didn’t think this is the finish as I’d seen a finish sign right near the start. So after photos, we rode on through the centre of Oudenaarde back towards the start in the crowd and I was right the finish was down there.IMG_2440-001

It was lightly snowing as we finished and it was definitely cold. They had people cutting off our numbers from our bikes at the finish line so you could swap them for a free t-shirt if you wanted to (I didn’t). We parked our Stoempers and headed to get frites and a beer. The beer tents were heated and that alone was wonderful. After half an hour or so of chit chat and a couple of beers, we headed back to the car to drive home to David’s house. The ride back to the car was absolutely freezing. It had been a cold ride (full winter kit) and I shivered most of the way back to the car. I also had the closest I’d managed to a crash, not concentrating and hitting a Belgian curb. I did manage to save it – but it wasn’t pretty and gave us a bit of a laugh to finish with.

I was tired but not exhausted, delighted to have done it and delighted to have stopped riding on cobbles. The bikes had been faultless, we’d had no punctures, no mechanicals (apart from a loose cleat on Mr Arthur’s shoe). My wrists ached (no jokes please), my legs ached but I had plenty of that wonderful post ride elation. There and then, I wouldn’t have accepted a free entry to next year’s event though – the cobbles had been a brutal shock. Almost a week later, I’d bite your arm off.IMG_2437-001

On Monday before we came back to the UK, we also rode up the Muur and the Bosberg and I nearly kept up with the others! Experience helped and I pushed a bit harder than I had on Saturday, but I’d still train and ride differently next time.

We took a few photos (which you’ll see again before too long) and the one with me at the front on the climb is a set up – you’ll also notice old habits die very hard and I was out of the saddle too.2-IMG_5707-001

We rode out to the Bosberg, rode up it, then turned around and rolled down it to get back to the car and head home. The sun was out, it was about 10 degrees and there were four of us on Stoempers, it was a fantastic end to a fantastic adventure.

To prove my point about how good the bike was over the cobbles (in my mind anyway), David Alvarez and I both made it into the Strava top 10 on the Bosberg descent and we could have gone plenty faster. I rode about half of the descent on my brakes.

For those of you wondering about the lack of the Muur in the race, it was all dug up past the church at the top. Right now there isn’t a road there to race over. Once they fix it, I hope it’s back as it’s a fantastic little climb, an iconic image and felt like one of the easier cobbled climbs on Monday.IMG_2448-001

It really was a fantastic experience and part of what was one of my best weekends ever. I had a fantastic time, great company, great bikes, great camaraderie and a wonderful introduction to the spring classics. And yes, I really need to think of another word in place of re-using fantastic every two seconds.

Dear reader, this is an absolute must for your bucket list and frankly you’re going to need to do it several times if you can. The first time is about learning how to do it as I’ve found out. It’s a whole different world and a better but harder one. You’ll probably ride it properly the second time and discuss cobble techniques with any friend you have who’ve ridden it more than once.

My suggestions for people contemplating their first trip in the future:

–           Try to go with others who’ve done it before – it makes it so much easier.

–           Train lots – make sure you’re fit.

–           Ride a bike that won’t bash you up – Not a super stiff carbon frame and deep section wheels

–           Practise climbing steep hills seated all the way up

–           Practice pushing a bigger gear than you normally would on short steep climbs while you’re seated.

–           Be prepared to ride at least two gears higher than normal across the cobbles.

–           For me, the left side of the cobbled climbs seemed to be the better one to avoid the traffic.

–           Ride as hard as you can comfortably sustain for 133km and about 1600m of climbing. Almost all of the climbs are short and steep.

–           Embrace the gutters if you’re struggling with the cobbles. Take the risk on punctures for the smoother ride (we didn’t get one puncture between the four of us, but we might have been lucky).

–           Get tips on cobble technique from more experienced riders.

–           Cobbled descents and flat sections are nearly as hard as the climbs (and often longer). All cobbles are hard

–           Book your place and do it – it’s a fantastic experience.

Thanks for reading.