Amateurs and wannabees sample the hallowed cobbles of Belgium’s best-loved bike race

The day before Fabian Cancellara romped to victory in the 2014 edition of the Tour of Flanders, I was riding the very same roads and hauling my way up the very same hills. On the Koppenberg – “probably the most famous hill in the world”, according to the T-shirt slogan – my back wheel was spinning on polished cobblestones, while all around me other riders struggled to keep going, or failed and fell into the verge. Managing to stay upright, I reached the top and was applauded for my efforts by a crowd of flag-waving spectators.

This may be only the ‘Cyclo’, the opportunity for club cyclists and amateur racers to sample one of the hardest single-day bike races in the world, but it gives a taste of the conditions and atmosphere enjoyed by the professionals when they ride the route for real. Combine riding the cyclo with watching the pro race next day and it’s a cyclist’s perfect weekend.

The Build-Up

The story begins two years ago when I rode the Paris-Roubaix sportive and found myself unexpectedly enjoying the experience of pounding my bike across rugged pave’. With Roubaix done, and a couple of Etapes in the bag, the inevitable question was ‘where next?’ and the answer – just as inevitably – was Flanders, the heartland of European bike racing.

With a couple of buddies from my local cycling club we booked a tour. And so, when most sensible cyclists were taking it easy through the winter, I was putting in big miles, often in bad conditions, preparing myself for windswept Belgian roads and those notorious cobbled climbs that have tested the legs of the best bike-riders in the world for more than a century.

The Cyclo

Fast forward to the first weekend in April, and I’m in Bruges. The Tour of Flanders cyclosportive begins in a stadium car park on the outskirts. It’s bland and uninspiring, but at least there’s enough space for the 4000 riders doing the long distance (250km) route option.

A tootle through the suburbs in the dawn light takes us to the historic Markt square, where the professionals will begin their race next day. Just like them, we go under a start arch. Unlike them, we ride a few hundred metres and then have to deal with road works and temporary traffic lights.

It’s an inauspicious start. And it’s followed by one of the most tedious sections of cycling I’ve done for a long time. Despite the event’s prestige, the roads are not closed, so we ride for about 100km down a narrow cycle-path beside a busy highway, with little room for overtaking, lots of kerbs and bollards to avoid, lots of twitchy riders continually braking and accelerating, and lots of passing lorries kicking up dust.

But all is forgiven when we reach Oudenaade and join the short and medium-distance (80km and 135km) route options. There are many more participants on the road, and a lot less car traffic, and at last we have the opportunity to enjoy the ride.

The Hills

So far, the route has been all flat tarmac, but now we’re in the lumpy region billed by the local tourist board as the Flemish Ardennes, and that means two things: hills and cobbles. Sometimes served separately, sometimes together.

First hill is the Wolvenberg, followed by two long flat sections of cobbled ‘straat’ to loosen the legs, as well as anything on the bike not bolted down tight, going by the number of pumps and bottles lying in the road.

Then comes the Molenberg. At first it’s an unassuming little lane, with a neat hedge on one side and tranquil meadow on the other, but soon turns into a nasty climb with some very rough cobblestones and a steep gradient maxing out at 14%, plus a bulging camber thrown in for good measure.

Riding in a tight bunch, it’s an effort to maintain a half-decent speed as well as steer my front wheel around the worse of the protruding cobble edges. It only takes one rider to get it wrong and put a foot down, and everyone behind is forced to come to a halt. Luckily, no-one stops, and we all make it.

Then come two more flat cobbled sections winding through the fields. They’re reminiscent of the Paris-Roubaix pave’, and rough enough to judder the bike all over the place, but maybe not quite as bad as their French cousins. The same technique is still called for though: hands loose on the tops, sit back in the saddle, big gear, pound away, grimace, hope it ends soon.

So when the next two climbs – Leberg and Valkenberg – turn out to be tarmac, it’s a blessed relief from the pounding, although they’re still steep and nasty enough to force some out-of-the-saddle straining near the top.

On and on we go, alternating stretches of cobble and tar, with the hills coming thick and fast: Boigneberg, Eikenberg and the infamous Koppenberg, quickly followed by Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg (apparently Tom Boonen’s favourite hill for attacking) and Kaperij (where we stop, most un-Boonen-like, for a free can of Red Bull).

Then comes the Kanariesberg and Kruisberg, with every hill forcing riders to change down through the gears and concentrate on finding the smoothest route to the top. Sometimes it's the crest of the camber. Or it might be the gutter. You pays your money and takes your choice. Either way, there’s always a Belgian on your wheel or skimming past with little apparent effort.

In between the hills and cobbled sections, we swoop along delightful roads through the undulating landscape. Time to look up and enjoy the scenery. We pass farms, little villages and a couple of windmills.

Flanders can be notorious for its bad weather, but we are lucky. No rain, and temperatures warm enough for ¾ tights - and even shorts if you’re hardy. Or Belgian.

The Pain

With 220km done, we reach the last hills, and it’s a grand finale with two of the most famous names in Flanders: Oud Kwaremont and Paterberg. My legs are beginning to lose power, and I’m finding it increasingly hard to go as fast as possible up a cobbled 20% slope, but by now it’s a sunny afternoon and the spectators are out in force, so keeping the pedals turning becomes a matter of national pride as well as survival.

The Kwaremont doesn’t disappoint, and looks just like it does in those famous pictures from past editions of the pro race. Starting with a gentle gradient, it just gets steeper and steeper, winding up between grassy banks, with the cobbles getting increasingly rough and more slippery.

Someone in front stands up, spins a back wheel and falls off. His mate stops to help. In response to following riders' screams of ‘allez!', plus a choice selection of Flandrian insults, they get out of the way just in time, and I’m able to keep going all the way to the top.  Phew.

The Glory

A quick breather and photo stop and then it’s back on the bike with just one more hill to go: the Paterberg. Infamous because it’s mostly straight and unrelentingly steep like a ski-slope. Controversial because it’s now the last climb on the revised route of the pro race. Hard because, well  because I’ve now been riding for 9 hours and I’m knackered.

Halfway up, as my leg muscles scream, my back tyre slides, and I’m stationary for a moment. I move my weight back, the tyre grips, and I’m moving again. Push push push. Nearly there. Sweat in the eyes. Mind that hole. One more push. Done it.

As I crest the summit, I’m greeted with a cheer from some local fans enjoying a road-side beer and barbeque. I’ll take their adulation, well-oiled or not.

The End

Then it’s all over. A downhill section and a steady cruise along beautiful smooth flat roads back to the finish at Oudenaarde. Some riders sprint, but I’m content to freewheel across the line, happy in the knowledge that I got round the route without my bike or body suffering serious grief.

I also have an even greater respect for Cancellara, Boonen and the other professionals that I see flying across the cobbles the following day. It puts my wobbly ascents in perspective, and confirms that my endurance levels are not what they were, but the combination of riding the route then watching the pros is undeniably a fantastic way to experience the Tour of Flanders.

The Reflection

Would I do it again? Yes. Would I skip the first bit down the main road? Yes, probably. Although it was good to get a taste of the full 'pro' distance, I wouldn't want to do it again. Would I do all the other bits? Absolutely. In reality, the pros did a different course, with three big laps in the latter part of the race including three ascents of Oud Kwaremont, while us sportivistes did each hill only once. But it was still a great experience, and highly recommended for all bike fans.

The Practicalities

To ride the Tour of Flanders Cyclo, you can enter on-line, then arrange your own hotels, and make your own way to Belgium by car, ferry, plane or train. All the info for this year’s event is here: http://www.sport.be/rondevanvlaanderen/2014/eng/  There will be something similar for 2015.

Alternatively, packages are available from various companies. We joined Sports Tours International on a three-night-four-day trip that included coach to/from the UK, hotel in Ghent, sportive entry, transfers to/from the sportive on the Saturday and to watch the pro race on the Sunday. If cobbles aren’t your thing, this company organises similar tours to other European sportives and races. http://www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk/cycling


Jez Ash [155 posts] 1 year ago

Sounds awesome but like the 135km is definitely the one to go for  1

turboprannet [125 posts] 1 year ago

I absolutely loved doing the ride - the best day in the saddle I've ever had even if the first 100km were rather dull.

I tried to sprint over the line but it was full of morons taking selfies and self preservation took priority over looking cool, leading to a casual finish. Just as well as one of our club tried the arms outstretched earlier and nearly came off on the timing band.

I'd recommend it to anyone, as an event/sportive you will struggle to match it.

step-hent [718 posts] 1 year ago

Agree with all of this - a top ride and a serious challenge. I actually quite enjoyed the first 100km: we had a biggish group from my club and we were able to hammer along (admittedly taking the road at times, and occasionally getting a shout from a passing outrider). Then came the pain (lots of it), and then the satisfaction of a ride well done and a beer in the square in Oudenaard. Watching the pros do it the following day was the icing on the cake - highly recommended.

mrchrispy [428 posts] 1 year ago

well thats my 1st weekend in April sorted for next year. sold.

surly_by_name [275 posts] 1 year ago

Well done. Having done a couple of similar events, I tend to the view that the first 100kms of tediousness isn't worth it. Although this isn't true of Amstel Gold sportive.

I don't wish to appear pedantic, but unless you were very lost (and rode considerably further than you thought) you weren't anywhere near the Ardennes. The bergs around Oudenaarde are sometimes referred to (misleadingly) as the "Flemish Ardennes", although that's about as accurate as describing the Limburg "the Switzerland of the Netherlands".

davewalshphoto [7 posts] 1 year ago

Surly beat me on the pedantic comment... but well, hey, I live here in Belgium. With the "Ardennes" thing it's that phenomenon of everywhere wanting to be somewhere else. The Dutch, and the Flemish love the *real* Ardennes, so this may be a contributing factor. Just to confuse the issue:

The Real Ardennes - range of hills in Belgium and Luxembourg, stretching into Germany and France. Highest point in Belgium is Signal de Botrange, at 694m, very close to German border. Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne are two of the big races that happen in the Belgian Ardennes. There may not be cobbles, but there's some serious hills. I did a 140km sportif there (Sean Kelly Classic) over much the same climbs as the L-B-L and after 15km, had around 2800m of climbing on the click. Fantastic place to ride a bike. Never a flat moment.

The Flemish Ardennes: Where the Tour of Flanders and other races happen. While there's no doubting the steepness and cobbled-toughness of these hills, they're blips on the landscape compared to the real Ardennes.

Petite Ardennes/Ardennes Brabançonnes: This is the region to the east and southeast of Brussels, where races like the Brabantse Pijl are held, with lots of steep short sharp shocks and the odd bit of cobbles. Hills like Hagaard, Hertstraat, Smeysberg, Holstheide, and further south, the absolute killer of Bruine Put. Some great cycling here, tends to be overlooked by foreign visitors.

I'd been warned by local clubmates about the first 100km of the 240km version of the Ronde. "Dull" was the description. I must be here too long, I was in short sleeves and shorts.

David Else [99 posts] 1 year ago

Thanks Surly-by-name. So THAT'S why my legs were tired.

And thanks Dave Walsh.

You are of course correct about the Ardennes. I have updated the text to clarify.

PS - I used to live in Matlock Bath, "the Switzerland of Derbyshire"

Blackhound [432 posts] 1 year ago

I did the 140km route a couple of years ago on the old route. Always felt it was the correct option for early April and still get the opportunity to ride all the cobbles and climbs. Highly recommended and then the opportunity to see the pro's do it properly on Sunday.

As said above I entered online in advance and just turned up on the day and rode round.

surly_by_name [275 posts] 1 year ago

It may still be possible to enter the RVV cyclosportive on the line. Although a significant majority of the large races in Belgium (mostly Flanders) are now being run by "Flanders Classics nv", who have done things like change the route of the RVV (most notably by removing the Muur and the Bosberg and introducing a finishing loop) and introduce much more sophisticated VIP arrangements. (Making people pay to watch cycling is difficult, and not just for reasons of tradition.) Flanders Classics are also responsible for the RVV sportive. I may be doing them a disservice, but they don't strike me as relaxed, enter-on-the-line kind of people.

sorebones [137 posts] 1 year ago

I entered the 75k version due to a lack of winter mileage in the legs. It was still still more than enough to get a flavour of the route and region - 10k in and straight up the Koppenburg!

I thought the cobbled climbs would be tough - they are but we were lucky with a bone dry weekend that really helps you keep a grip.

What you cannot prepare for is hitting these cobble sections at speed on the flat, or even worse down hill. I thought my bottles and cages were a firm fit, but spent the first flat section riding with one hand on the bars and one constantly pushing bottles. For anyone considering the RVV for next year, take extra care to make sure everything stays attached!

Everyone of us said we will be going back next year, it is a fantastic weekend.

Beaufort [262 posts] 1 year ago

The real magic of these events is lost without closed roads.

Yorkshie Whippet [489 posts] 1 year ago

I see you refer to the finish being the finish line for the pros. Unfortunately the offical finish of the sportive was back at Qbus another five miles on, which didn't register with most of us until it was too late.

On of the best rides I've ever done and looking forward to next year.

David Else [99 posts] 1 year ago

You’re right, Yorkshire Whippet. As far as I’m concerned, the ‘proper’ ride ended at the finish line used by the pros. The long final straight, the grandstands, the banners and flags all added to the drama and enjoyment. In the feature I did not describe the tootle through the suburbs back to the Qbus industrial estate, where the sportive officially ended. IIRC the timing mat was at Qbus, so if you hung around at the pro finish line for half an hour (as I did), your total ride time doesn’t look so impressive, but I was happy to linger at the pro finish line, taking pictures, sitting in the sun and just enjoying the experience. Many sportive riders also stopped for a beer in the historic Market Square in between crossing the pro finish line and getting back to Qbus.

Tin Pony [73 posts] 10 months ago

Having been forced on a geography field trip to the Flanders fields. I was well aware of the pain and sacrifice many british men endured their. But I had no idea the Cycling was also fairly brutal and evoked a some what different but nonetheless still painfull sacrifice all of its own. Surely this is a must do for any committed Cyclists. Good to know the Italian Alps are not the only place worth a visit. http://www.tinpony.co.uk/shop