It was quite easy really, across Kent as quick as possible, hot-tilt boogie through the Chunnel and out along the North coast of Europe for not long at all to a romantic dockland suburb of Gent and the even more romantic Fomule 1 hotel where the smell of Death stalks the corridors, or maybe it’s just the critical mass of B.O., for too little sleep and the standard Continental insufficient pre-ride breakfast of bad coffee and Nutella filled rolls.
We're in Belgium for the weekend to watch the Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday and riding the Tour Of Flanders Sportive the previous day, an addition to the itinerary that was added only the week previous. We're generally excited, dreaming of beer, frites with mayonnaise and lots and lots of traditional Belgian weather and its gritty toothpaste. I've packed four Goretex jackets in preparation. Sadly for our dreams Saturday breaks into a beautiful morning with the sun rising over the misty fields that flank the traffic jam we're sat in. The task of trying to find somewhere to fit the cars and vans of roughly 20,000 sportivistas converging on the event town of Ninove is solved by simply making them park on the hard shoulder both sides of the dual carriageway, and it's a concept that everyone seems to accept quite matter-of-factly, chancing into lycra and lubing up in the verge as if they do it every day, which they probably do actually. Although we could quite easily have polished off the full Ronde van Vlaanderen distance of 260km (well, maybe not) or the shorter 140km road ride on offer we opt today for the comparatively diminutive 71km as that will be the furthest Jon has ever pedalled. It's also his first sportive and the first time he's ridden in a group, so Olly, Ant, Dave and I have promised to domestique him round and make sure he has a nice time.
Registration is an incredibly speedy and efficient affair despite the fantastical volume of people wanting to ride and it takes mere minutes to have numbers zip-tied to bikes, control cards stuffed in pockets and for us to join the engorged stream of lycra salmon heading uphill to spawn. Forget the image of the uber-cool smartly turned-out swarthily tanned chissel-chinned Euro-cyclist on the immaculate Italian race machine. No such being exists, it is a mere coffee-shop myth to scare 4th Cats. Or it could just be that this entire sportive is in fact an elaborate kettling exercise by the Fashion Police as swarming around us is the largest and most, er, distinctive variety of bikes, riders and colours you’re ever likely to be unable to break away from. Mismatched shorts and top, not just from different teams but also different eras, neither of which match the bike. Full green sprinters shorts and top combo matched to insipid unshaven legs and beige socks. Lycra that's either transparently over its wear-past date, hanging off like dead elephant skin or stretched to within microns of its design parameters. Look, there's the man who single-handedly led to the famous 2008 worldwide shortage of Bianchi celeste material. Yes, it's all very lovely that people are out on their bikes but there are standards to be kept, there are standards and some personal pride. And don’t just roll down your leg/knee -warmers to your ankles when you get a bit warm and pedal around like an extra from Fame. Take Them Off. It’s not hard.
Even without handing out style tips the Flanders Sportive is a massive undertaking, with three road bike distances and four mountainbike rides to choose from. Timing chips are an option, every single junction is marshalled by police with an authoritative hand, happy to shout at both errant cars and badly-behaved cyclists with the same harsh tone and take your ride number down if you transgress their instruction. Where necessary we're obliged to ride along bike-paths to save us from traffic even where the roads are remarkably and temptingly empty, and in the busiest places we are separated from the road by kilometre upon kilometre of barriers. On our shortest 71km route there are two food stops with waffles, fruit, snack bars, water and energy drink, toilets and mechanic support, and at the finish a man snips off our numbers and give us a goodie-bag of energy-bars and energy powder in return. And at the event village there's plenty of room to lounge around and tuck into frittes and mayo, sausage in a bun and because this is Northern Europe, beer. And all of that sets you back the pathetic sum of 20€. Take note UK sportive organisers.
Back at the start and we're quickly out of town and along country lanes through small villages getting used to the usual standard of sportive riding with its lack of understanding of the concept of spatial awareness, having us nervously covering our brakes in anticipation of the next random swerve, pointless cutting across our bows or needless stopping. Erratic cycling styles generally survived, there were just the cobbles to worry about and it didn't take long to start to get nervous. Even though my pavé cherry is about to be roughly popped I think know the drill; speed up, big ring, pound it so you float over the top, hands loose on the bars so they can flow with the bumps rather than fight against them. Deep breath, one, two, three...
No matter what they say about the cobbles and how hard they are nothing can quite prepare you for the harsh reality; the bike squirms about beneath you like a ferret strapped to a jackhammer, testicles bounce painfully down to meet the saddle bouncing up, handlebars rip themselves from your hands, the vibration wants to rip muscle from bone and punch major internal organs loose. Jeebus. And this was on a warm and dry day, I can't imagine how much more horrific it would all be if they were damp and greasy as they should be. The pavé is littered with pumps, inner-tubes, energy gels and water bottles that have already found it a bit much and had to abandon, and when it's eventually over and we're back on tarmac the relief is like finally making it out of the prison showers. Later in the evening I discover two tiny buds of potential blisters forming on the inside of my index fingers, and we only did a handful of pavé sections.
Meandering our way through the surprisingly sunny Belgian countryside is pleasant enough but it doesn't take too much imagination to see how on a grey drizzly Winter's day the bleakness would sweep across these open fields to breed generations of hard gritty cyclists. We take turns shadowing Jon through the peloton that is more traffic-jam at times whilst others in our group stretch their legs up ahead when they remember that a gentle "Høp høp" is the recognised Euro way of getting a wandering set of wheels to veer out the way to the right. As it's all been a bit last minute and we haven't really paid much attention to the route, the climb of the Muur comes as a bit of a jolly surprise. I'm giving it cheerful beans up a cheeky climb through a small town when tarmac abruptly turns to cobbles and I get that little tingle of history when I realise that I'm on the famous climb. A thousand magazine photographs and youtube hits are burnt into my brain and it all seems familiar yet very different in real life. And busy. I round the iconic left-hand corner into the steeper part of the climb and my way is blocked by a fleshy barrier of sportivistas flailing about on the floor, victims of the cobbles, slight slippiness and ability deficit, whilst vulture spectators scream “Links, Links, Links” at me encouraging me to steer left away from the thickest of the log-jam. I stop and backtrack round the corner to wait for a clear run at the hill just as a wave of riders coming up the hill are stopped while the carnage ahead sorts itself out, and as soon as the road is clear they thrust forward and make it halfway up before failing as one and creating yet another road block. I bide my time a bit longer for a clear run, and free of obstacles it's not too hard a climb but it's a warm and dry day and even under the shade of the trees the pavé is almost grippy, and I haven't done 200km of racing. At the top of this rise the road levels off by the cafe and I recognise this section from where Cancellara attacked last year, and then it ramps up again to the summit chapel where traumatised cyclists are simply stopping in the middle of the road forcing me to trackstand and thread my way through them to regroup with my little gang just the other side of the hill.
The roads from here on in are fast and fun and swoopy and considerably clearer as the Muur looks to have culled a few riders and before we know it we're on the wide straight approach to the Bosberg being serenaded along the side of the road by large billboard caricatures of tomorrows main protagonists and it's a steady climb up the wide boulevard of pavé through the woods. The voices in my head suggest that this would be the place to launch a blistering attack, the pain in my thighs suggests otherwise. From the top it's a speedy swing back into town and the chance to play a bit of sillybuggers topping the speed limit through the suburbs, a right turn and we're onto tomorrows finishing straight, the empty grandstands and odd workman don't exactly cheer us in but we do get a free can of iced-tea in lieu of podium champagne. Back in the event arena we lounge about in the sunshine with frittes and mayo as promised and then move to a smoky bar for a couple of small celebratory beers and on to the van stuck by the side of a dual-carriageway.
As it's only about 25 miles back to the hotel three of the five decide it would be a waste of a beautiful late afternoon to drive back so clip in again and navigate with a small map, luck, judgement and using the sun back to Gent. The undulating Belgian roads quiet of traffic and shrugged of cloying cyclists give the chance to open up the pipes in a sweaty charge and treat the roads like they've so wanted to be all day. We even indulge ourselves with some more cobbles with a section that parallels the road like a medieval bike-lane and another particularly scruffy bit in a rough part of town by the canal where we get laughed at by a trio of what are probably hookers. "Nymphe Du Pave" indeed. The centre of Gent is a secret charm. Bikes, pedestrians and trams happily mingle in the largely car-free cobbled centre with the cyclists dressed in ordinary clothes, looking smart, gently chic not feeling the need to dress in hi-viz vests and ill-fitting helmets. Actually the casual cyclists are more ‘euro-cool’ than the real cyclists. Go figure. Car drivers give way without any hint of bitterness or hatred. One day all cities will be this way, it's a very nice place to reflect on the day with some of Belgium's most famous exports in a glass.
Sunday greets us with a grey smirk as a splash of overnight rain has hinted that the Ronde van Vlaanderen will be fought over the appropriate conditions but the day cheers up by degrees to full on sunshine, damn. Still we head out to the race course past huge shoals of club roadies all in matching kit and with a following van, I think we were aiming for the Koppenberg but navigator error takes us to the Oude Kwaremont, no matter, it's all pavé and fluttering flags and race-day excitement. Once again cars stuff the edges of the road and spectators trudge up the hill to line the cobbles. There's still several hours to go but people have already planted their flags on their slice of the hill, camper vans park where they can, cars are wedged into fields, and fans claim bits of grass and cluster around the summit, waiting. These aren't just cycling nerds although there are enough cycle tops and identifying marks to satisfy, the majority of crowd look like "Normal People" out to watch, maybe watching cycling in here is just one of the things you do without the need to dress up funny. Families with children, some cloaked in yellow and black flags, more women than you'll ever see at any English cycle event, tottering up the pavé in their Sunday finest and high-heeled boots and a lot of old geezers out for a watch, although this being Belgium most of them probably raced these cobbles at some point in their sepia past.
With time to kill we make us of the burger, hot-dog and beer stands that flank the sides of Kwaremont's small square and gaze expectantly at the big screen set up in the shadow of the church at the end that is still showing the boring Sunday morning political show. Nothing doing we wander to the top of the climb and scout spectating positions for the forthcoming peloton, the place is filling up, the summit has a healthy cluster of fans, some stand with spare wheels in the hope that they will need to be used and lead to a small piece of vicarious glory, a man in a delicately branded trade jacket stands as subtly as he can next to some posh wheels and a carrier of team logoed bottles, crates of beer are being carried into position, further down the hill Europop is being blasted from a sound-system in the middle of a field and there's progressively drunken singing along. All of a sudden a small French hatchback with a warning triangle and flags scuttles over the cobbles at speed and not long after a frantic peloton follows it. Surely this can't be the race already? It takes a few passing riders to realise that the bunch is entirely female. Who the hell knew there was a women's version of the Tour Of Flanders? No, nor did we. We wait for the men's race to appear and every approaching car is a tease, every hovering helicopter a tingle in the tummy, every motorbike a possibility, and then they're upon us. A small lead group chased in quick succession by the bunch which from our vantage point on the bank above the cobbles is just a melee of colour and rattle, it's only when we can focus on the haggard faces of the riders left trailing in the dust, forced to mix it with the team cars and hospitality vehicles that we see a true representation of the punishment of the race.
As soon as the cobbles are clear of the peloton and it's following cavalcade we scamper back down to Kwaremont where the tiny square is now rammed with spectators glued to the action on the big screen. Watching one of the most compelling and plot-twisting rides in recent years is made even more exciting by witnessing it unfold in front of a partisan crowd. Any time Cancellara makes a move the crowd booos heartily, but if Boonen does anything other than look round for help the crowd erupts, and when the pack hunts down Cancellara and Chavanel on the Muur it goes completely bonkers, and then when it all kicks off in the last kilometres the crowd reciprocates and it's hard to see the screen as waves of spectators stand on tip-toes to catch the last snippets of action and finally when the local boy sneaks across the line to grab the win it all goes mad and beer sprays in celebration. It's the best bike race I've ever seen, and not because of the racing.
The crowd stays to gloat over Cancellara looking tired, dejected, and human and then melts away over discarded and torn Flanders flags and piles of empty beer bottles to relieve the stands of the last of their sausages and to leave the road through this tiny hamlet to be quiet grey and miserable for the next 51 weekends.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he’s not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he’s not doing either of those he’s pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he’s agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours doesn’t. He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.