RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN – RIDE REPORT
As the Sunday regulars all know, myself ( Anthony Kenneally ) and Jon Flynn recently traveled to Belgium to participate in the Tour Of Flanders Cyclo Sportive and to experience the Tour Of Flanders Classic ( Ronde Van Vlaanderen ) as well as a weekend of bikes, beer, frites and mayonnaise.
The Tour of Flanders is 260 km in length and is one of the oldest, and according to one Lance Armstrong, hardest one day races on the professional calendar. It is usually cold, wet and windy with the route heading out from Brugge to the North Sea coast then back inland to where the hills or “helligs” can be found. They’re just what you want with 130km of block headwind in your legs. The climbs vary from the mildly unpleasant to the virtually unridable with many of them on very rough Belgian cobbles or “pave”. In between the climbs are some 16km of cobbled sections classified as 4 Star pave which given that the Flandrian cyclists are hard as nails means brutal. And did I mention there are no less than 15 climbs? Sounds like a day in hell so far.
So why then do 19,000, yes that’s 19,000 people, take part in this event with some 3000 people taking on the full 260km? Well Belgians and especially the Flandrians are cycling mad. This event is the biggest sporting event in the country bar none. Imagine the All Ireland finals, The FA cup Final, Wimbledon and Grand National all rolled into one and you are still not even close; this event even has its own beer! You can ride pretty much the same course as the pros the day before with closed roads on the hills and crowds of people cheering you on.
Belgium is completely mad for cycling, with the most exciting and knowledgeable spectators you’ll find anywhere.The whole of Belgium comes to a grinding halt on race day,much like All-Ireland final day in Ireland with proud Flandrians cheering on their national heroes as well as the Belgian trade teams of Lotto and Quickstep.On the second last climb the Muur van Geraardsbergen or "the Wall" upwards of 40,000 bike fans converge in the square before the climb, watching the race unfold on large t.v. screens,before the madness starts when the first riders approach the climb and all hell brakes loose with spectaors lining the 20% gradient up to the church at the top.
While their to watch this great event, we also participated in the Tour of Flanders cyclo sportif the day prior to the big one, a mass participation event that allows amateurs to ride the course covering 3 distances, 255km, 150km and 75km taking in the tough hills and becoming a Flandrian for a day!! The event attracted over 19,000 cyclists on the day with the Belgian and Dutch cycling clubs along with overseas visitors giving it loads on the race course.
Day One ( Good Friday ) – Friday 2nd April.
An early 6.45am flight from Dublin had us in Charleroi Airport for 10am where we quickly loaded up the bikes into the back of our hired estate car for the weekend. There was no messing about form here, the TOM TOM was quickly plugged in and we were off heading straight for Ninove and a bar overlooking the Finishing line of the Ronde and the Ronde Sportive. Local beer and company enjoyed we headed for the Town Centre and registered for the followings days event. From there we headed straight for Oudenaarde and the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen ( Tour of Flanders Cycling Museum ) to experience the History of the Race and some of its greatest champions.
Amazed with what we seen at the museum we departed Oudenaarde and headed straight for the Europa Hotel in Gent which was to be our base for the weekend. What joy and amazement we experienced as we pulled up the Hotel to find the Garmin Transitions Professional Team Bus and relevant team cars parked outside the Hotel. Could it be that they were also staying at the Hotel ? Indeed they were. What a weekend it was going to be. We quickly checked in and scouted the hotel for members of the team. They were everywhere. Excitement aside we soon realized that we still had to unpack and assemble the bikes.
As you can imagine this did not take long, about 30mins infact to assemble both machines. There was however one slight problem, my rear mech wasn’t running right so bold as brass we headed straight down to the lobby with the bike over the shoulder where we were received by half of the Garmin team who all gave us a funny look. Not feeling out of our depth we asked their top rider, David Millar, if the team mechanics would have a look at my bike. Stunned for words he simple pointed outside so we dropped him and headed straight out to the team mechanic who gladly sorted out the problem. All unpacked and ready for the next day we headed for the Hotel Restaurant for a bit of fuel for the following days sportive. What a feeling it was to be enjoying a juicy steak in the company of the entire Garmin Transitions squad, directors and employees. Meal completed we retired to the bar for a night cap and a chat with some of the riders and the team manager Matt White. As usual and in typical Irish fashion, we were the last to leave the bar with some great training completed for the next day.
Day Two ( Cobble Time ) – Saturday 3rd April.
An early 6.30am start again for the second day saw us having breakfast with the Garmin Transitions group as we all watched the rain fall outside the hotel. It was going to be a typical wet and tough day of Belgium weather on the bike and we all knew it. We took on board some advice from the lads about riding on the cobbles and wished each other luck before we loaded up the car with the bikes, the gear and two half hung over bodies. As we had guessed and since their were going to be around 19,000 cyclists taking part in the days cycling sportive, 3 mile tailbacks greated us outside Ninove prior to the start of the Sportive. Eventually after an hour of crawling along in traffic we found a good spot to park and duly went through that ritual of preparing for a big cycle. We signed in just before 10.00am and didn’t hang about in the rain as we headed off with the sight of bikes absolutely everywhere. What an event this was going to be. Our chosen route for the event was the 75km route which included 5 of the official climbs to be done by the pros the following day. They were the Leberg, Berendries, Tenbosse, the legendary Muur – Kapelmuur and finally the Bosberg.
So, why do it at all. A ride is a ride… right? WRONG.
The course contains some of the most infamous climbs in cycling. Cobbled roads on some extremely steep hills, so steep that most would struggle to ride on perfectly smooth track. There were 15 climbs in 2010 with some barely worth mentioning while others instill pure fear in the hearts of a rider (even professionals). Gradients regularly go over 20% and feature ancient cobbles that depending on the weather can be dry and dusty or rutted and slippery.
Cobbles looking down the Koppenberg
There are climbs like the Koppenberg, which was excluded from the professional race for years as it was thought to be too difficult but has made a welcome return in recent years for the fans. Then there is the Muur Kapelmur which even on the Sportive day is lined with local fans who scream at an incredible volume as you grind your way up to the top.
Here are some pro's getting on with the job on the Koppenberg
Marshall’s on the course show you the way and the ride starts off nice and easily, just rolling through towns on some of the sweetest roads I’ve ever ridden. Basically it couldn’t have been easier and what lay ahead was promising to be a great day.
The first half of the course was easy enough as you loop West and South out from Ninove to join up with the course proper. Our first taste of cobbles was an easy climb and then onto some rolling roads. We had been excited to get on to cobbles but the climb was easy enough. Onto the flatter parts and all the rumors of cobbles started to ring true. You are shaken and battered to submission very quickly as everything on your bike starts to rattle, including your own body with water biddon’s strewn all over the road.
I started to think of the advise I’d read about riding cobbles, which in summary is just go as fast as possible. On the next cobbled section I tried it, throwing the chain up onto the big ring and just powering away. As my speed rose the vibration began to settle and I was flying past riders like a Belgian natural. If I’d had to brake suddenly there would have been an issue, but as long as the road ahead was clear I could just drive onwards.
Not a lot happens before the first check point. A few climbs, but the countryside is pretty flat and doesn’t threaten often. However, after the checkpoint and the obligatory waffles and sports drink, it is just a short ride and then you start to see the hills you will soon enter. Not looming alps at all, but in there you know there are some very steep roads that have not been resurfaced since road technology was all about rocks and mud.
Anyone who has climbed anything knows that you become fixated on the horizon and when you’re suffering you dream of reaching the top. The Muur – Kapelmuur is a climb that on approach doesn’t look to bad. The horizon is close, but then you reach it round a corner and it goes up again only steeper than before, then again it goes round and up and again. This climb keeps doing this for what feels like 8 times. My body was screaming for me to stop and if no one would notice I would have just taken a break. But there were hundreds of locals screaming, and I mean a yell that has no equal, and it just makes you drive on and on and on.
Jon near the top of the Muur
Check out the faces of pain. Lance and the crowd closing in on the Chapel at the top of the Muur.
The Chapel at the top of the Muur.
Anthony closing in on The Chapel at the top of the Muur.
Finally you make it over the Muur and then it’s a short run over to the Bosberg and the last climb of the day. The Bosberg is respectable in its own right, but after the Muur and with the promise of being the last climb of the day it is relatively easy as your body has adapted to the cobbles at this stage.
Anthony & Jon cresting the top of the Bosberg
The run from the Bosberg to the finish is about 12km and pretty much down hill. Lots of rider’s power through and you can jump on a train and get a lift home. We decided to do this and joined in with a few locals. Their musical conversation just enough to drown out the driving rain that had started just to remind me that the Ronde van Vlaanderen is not over until you cross the line.
In all it is an absolutely fantastic ride that I would do again and again if given the chance. We found our way back to the car that we had left on the outskirts of the finish town of Ninove and our day was done. If you consider yourself a cyclist you really must make the pilgrimage to Flanders at least once in your life. The route was painted with the names of champions past and present including some that in other countries would be considered fallen from grace. There were hundreds of tributes to Frank Vandenbroucke painted on the road and Tom Boonen is still the big hero of Flemish cycling. Never have I been anywhere where cycling and cyclists are so revered and respected. Flanders is the Promised Land.
We finally returned to the Hotel satisfied with our days spin and used Team Garmin’s equipment to clean down our bikes. We then casually dismantled the bikes in the large hotel hallway with the help of Johan Van Summeren and the Garmin Team Doctor as we chatted about our days spin and their upcoming event the following day. Bikes packed, we enjoyed a well deserved meal and chatted again with the team staff over more than a couple of beers, well for us anyway, in the hotel bar. A great day done and dusted.
Day Three ( Race Day ) – Sunday 4th April.
An early 6.30 am start again on race day saw us having breakfast again with the Garmin Transitions group. It was hard to watch the riders eat a pasta dinner for breakfast at 6.45 am while we ate a hearty continental breakfast. We wished them luck and quick smart headed for the historical city of Brugge for the race start where we arrived for around 8.00 am.
At what a sight greated us in Brugge, The crowds were relentless, everywhere you looked, bike fans and flags waving, the café’s flowing out the doors and of course the sign on stage with a live band belting out music at 8 in the morning. It was like being at the Oxygen or Feile music festival in the evening except it was morning time in Brugge. We headed for the team compound for some bike porn and then returned to watch the riders signing on before the grand depart.
Off they went and so did we as we left Brugge quick smart and headed for the first feed zone to view the riders passing. From there we drove on hard to Geraardsbergen for a couple of Leffe Blonde’s and watch the race unfold on the big screen along with the other 40,000 spectators.
The Race itself
The first attacks of the race were launched right after leaving Brugge. The first five riders to get a gap over the peloton were Michele Merlo, Nicolas Rousseau, Joost van Leijen, Floris Goesinnen, and veteran José Vicente Garcia Acosta. When arriving at the coast after half an hour of racing the five had a gap of one minute over the peloton. Three riders then made a counter-attack, with Olivier Bonnaire, Mikhail Ignatiev and natural attacker David Boucher setting off in pursuit of the five.
After sixty kilometres of early racing the three chasers bridged up with the leaders, creating an eight-man leader's group. The peloton let them go and were soon thirteen minutes behind them, with Quick Step, Team Sky, Saxo Bank and Astana all helped controlled the gap.
On the first climb called Den Ast, the gap had dropped below the ten minutes. The speed increased in the peloton as the roads were getting more technical and narrow. Several crashes occurred and ruined several riders' chances, although no favourites were included. However Lars Boom and Sergey Ivanov were caught behind and had to work hard to get back to the peloton, using a lot of energy to get back near the front of the peloton where Saxo Bank was driving the pace.
When the race reached the Kluisberg, the second climb of the day, the huge gap had fallen to just four minutes and the race between the big teams was on.
Saxo Bank controlled the peloton, with eight men on front of the peloton. Saxo Bank put the hammer down as the race headed towards the first real testing climb, the Oude Kwaremont. Again, the peloton split apart, with about hundred riders were in the first peloton that trailed the leaders by two minutes.
After the Oude Kwaremont there were only four leaders left from the early break: Van Leijen, Garcia Acosta, Goesinnen and Ignatiev. In the peloton Stuart O'Grady led the group at a steady pace over the 2200 metre-long cobbled stretch. Once again, the peloton reduced in number, with Stijn Devolder being the most important absentee.
The first selection on the Paterberg
On the Paterberg climb, with 80km to go, Matti Breschel upped the pace and this time the favorites had to move. Only nine men survived this selection, indicating what would happen later in the race. Breschel, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Lars Boom, Juan Antonio Flecha, George Hincapie, Steve Chainel, Leif Hoste and Thor Hushovd were all there.
The rest of the peloton wasn't too far away and got back just before tackling the Koppenberg but then the pace went up yet again. Breschel and Boonen impressed on the famous cobbled climb. Cyclo-cross rider Chainel had to stop and put his foot down, blocking other riders and forcing him to run up the climb on the 22% part of the Koppenberg.
Up front Garcia Acosta got dropped and the three remaining leaders had about forty seconds on a leading peloton of about forty riders that also including Lance Armstrong. There was no organisation in the peloton and on climb eight, the Taaienberg, several riders managed to bridge back up to the first peloton, including Devolder and Sergey Ivanov. This was the quiet before the decisive attacks.
On the next climb, the Eikenberg, 60km kilometres from the finish, Team Sky closed the gap on Ignatiev, Goesinnen and Van Leijen. Behind the Saxo Bank team had a scare as both Cancellara and Breschel were forced to switch bikes. For Breschel the mechanic couldn't seem to find the right bike and the Danish champion lost a lot of time and was forced to chase amongst the long line of team cars. The problem definitely compromised his race.
The door swings open on the Molenberg
Due to the hesitations in the peloton Mathew Hayman sneaked away and on the cobbles and for a moment, it was Armstrong who led the chase. Then before the important Molenberg climb, with 45km to go, Bernhard Eisel, Daniel Oss, Matthew Lloyd and Maarten Wynants carved out a small gap but they were no match when Cancellara and Boonen blasted past them near the summit. It was the key moment of the race.
Boonen and Cancellara quickly opened a gap of fifteen seconds on a group with Flecha, who narrowly missed the attack. On a crosswind section Philippe Gilbert blew the chase group apart but was marked by Bjorn Leukemans, Hoogerland, Chainel, Hoste, David Millar, Sebastian Langeveld, Hincapie, Iglinsky, Flecha and the Quick Step duo Wynants and Devolder who neutralized the attacks.
Meanwhile Boonen and Cancellara were sharing pulls in front, opening a gap of half a minute. Millar attacked the chase group after climbing the Leberg but the Brit didn't get any closer on the leading duo. On the Berendries climb he received help from Gilbert and Leukemans who had left the rest of the original chase group behind but even the trio failed to get close to Boonen and Cancellara.
With less than thirty kilometers the race seemed to be between Boonen and Cancellara, with Millar, Gilbert and Leukemans at fifty seconds, and a nine-man chasing group with Devolder, Wynants, Langeveld, Iglinsky, Flecha, Chainel, Hoogerland, Hincapie and Hoste at little over a minute. On the thirteenth climb, the Tenbosse, the leaders had 54 seconds on the three chasers and 1'20" on the other chasers.
A moment in time and one good line...
At the foot of the famous Muur in Geraardsbergen the gap for the leaders was down to 43" but everything seemed to be under control for the Belgian and Swiss national champion. The Kapelmuur would see the shown down between the two.
Both look strong but on the last section of the Muur, Cancellara had something extra - a bit more power and a slightly better line over the cobbles - and he surged away from Boonen. Over the top of the Kapelmuur, Cancellara already had a gap over ten seconds and Boonen seemed to have thrown in the towel.
He tried to chase but lost time all the way to the finish. Cancellara used his time trialing skills to open a huge margin and then began celebrating as soon as he entered the long finishing straight in Merebeke. He showed a special good luck charm he had kept in his pocket and celebrated with Saxo Bank team Bjarne Riis manager in the team car. He then collected a Swiss flag before slowly rolling over the line in celebration. Despite racing for 262km and over six hours, he hardly seemed out of breath.
Boonen also rolled home, just over a minute behind, while Philippe Gilbert beat Bjorn Leukemans to take third place. The USA's Tyler Farrar won the sprint for fifth, with George Hincapie sixth.
With Jon doing the driving and me doing the drinking for the day we returned to our hotel buzzing from the excitement of the whole day and the fantastic atmosphere we expierenced in Geraardsbergen with our Dutch drinking buddies for the day.
The atmosphere however was not so good back in the hotel with a lot of very tired and injured riders about the place. We however were not tired or injured and quickly freshened up for our night on the town. “ Its not all about the bike ” however as we hit the city of Gent big time and in particular the square with the Irish Bar. We cant really comment on the rest of the night only simply to say “ BONKERS ”.
Day Four ( The Hangover ) – Monday 5th April.
Awoken with tongues like sandpaper, we freshened up, packed the car with the bags and bikes, said our fair-wells to our new Garmin friends and headed for the hills that we had not seen the day before.
Again with Jon driving and me suffering the effects of too much Leffe Blonde, we located some of the iconic climbs / Muur’s to witness first hand the severity of these monuments. Monuments recorded, we headed for Charleroi where we were staying the night before our early flight the next day. An early night was had as we watched the highlights of the race on Belguim t.v. and we were up quick smart the following day for our flight back to Dublin where we enjoyed a harty Full Irish Breakfast before returning home to our loved ones dreaming of the day when we can do it all over again.
For me personally it was a first for doing a weekend like this and with the best of company I can safely say that it was the best biking experience I have ever had. Thanks Jon for the weekend and memories. I hope you are saving for the next trip because I am.