Last weekend was the spectacle that is the Tour of Flanders (or how the locals call it the Ronde van Vlaanderen or just the Ronde).
Apparently, the viewing rate of Fabian Cancellara’s third win was 85% and I’d hazard a guess that the remainder were along the course or watched on big screens, just as I was.
Simply watching the Ronde is awe inspiring, the camera distorts the angles completely and what looks pancake flat or a moderate incline is in reality a slight incline or a bit of a short, sharp climb. However, the key feature of the Spring Classics, of which the Tour of Flanders is one, are the cobbled sections and climbs.
Flanders Sportive Challenge
Having been on the sidelines watching last year, I was wondering whether I would be able to emulate the gargantuan effort the pro riders are putting in. Whether I would manage to climb those classic cobbled climbs of the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaaremont and the Paterberg.
Thankfully, you are given the opportunity to find out as almost all of the Monument races have a Sportive attached to them, often the day prior to the pro race. And so it happened, that at the end of last year, I entered the middle distance route (135km) of the Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo.
The Monument sportives are priced quite reasonably with the early fee just being EUR 25 (circa £20). Travel from the UK is quite accessible with Calais only a 2hr drive from Bruges and Oudenaard (the start locations). Belgium can be comparatively pricey and so a viable alternative is the Northern French town of Lille or its outskirts, which is only a 40 min drive away.
We headed over on Friday, picked up our numbers, and spent a relaxed evening. Start on the next day was from 7.00 am and going out early is advisable as it may be getting congested on the climbs with 17000 people having entered the ride this year. It was the first time it sold out.
A ride, not a race
One of the main differences to UK sportives is that the Ronde is set up as an experience (and what an experience it is).
While you receive a number with a chip, there is no timing, and no gold, silver and bronze standards to be earned. The chip triggers the video and photo cameras on top of the climbs. If you want to time it, bring your own watch. This simply puts more emphasis on the experience and I would encourage you to savour it.
Even for the sportive riders the spectators turn out in droves. The climbs are tightly packed with friends and families of riders (their ‘technical support’), encouraging banners line the lanes and children hold up self-made signs and you’ll hear encouraging shouts in most of the dominant languages of the earth. The one I understood most was ‘Bums on seats!’ a fitting reminder on the cobbles.
The variety of bikes is also stunning: road bikes, mountain bikes, touring bikes, folding bikes, delivery bikes and there was a rumour that a Penny Farthing was making its way around.
Don’t be fooled though it’s no easy country lane ride, but riders of all shapes and sizes take on the challenge. You can spot brightly coloured jerseys from local clubs, pro teams (the Belgians love their Omega-Pharma team and Tom Boonen is always a favourite even if he’s not fully fit) and people from farflung places (I spotted some Japanese riders) form a colourful snake winding its way through the region.
Top Tips on Surviving the Tour of Flanders Sportive
To help make your experience as enjoyable as possible, here are my top tips to prepare for the Tour of Flanders and become a Flandrien…
1. Prepare yourself, get those winter miles in. For the middle distance, I put myself on a program for a 100 mile ride, which I figured would give me sufficient endurance. I was glad I did as I did not struggle with the distance.
2. Find yourself the steepest hill you can find. Some of the inclines are 20% and while they are all rideable, it bodes well if you know what 20% looks and feels like. You may also want to change your rear cassette to a more mountain friendly gearing. I went for a 12-30 with a 52-39 on the front and this worked out fine for me.
3. Find yourself some cobbles. While I was prepared for the hills, I grossly underestimated the cobbles. Towards the end of the ride my hands started feeling sore and most certainly the next day felt like someone had swapped mine for those of an arthritic 90-year old.
4. Cobbles are best ridden at speed. This may be counter intuitive, but if you go over them at speed, you ‘glide’ over the surface rather than being caught at every single edge. I tried it, it works. Equally, don’t grip your handlebars. Hold them losely to allow you to just keep control and let them bounce about, it takes a lot of the shock out. Cobbles sap power and therefore should be treated like hills.
5. Try and make your bike as comfortable as possible. Flanders is not the place for skinny tyres. Get some 25mm tyres (I rode 28mm) and ride them at a slightly lower pressure than you normally would. I’ve also put some gel pads under my handlebar tape for additional cushioning. Get a good comfy pair of shorts and well cushioned gloves.
6. Be prepared for everything weatherwise. Last year it was freezing cold, usually it’s a bit soggy, this year we were toasted by the sun. By January, I had decided on my kit, had it all tested and tried for comfort, only to have to reconsider two days prior because temperatures jumped up to near 20C.
7. Get used to riding and climbing in close proximity to other riders. Some of the lanes and cobbled climbs are rather narrow and there are always faster riders over taking. It helps if you are used to riding with people around you, rather than freaking slightly when someone zooms past in touching distance. This is best done by joining your local bike club or finding some mates.
8. Find some mates and bring your family. They are either riding with you or make up your technical support team. It’s nice to have someone sharing the pain, cheer you on up the climbs and, most importantly, have a cool Belgian beer waiting for you when you arrive. Flanders is a great family experience and watching the pros is inspiring people of any age.
9. Learn to judge your strength and make smart decisions. Some of the hills, especially the steep cobbled ones like the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaaremont and Paterberg, are a real challenge and you should absolutely give them a go. However, if you get stuck or run out of steam, get off your bike quickly and move to the right side to continue pushing it up the hill, leaving plenty of room for those that are still on their bikes and riding. There is no shame in pushing your bike, the pros even do it, but other riders may get verbal if you are blocking the way. Common sense really.
10. Smile and enjoy. At the top of every major climb are photo and video cameras. Smile! Or put on your best suffer grimace (this may be the more natural reaction). Equally, along the route, there are feed stations every 20 or so miles. Stop, have a break, chat to other riders, and dig into the food on offer. I’d forgotten my energy food, but I need not have worried. My entire ride was sustained by honey cake and caramel waffles. Just enjoy everything the ride has to offer!
The Ronde van Vlaanderen is a wonderful experience and if you are into riding your bike, it belongs on your bucket list. So get entering! If this year was a good predictor, entries may sell out rather quickly. They usually open early in November.
Until then, enjoy your rides in the Spring and summer weather.