Flanders with Marty!

Oudenaarde – Final destination post sportif


200K route

Time: 7hrs 28minutes

Average speed: 27kph

Calories burned according to Garmin: 10,000 plus

Calories drank over 3 days – same!

“Putin is tightening his grip” the loud Russian beside me said as he laughed. I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation at the table beside me between two English and one Russian cyclist.  The Russian, it appeared, held a lofty position in Russia’s only remaining independent Media station. Interesting times we live in.

Not half as Interesting as riding on cobbles….



10 Things this I’ve learned from this trip:

  1. Belgium is rubbish at forming government’s but excels in hosting cycling events. Antwerp resembled a scene from Live Aid the morning of the pro race. Every kid and every granny had a Flanders flag or yellow cap on. People lost the run of themselves for most of the day.
  2. Belgium makes the best beer in the world – Fact. 3 days drinking convinced me of this.
  3. Cyclists are treated like rockstars in this country – the ovation the smaller teams got cycling up the ramp never mind what happened when Tom Boonen appeared was amazing.
  4. Pro bikes pre race look like they have just come out of a show room – even the awful looking ones look amazing.
  5. The Italians are by far the loudest nationality in the peleton – everything sounds like a mini crisis when they open their mouths.
  6. Pro cyclists on the morning of a race look cool. I won’t even mention Griepel (my sweet Griepel#mancrush).
  7. Belgium motorists go nuts if you cycle on their roads and not the designated bike lanes as I discovered the day before the Sportif, highly frustrating given some roads were like runways.
  8. Stay away from those strange verges in the roads – witness Sep Vanmarkes inexplicable high speed crash.
  9. Dutch people have large brains – I had the pleasure of meeting a former top class amateur on the train back to Antwerp. He predicted a Gilbert win. I didn’t.
  10. Spoke with a few Belgium elders in a restaurant after the sportif – they kept mentioning some lad called Sean Kelly. Apparently he has a race named after him in Belgium as well.

Getting back to the cobbles, I was warned and told how to deal with them all very matter of fact. “You must glide over them – check, got that. You must go hard and have a soft grip on the handlebars – sure yeah, no problem (at this stage I was thinking why didn’t I do Roubaix instead.)

My first cobble section came I think after 70 or 80K, a flat section- handy start. With no real grass verge or gullies to cheat on I braced myself for what lay ahead. 5 minutes later my front bottle cage was lying on the side of the road like a broken twig.  Disaster of a section as I seemed to have had a complete lapse in memory. I had no pace, I was in the wrong gear and there was no gliding. I’d met a lad a few months beforehand who had told me it would feel like a jackhammer and in fairness to him he wasn’t exaggerating.

The uphill cobbled sections strangely enough were handled mustch better with the odd area on the sides giving short relief. The other best place to ride was always straight down the centre. The Koppenburg was a complete beast of a section. I managed to get half way up it before throwing myself into the ditch as the place became completely clogged. Every now and then there were cries from the odd madman still trying to stay upright and navigate a path through the heap of limbs and expensive carbon. The Paterburg cobbled climb the scene of Sagan’s famous attack on Vermarke the previous year was climbed (just about) from start to finish. I even managed to high 5 a few spectators near the summit (for the cameras of course which never clicked!).

The sportif started at 8am Saturday morning. Having booked an air bnb very close to the meeting point I had the luxury of a long breakfast in my spring/slightly summer clothing. No need for knees warmers, leg ins, bandana, proper shoe covers (my orange ones serve absolutely no purpose). And sure the previous day was beautiful.

At 8.10 it began to piss rain…..It took at least 60K before the rain stopped and thoughts of “feck this madness” began to recede. This may have explained why the average pace was only in and around 32-35kph initially or probably most likely because we knew what was in store for us later. I’ve never been to Belgium before and let’s face it, scenery wise it’s not a patch on the Alpes or Pyrenese or most places for that matter. However, there is something beautiful about seeing a long line of cyclists drill through fields on small narrow roads. Throw in the odd windmill, the back of an allotment, roaring through narrow red bricked streets and housing estates all decked out in Flanders and Belgium flag’s is a sight to behold. Not to mention the history attached to the area with 2 world wars having levelled and ploughed up the landscape.

A fantastic weekend on many levels. I’ll be back. I may even tell people next time when I book it.  I just hope Putin also lets my poor Russian friend return….

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