Eight Waldies (7 + 1 one who hasn't joined yet), travelled over to Belgium take on the monument of a Spring classic – De Ronde van Vlaanderen: The Tour of Flanders. The trip brilliantly choreographed to only use a single day of an annual leave. So with bikes loaded across three cars, Eurotunnel whisked us to France and a short hop to Ghent.
The pre-ride chat – for nearly two weeks before the event – revolved not so much around tyre choice for the cobbles, the distance nor even routing over the famous climbs – but more on the weather. As the day neared, it was becoming increasingly apparent that we were in for a miserable battering in the saddle. And so it was, we were greeted at our hotel in Ghent with a howling gale and sideways rain. Friday’s dinner dominated by discussions of kit, more weather chat and an assessment of some last-minute panic Sigma Sports purchases.
Despite weather and a predawn wake-up for the short drive to Oudenaarde for registration, the group was cheerful for the start. Ready to take on 175km and the legendary course ahead of us: Molenberg, Muur van Geraardsbergen, Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg just five of the 21 climbs in store.
We soon settled into a pattern which would continue for most of the day, each rider finding their pace and forming various groupetti. We crossed paths and kept the Waldy spirit going at the regular and well-stocked feed stops. Well-stocked with waffles, fruit and more waffles. The only complaint being the lack of coffee or shelter.
A key feature of this event is the cobbles. They come not only on the notorious inclines, but also on longer 'flat' sections - you know it's rough when a narrow drainage ditch is the preferred path. The rattling saps energy quickly and staying upright should be considered a reasonable outcome. The descents can be particularly treacherous, especially when wet. Meanwhile the locals have a mysterious knack of floating over them at speed, even the ones on Bromptons and scooters (yes, there were several of both).
Then for the climbs. Narrow. Steep. Cobbly. It is well known that success on the steepest climbs is not solely in your control. Others stop suddenly in your path. Even a small weave from another ride can put you off course, disturbs what little rhythm you can muster and forces a dismount. Any loss of momentum, your effort is over. This did for Simon and Ben on the Muur, James on the Paterberg and all of us on the Koppenberg.
And really it was the Koppenberg, in slippery and muddy conditions, which lived up to its reputation (even pros were walking up on their training rides on the Friday). For the quicker riders – there was a long wait at the bottom for a clear ascent, Mark, Dave and Rob in particular. By the time the lanternes roses arrived, big screens had warned ahead of the greasy conditions and advised a detour. Needless to say, these were ignored, leaving James in a heap halfway up.
In relentless rain and wind, the Red bull tent provided late motivation and techno. At the finish, Mark waited for the other early arrivals who sought their first refuge of the day in a bar in Oudenaarde. Later finishers, joined the countless freezing, shivering, tired bodies in the finish area after 10 hours exposed to the elements.
Amongst all this, with only one major mechanical we may have got off lightly. Ben’s sidewall blow out proved to be end of his day, despite skilful use of a gel wrapper to get him as far as a mechanic. Remarkably given state of the roads, we had no other punctures in the group, though Clive’s Garmin turns out to not be waterproof.
Eight strong rides all round, with stories exchanged over a well earned steak, chateaubriand and red wine dinner plus Ben’s makeshift prize-giving before sampling some local ales in the Trollenkeller. Prizes:
King of the Kwaremont: Rob "Ronnie" J – new Flanders PB
Combativity: James C
Sunday was race day. Train + some queuing + shuttle bus: the Waldy banner was hoisted in a prime spot on the Kwaremont. Beers, bikes & bouncing Eurobeats underpin what is a superb Belgian festival of cycling. Reports mentioned 1 million people lining the course in total – amazing atmosphere. We had arrived sufficiently early to get a great front row view of what unfolded as a real classic in the Men's race. Eventual winner, Pogacar’s decisive attack coming shortly after the Waldy support. Any coincidence?
A similarly competitive women's race followed. Encouraging for us in both races, that their faces bore the same pain bouncing up the cobbles as we had the day before.
A somewhat shambolic return to Ghent couldn't dampen our spirits and filled with fried chicken/ curry with a short sleep we were loaded, back and ready for a Monday afternoon at work. Flanders, done!
Well organised, full-on cycling, classic race. I needn't add more than the closing adjectives in the WhatsApp: memorable; relentless; epic.
Thoughts with the three who couldn't make it. You were missed.
Thanks to Ben and his organisational prowess; Clive, Dave, Mark for the driving and to the Club for making this all possible.
Tot de volgende keer.
Team sheet: Ben R, Clive M, Dave B, James C, Mark P, Rob J, Simon B + Andrew (joining soon)