I try to eat, but my face has frozen and I can’t chew.
I try to change gear, but my hands have frozen and I can’t operate the shift levers.
I try to remember that I am riding to the Belgian town of Kuurne, as the likes of Kelly, Simpson, and Denson have done before me in the proud, sixty-five year history of the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne semi-Classic. Climbing off is not an option.
The Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne Voor Wielertoeristen (a ‘cyclo’ event, not unlike a British sportive), held on a 90-kilometre parcours that winds its way across the agricultural landscape of west Flanders, and staged largely on roads of a smoothness to rival a billiard table, is not, of itself, a grueling event. Temperatures that fail to rise above zero degrees at any stage of the ride, however, add a new dimension of suffering.
Only the Oude Kwaremont, one of several, iconic ramps that litter the area, and a key feature of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, provides any notable incline. Its impact is mitigated by our approach from the east, but the shockwaves sent from its brutal surface combine with a gradient better described as challenging rather than savage to provide a suitably stern test.
Our group has swept up a local rider, proudly clad in the colours of Omega Pharma-QuickStep, and, working on the seemingly valid assumption that he will know more about riding cobbles than I will, I follow his lead, shifting forwards in the saddle, and riding on the ‘tops’ rather than the hoods.
A short descent towards Pensemont brings us to the feed station. A plague of locusts would perhaps make a less voracious assault on the contents of a long trestle table. Three Belgian waffles, two bananas, two slices of a cake, an orange, and a box of chocolate milk later, I leave the hall full, but with a nagging sense that I perhaps owe the organisers a surcharge on their extremely modest five Euro entry fee.
My problems, however, are just beginning. Having removed my gloves to eat, exposing my hands to the mildly more clement temperatures of a Flandrian village hall, they quickly lose any feeling when returned to the handlebars, despite being encased again in gloves. Communicating with riding colleagues becomes a greater challenge: my jaw has frozen and my words are slurred.
Only by the standards of a professional cyclist could I be considered overweight, and with little natural insulation, my body has diverted much of my energy reserves into staying alive. I am now in serious trouble, slipping off the back of the group and slowing from a canter to a grovel. Fortunately, David Hamilton, British Cycling commissaire, representative of Hammer Sports, the group with which I am travelling, and a gentleman of the old school, drops back and offers me a wheel for the nearly 40km that remain to Kuurne, despite my slurred protests that I am quite capable of following the route’s numerous sign posts. “We don’t leave people,” he says, in a tone that brooks no further argument.
The run back to the town takes us along the banks of the Leie, a tributary of the mighty Schelde (of Grote Scheldeprijs fame) and close to the giant barges that serve Flanders’ industrial heartland. More pretty villages lie ahead, and finally the outskirts of Kuurne. Our entry to the town, perhaps in deviation from the official route, takes us down the Kattestraat, and prompts a sprint (uncontested by your exhausted and frozen correspondent) for the finish gantry erected in advance of the following day’s pro race.
Despite the cold, the Belgian Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne Voor Wielertoeristen has been a wonderful experience. The Belgians are an undemonstrative but friendly people. To share their cycling culture (one that extends to clearly segregated cycle lanes and motorists who give way to cyclists at roundabouts) is a privilege. By the time we arrive to begin our ride at about 11am, many have returned from shorter routes and are enjoying a celebratory beer (Belgian, naturally). A volunteer who stores our bikes in a holding pen while we sign on seems genuinely surprised that we have travelled from England for the event. There is a party atmosphere in the sign-on tent, doubtless aided by the beer, but owing more, one suspects, to the people. While Belgium is unquestionably the home of the cycling hardman, its people have an endearingly welcoming side.
RoadCyclingUK traveled with Hammer Sports, organisers of the Hammer Sportive, and UK distributor for Thompson Bikes