Whilst eating a 1000 calorie breakfast at 5.00 a.m. on Saturday, I realised that this was the point of no return. Having traveled over with my buddy Tony the day before on a very early ferry, we were both pretty tired even before the start of the joys that awaited us, but numerous cups of coffee later, we were on the bikes, riding the few miles from our hotel in the outskirts of Bruges, to make it to the Tour of Flanders Cyclosportif start in the old market square at 06:40. It was pitch black (this was 05:40 UK time) apart from the spotlights picking out the start ramp. Together with what must have been a good couple of hundred riders, we set off for the 256km Tour of Flanders route – the same as the Pro teams would ride the next day. The sun was soon up, and what had started as a portentously cold morning soon turned into a mild sunny day which had us stripping off arm warmers and gilets in no time.
The plan was to stick in a bunch for the first 85 miles or so, which is a mainly flat route out to the coast and then back in to the depths of Flanders. Picking some big Dutch and Belgian club riders to sit in with meant that we covered this distance in around 4½ hours, before we hit Oudenaarde, which marked the start of the 17 hills and 21km of pavé (cobblestone sections) that were to make up the next 60 miles. One slight wrong turn with our group added on a couple of miles before we retraced our steps and got back en route. Two facts I would point out at this stage:
Don’t let anyone tell you Belgium is flat, it just isn’t true…
Riding the hills section of the ‘Ronde’ was a war of attrition. Each hill in its own right was not a killer, but they come in rapid succession, and the battering of the pave has a gradual wearing effect on both mind and body. Perversely though, I actually began to look forward to the hills and pave to break up the monotony of the flat sections in between. Having said that, none of them was easy – hills like the Molenberg (average gradient 9.8%, peak 17%) and the Koppenberg (average 11.6% and maximum 22%) do not get their infamous reputation by being easy. The recommended way to ascend them is to pick as big a gear as you can cope with, stay firmly in the saddle, and grind away.
Plugging away like this ensured that we made steady progress, and conscious of the advice my coach John Ibbotson gave me about needing to eat and drink regularly, I was overdosing on my stash of Nutrigrain Elevenses, and Isostar and bananas from the feed stations. But as my HRM was telling me I was burning around 800 calories an hour, I knew this was the only way to survive to the finish. I would like to thank John for designing the great training plan I followed in preparation for this event – painful at times, but it worked.
With the Muur (where I received a couple of helpful pushes from the crowd) and the Bosberg in sight, it was time for a heads down, eyes front, brain-in-neutral drive for the finish.
The final ten miles or so to Ninove were flattish, and I found a bunch of about 15 riders all going at my pace, so sat in and before I knew it was doing my best victory sign across the finish line. My HRM stopped working because the memory was full (!) before the finish, but with the ride to the start in the morning, and the ride from the official finish back to the ‘base camp’ in Ninove, my odometer showed a total of 172 miles in just under 11 hours.
This is without doubt the toughest day I have spent on a bike, but was also a highly enjoyable experience. The pavé make it like no other bike ride, and I had a really great sense of achievement at the end of the day. Speaking of which, after a couple of Leffe Bruin beers, a peppercorn steak and frites, I slept solidly for 10 hours.
The Sunday was spent criss-crossing the Flandrian countryside watching the Pro race. It was truly spectacular to these guys hammer up the climbs we had done the day before. At one point we followed a CSC team support car for 10 miles between vantage points – these guys drive like they ride, with a total disregard for personal safety and at maximum speed. After this we made it to the finish in Ninove, and whilst eating our frites and mayo, saw Tom Boonen sail in well ahead of the peloton for an inspirational win, which rounded off a great weekend.