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Wonderboy Boonen leading the climb in the Pro Tour race

It’s chucking it down, it’s April Fool’s day, and I am being splattered by the rear wheel of the rider in front of me – it must be Flanders!

Last year for the first time I fulfilled a long-held dream of riding the route of the Tour of Flanders, by entering the cyclosportif, which runs on the day before the pro race. With expert coaching from the late John Ibbotson, I geared up for the full distance: 265km. I got round in one piece and had a tough day in the saddle, but thoroughly enjoyed it.

For this year, I opted to do the middle distance on offer – a mere 140km, but sill featuring all the climbs as I thought it would be more of a laugh. I was also undeniably looking forward to reaching the 85 mile point, and not having to think ‘oh, good, only 80 miles to go’ but rather ‘oh, good, now I can have that large glass of Chimay I’ve been fixating on for the last hour’.

Having done pretty much the same amount of training as last winter, I set off with some confidence for the start on a dark, damp Saturday morning and rode down to the start in Ninove, as part of what seemed like some kind of cyclists’ pilgrimage, riders converging to the registration zone from all directions.

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Some great shelter to be had here!

This is a very well organised and streamlined event, and I was soon en route. My experience from last year taught me a few valuable lessons, the first being find a big Belgian lad to ride behind, preferably a whole bunch of them. Fortunately, in the Ronde, this is easy, as numerous Belgian clubs field sizable teams, which often coalesce, so you can soon be part of a sizable chain gang. This makes the ride much easier, and faster. Of course, as soon as you hit pavé (cobbles for the uninitiated) it is every man (or woman) for him (or her) self. And after 20 miles or so of riding on the flat (compared to the 80ish miles on the full distance ride), pavé it was.

One second, your flying along a pleasant country ride, and then after a sharp right turn you’re faced with the Mollenberg, at 300m and a max gradient of 9.8%, this is an appetiser, a mere amuse bouche, of the more tasty bergs to come. It is, nevertheless, a good place to practice your pavé riding skills – pick the biggest gear you can cope with, stay in the saddle, and power your way up. Getting out of the saddle, or spinning a low gear, both have the unwanted effect of rattling your back wheel uselessly round and round, with out any forward motion. More so if it has been raining. Which it had.

As an aside, I should probably mention at this point, that my ride round last year was considered by some to be a bit of a cheat, because it was dry for the entire day. No such luck in 2006, as for the first 90 minutes, it had been raining so hard that I was soaked through. Even my supposedly waterproof overshoes had failed, so I could hear my feet squelching to the rhythm of my cadence. They never really dried out for the whole event. Another by-product of the deluge is that it makes the pavé nice and slimy, and even more of a challenge.

Which brings me to the Koppenberg, the first real ‘big one’, and the fifth climb of the day. At a gradient of up to 22%, with freshly moisturised cobbles, this was a tricky beast, and riders were falling of left, right and centre, making it almost impossible to pick a route through. I lost grip with about 200m to go, skating to the top on my cleats instead, along with many others. I felt a bit disappointed in myself, but read in ‘The Paceline’ newsletter that the Discovery team all failed to ride it all the way last week in training. I didn’t feel so bad after that.

Of the reaming ten climbs after the Koppenberg, most were pretty straightforward. Some of the longer ones pose a taxing descent – these are bone – and everything else – rattling. Sometimes, the bike, and my hands on the bars, were shaking so much, that I could not manage to hold the brakes, which actually was good, because descending at a slightly out of control speed seemed a fraction smoother. Having passed numerous bottles, bottle cages, pumps, and jackets on the route down, one piece of advice I would give is to make sure everything on your bike, and on you, is tightly fastened or strapped – this ride is tough on kit.

After the Koppenberg, the last remaining climb of note is my personal favourite, the Kapelmuur, a kilometre long, at up to 20%, it is not that hard a climb as the pavé is reasonably smooth, and you also get fantastic support from the crowd lining the roadside – it really feels like you’re riding a major race!

The final run in to the finish is fun – groups of riders starting to egg each other on – I even ended up in a sprint finish, through exactly the same finish line as the pro’s would do the next day.

All in all, this was a great day – I was pleased to get round in around 5 ½ hours, for 85 miles, and 6700 feet of climbing. If you are looking for a fun day out, the 140km Ronde route is a very accessible ride. Having now done both routes, though, I would say that it is worth putting in a few extra training miles to do the full distance – all in all, it provides a more complete experience, and also a real glimpse in to what a tough race the Tour Of Flanders is.

I spend most of the Sunday criss-crossing the Flanders countryside, watching both the women’s and men’s races – their speed and power over the same course is truly amazing.

Lots of people have asked me about what sort of kit and tyres etc you should equip yourself with – I used my normal road race bike, but not my best wheels. Instead, I chose Mavic Cosmos, with 25mm Continental GP 4 Seasons. This set up was bomb-proof all the way round.

Ronde de Vlaandreen Summary:

Pro’s: A real glimpse of what it’s like to ride a pro course, and an exciting day out. Well organised.

Con’s: Vibration white finger, trench foot.