Al and I have made a cunning plan. After all the excitement of watching the racing at the Fleche Wallonne the day before, we’ve driven to Oudenaarde in the centre of Flanders for a ride – a big one. The plan was to be up early and try to ride most of the Tour of Flanders randonnee route, as we’d both missed out on it this year. Well a few beers the night before had put paid to those plans, as it was 10:30am and we were still eating breakfast.
There’s something familiar about Belgium and it certainly isn’t the language. The Flandrians are really welcoming for starters and they really don’t find riding a bike unusual, it’s pretty normal stuff. The countless times in the UK that I’ve had to explain to a well meaning B&B owner that riding 100 miles is not particularly superhuman and that my bike did indeed cost more than the average family car… but in Belgium they just ‘know’ that sort of thing – as a cyclist you’re just normal and it is much more like it – it’s actually very refreshing not to be exceptional, quirky or different, just for once.
Al has a wardrobe problem, the problem was he’d brought it with him
It’s rare for there to be a quiet day’s cycling in Belgium. Most days there will be a race or some cycling event going on somewhere and usually several. And although road racing is the lifeblood of Belgian cycle sport, it’s not the be all and end all. There’s also a big challenge and randonnee ride scene too. It’s pretty clear to even the uninformed that the Belgian nation just enjoys cycling, so just as many older riders can remain active and competitive into a ripe old age, that’s why cycling is so popular probably – it’s ageless. So to say that cycling in Belgium is a way of life is an understatement, we are feeling very much at home.
Riding a bike for a living in Belgium isn’t that strange either. After a very big breakfast we wheeled our bikes out into the square bathed in some lovely early spring sunshine and riders chip past in groups, emerging like termites from side streets. No point nodding hello here, you’d end up with whiplash. There’s so many riders out getting the kilometres-in and making the most of the good weather (we were lucky as it can be awful in April) dozens of groups of very professional looking youngsters with a DS in a following car shouting directions from behind. We’re running late, must get to the museum and buy a map.
Peter Van Petegem’s bar – a bit like Lineker’s bar
We picked up the Ronde van Vlaanderen map at the Tour of Flanders museum and headed off into the lanes. It took a while to realise that the signs from the town aren’t that great (or maybe we were just too busy nodding at pro riders and trying to look ‘pro’) so you have to pay attention. The Tour of Flanders route varies slightly from year to year but the riders can guarantee that they’ll be going over pretty much the same finale every year. The Muur at Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg, before the finish. We wanted to get at least one of these in the bag before lunch.
The lanes in between the (many) hills are surprisingly small considering that a peloton of 200+ riders will belt down them at 45kmph during the March Classics. On a nice dry day the lanes are pretty and fun to ride, yet in the rain they must provide the hardest racing imaginable.
Riding in Belgium is idyllic it’s as if a ‘Greater Being’ invented the place just for us. There is hardly any traffic, ever, and those cars that you do see usually have a roof rack full of spare wheels on top of them. The big difference in Belgium is that everyone knows about bike racing and the public are far more knowledgeable than you’d think, no surprise really as it’s ‘their’ sport after all. On a bike you are also a majority, a bit like that advert where everyone is scuba diving. There are bike lanes, good ones too. All a bit too much to take in, in one day…
Out on the open roads and we are now completely lost. We spend an hour or so trying to get our bearings. We even tried following a group of snazzy looking roadies for while, but we ended up back where we started. We’d been riding for two hours and found no cobbles at all, plenty of wind and a tractor or two, but not a pebble in sight.
After the umpteenth map stop, a motorbike with flashing lights loomed on the horizon. The rider was stopping the traffic (not a hard job, as there wasn’t much). As he reached us I attempted to ask where we were on the map. He replied in German. I explained that I was English and he, rather eloquently, replied that we’d ended up in the middle of a 200km randonnee and we could join on the back and they’d take us back to the right route. Perfect. Tri-lingual outriders, you certainly don’t get that very often back home.
So, for the next 10 kms we spent a happy time on closed roads, chatting to bunch of English riders amongst the throng of retired looking pros and locals. The UK guys said that they came over regularly for the midweek randonnees and explained that this was a pretty normal day out in Flanders. Cool, loving it.
The Bosberg – 1.5kms of fun and games
Eventually, after some help and pointing from the riders in the 500-strong peloton, we found the ‘right’ colour signs and we were, at last, on the right track. For the next two hours we rode several sections of pave linked with empty and rolling roads. Pave sections vary in length from a few hundred metres to 3.5 kilometres, because of the way the roads are laid the pave (Kassien in Flemish) is mainly only found on climbs (or, obviously, descents) Cobbles are really tough on the hands, what strikes you immediately is how on earth does Tom Boonen et al look so at ease when crossing this crap? It’s like holding a pneumatic road drill whilst sitting on a washing machine on spin cycle. Stupid.
Al’s an old hand at this and is quickly vanishing into the distance. I soon remember that riding faster is better. It still hurts like hell but at least it makes the bike a bit more controllable… Climbing is actually easier than descending, so for once going faster up hill seems like a good idea. Hitting cobbles hard can’t be good for your nerve endings, my hands are numb after just a few minutes. It may be a nice day out but this is getting painful. Belgian juniors race over this stuff from day one, so no real surprise that they are very good at it, I’m not. At least I can catch up on the in-between bits, after I’ve turned back to collect my water bottle and spare inner tube, that have both made a bid for freedom.
Even the public art is about bikes
After several sections one of my shoe plates had shook loose which is a stark reality of riding in Flanders. Tighten your bolts, all of them. Whilst I’m struggling to do up useless worn out plate screws with an allen key, Al recounts his experience of the ‘Ronde’ a few year’s back, when his brand new Carbon crank shook itself to pieces, loosing chainring bolts one by one until just one remained and his chain started to wobble off… needless to say he managed to find a bike shop and get it repaired, but not the sort of mechanical you’d expect (or want) in the middle of a 300 km ride. He now rides alloy ones, just like Tom. A day’s riding in Flanders shows you why Belgian bikes are built so well and also probably why racers out here are less fond of carbon widgets and titanium weight saving bolt kits – the average Belgian race bike is pretty basic, well at least not exotic at any rate, and it’s clear why.
So 140kms of cobbles and Muurs later, we abandon the idea of the Bosberg, we’ve got a train to catch and the route finding problems meant it had taken a fair old while. We’ll be back though. Time for a Cappuccino (The Belgians do it with whipped cream, which is a bit weird) and to ride the Muur…
It seems strange to me that Belgium is so neglected as a holiday destination, especially as it’s only a matter of hours from the ferry or channel tunnel. It gets an unfair reputation and most people drive through it at some point to get somewhere else, but the towns are very pretty (Ghent especially) and accommodating, the food isn’t just chips and the beer is just fantastic. A bad side? Did we mention the weather? Not as wet as Britain but it can be bitterly cold and windy, even in June. OK so there’s no beach but why would you want to go anywhere else? I, personally, have no idea where else I’d rather be – for a cyclist it’s just like heaven on earth, it’s such a shame I’m not Tri-lingual.