Friday, 7 August 2009

Tour of Flanders 09

Over the winter it was tough to train at times as the great British Weather did it's best to make it as difficult as possible to venture out on a bike. What with freezing temperatures that wouldn't be out of place in Russia, and then more snow than the transport system could deal with. It is a winter I would best forget. So this year I arrived in Belgium 6.5 kg heavier than last year and with very few kilometers in my legs.

So, I've made my excuses, now onto my synopsis of the weekend. Being in one of cycling’s great heartlands seems to feed the soul and lifts the spirits like a double espresso on a cold day. Getting off the train in Brussels you know you are in Europe, the sites and smells are all different, and I like it. I would be staying in a very nice hotel in the town of Denize where Ghent Wevelgem starts, so I couldn't be more in the Flemish hinterland. Feeling spoilt by my hosts I unpacked my bags and got ready for dinner.

Much is made of Belgian beer and chocolate, but you never hear of the great cuisine that they have. I liked the food a lot, cordon bleu but without the fluff, don't get me wrong it was incredibly well put together but you get the feeling that taste is king in Belgium. Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of heavy carbs on the menu, so I would have to make do with the excellent food before me and cram a few more bread rolls into to fuel the furnace for tomorrow.

On a cold(ish) foggy morning we reached our meeting point, running a little late we would have no time to get to start to sign on if we wanted to start the ride with Museeuw. So with a swift greeting we were off. The parcours for the randonnee changed dramatically from last year with a new section of flat cobbles thrown in before the Molenberg. At first this threw me as I had a moment where I was wondering if we'd ridden these last year, only in the evening did I know they where new. Foolishly I hadn't bothered to look at the route.

As it turned out it wouldn't be the only change to the route. Open Motorway sections were replaced by a series of bike paths that ran parallel to the road from last year. In many ways this was better as the new paths were on a whole traffic free and the biggest hazard was the concrete bollards that stopped cars from using them.

The lack of fitness showed as I had lost the Museeuw group. I was firmly on my own now and my only riding partner was Northern grit. Conscious that I had only ridden half that distance this year I was concerned about blowing if I went to hard. Settling into a rhythm I seemed to play cat and mouse with a group off 30 riders most of the day. At least it was some familiar, if unknown, faces in the ride. Last year it rained most of the day and this year had a damp tinge to the air, so far I am to experience a hot day like 2007. If the same weather faced me next year I will forgo any leg or knee warmers and opt for some embrofication and don a set Belgium Knee Warmers. As the day progressed the weather improved allowing me to pack away my gilet for the rest of the ride.

As we had missed the official sign on to ride with Johan we did not have the number board, which allowed you to access the feeding stations. Thankfully our hosts Morgan Blue would meet at predetermined spots to allow us to refuel some bottles. I met Kurt outside the second feed, grabbed a coke and mixed it with some water (old school energy drink!) and a couple of these fantastic little fruit bars. They resembled a big fig roll, very delicious indeed.

Andrea Tafi famously said, "if you don't turn up to Flanders fit, it is then the way of the cross". With that quote lurking in the back of my mind I knew half way in he was right. I now know that the training for Flanders has to start no later than November (maybe October!). The ride shared similar elements of toughness as last year but for different reasons. In ’08 the weather and my crash on a descent would prove to make the ride tougher than I was expecting. This year lack of fitness would equal that feeling.

Having ridden the climbs before it prepares the mind and body for how tough they are. You can see the importance of such riders as Andreas Kiler to a team like Cervelo. These guys know every inch of the course, how the wind moves and where to place you on the climbs. Experience of riding Flanders and having a Team captain who knows it inside out is like having another rider or two in the Team.

Riding the cobbles once before it prepares your body and brain for the vibrations and lines to look for. I have tried to replicate this in the UK and have found it (so far) impossible. I think it'll take a while before I'll master my technique on them. Maybe this is part of the appeal that draws you into the Flemish bossom. I have done a lot of mountain biking in my past and I thought that I could pick a line, but trying to do this on cobbles with a 24 mm tyre requires a deft hand, which I am still to master.

Riding the course with so many people riding adds to the experience and coupled with the hundreds of people that line the climbs on the Sportive make for a very special atmosphere. You can see why this is the most important day in cycling in Belgium, whether you are a Flandrian or a Walloone.

I am not going to lament on my lack of fitness any more as I am the only one that can be held responsible for that but I'll focus on the positives:
1. This year I didn't crash. After last year it was important that I made it round the course without any major disasters.
2. I got up all the climbs I didn't last year (but ironically I didn't make it up three that I did last year!)
3. I am officially hooked. I think that this is a truly great event, and should be on everyone’s list to do at least once, no matter how long you have been riding. Let's face it can 20,000 people be that wrong.

I can see myself going back at least twice more. Once to do all the climbs (without having to stop), it'd be great to nail that. Then I think at least once I will need to do the full 260 km version. But realistically I doubt it'll end there, as the Flemish passion and spirit has spread into my blood and the only cure is more cobbles. Many thanks to both Wiggle and Morgan Blue for the trip.

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