Wednesday, April 4

Beer & Cobbles, part two: the Beer (oh, & a little bike race...)

Saturday's ride duly celebrated with beer & pizza, we had a nice lazy start on Sunday - we'd picked out Oude Kwaremont as a good place to watch the race as it gave us the drama of steep cobbles, three passes of the men's race and one of the women's, and the carnival atmosphere of the village - but the race wasn't due to pass through there until lunchtime. We were treated to the inspiring sight of a junior race on the drive over from Kortrijk, dozens of tiny kids riding their hearts out on the Ronde route in their best club lycra. We ditched the car in a field somewhere near the the bottom of the ridge and by 11.30 we'd bagged ourselves a spot right on the steepest part of the climb.

The helicopters are always the first sign that something's happening at a big bike race, though with a vast VIP area just outside the village there were choppers coming and going all day. Then there are the whistles of the stewards, the sirens of the first police outriders, the Rodania car leading the publicity caravan and a handful of team vehicles, then... nothing, for what feels like an age. And all of a sudden, a rush of bright lycra, the clatter of bikes on cobbles, the riders' heavy breathing somehow audible over the cheering & applause of the thousands-strong crowd. The speed is incredible. I've seen enough road racing to expect fast - but having ridden these roads just the day before I simply cannot comprehend how they can be ridden at race pace. It's clear from the riders' faces that it hurts them just the way it hurt me, yet still they attack the climb at twice the speed I managed on the smoothest, flattest tarmac.

After the first lap of the men's race we investigated the village square at the top of the climb. What I'm sure would normally be a peaceful little retreat with just a couple of old guys enjoying the sunshine was party central - big screens showing Sporza's live coverage (the mass intake of breath as Fabian went down in the feedzone, ending his race), half a dozen stalls selling beer and burgers and hundreds and hundreds of people. A beer (well, a few), a hotdog, a new spot on the barriers and two more laps, seeing the race shift and take shape, the first signs of the winning break beginning to form - then the rush back to the square to find a spot with a view of the screen. Not easy when you're only 5ft1, unless there's an accommodating landlord who invites you to climb up on his bar, & a big strong friend to help you up there!

The atmosphere in that square was unforgettable. Three riders had escaped off the front of the dwindling bunch - Alessandro Ballan, Pippo Pozzato and local hero Tom Boonen, and were, somehow, extending their lead by the minute. People were cheering, chanting, even praying, yet as the three riders approached the line there was quiet. And then -

and the crowd, as they always say, went wild.

Some random observations from the race:
  • Those clouds of dust you see the riders charging through on tv? Actually just as likely to be barbecue smoke ;-)
  • Race spectators are fuelled by copious quantities of beer, burgers & sausages. It may well have been possible to buy soft drinks and healthy food in Kwaremont on Sunday, but no-one was doing so.
  • These people love bike racing. And they really love Tom Boonen.
  • It's every man, woman & child for himself when it comes to finding a good spectating spot - but if it looks like you're about to spill beer people will instantly come to your aid.
  • That evening Tommeke Boonen's win was the top story on all the local news channels (with Fabian's broken collarbone taking second spot) and pages and pages of Monday's paper were given over to the race - the kind of  coverage British cycling could only dream of.
  • When you're only 5ft1 it's really useful to have a couple of stupidly tall guys with you!

Tuesday, April 3

Beer & Cobbles, part one: the Cobbles

(With thanks & apologies to for the great weekend & the blatant title-theft!)

This last weekend saw both my first big cycling challenge of 2012, and my first live road-race of the season - the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

About this time last year, my best friend Rich was so excited on his return from his second RvV sportive that he managed to talk me into signing up for this year's. I may well have been drunk - I can think of no other reasonable explanation. So over the past twelve months I bought a better bike - and then another, even better one - upped my mileage, stopped going out of my way to avoid hills, tried lots of new & exciting energy products (some of which had exciting - of the wrong sort - effects on my digestive system, as I'm sure many seasoned cyclists will understand) & bought lots of frighteningly expensive but incredibly comfortable kit, until on Thursday afternoon Rich, his old friend Kev & I loaded our bikes into the car & set of for Belgium.

Having collected our registration packs on Friday afternoon, we just needed to get to the start  & get moving on Saturday. Random road closures notwithstanding, we made it to Oudenaarde & the three of us rolled over the start line together a little before 10am, before stopping for a group hug at the point where my 87km route peeled off from the boys' 138km one. The first 15km were very easy - beautifully smooth, wide bike paths and quiet roads running alongside the Schelde river, but then we turned onto the first set of cobbles, and the first climb, the (frankly, terrifying) Koppenberg. I stuck to the plan I'd made when I first saw the route (unfortunately some time after I'd committed to riding) - ride as far up it as I could, but not be ashamed to get off and walk; after all, I've watched many pros walk that hill over the years. The descent on the other side was much more fun, curvy without being too scarily twisty or steep.

It was as I rolled into the second set of cobbles, at the bottom of Steenbeekdries that I came to the conclusion that I really don't want to do this ride again - the distance doesn't bother me, I can get fitter and lighter to be able to manage the climbs, but riding on the cobbles made every part of my body hurt, and I just don't have the power or weight to maintain a decent speed over them. Rich had told me time & time again over the last year that they were rough, but they were worse than I had ever imagined - and if the climbing on them was hard (though I did get to the top of this one on the bike - go me!) the descent was frightening - I felt like I had so little control of the bike, and the vibration meant I couldn't see clearly either. For the first time in a lot of years, I was envious of the guys on mountain bikes.

The rest of the ride brought much of the same - cobbles (pain), climbs (more pain, much walking, though I did manage to ride a couple more of the bergs, Kapelleberg & Varent I think, though by the end of the day they all ran into one), glorious, sweeping descents (and a top speed of nearly 58kph - not bad for a nervous descender!) and beautiful views - yes, beautiful, not a word many people associate with Belgium. I wouldn't call it pretty or dramatic, but it's lovely in its own way, and reminds me a lot of the Howardian Hills where I grew up - all green fields, small mixed farms and little patches of woodland scattered over rolling hills. 

Somewhere around the 60km mark I had a chance encounter with a couple of my GS Gazzetta club-mates & twitter-friends, @TBag & @Wiggys - and what perfect timing. I was tired, the road had headed upwards yet again and my emotions were beginning to get the better of me, and a few encouraging words and a couple of wheels to follow (not that I managed to hang on for long) were just the thing I needed to keep me moving. That little pick-me-up didn't last long unfortunately, and on the other side of that climb the tears started. I managed a grin for Fast Phil Corner (and for the lovely sweeping descent it was at the bottom of) but otherwise was a snotty, tear-stained mess, who spent 10k or so telling myself to get it together & just. bloody. get. it. done. It wasn't until I'd hiked up the Oude Kwaremont & the Paterberg - and saw the magical "12k to go" sign - that I managed to get my emotions under control, muster some enthusiasm for the bike and press on for the finish. Seven hours after leaving Oudenaarde I rolled back over the line, followed about fifteen minutes later by Rich & Kev. It was done. I was done. 

Some random observations from the ride
  • Belgian bike paths are not all perfect - they mostly are, yes, but there were still stretches that were full of potholes, debris & manhole covers. Still ten times better than the average British bike path though, and they get priority over other traffic!
  • White shorts. Just NO. No-one wants or needs to see your sweaty crack, thank you very much.
  • 15, 000 riders and yet the start, finish & feed-zone were well-stocked, organised & efficient - a big "proficiat" to the event organisers, staff & volunteers.
  • Sportive photographers are always on the steepest part of the hardest climbs. Therefore, there are lots of photographs of me walking.
  • There was a refreshing lack of macho bullshit, despite the fact that 99% of the participants were male. More a feeling of "we're all suffering together."
  • I think this may be the first time I've been at such a huge event and not had to queue for the ladies'!
  • The words may be different, but swearing sounds pretty much the same in any language.
  • Flemish cobbles hurt. A lot. More than you would ever think possible if you've only ever ridden over nice, tame English cobbles before. And unless you're a big powerhouse, they also make it really hard to go fast.
  • I suspect that this event is at least partly a money-making scam by Belgium's bike mechanics & inner-tube manufacturers! Though I was lucky/ well-advised enough not to have any punctures or mechanicals.
  • Riding amongst that many people means you have to concentrate all of the time - in fact, I found the day more mentally exhausting than physically.
  • Yes, Rich & Kev rode almost 50km further than me in only a few minutes longer. The following day the pros rode another 100km again in more or less the same time.
Some big, heartfelt thank yous to the people who helped me train, get kitted out and get through the day:
 Rich, Kev, Lucy, Carol, Chris, Marcelle, Nadya, Louise, Bee, John H, Paul G, both Paul H's, Kat, Jen, Jenny, Gordon & Bee, Dave & AJ, Colin, Mark, Renee, Gareth, Theresa, Paul S, Mr Lamb, Dave W, Graham, Jan, Craig, Woolley, Hannah &, in absentia, Dave, Rich L, Josh, Jenny W, Matt F, Matt & Bex, Amy & Katie, Neil, Garry, Hannah & Norna, Cheryl, Simon M, Danny, Dan, GS Gazzetta, the guys at Condor Cycles, York Cycleworks & Big Bear Bikes, my family, friends & colleagues and everybody who's had an encouraging word (or more usually a "you're nuts!") for me over the last year - love you guys! x

And finally, for those of you who want to see how painfully slowly I did it: my Garmin file