Cycling has many so-called Classics or Monument races; events that have stood the test of time and have only been interrupted by World Wars in Europe. One such race is the Tour of Flanders or the Ronde Van Vlaanderen as it is known in Belgium. This year was the 100th Edition of the race so 7 of us decided it was time for us to pay a return visit (or first visit for some) to the cobbled bergs (Hills) that make up this iconic race.
Just head towards the tunnel and once across turn left and head for Belgium
2nd April 2016
The Tour of Flanders is always held on the first Sunday in April and, for some time now, fans have had the opportunity to ride the same course the pros will ride the next day.
With its convenient start location in Oudenaarde, this sportive has always been popular with many nationalities. Access just off from one of the main motorways running through Belgium, you will often hear French, Flemish, English, Dutch and even Norwegian or American voices as you are riding.
For those travelling from England the journey couldn't be simpler. Just head towards the tunnel and once across turn left and head for Belgium. In about an hour and a half with the Sat Nav on directing the way you will reach your destination.
We chose to stay in a Travelodge in Ashford the night before the tunnel and had pre-arranged a booking at our favourite B&B (a Bay Cycles secret) just half an hour from Oudenaarde. There is plenty of accommodation like this available and with the Belgians being some of the loveliest people you could ever meet you would struggle to find somewhere you wouldn't feel at home.
A word of caution here if you do intend to ride the Sportive, try to avoid parking in the main square over the weekend as parking is suspended due to the event meaning that the Police will remove your car as witnessed by our group whilst enjoying some traditional Belgian beers with frites and mayonnaise.
Up to 16,000 riders attended this year's event and rode one of the 3 distances available – 71km, 129km or 227km. All routes provided their individual challenges mixing cobbled sections and short sharp climbs on both cobbles and tarmac, joining together on the final run back to Oudenaarde.
The organisers of the sportive had placed a start time of between 7-9 for everyone to be away so an early start was agreed and we all retired to our rooms. It was still dark when we got up but our host had kindly set out our Breakfast and what a spread it was. We drove down to Oudenaarde in convoy and were directed to one of the dedicated car parks set up by the organisers. With the Bikes sorted we rode the short distance to the start area where all that is required is to just roll over the start mat and off you go. For the first 10km the 71km and 129km routes shared the same route which meant it was a bit early to make the decision as to whether you were on a good day or not. For our riders we had a mix of those choosing the 129km turn and the others going for the 71km option.
Soon after the split we were on to our first (non cobbled) climb which certainly warmed you up on what was turning out to be quite a chilly day. It was not long after this that we hit our first cobbles. Riding my Trek Emonda S5 on this event for the first time I was a little unsure how this lightweight climbers bike would react to the cobbles – the short answer being very well. It left me feeling confident and didn't leave me feeling like I'd used a pneumatic drill for the day. We opted not to stop at the first feed stop as it looked chaotic and fell at 26km which for us was a little too early. Approaching Haaghoek a rider had fallen and was being attended to by the many first aiders available. Accidents do happen on cobbles however, the person looked OK and it did 'sober' us up to the risks of getting carried away by not concentrating on riding on an unfamiliar surface.
After this section the hills came in quick succession, with names like Leberg, Berendries and Eikenberg, though a lot of them were tarmacked so not too bad. It wasn't long before we dropping back down into the outskirts of Oudenaarde to the second feed stop and the second part of the course. Set up on the edge of an Industrial estate the feedzone was well stocked with all sorts of sugary goodness and also the ability to re-fill your bottles.
Having ridden Flanders many times previously, we knew what was coming next, one of the most iconic climbs in cycling – the Koppenberg. 500 metres long, cobbled, with an average gradient of 9.4% and a maximum gradient of 22%.
After the Koppenberg the route took in a number of cobbled sections and climbs routing round the outskirts of Ronse before heading down to the bottom of the Oude Kwaremount and the Paterberg. The Paterberg has an interesting story behind it – rumour has it that the farmer who owned the land wanted a climb to rival the Koppenberg which was on a neighbouring farmers land. He ended up with a 400m stretch of cobbled climb approached from a fast downhill section with a 90 degree turn. The average gradient is 12.9% maxing out at 20.3%.
This was the last obstacle of the day before the 13km run back into Oudenaarde. So through the main square with its many distractions (bars & restaurants) then back out of town to the finish area – job done and a very enjoyable one too.
Once we had all regrouped it was back to the accommodation before heading out for some well earned refreshments to end what had been a very nice day.
The next day was race day so due to the nature of the circuit we would be better of picking a location and watching them there – Oude Kwaremount it was then. A quick drive down the motorway we parked up and walked through the base of the climb. Close to where we were sat was the sign of how Belgium had raised their security levels following recent events as all bags were being searched and the police presence was noticeable.
The Womens Tour race is also held on the same course as the mens on the same day so we were able to watch them come through before the men. With the narrow nature of the Belgian roads you really feel close to the riders. We waited for the men to come through before wandering back down to the local town where an enterprising local had set up a big screen and was selling drink and frites. A short walk further down the road enabled his to watch the leading riders come though the 10km banner. At this point Peter Sagan (the eventual winner) was away on his own followed a short distance later by Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke. Rushing back to the big screen we watched the finish – a worthy winner in Sagan. We later found out that Lizzie Armistead had won the Womens event and we were left wondering whether both races had been won by the current World Champion before?
As the weather was so nice and we were all enthused after watching the race we went out for a short ride around the really quiet lanes by the canal and in to Belgium town of Dendermonde for food.
The next day was home time so after a short diversion to purchase some Belgian beer, (well it would be rude not to surely?) it was back to Calais and the Eurotunnel terminal, luckily catching an earlier shuttle so home earlier than expected.
As I said the sportive is held the day before the race on the first weekend in April so keep an eye out for when entries open for the 2017 event, usually towards the end of the year. The organisers of this event also organise the Paris- Roubaix and Liege Bastogne Liege sportif's so maybe do all 3 as a challenge. The entry fee is reasonably cheap when compared with the price of some of the UK sportives and for the experience I would say it is very much worth it. You don't even need a special bike following my experience with the Emonda.
Using the tunnel also made the trip over there really quick and the driving time is not that great with most of it on main roads or motorways so a really easy trip to arrange and/or do.
If you don't fancy joining 16,000 other rider of all standards there are 3 separate signposted routes that can be tackled any time of year. These all start from the Tour of Flanders Centre in Oudenaarde with adequate parking nearby and the use of showers afterwards (extra charge payable). The Centre also includes a well stocked shop for your souvenirs and Tour of Flanders museum – of which for those into their cycling history is a must if not done before.
All in all, with fuel, food, accommodation, and entry fee the trip costs around £400 pounds for a Thursday to Monday weekend away. Depending that is on how much Belgium beer is consumed of course.