With a love of cobbles, mud and beer, Totally Active Editor Nik Cook heads to Belgium to tackle the 239 kilometre Tour of Flanders sportive. Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.
Like all cycling fans I’ll avidly watch the Grand Tours but the races that really fire me up and inspire me are the Spring Classics. Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders especially, with their cobbles, often atrocious conditions and fanatical roadside fans, are the highlights of my cycling year. I guess it’s because, at 6 ft 3”, coming from a rugby background and primarily riding and racing on the track, I struggle to relate to the waif like climbers ghosting up Alpine and Pyrenean cols. I’ve ridden big mountain sportives and, living in the Peak District, can hold my own on a long climb but they’re definitely not my cycling strength. Give me rough roads, punchy short climbs, cobbles and crosswinds and I’m far happier. I can identify with the larger, powerful and big gear churning Classics riders. My cycling heroes are Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellera and hard-man Sky workhorse Ian Stannard. The thrill of riding cobbles at speed is hard to beat, requiring strength, skill and guts. Throw in some slimy mud, “Belgian Toothpaste”, and other riders jockeying for position on the narrow roads and, for me, it’s the ultimate cycling experience.
I’d ridden the 140 kilometre medium distance at the Tour of Flanders sportive ten years ago but, having ridden the full distance Paris-Roubaix sportive, not having done the full Flanders was a niggling box to tick. So, I signed up with Sports Tours International and knuckled down to a solid winter’s training in preparation for my big day out in Flanders.
Frame: SS stainless steel frame from UK based Starley Bikes. A compliant, plush and forgiving ride that soaks up the punishment the cobbles give out but without being floppy or unresponsive.
Wheels and tyres: Easton EA90 SLX wheels paired with 28 mm Hutchinson Sector tubeless tyres. I’m sure the tubeless tyres and sealant saved me from a puncture DNF and the grip and ride quality was superb.
Groupset: 11-speed Shimano 105. A pro-compact (52/36t) chainset and 11-28t cassette gave me low enough gears for the climbs without sacrificing bigger gears for the flats.
Cobble beating tweaks: Double wrapped bar tape, secure old fashioned alloy bottle cages and my trusty Fizik Arione saddle.
A true Flandrian experience
Training had gone well over the winter and, in my final run up to the ride, I’d posted several 200 kilometre plus rides that included 10 time repeats of Cheshire’s own cobbled climb, Swiss Hill. Our Sports Tours’ party had enjoyed a very pleasant shakedown ride from our hotel in Ghent to the ride finish in Oudenaarde, including a visit to its Tour of Flanders museum. With my bike and legs functioning well and a decent looking forecast, I was feeling confident about the next day’s ride. After tackling a head sized bowl of pasta and a couple of calming glasses of Ghent’s best, I slept well and was ready to ride.
Waiting for the coach to take us to our start in Bruges, there was a definite chill to the air and, proving you should never trusts forecasts, an increasingly persistent drizzle. With every passing kilometre in the coach, the rain got harder and seemed to be deteriorating into a wintery mix. Still predawn, we arrived at the football stadium, unpacked our bikes, switched on lights and GPS devices and, with little ceremony, rolled off into the gloom. I quickly tagged onto a group of local riders and realised we were following signs taking us to the start. It turned out we had a “bonus” four kilometres to ride into the medieval heart of Bruges and the start proper.
The Tour of Flanders is a ride of two halves. The first 100 kilometres are pancake flat and follow main roads. You then hit the climbs or Bergs, which the race is famous for. There are sixteen of these short but sharp ramps to tackle as the route meanders around Oudenaarde. Some are cobbled, such as the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont and Patterburg, hit gradients of 25% plus and are all revered by riders and cycling fans alike.
My original game plan had been to find a strong group, sit in the wheels and get an armchair ride through to the Bergs. However, unlike the pros’ race, the roads aren’t closed for the sportive, meaning you’re predominately riding on cycle paths. Don’t get me wrong, Belgian cycle paths are amazing for solo riders or small groups but they’re strewn with bollards and other road furniture and only wide enough for two or three riders abreast. This made following wheels a nerve racking experience and combined with the constant freezing spray coming off the wheels ahead, meant that groups simply weren’t forming. Whenever I did sit in behind someone, I got so cold that, in the end, I abandoned my energy saving plan and went into solo time trial mode. Riding hard into the driving sleet, often with a string of riders behind me, at least warmed me up but, as my power meter kept on reminding me, I was exceeding what I knew I could maintain for a ride of that length.
Hitting the first feed station at 59 kilometres, it was a sorry sight. Shivering riders huddled together, shoving waffles down their throats and desperately trying to stay warm. The moment I stopped pedalling, I started to chill and knew I couldn’t afford to hang around. I grabbed a waffle, refilled my bottles and ploughed on. My hands had completely frozen and, seeing a rider by the side of the road with a puncture, I knew, if the same happened to me, I’d be unable to fix it and my ride would be over.
Over the next hour I tried it temper my effort, attempting to ride at an intensity that kept me warm but not so hard as to destroy my legs. Finally, after 91 kilometres, I hit the first climb, the Tiegenberg. Not cobbled, not especially hard but it felt so good to up the intensity and get some warm blood flowing around my body. However, cresting the top, I went to shift into my big ring but my chain stayed stubbornly on the smaller one. With only eight kilometres until the next feed, I rode on and intended to fix it there. However, a downhill and more flat chilled me, my hands froze again and, once I got to the feed, I was unable to perform this basic mechanical task. I joined the queue of riders at the mechanics tent but it took 45 minutes to reach the front, by which time I was a shivering wreck. The mechanic sorted the problem in the blink of an eye but attempting to ride off, I was shivering so badly that I could barely ride in a straight line. It was the second most miserable I’ve felt on a bike and I wasn’t even halfway. (Number one was my night lap on the infamous 2012 Mountain Mayhem 24-hour MTB race).
The Bergs started coming thick and fast and, attacking a mud plastered Molenberg, I finally warmed up and started to enjoy myself. A watery sun made an appearance and the crowds on the climbs made you feel like a pro. I relished the flat cobbled sections and received that ultimate compliment from a fellow rider that I “rode them like a Belgian”. By the feed station at 178 kilometres, I was having a great time, the earlier sufferfest forgotten and I was in cobbled heaven. Despite slimy mud coated cobbles and riders falling in front, I made it cleanly up the 20% Koppenberg, one of my
personal goals for the day.
By the final feed at 216 kilometres, I was paying for my earlier solo efforts but I had two of the toughest and most iconic Bergs to tackle. I knew I could empty my tank and still limp home so, hitting the bottom of the 2,600-metre long Oude Kwaremont, I gave it my all. The further you get up, the worse the state of the cobbles but it does give you a flatter break halfway up and the screaming beer fuelled locals supporting meant quitting wasn’t an option.
Depending on how you look at it, the best or worst is saved until last. The Patterberg is a brute. It’s only 360 metres long but with a 100 metre top section of over 20% gradient and with 225 kilometres in your legs, it really sorts the Flandrians from the Walloons. I hit it hard, there’s no pacing cobbled Bergs and, despite a grinding cadence of under 60 RPM, my power meter was showing an output north of 500 watts. My legs screamed, I almost ground to a halt on the final vicious ramp but, with a grunt of triumph, I rode over the top. The final flat 15 kilometres went by in an exhausted blur. I team time trialled with a group of four locals, every pull on the front pushing me closer to my limit. Finally I crossed the finish line, happy but as shattered as I’ve ever been on a bike.
I didn’t recognise my drawn and mud splattered face in the mirror when I got back to the hotel but a hot shower and a couple of Belgian beers sorted me out. The next day, the sun shone on the pros and, basking in the sun watching a big screen, yesterday’s epic seemed a world away. Part of me was envious of the benign conditions the pros enjoyed but my masochistic side knew that I’d endured a true Flandrian experience to be proud of.
Nik’s ride stats
Total distance: 245.9 kilometres (including start “bonus”)
Total ascent: 1938 m
Ride time: 8:54:23
Average power: 212 w
Maximum power: 787 w
Calories burned: 6155 kcals
Waffles consumed: 6
Ride it yourself
Although there’s a real sense of achievement riding the full pro distance, the first 100 kilometres from Bruges, even in good conditions, are really quite dull. By far the biggest proportion of the 16,000 riders tackle the 140 kilometre middle distance ride. You get all the Bergs and start and finish in Oudenaarde, which makes logistics far easier.
I can highly recommend Sports Tours International’s package. Everything was well organised and all I had to worry about was getting round the course. You also get a day to explore Ghent before the ride and are able to watch the pro race on the Sunday
Watch how the professional women ride it
This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.