After six years of absence, the Tour of Flanders returned to Bruges and that made it obvious for me to register again for We Ride Flanders, as the Tour of Flanders Cyclo is now called. Already for the sixth or seventh time I ticked the longest distance at the registration. The previous times I also reached the finish line, one time a bit more comfortable than the other. In one of the tougher editions I had already had to squeeze the brakes three times in the first 70 kilometers because of a recurring flat tire at one of the cycling companions. Completely numb, I finally left him at a bus shelter, where he could take shelter while waiting for motorized help. At the first passage in Oudenaarde I had to gather all my courage not to just go to the finish.
It promised to be similar again for 2023, but that was not even the biggest reason for doubt. The preparation had been a bumpy track to say the least. Physical suffering and a virus here and there – everyone with young children is in the same bed sick – had ensured that a gravel ride of 93 kilometers had been my longest workout. A bright spot was that I was just allowed to test Maurten’s new ‘miracle product’. A first taste had already been promising, so I hoped that the Bicarb System could help me through a difficult moment. I decided to combat that bad weather with the Bioracer Caiman raincoat, water-resistant Giordana AV Full Windfront trousers and the GripGrab Flandrien overshoes and Knitted gloves. That is the advantage of the job as a test editor: you know what the best material is for each specific job. And admittedly, I still had one or two full-fledged alternatives in my closet for every piece of clothing.
With parents-in-law who live in Zeebrugge, I had the luxury of a place to sleep close to the start, including a shuttle service from my father-in-law. It couldn’t be easier. Like the previous times, I didn’t want to start too early so as not to end up in too large platoons. On wet roads you would rather not have a hundred men around you. The location to pick up the starter pack was easily accessible and offered sufficient parking space, but after that it was a short drive to the official start on the Markt in Bruges. At that time I was already able to put the rain resistance of my clothes to the test. A quick photo at the starting arch and I was off.
The not too wide or beautiful cycle paths around Assebroek excelled especially in the number of puddles and the accompanying splash water. After a few kilometers a group tangled together, so that I found shelter behind a few backs. The wind was pretty good in the first part, so that the negative influence of the rain was somewhat smoothed out. It was regularly necessary to be careful. For example, we were forced to a roundabout with the whole group on the bike path. The beautiful Flemish cycling infrastructure then painfully came to the surface, because the narrow and angular path caused the first crash of the day. Two contestants hooked into each other and saw their fall broken by a tender bush. Moments later, a sharp bend in a village center resulted in another victim. On a spacious roundabout, a Briton then knocked down a fellow cyclist by grabbing his brake in panic and irrevocably crashing. Later in the day I was allowed to experience four more falls up close.
At the first provisioning in Poeke I already saw what a massacre the rain had caused. Shivering bodies everywhere, soaked cycling shirts and even someone who was led away with an insulating blanket. Standing still was a bad idea, so I quickly refilled the water bottles, grabbed some food and continued my ride. A local was watching the scene and cautiously asked if I still liked it. I smiled affirmatively, but I wasn’t so sure myself. And then everything had to start.
Already after 76 kilometers the peloton of cycling enthusiasts were allowed to drag themselves up Den Ast, but that was still just the aperitif. The starter followed after the second supply. On the Paddestraat, many discovered whether their material could withstand the Flemish cobblestones. And whether their tank still contained enough energy for the long road to Oudenaarde. After the Marlboroughstraat came the first rapid succession of slopes and cobblestones, with the Wall of Geraardsbergen as the highlight after 140 kilometers. I tried to start the angry stones with as few people as possible around me and it paid off. Behind me I heard someone slipping and falling on the steepest part, while I was able to continue paddling. Gradually the realization descended that I should have mounted a climbing cassette on the Canyon Ultimate. On the wet cobblestones, a smoother cadence would have been better. But yes, once you have left you have to manage with the material you have at your disposal. I really had nothing to complain about that material, I realize all too well. A real climbing bike with the perfect combination of nimbleness and comfort, a set of Hunt climbing wheels and Vittoria grippy tires proved to be perfect partners on this long day.
The way back from Geraardsbergen turned out to be treacherous. On the undulating concrete roads, I wasted more energy than was good for me. That was already apparent on the Valkenberg. There, “I’m Shouting It From The Rooftops” by Toast blasted through a portable speaker and the tune lived on in my head for the rest of the day – such a long effort does strange things to a person. The Eikenberg brought us close to Oudenaarde for the first time. I had that passage in mind for several days as a possibility to shorten it. With about 110 miles on the clock in such conditions I could come home with my head held high, couldn’t I?
Maybe so, but at the supply I was mainly looking at the images of the Koppenberg. It was busy, but did I really want to follow the detour for convenience or did I just take the risk? It became the latter. I tried to position myself, saw someone overtake me on the smoother part and tried to find a rhythm that offered enough traction and also didn’t take me too quickly to the walking participants ahead. The guy who had overtaken me just before turned out to be a good target and, moreover, spectators – yes, they are also there for the mere mortals on Saturday – shouted that there were still cycling participants arriving. The sea of click-clacking walkers on cycling shoes opened up and the two of us conquered the steepest part, despite the gentleman with the beautiful bra who didn’t exactly like it and kept walking sullenly in the middle.
Anyone who has ever ridden the Tour of Flanders Cyclo knows what the main course will bring from the Koppenberg: Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Ten Houte, Kanarieberg, Hotond and Karnemelkbeekstraat. The unexpected pancakes on the supply in Ronse were a welcome change, but still fell like a block on the stomach. It couldn’t spoil the fun for the two bouncers who crowned this extensive multi-course menu. The Oude Kwaremont was still gritting its teeth for a while and the Paterberg was mainly hampered by fellow sufferers who fell silent in front of me. With a bit of luck I also made it up here without setting foot on the ground.
More striking was the incident in the descent for that Paterberg. In the well-known combination of sharp bends, where a number of professional riders also miscalculated, I suddenly heard a primal scream behind me. I looked back and just saw someone driving straight ahead, straight into the meadow. Stopping was not an option for me, given the speed and the impossibility to just go against the direction here, but luckily there were enough people along the side of the road to help the unlucky guy. It was indicative of the hectic pace that had been hiding behind every corner all day long.
Next year again?
In the company of a German duo of friends I steamed to the finish line. One struggled to keep up with the pace of the other, resulting in a hilarious sigh from first to second with every gear. All day long I was impressed with the organization of this big event, but they get an extra compliment for the steward who made sure the finish line was kept clear, so that everyone could drive over it safely. That is the place where the crowds gather for that one, last photo, which in turn can cause unsafe situations, so that a Round ends in a fizzle for some. I also took that finish photo in disbelief. I would have made it again, and that in a completely rain-soaked edition. And would I do it again next year? When watching the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, I had already answered that question positively.
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