Tour of Flanders Sportive 175k 6th April 2019
OK, It’s a long time since I wrote a blog so if you have 5 mins to spare, please read on below to get a good idea of what the Flanders experience is all about. If you’re stuck for time then here’s a brief synopsis: Did tour of Flanders sportive 175k, went well, felt great, amazing experience, pro race next day was epic, beer went down well, will deffo be back for more!
I have just returned from my 4th trip to the legendary Tour of Flanders or De Ronde Van Vlaanderen as it is known locally. The purpose of the trip is threefold. Firstly to take on and survive the Sportive the day before the main event. Secondly to go and watch the pro race the following day and experience the atmosphere and passion generated amongst the 1 million, yes 1 million, people that turn out to support this monument of cycling and thirdly, of course, to enjoy one of Belgium’s other fine contributions to the world, Beer! Well not just the one of course!! Note I haven’t even mentioned chocolate!!
The sportive brings you over the infamous cobbled climbs and sectors that crisscross the fields of the Flanders region of Belgium. Depending on the distance you sign up for you get to experience most or all of climbs and pave sections that the pros visit the following day in the heat of battle. There are 4 different distances available to enter on the day, 229km, 174km, 139km and 74km. All bar the 229km distance start and finish in Oudenaarde which is effectively now the home of De Ronde. The 229km route starts in Antwerp and makes its way down a series of main roads until it reaches Oudenaarde where the fun and games on the cobbles and bergs (hills) begins. Its hard to explain this but the 174km route tends to be harder than the 229km route as it covers all the hills and cobbled sections whereas the 229km misses out on a few of these and runs flat for about 80k. All routes finish by climbing the infamous Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs and then the 10k flat route to the finish line just as you see the pro’s doing every year if you are watching. Those two climbs are two of the most famous climbs in cycling and there are few better feelings than the felling of joy after getting up and over the Paterberg knowing that you are going to descend for a bit and finish the last 10k on the flat…… hoping that the wind is favourable to you of course, and then into the town square for a well-earned drink.
My introduction to this event was back in 2015 when a friend of mine from the bike business world in the UK, Jonny Yeats, told me about it and that he was heading out with his mates and that I should join them for the craic. I had never taken part in anything like this before so jumped at the opportunity and haven’t looked back since. For the first couple of trips we stayed in Ghent which is a beautiful city but just that bit far from Oudenaaarde where, as we know now, all the fun happens both before and after the event. So, getting to the start of the sportive, getting back to your hotel that night and then getting to the viewing points for the race the following day were all a bit of hassle from Ghent and looking for a designated driver even more so as a major part of the sportive day is to sit in the beautiful square in Oudenaarde after the cycle and sip on a few amongst hundreds of men and women clad in lycra all comparing notes and dissecting the previous few hours endeavours. Then on race day it would be rude not to have some beer to help you get through the long day of supporting the pro’s.
We all arrived on the Friday, Donal and I via Brussels airport and the rest of the lads via the channel tunnel train and the short drive from Calais in France. The decision was made to check over the bikes and take them out for a spin. As I said, the Koppenburg climb is only 3k from the house so we decided to give it a go and sure while we are at it why not Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs too as they are all close to each other. On the day of the sportive it is often impossible to get up the steeper climbs without interruption as they are so steep and the cobbles so rough that people are veering and falling off all over the place so a stab at these climbs the day before the off gave us a good chance to get a clear run and prove that it can be done. I had made it over every climb in the past baring the Koppenburg so welcomed this opportunity to have a proper go at it. During the sportive this climb comes just after one of the major feed stations and is the first hill that those taking on the shorter distance come across. These guys start later in the day than those taking on the longer distances so by the time we had reached it in the past it had been a log jam as once one or two fall off there is a domino effect and before you know it you are walking with your bike on your shoulder. The climb itself is only 550m in length but the average gradient is 11.6% and at its steepest reaches 20%. These are amongst the roughest of the cobbles you come across and the climb snakes it way steeply upwards under a canopy of trees so even when it is dry everywhere else, it tends to be wet on the Koppenberg, adding to the joys of steep climbs on cobbles.
The organisation of the Sportive is top class. You can register the day before, which we did, or on the morning of the event. There are 16k participants in total across the various distances so leaving the registration to the last minute is not recommended especially if, like us, you want to start at 7am to get as clear a run as possible. There are numerous feed stations along the way and in tandem with these are mechanical stations run by Shimano. These feed stations are massive, and you can get everything from gels and jellies to bananas and oranges to waffles and swiss roll and there are tanks of energy drink and water so no excuses for going hungry or getting dehydrated. The marshalling is fantastic and the cooperation between the local police and regional authorities goes to show how much cycling means to the Belgians.
Previously I have ridden my Storck Aernario bike over the course but this year my Argon 18 Gallium Pro Disc bike was making its debut. It is the stealth black version of the bike and I have it set up with Shimano Ultegra Di2 with a compact 50-34 chainset and 11-32 cassette for the steeper climbs. I ran a set of Fulcrum Racing Zero Disc wheels with the new Conti 5000 28mm Tubeless tyres. I have had a few punctures over the years but was confident that this year I would make it all the way without any issues. Using tubeless also meant that I could run a lower tyre pressure as the risk of a pinch puncture while on a normal tube and tyre set-up doesn’t exist. As a result of this the comfort and grip factors helped enormously on the day and at no stage did I feel the rear wheel slip even over the steepest cobbled sections. The Argon 18 Gallium Pro bike was an absolute dream to cycle on the day. At no time did it ever feel it was getting away from me, which is saying something considering the many downhill section to be negotiated on the cobbles. The response when I needed to punch through a gap that appeared in front of me was off the charts good. As I am above your average height I don’t get to try out too many bikes and be able to give a proper assessment, but this is the same bike that the Astana team are using with great success and in as much as I can I can see why they are doing so well on it.
The cycle on the day was immense and as a group of 14 we pretty much stuck together until the last climb before Qude Kwaremont, the Karnemelkbeekstraat (some mouthful) when 4 of us just pulled away from the others. Not intentionally, it just happened and before we knew it, we had arrived at the start of Oude Kwaremont. I like this climb for a number of reasons. It’s here that we watch the pro’s on the Sunday as they pass 3 times in total, the last time they are within 16k of the finish so things kick off or have already kicked off on Oude Kwaremont. In 2017 Gilbert made his move literally in front of us, last year Terpstra chased down and passed the leading bunch on it and this year Bettiol made his move towards the end of the climb. Whilst it is one of the longest cobbled climbs on the day, the elevation is generally within my comfort zone so I can power along nicely especially on the section after you pass the town square about half way up. I got to the top of this one with the other 3 lads then we faced the longish twisting descent before taking a sharp right and the Paterberg climb. This is a nasty one and well above my comfort zone so it’s a matter of survival to the top. 400m long, average gradient 13% with a 21% stretch for about 150 metres just before the top. The veins are popping, and the heart is thumping but even on this day of the sportive the crowds are incredible and they are shouting and screaming encouragement on the hardest part of the climb doing their best to make sure people stay on their bikes. Fantastic. The finish of the sportive is identical to the pro race so having watched this for years on tv and then experiencing it in person over the last few years it never fails to give you goosebumps as you see the church steeple of Oudenaarde in the distance and then cross under the finishing arch. The four of us crossed the line together, had the obligatory fist pump of congrats, and then headed for the other obligatory part of the day, Belgian beer in the square.
I have enjoyed all my trips to Flanders but this one was the best so far for me. I have an Ironman in Santa Rosa in 4 weeks so I guess I was fitter at Flanders time than I have been before but the whole weekend was a buzz, even more so because I cycled strongly on the day. Here are a few interesting facts that my Wahoo Element Bolt computer collected over the cycle:
Total Distance: 175k Average speed: 27.6kph Max Speed: 67.8kph
Avg HR: 129 Max HR: 164 Calories Burnt: 4276
Elevation gain: 2226m Max Elevation: 143m
I think this elevation is very telling with regards the toughness of the event. The highest spot above sea level we got was 143m yet we still climbed 2226m so this gives you a good indication of the amount of up and down you get on the route and how steep these stinger climbs are. The organisers have big signs before each climb detailing the name of it, the length, average gradient and max gradient so you are never in any doubt of what lies ahead.
I had a total of 1008 gear changes, 48 front mech and 960 rear and the gear I spent most time in was 50x15
Normalised power was 329W over the 6hr 22 min duration of the spin.
Beer was a mixture of Jupiler and Kwaremont, keeping it very local. Interesting fact about Kwaremont beer, it is 6.6% on the alcohol scale which represents the average gradient of the climb…. Class! Great carbo loading!!!
Would I recommend this event? Absolutely yes. Will I be doing it again…. Show me the entry form and I’m there. The cycle is not for everyone as those cobbles are something that you cannot prepare yourself for other than actually going over and giving it a try. I had no idea what to expect until I went the first time. They are tough on the body for sure and you rattle through every sinew like a form of electric shock but you know, there is a total sense of satisfaction when you finish and the buzz over the entire weekend is like nothing I have experienced before. The Belgians absolutely love their cycling, its in their DNA, and they love sharing this with all comers. Oudenaarde is hopping for the entire weekend and the square is a magical place to be on the Saturday and Sunday nights. Thanks to all the lads who shared the weekend with me, we had some laugh. Now time to concentrate on Ironman Number 7 on 11th May!