So this is more of a "ride" report than a race report, but it was a fun experience I wanted to share and would highly encourage anyone who has the chance to take it!
Back in December I sold a big project at work, and the client requested an on-site workshop as part of the project at their facility outside London. We began discussing dates and we settled on March 30. I happened to look at my calendar and came to the realization that the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) was the following weekend and just a short eurostar train ride from London. I got very excited and made arrangements with my boss to extend my return with vacation time so I could attend - and RIDE - my first cycling monument.
Toward the end of January, however, the client reversed course and decided to cancel the workshop and schedule a presentation in Houston instead. I was super bummed as I had already started making plans for Flanders - and telling everyone about it! - but with a son on the way, my wife encouraged me to go anyway as it might be my last chance for a while as we settle in as new parents starting in September.
The day before the Tour of Flanders, organizers offer a "cyclo," basically a grand fondo, to ride the many famous cobbled sectors and bergs of de Ronde. The full 237km route started in Antwerp, which presented some logistical challenges for me, so I signed up for the "short" route of 141km, starting and finishing in Oudenaarde.
I arrived in Brussels Friday morning and immediately dropped my bags off at my hotel, conveniently located inside the Midi train station, and headed to Oudenaarde by train to pick up my bike number. I got my bike assembled very quickly Friday evening and got all my gear ready to go for an early morning departure. I took the first train to Oudeenaarde in the morning, rolling my bike onto the train, arrvied about 7:30am, and made the quick ride over to the start. The organizers of this cylco were VERY well organized - the start opened at 7am so I was a little behind, but I was able to roll up drop my bag of clothes off, and get onto the course by 7:45. There were still quite a number of riders starting at this time so I wasn't alone.
The morning started at about 45 degrees with a light rain. The first 10km were flat and smooth and everyone was riding clean, some fast, some slow. Despite my current lack of fitness, I found myself riding faster than most of the participants around me and spent quite a bit of time weaving my way around groups to get up the road. I was a little concerned I was letting adrenaline get the better of me and going out too hard, but no, everyone else was just going slow.
We hit the first cobbles about 10km in, the Wolvenberg. It was quite steep, but I made it up without any trouble and started getting excited about what was to come. This was followed by a couple of flat cobbled sectors, which proved to be far more challenging for me than the cobbled climbs - you carry more speed over these cobbles since you're not climbing and the result is extremely jarring. I had ridden cobbles before, but nothing like this. My arms and hands quickly went numb and my teeth rattled. You know it's going to be a long day when at kilometer 27 of 141 you're already saying "oh great, more cobbles..."
The Padderstraat, beginning at km 27, and continuing for 2,300 meters, was the ugliest sector of the day. The cobbles were rough - and slick from the morning rain - and they seemed to never end. About halfway through the sector, a rider in front of me had his rear wheel slide out on a cobble. He went down fast and hard and I couldn't avoid him. I end up running over his arm, but kept it upright. Unfortunately, in my effort to look backward to see if he was ok, I unweighted by rear wheel and ended up sliding out myself. I was moving slowly but fell hard on my right elbow. I didn't think much of it at the time, but about a mile later I realized I was bleeding profesully through my arm warmer and rain cap (neither of which was torn, oddly enough).
Luckily, the first feed zone wasn't far beyondd the Padderstraat, so I was able to get patched up at the medical tent. Also got to grab some sugar/liege waffles - not stroopwaffels mind you, these are even better! - which were a staple of all three feed zones and became my fuel of choice.
There were several more climbs before the next feed zone, but nothing too eventful. The course through the Flemish countryside was gorgeous. I got to ride by an iconic windmill and ride through several small villages. Most of the country roads in the area are barely wider than a golf cart path, which made descending a bit nerve-wracking for me, often not being able to see what laid beyond the apex of turns - but the locals were bombing these things and was quite impressed.
The 2nd feed zone came just before the famous Koppenberg climb, one of the toughest climbs of the day, topping out at 22% grade. I had a fairly good rhythm riding up this berg, but unfortunately, traffic got quite thick toward the top and as we reached the 22% section, many people ahead of me came to a stop and I was forced off my bike as well. Walking 22% grade on slick cobblestones, while wearing bike shoes, might actually be more diffcult than riding it, wow. I managed to get remounted near the top, but had to stop to clear mud from my brakes that had collected while walking the bike in the gutter. I was super bummed that I didn't get to climb the Koppenberg in full, but there was just too much traffic.
After one final waffel stop, I headed toward the final series of bergs, finishing with the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg double. Prior to the ride, I had loaded theses Strava live segments on my Garmin with goal times one second faster than Michael Kirby - I needed motivation afterall. So I attacked both of these climbs - keeping an eye on my "time ahead" while trying to meter my effort appropriately. The Kwaremont is long and rough, but not particularly steep/difficult. The Paterberg, on the other hand, was extremely steep. My quads had started to cramp a little so I was concerned whether I'd actually be able to make it up the Paterberg, but I stayed firmly planted in the saddle in order to keep weight/traction on the rear wheel and grinded it out all the way to the top, managing to beat Kirby by 27 seconds. I had to stop at the top, though, to stretch my quads, as they were close to locking up after that effort. I pulled a waffel out of my jersey pocket and enjoyed it while watching more riders come up the final berg.
Finally, I remounted the bike and headed for the finish in Oudenaarde. As I crossed the canal onto the final, long straight-away, I fell in with a group of about 5-6 other riders and we started trading pulls as we charged toward the finish line at about 30mph. It was a fun, fast way to close out a long, hard day on the bike. We had to slow up at the finish line, ironically enough, as many riders were "posting up" and crowds of riders were walking back across the line to take pictures in front of the famous finish banner.
From there I slow-rolled the 5k back to the starting point, where the organizers provided showers and changing tents, and plenty of beer and frites were on offer. It was an amazing day on the bike and one of the most memorable events in which I have ever taken part. It wasn't a "race," but it was a great challenge and I would highly encourage everyone to put it on their bucket list. And the best part is, you can come back the next day and hang out on the Oude Kwaremont all afternoon, drinking beer and cheering on the pros as they fly up the Kwaremont!