Tour of Flanders Sportive Report : 01 April 2006 : 140/240km
A five man i-Team completed this year's 2006 'Ronde van Vlaanderen,' which took place on the same course as the classic professional race. Read the accounts and get an insight as to what it's like to ride one of the hardest sportives there is.
The Tour of Flanders is an annual event which first started in the 1930's and always takes place in the first week of April. The amateur event takes place on Saturday followed by the professional race on the Sunday. In both events the route is around the city of Brugge following both main and minor roads including the infamous cobbled climbs. In the amateur event 16,000 riders take part of which about 15,000 follow the short route, 140 kms and 15 climbs whilst the remainder do the long route of 256 kms and 17 climbs. The longer route starts in Brugge and finishes in Minove and the shorter route starts and finishes in Minove,a town 80 kms to the East of Bruges.
Roger Forrest writes of his first Flanders:
60-something Roger Forest started serious cycling 3 years ago with an attempt at the Etape du Tour. A year later, he joined i-Team and completed his first Etape in 2005. Always up for a new challenge, he writes about his first experience of those infamous cobbles!
A and B teams left Friday morning and made an uneventful journey to Brugge where we checked into hotels, visited the race organisers and made administrative arrangements to collect riders after the race. Both teams then met up again in Brugge where we enjoyed a pasta meal (Roger was the only one who had the balls to enjoy a glass of the finest Belgian beer) and bored everyone else in the restaurant to death by talking tactics. What to wear, had we done enough training and then trying to put Roger off his meal by telling him that carbon fibre should not be used on for the race! We returned to our hotel, went to bed early and up for an even earlier 0700 start on Saturday, the race day.
The B team dropped off Paul in Brugge for a 0730 start and then drove to Minove for a 0830 start and what follows is an account of the B team's adventures on the day. Our first surprise was that the roads were not closed and that the route followed a combination of main roads, cycle paths, country lanes and of course the infamous cobbles.
The road surfaces were in poor condition and in some parts dangerous. In the early stages we cycled on concrete slabs that had been poorly repaired and there were many potholes and ruts between the slabs that were hazardous for cyclists. It soon became clear that with the large number of cyclists (double the number for the Etape) one had to be very conscious of other riders, some of whom knew what they were doing others who did not and at the same time keep alert for hazards on the road ahead.
After an hour it started to rain and as we were now in open flat countryside we were very exposed. A little later the rain became heavy and we were forced to stop and put on water-proof jackets but in a short time were soaked to the skin and riding directly into strong head winds. Many riders stopped and tried to take shelter in the door ways of farm buildings but having tried this for a few moments we got cold and decided it was best to press on. Half an hour later the rain had eased and eventually ceased by which stage we had covered about 30 kms and were on the look out for our first major climb of the day.
Suddenly we came to a sharp right–angled bend and there in front of us were the cobbles rising steeply in the distance. There was hardly enough time to select a suitable gear; speed dropped and it remained a question of, staying in the saddle as the cobbles were very wet, trying to finding the smoothest route up the climb and picking a way through the hundreds of other riders.
There is no way that one can prepare for the experience of riding on cobbles other than to learn on the job and this is what we did. Personally, I did not find the cobbles on the climbs a major problem and of the 15 hills (gradients ranging between 10-22%)
I only walked on 2 and that was because the route was blocked with too many cyclists. Mind you I was slow but Rob kindly waited for me at the top and we carried on together.
On some of the climbs one could take advantage of patches of tarmac and concrete guttering on the side of the cobbles which gave a much smoother ride. However, the worse part of the route for me was a section (3-4 kms) of large flat cobbles which was an extremely painful experience and one that I never want to go through again. Every bone, muscle in my body ached and all I wanted was for it to end so that I could have a rest.
The route was littered with hundreds of water bottles which was an indication of the stress both bike and body were experiencing at this stage.
Fortunately, this section ultimately came to an end and the sensation of riding again on smooth tarmac was nothing short of orgasmic!
As the day progressed the sun came out and the ride actually became quite pleasant although the surrounding countryside was not particularly attractive.We passed through 2 controls one of which required a lengthy stop and then we were down to the final 30 kms but as always in these events there was a sting in the tail and we were faced with 2 final climbs, including the notorious Kappelmurr with a 20% gradient. Both climbs were popular with spectators and their encouragement was very welcome. One kindly soul gave me a push up the final steep section on the Kappelmurr for which I will be eternally grateful. All too soon the hills were behind us and the wind was on our backs and we sped along at speeds in excess of 40 kph finishing the race at 1645.
I enjoyed the weekend and thought it was a worthwhile challenge but it was a one off event and I have no plans for a return visit next year! However, I think it would be good for the club to be represented again next year and for what it is worth here are my top tips:
- Think very seriously about which event you enter; the 256 km event is a major undertaking and you will spend 12+ hours in the saddle.
- Brugge is a very attractive city and wives would enjoy a visit!
- Remember that there are 2 different start points and the finish is 80 km from Brugge.
- Apart from the cobbles the road surfaces are bad and you need to be alert to avoid hazards.
- The event itself falls somewhere between the Etape and an Audax.
- It is not a race, no times are published and there is no broom wagon.
- You can also watch the professional race the following day.
- I used a carbon fibre bike contrary to advice as did many others.It performed well; it gave me a comfortable ride and apart from some grease which has been forced out of the headset there is no damage.
- I used SPD cleats and shoes which allowed one to walk when necessary.
- 25mm tyres at 6 bar pressure. It was a wise decision to use brand new tyres and inner tubes, since hundreds punctured on the course
- It would be prudent to carry a small container of oil for the chain and cassette. It is bound to rain and the original oil gets washed away.
- I was extremely happy with the new I-team thermal jersey. It kept me warm and comfortable even when soaking wet and it dried out completely after 30 minutes.
- Find a hotel in central Brugge or Minove depending on your route.
- Avoid staying outside the city as it creates difficulties in getting to the start line and parking can be a nightmare.
I hope you will forgive me in ending this report on a rather sombre note but this was my first visit to Flanders, the scene of the most horrific battles mankind has ever known, where millions of young men lost their lives. It is impossible to imagine what happened almost 100 years ago but the poem "In Flanders Fields" remains to this day one of the most memorable ever written. A Canadian surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem after spending only 17 days in a field hospital, treating injured soldiers in the Ypres salient:
IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In comparison with the Etape this is a cheap weekend in that rough costs are:
- Ferry car plus 2 passengers £50
- 3 star hotel Brugge £40 per persons per night B&B.
- Entry fee £10
- Meals and petrol say £100
- Total costs for weekend for 1 person £210
For the statistically minded:
Average speed: 21 kph
Duration: 7 hours 42 minutes (including stops)
Distance: 138 kms
Ascent: 1575 m
Rob Shannon writes of his first Flanders:
There is no way that one can prepare for the experience of riding on cobbles - it's a bit like holding a pneumatic drill. Look closely on the TV at the rider's arms and you'll see how much vibration there is. You feel it everywhere your body is in contact with the bike. In your feet (through the pedals) your lower back, hands and arms.
Grip the bars too hard (difficult not to do) and your fingers cramp round them. I imagine it feels like having arthritis - very painful.
I found that the mud on the climbs made it difficult to climb not the wet per se. It was so difficult to negotiate the other riders weaving across the road. On two of the cobbled climbs (I forget which), I followed a few of the Euskatel pros who were doing a reconnoiter for the next day (clearly they weren't going flat out).
They created a big gap up the climb as riders pulled to the sides to let them through (rather like an ambulance going through traffic with it's sirens on) - perfect opportunity to get a good run to the top in their wak. I enjoyed the steep cobbled climbs much more so than the cobbled flat or shallow inclines. I gave it some gas on the climbs and found I was overtaking lots of people.
The cobbles on the other hand were a different matter - I was being overtaken by almost everyone!
Roger Forrest wrote: "The sensation of riding again on smooth tarmac was nothing short of orgasmic!" - I'm not sure I had the same reaction as Roger (I certainly wouldn't have been able to feel it even if I did) - but it was rather like standing on land after having been on a very bumpy sea crossing or fair-ground ride. That was the weirdest sensation.
The Kappelmurr was my favorite climb by far. A lovely tarmac section up through the town which you can sprint up (by mistake because you don't realise there's a cobbled section to the climb further on!) and then the cobbled section. I actually came off on that part as the guy in front of me accidentally pulled a wheelie and fell backwards onto me and my bike. Luckily I was able to put the chain back on, receive a push from a kind spectator and made it to the top. The push was critical because it was not possible to click back in without falling off again such was the severity of the incline.
I thought it was a top weekend away - the event was great and the company fantastic - thanks chaps. Would I do it again? - probably though I would seriously consider taking my mountain bike with slicks on. I'm sure the trade off speed on flat for comfort on the cobbles would be worthwhile.
What about the distance? I'd probably want to try the 256 next time. We took the 140km at a very comfortable pace (though I did attack the climbs) and neither I nor Roger were overly tired at the end. Like Paul, I hadn't trained much in the preceding 3-4 weeks - a combination of a very bad cold and slight tendonitis meant I only did 120k, 3 weeks prior and a handful of shorter rides. Taking nothing away from the A team boys - they did an incredible ride, but I think with the right training it's do-able.
Roger, Paul and Lucien - thanks for your companionship and for organising the event.
Pete Neville writes of his first Flanders:
Got back yesterday evening from Bruges, still shattered from the events of Saturday. Also nursing a big hangover from too many Leffes Sunday afternoon and evening. Blimey that stuff is strong!
Roger, Rob and Paul have summed it up pretty well. It was a tough ride -really tough in places especially with the wind and the rain but not impossible.
For me personally I had a really good event with only a couple of mishaps. I was disappointed that I could not start with Paul and Lucien but my mobile 'brick' of a phone put an end to that and I could not contact the guys before the start of the race to meet up.
Fortunately I was not delayed too much at the start and managed to get away at about 7.30am and found myself going well with a large group of riders on the initial flat parts. Despite the rain and wind, I got to the first couple of checkpoints ok, stuffed myself with waffles, flapjacks and bananas then got going again. I did have the misfortune just after the second checkpoint to take a wrong turning with a couple of other riders which put an extra few kms on the total – just what I needed on a 260km event!!
Roger sums the cobbles up perfectly: "Every bone, muscle in my body ached and all I wanted was for it to end so that I could have a rest." The first stretch of cobbles was the worst for me. The vibrations went straight through and all I could do was hang on. Unfortunately I was hanging onto the handlebars a bit too tight and managed in the space of a couple of minutes to take the skin off the palms of my hands – ouch! I am sporting some nice blisters the size of 50p coins as I type this.
The locals seemed to fly across the cobbles - truly amazing! For me it was case of survival as my speed dropped to just 8kph on some parts! What a relief though when you get back onto normal tarmac!
On the whole, the hills were tough but not too tough – apart from the Koppenberg where everyone walked due to the slippery cobbles. What I did find difficult was the 72kms between checkpoints at Oudenaarde (160kms) and Brakel (232kms). This consisted of 13 hills including Koppenberg and I was very close to running out of food and drink supplies – not to mention the fatigue that was now setting in. The notorious Kappelmuur (hill 16) came just 9k after the final checkpoint (241km) so a last big effort managed to get me to the top. The remainder of the route was not too bad, though I desperately wanted it to end as various parts of the body were getting very numb!!
I was very grateful to cross the finish line just a few minutes after 7pm and given the conditions was well pleased with my time and no punctures!. Not sure how accurate my odometer was and this includes the ride to the start:
Ride time (not including stops): 11 hours 4 mins
I would definitely recommend this ride to other I-Teamers. In comparison to last year's Etape, my legs did not ache as much and the hills are nowhere near as demanding as the long ascents of the Marie Blanque and Aubisque but your upper body takes a real beating on the cobbles! It may have been a more comfortable ride if I had taken my carbon Isaac frame, however I think Guy's advice to me was spot on and I could have ruined the frame. (Roger may beg to differ on this point!)
If it acts as an inspiration, one of my non-cycling mates decided to give the full route a go and completed the course including stops in 13 and a half hours – pretty remarkable since the most he had ever ridden prior to this was 100k in one go. By the way he is mad!!
Big thanks to the guys, especially Paul for organising the trips from Dunkirk to Bruges and helping me get my car to the finish at Ninove.
The following represented i-team in the Tour of Flanders on 1 April 2006:
A Team - 256 kms
Lucien Carter (Team Captain)
B Team – 140 kms
Rob Shannon (Team Captain)
Both Lucien Carter & Paul Morris - completed the 240km 'full fat' version - RESPECT!