Few people have heard of the Tour of Flanders. Certainly, the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia are older and more popular than this spin through Belgium. Yet there is something about these “minor” bike races (and by minor I mean less popular, not less important) that, in my opinion, makes them as exciting to watch as the others. Maybe even more so.
I have had the privilege of witnessing first-hand a number of the great races. But once, I had the honor of competing in the amateur circuit through the Flemish Ardennes. It was an experience of a lifetime. The countryside is some of the most picturesque in Belgium, riding along the silky-soft asphalted roads on the flattest ground imaginable. Until you’re faced with Molenburg – the second of many uphill, cobblestone stretches – lasting about a half kilometer at an average 5% grade. Then it’s Paterburg: a 300m cobbled climb at an average 12.9%. Then the infamous Koppenburg: 600m of cobbled slope at an average of 11.6%. The entire course itself covers approximately 250km with 17 of climbs like these – some cobbled, some not – at various intervals. But the trick isn’t so much knowing when to anticipate the hill, as it is a game of avoiding the ruts. Certainly these cobblestone streets have “grown apart” over the years and it’s easy to let the wheels steer you into catastrophe. Derailleurs, chains, pedals and all kinds of debris are literally ripped off the bicycles by the mere strength of the climbing cyclist, and scattered along the base of every hill. These climbs eat bicycles. Thus the only solution through the pounding and vibrations is to keep hands firm, feet churning, and asses down. Missing any of these means walking along the side of the hill. Which calls into mind the next element of this adventure: space.
Not only are riding the fat cobblestones a challenge uphill, but there’s also the challenge of jockeying for position. On the asphalted flat bits the road is smooth, wide and speeds increase. Mere meters before the beginning of Kapelmur, for example, the road narrows considerably. As it should: all of these cobbled sections echo a time when horse drawn carriages ruled the roadways. There was no need to make the avenue any wider than needed. So when approaching the base, there is a mad scramble to stay on the bike as a group of cyclists, possibly ten or twelve wide, narrows to three. Speeds slow down instantly to a standstill, and most riders dismount since the grade is too difficult to attack from a stopped position. And it is here rivers of cyclists on foot flow uphill, walking their bikes along both sides of the cobblestone road – making the going even more narrow for those able to stay in the saddle.
Add to this mix the freezing cold, pouring rain, harsh winds and globs of mud and sand that pool at the base of each steep climb, and the adventure only turns more epic. Legendary, actually. The event is usually the 14th Sunday in the year – around the beginning of April – and the weather patterns in northern Europe are anything but trustworthy. Even the adverse weather adds to the uniqueness of the event: a one-day race that lasts a lifetime.