Well here we are for the first trip of the year to Belgium; the 165
kilometre Omloop Het Volk, which is basically the Tour of Flanders with
the hills in a different order. Having previously done Flanders I knew
what to expect, which wasn’t necessarily the advantage you would imagine.
Last year I turned up, having only seen the race on TV and although the
course obviously looked tough there was no real anxiety or trepidation
just nervous anticipation.
The fact that I now knew what was to come wasn’t of great
comfort. Nothing can prepare you for the physical onslaught and
battering your body takes in these cobbled events. Dianne’s biggest
fear was getting lost, she was going to ride the 65k event, which was to
include 750 metres of cobbles. Getting lost would be the least of her
problems! This was going to be a hard days cycling; but isn’t that why
Signing on was a formality. You pick up and fill in a blue
carnet, join the queue and pay your three euros! They stamp your carnet,
you collect your free gift and you’re on your way to your Belgian
adventure. Out of the car park, you turn right and you’re straight into a
few hundred metres of cobbles, although these are more neatly laid bricks
than actual cobbles they do act as an all over body warm up and a nice
introduction to the ride. It's now over the river and through the
suburbs, heading south to where the action is.
The plan was to ride with Dianne to Nazareth were our two
routes split at the 15 kilometre mark. A largish group of riders
formed that were cracking on at a fairly comfortable, club-run, type pace.
This'll do for the first ten miles, I thought.
However, with just six-k under our belts a large group of
Dutch riders smoothly cruised past. Realising this was a ticket to
the first climbs, I made my excuses and jumped across
to their group; this was to be the start of a fast and furious ride.
There were about twenty of them, all spoke English, and they had no
problems about me riding with them. Although I thought I’d be
discrete and keep out of their way by staying at the back until the “race” settled down.
Cobbles at twelve o'clock
The first 20 kilometres are not too spectacular, with the highest
climbs being bridges that span the rivers, canals and motorway. But when
you hit them at 30 mph and climb them at 28, they do become a distinct
challenge. After 30K we hit the first real cobbles, 1.8 kilometres of
them at Wannegem. The previous night’s rain had left them slippery and
lethal but you still have to hit them at speed to maintain momentum and
balance. Being the last man of our group on to them, the biggest obstacle
I faced was dodging the water bottles that came flying backwards towards
me. At this point of the ride they’re full and unlikely to pop if hit,
they become more of a concern than the cobbles themselves. A course of
action is called for.
Unless you've actually experienced Belgian cobbles, the
noise, violence and physical battering they give you is beyond most
people’s comprehension. And beyond my writing skills to explain.
It’s like a manic fairground ride, but you’re not strapped in and you
can't get off. Also, I notice I'm the only one not wearing a helmet.
Must be one of their club rules but in Belgium it's not compulsory.
To survive the "bottle attacks" I need to get to the front.
My heart rate hitting the
cobbles was 196 bpm, after the first two hundred meters or so some riders
began to tire and I started to pick my way through the group. For a sheer
adrenaline rush, overtaking people on wet, cobbled corners is an
experience you should all try at least once. At the end of the run I’m
second wheel and still in the big ring! Although I do have two problems,
my seat tube bottle cage has loosened (but the bottle's still in it) and my
heart is now bouncing out of my chest at 228 bpm.
There was now a further ten-k to the next obstacle, the Kluisberg.
About three-k after the cobbles one of the Dutch riders realised he'd
punctured and stopped to get a wheel from his following team service car.
I used this opportunity to borrow an allen key and nip my cage back into
We worked together and chased like lunatics only to catch
the group at the bottom of the 1.8 kilometre, 7% climb. Remembering this
from Flanders I paced myself to the top. Only to find the top for Het
Volk is different to the top for Flanders. Suddenly, we turned right
instead of left and headed up, at 17%, to the Toren (a Martello Tower like
structure) at the top of the berg. This was the first control and carnet
stamp number two. A quick drink and a biscuit and I'm off. The
Dutch riders waited for their team-mates and carried out bike inspections.
a quick, “technical” descent the 8% Cote de Trieu followed then the
classic climb of the Oude Kwaremont. At 1.2 kilometres long and an
average of 4% it shouldn’t be hard. But with sections of 11%, and cobbled
at that, it sucks the energy from your legs like a very efficient leg energy sucking
At the top you turn left and continue on the cobbles until,
at last, the normal road returns. You take a drink and quickly rush to
get the bottle back in its cage as the Kalkhoveberg appears from nowhere.
One hundred cobbled metres of straight up at 14%, and when you get to the
top there’s a further six hundred metres of cobbles. The legs are now
totally pummelled and your hands and knuckles are beginning to swell.
All I can hear in my head id David Duffield telling us, “This is what cycling’s all about
ladies and gentlemen”.
A few more bergs follow, see the list below, and the
stronger riders from the Dutch group have jumped across to catch me up.
They come to the front and say there hello's just as we hit the Eikenberg.
Cobbled for its entire length the 1.2 kilometre climb has sections of
11%. The Dutch riders splinter all over the hill as those that
over-exerted themselves during the chase, now pay the price. I find myself in no
mans land. As we come off the climb I’m a 100 metres off the fast boys
and 200 metres ahead of the next best. Foolishly, I decide to chase.
After five miles of chasing a downhill section helps me
gain some time, it’s a further three miles before I catch them, just as we
hit the bottom of the Keire. I desperately hang on as we climb and hope
to sit in to get a recovery before our next adventure. However, the
second control appears into view and that option is now lost. The Roman Brewery
in Mater offers a drink and a cake. I down both as quickly as possible
and get my carnet stamped for the last time. The final run-in of 30 miles
is ahead. But then so are the real killers, and they come thick and
fast. The Dutch wait to re-group and I go on ahead, alone.
Hell in God's country
First up, within two minutes, is the Haaghoek; 2.3 kilometres of
cobbles. Just as the cobbles come to a not-too-soon end, the 700 metre
Leberg begins. It’s not cobbled but with sections of 14% it hurts the
legs, especially after you’ve only just got back on the bike. Still, the
finish is almost in sight and you know that once you’ve descended the
Leberg, the Berendries appears so no time for negative thoughts of tiredness.
Both pass without incident although the speed difference
between riders is now more noticeable as all of the rides come together to
finish over the same route. As a group forms, the speed starts to
increase. I now recognise the road we’re on and I know the reason
for the haste. The Molenberg is approaching. A quick gel goes down the
throat, followed by an even quicker drink.
Just like last time, the turn for the Molenberg appears
from nowhere. All of a sudden the route markers, yellow painted road
arrows, indicate “turn-right”. You’re not even a bike length off the road
and the pave goes straight up; and I mean up. Looking up the Molenberg is
like looking up your stairs at home. Except they’re cobbled, and not with
good ones at that. The "road" is one car wide, with massive subsidence.
Cobbles are falling away at the sides with the crown opened up waiting to
catch your wheels. The loose packed cobbles move under your wheels, with
water squirting up from under them as you fight against gravity and
fatigue to keep the bike moving forward. 400 metres later, at up to 17%,
you reach the top and head for the next nightmare.
The world famous Paddestraat is next. Nick-named “The Hell
of Zotegem” it’s 2.3 kilometres of pave that resembles a collection of
house bricks randomly scattered along a main road. Even the pavements are
made of cobbles so there’s no point in looking for refuge there! At this
point of the ride you’ve lost all feelings in your hands and your kidneys
(working overtime from processing sugary snacks and drinks for five hours) feel three inches
lower in your body than they did when you started. I got to the end
having passed around ten riders, but was caught by three that went past
me around ten miles an hour faster than I was going! These boys know
how to ride.
As I was spat out the end I saw four riders in the
distance. To keep interest up I decided to chase them. It took around
five miles and the 1750 metre, 3% climb of St Boekel to catch them but I
did just as we crossed the river to head back to the finish. Once over
the river the ride headed through a country park to find the last two
stretches of cobbles to the finish. Just as we entered the park one of
the riders hit a massive pot-hole and blew his tyre clean off the rim. I
waited but they said to carry on. So I did, on my own, again!
The last two cobbled sections, equalling 600 metres, passed
without incident but not without pain. The main road run in looked
smooth-ish and flat. Then just as I was once more crossing a river bridge
to take me back to the finish, not 500 metres from the line, three of our
Dutch riders passed me. I jumped to get on but didn’t quite have it.
Then with 200 metres to go they sat up! How good was that. We finished
together in a time of six hours thirteen minutes. 165 kilometres, 18k of
which were uphill, 10k of which were cobbled and 2.8k of which were
cobbled and uphill!
Dianne covered her 65 kilometres in a shade under two and a
half hours. Being 52 kilo’s may help on the hills but it doesn’t do you
any good when flying over the cobbles. I asked her how she got on with
the particularly dodgy last 450 metre section and she said, “it was a bit
bouncy but I just kept it in the big ring and pushed as hard as I could!”
So there you go, how to ride cobbles in one easy sentence.
As a post script, at the last stop I met the Flemish
equivalent of Dave Le Breton. This old boy just loved his cycling so
much. Just like Dave, the harder it is the more he enjoyed it.
He was so happy. “This is God’s cycling country, no? Each day
at work we die a little, but today we are alive like no other day.
The cobbles the hills, the weather, the scenery. This is Flanders,
this is true cycling, isn’t it great to be alive and cycling, aren't you
glad you came.”
You know what, he was probably right. Although Het Volk didn’t have
the atmosphere of Flanders, and wasn’t as hard a parcours, it was
cycling, it was hard and it was in Belgium. It was a great day, in a
brilliant setting and a fantastic event, all for two quid each. Does it
get any better? I'll let you know when we get back from Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
1200m cobbled 600m
100m cobbled 600m crest
1200m cobbled 1200m
400m cobbled 400m
St Denijs Boekel
Do you want to know what has a stiff front end and a
comfortable rear? No, it’s not the wife. It’s a Colnago C50. Last year
I rode a C40 and my body took a battering. This year the C50 with a far
stiffer front end smashed over the cobbles while the back end still just
bounced from one stone to the next, just like before. However at the end
of six hours, the HP chain stays did seem to make the road sections of the
journey more comfortable, removing the road buzz I remembered from
last year. And come the end, my back was still in one piece. So,
maybe there is something in it after all!