Tour of Flanders 2010
Paul Woodhouse

I would preface this by pointing out that I am no star.  I got into cycling late at the age of 39 and, like many people reading this, strive to balance the love of my family with my love of bike riding and the need to work for a living. 

I train for something like 10 hrs per week and apart from a long ride at the weekend with my club, it’s almost all done going to and from work.  I can hold my own but am just an average club rider.  So if I can do it anyone can.  One proviso though:  I do train hard and have an appetite for suffering.

Since I rode the 150km Flanders in 2009 I knew I wanted to go back and do the whole thing, to really know what it felt like for the pros.  Since I was training for that distance and it was an even numbered year, I thought I might as well try and keep the fitness going and do Roubaix as well. 

If you want a blow by blow account, then I will disappoint I’m afraid (as other people can do that better) but I hope to give you some idea of what it was like doing these two epic rides and what they felt like.  After all, I think that’s why we all ride bikes, for how they make us feel rather than for a sequential album of images and memories.

Ronde van Vlaanderen
Flanders SportiveSecretly I suppose I got my wish for a taste of classic riding, pro style.  The day dawned coldish at just 8o C, block headwind for most of the route, and with the threat of rain.  It was going to be proper Belgian weather.

It was cool to “sign on”, i.e. get our cards stamped, on the same stage as the pros would use the next day in the impressive market square in Bruges.  My co-rider (Phil, also travelling with the same company) and I set off in search of our first group to pursue our plan of hiding in a bunch for the first 150km on the flat. 

We are soon there and oscillating between 30 – 40kph as no-one seemed in a big rush to get to the climbs but the inevitable congestion meant that wheels had to be watched and the concertina effect came into play on the bends. 

 Many had said this section is flat and boring, which is unfair, it’s just quite nice, unspectacular countryside.  We were getting thoroughly soaked at intervals too and alternating with rain cape on / off / open.

Mind the Gap
In Belgium the law says you must use the cycle path if there is one and this proved quite a challenge in the now biggish group we were in.  Bollards, bends, potholes, kerbs, gravel and a lot of road spray all provided entertainment and not everyone was staying upright. 

After 100km it was my turn as the guy in front of me changed his line and took out my front wheel.  40kph – 0kph in around one metre.  Phil, who was in my wheel had nowhere to go and then rode over me.  Ouch.  Somehow only we two went down. 

A bit of bending and twisting and the bikes were good to go again.  I had a good dose of road rash, a gash in the elbow and was generally sore all down one side,  (the elbow took nearly 6 weeks to heal and it later emerged I had cracked a couple of ribs) but we were here to finish………

The hills were soon into view and we were feeling chirpy, pleased with having filled our jersey pockets from the beginning and therefore breezing through the early feed-stops and avoiding the queues. 

The first was almost disappointing with a gentle tarmac gradient which meant I stayed in the big ring, but the others compensated very soon to give us what we came for.  They were narrow, varying in length, and lots of them were cobbled. 

Of course it was chucking it down as well so they were a sea of slippery mud which meant that I now knew what “Belgian toothpaste” was.  They also had gaps that were a neat wheel width, grabbing at your tyres and with gradients often around 15-20%. 

Luckily I live near a 15% cobbled climb, and had practised, and whilst I don’t profess to expertise I knew enough to know to sit down and turn a slightly bigger gear than you might at first choose and keep the power down through the back wheel. 

koppenberg

This worked for every climb bar the Koppenberg because even the laws of physics can’t overcome other riders going down in front of you and once you stop on 22% cobbles you can’t restart.  No wonder all but the first few pros walk up here.  I consoled myself that my cleated trudge up the last 100m or so would be repeated by better riders than me tomorrow.

Bergs & Beer
Belgian bergs are like their beer.  They look beautiful and individually taste wonderful.  After a few you realise the percentage is high and they have a strange effect on your legs and they blur into each other.  Two stand out in the memory though, Blue Chimay and 9% Leffe! 

The Molenberg coming upon you suddenly as you turn off the tarmac and go over the little bridge next to the mill was delightful, despite the slick of mud that coated it. 

While the penultimate climb, up the Muur of Gerardsbergen, was positively enjoyable with it’s twists and graceful turns and constant interest.  The crowds of locals cheering you over the top made it really special. 

The next day we perched on the banks of the Muur just above the spot where Cancellara dropped Boonen like a stone.

The final 13km or so were a joy, we knew were going to do it now.  My pain melted away (not as much as it melted a few hours later after a few beers) and Phil and I knew a little of what it must be like to race for home the following day. 

No outstretched victory salute for us as we crossed the finish line but a handshake as we felt we had shared a victory of sorts.  Watching the pros the next day at the roadside, and in a bar or two, really rounded the weekend off.  I even felt a little smug as they had better weather than us.

As soon as I am able I’m going back to do it again.

Next stop, Paris Roubaix...