Wind-climbing at Gent-Wevelgem

On n’est que des voiles dans le vent

“We are just sails in the wind” said the mighty Eddy Merckx and although Flandrian purists would not count him as one of their own, even they would admit that he should know.

I have just ridden the 220km-long Gent-Wevelgem cyclosportive, which takes place the day before the race, and now I understand even more why Belgian riders are just so s-t-r-o-n-g. I’ve ridden the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix routes, even in the rain, but somehow I have always managed to avoid a day in the Flandrian wind. Until last Saturday.

When I was planning the Cent Cols Challenge Classics for its first outing this May, I slipped in Gent-Wevelgem on Day Two, thinking that it would be a bit of a recovery stage in between the 260km days of both Flanders and Roubaix. I had never actually ridden the route when I made that decision, but on paper it seemed to make sense. Since I will be leading the group around the routes in a couple of months, it also made sense to actually go and do it.

Typical of my glass half-full outlook, I gave much more space to the dry weather that was forecast than to the ‘gusty wind’ that was also forecast. In hindsight, I might have swapped it all for rain, but Flanders is all about cobbles and wind, so I should be grateful that I only had to deal with one of them at a time today.

The ride started with some twitchy peloton riding, but the Flemish (f)oxes soon proved too much for me. They have learnt to embrace the wind, it seems, as I have come to embrace gradient. When our small group arrived at a junction lacking an arrow, the collective decision seemed to be to turn right into the headwind, just as I would always choose the road that goes up when in the mountains. An arrow just a few clicks down the road would always prove them right.

To help me accept ‘defeat’, I chose to ride solo later on, with the idea that in this way I would truly experience the one-to-one battle with the wind. ‘Wind-climbing’, it turns out, is a far more wicked and subtle game than the one I love playing in the mountains, because you can’t really see the gradient (the wind) ahead playing its ever-changing direction game.

There is also a strange inversion compared to gradient climbing, as the ‘ascent’ is all noise, total focus and time for nothing but keeping the bike straight, resisting the temptation to drop out of the big ring (game over!), and finding the balance between technique and pure brute force. The ‘descent’ – when you suddenly turn out of the wind – is the quiet bit: all goes silent, you can look around, you can find the grace that I love on climbs. At least there is still a reward for your uphill efforts.

The ‘gradient’ lies cunningly hidden at a sudden right or left turn, when a bearable side wind suddenly turns to more gradient. It’s a mind game, once more. There seems little logic to it, other than ‘who gives in first?’ It’s also where the pros really show their mettle.

Would I really have preferred rain? Well, no, actually. It’s like cobblestones: when you first start, you hate them, but once you determine that you are not going to let them beat you, somehow you learn to like them. I admire all the Flandrians who ride these roads all year long. They are pretty unforgiving.

It’s that admiration that will bring me back. That, and the slogan I saw stamped across a Flandrian ox who powered past me in another ‘wind-climbing’ battle with only 25km to go. Pedal Harder it said. Sorry, I’ll do better next time.

And will the Cent Cols Challenge G-W stage really be a recovery day for us in May? That will depend entirely on the Gods of the Wind.

Discover the Cents Cols Challenge Classics.