Doing Flanders

Phil Deeker, creator of the Cent Cols Challenge, lives and trains in Belgium. However, until this year Phil had never ridden the fabled climbs of the Belgian Classics. Here he recounts his first experiences of riding the pavé on the Tour of Flanders sportive.

The Flandrians proudly label it “the toughest one-day road race in the world”. 262km. 15 climbs.

I decided on strict energy-conservation over the first, flat part of the race, combined with a shrewd tactic of hiding in a bunch to keep out of the wind. The pros deal with the pressures of team expectations, us mortals deal with the pressures of (often crazy) personal ambitions. I had come to do battle with The Cobbles. I had put off riding the pavé for years, but now I felt ready.

Having ‘signed on’ at the same stage the Pros would use the next day in the impressive Market Square in Bruges, I nonchalantly set off. No mass-start here. It’s a long way and no-one seems in a rush to get to those hills. I find myself in a huge group, where the speed seems to continually stutter from 15-50kph: An almost predictably regular swing from semi-panic-chasing of some invisible breakaway to freewheel/wobbling congestion. But to go to the front and try and get across to a distant group ahead seemed both naïve and impolite.

In Belgium, unless you are a Pro, when there is a cycle path the Law says you use it. Most of the time all 20,000 of us did. This provided the main challenge of the first 120km. Speeds varied from 25 to 40 kph on these and it was only rarely that you were the one who chose the speed. Bollards, S-bends, sharp curbs, potholes, gravel and mud all made for a spicy cocktail of hazards. Add to that a blinding dose of road spray once the rain got going and you were lucky to stay upright. Which we didn’t.

After 100km of seeing and avoiding a series of tumbles, it was our turn. To crash on a cycle path doesn’t sound too cool, but when some idiot cuts right across my co-riders’ wheel, he was straight down in front of me and there was nothing I could do. Too close. Surprisingly, a mass-mess was somehow avoided. The group left us both to lick our wounds – which could have been a lot worse, and inspect our bikes which, after some twisting, pulling and knocking of bits, seemed miraculously as if they were ready to carry on. Just a bit of blood and bruising. It could so easily have been Game Over.

After 150km a ridge of hills came into view and I felt ready for battle. Then an unexpected flat 2km section of cobbles hit us and proceeded to hammer a good chunk of that confidence right out of me. Bigger riders seemed to have found the secret to floating across these cobbles and sped on past. All 63kgs of me were being bounced everywhere, even when I tried to force the pace a bit. All that did was cause one of my bottles to fly out of its’ cage. The cobbles were still wet and slippery even though the sky had cleared, but worse was to come.

Gradients between 15 and 20% seemed part of most of the climbs, in varying lengths. But it wasn’t the gradient that provided the challenge. That was just one factor to deal with. Steep cambers, icy-like slippery mud, ruts between the cobbles that suck your wheel in, rebel single cobbles that suddenly jut at your wheel intent on stopping you on the spot, and that’s without dozens of other cyclists weaving across the narrow climbs. I gradually find some kind of technique and get to the top un-mudded and still on two wheels. On the Koppenberg, though, I was beaten.

A layer of very greasy mud had built up on this legendary climb and as soon as I turned the front wheel slightly to go for a ‘line’ through the walking cyclists, I was down in the mud. Even walking up it was hard. The Molenberg was a close one too, with ruts easily wider than our wheels between almost every cobble, it seemed, and since at 18-20% I was not going that fast, cycling up here needed acrobatic skills at times.

By the time we had reached Gerardsbergen for the penultimate, and usually race-deciding climb of the Muur (which it was the next day), the other climbs had become a blurred memory of battlefields of mud, gradient and guts. Yet I was still riding and felt victorious already. Being urban, rather than rural, the cobbles on the way up to the infamous Kappel-Muur at the top were kinder. The climb was the first one I really enjoyed. I even saw its’ beauty. It twists gracefully as opposed to most of the brutal straight-and-up climbs in the more agricultural parts of the route.

There is no better way to watch a Pro road race than being by the road-side having just ridden that same course the day before. As I squatted on the bank of the Muur climb the next day and watched Boonen and Cancellara fight their way into history, I was in sheer awe of their strength and skills, aware of every kilometre they had just raced over. As I banged on the pedals for the final 12km of flat after the Bosberg, I felt capable of touching a small part of that ocean of emotion that must fill a riders’ mind when he is sprinting home for victory. We saw just that the next day on Cancellara’s face, my throat swollen and tight with emotion and a big smile across my face. I knew exactly why I had put myself through all that on Saturday and why I’ll do it all again next year.