About three-quarters of the way up the climb the pain in my lower back reached an entirely new level of awfulness. Each bump in the rough cobblestone farm track rattled up and down the body and treated the kidneys to another set of organ-crunching tremors. It was as though someone was hammering out a staccato rhythm on each side of the base of my spine and my poor, bruised insides were sending every sort of pained message that they could muster up to my brain.
With 500m to go on the Oude Kwaremont I had to dig as mentally deep as I have ever done on a bike just in order to ignore the silent screams to ‘make it stop.’ I fixed both eyes on a random rear wheel some way ahead and reduced my world to that one thin strip of rubber until the blessed relief of flat asphalt came to momentarily mute the cries. I looked back for my friend and, after the merest of nods to communicate the sharing of a horrible experience, we carried on to the Paterberg for more of the same.
I have suffered on the bike before of course – shooting knee pains which led to retirement at the nearest train station; returning home at crawling pace unable to change gear with an injured right hand after a crash; epic fringale on an ill-advised ride after a couple of days with a debilitating stomach bug – but I’ve never suffered quite so eagerly or quite so willingly as I did last weekend. In all the cases above I have looked for a shortcut, for a way out, for every slightly easier path that might lessen the immediate pain, but on Saturday, at the height of my suffering, I found myself still determinedly ignoring the option of the smoother path at the edge of the road and resolutely sticking to the root cause of my discomfort. I had come to Belgium to ride cobbles and I would be damned if I wasn’t going to ride every single last one of them.
Fittingly, we spent a night in a mill before putting ourselves through the grinder.
The fear had started the night before, as my companions and I carb-loaded in our idiosyncratic weekend accommodation. Graham, a veteran of a number of previous Rondes, had found us an old windmill to rent South-East of Oudenaarde and, as he, David and I wrestled with both mountains of pasta and the overlapping drawers in the circular kitchen (which clashed every time you tried to open more than one at a time) the discussion had inevitably turned to past difficulties and injuries. “Was that when X crashed and had to get the Broom Wagon?”, “Do you remember when Y’s derailleur disintegrated on the Paadestraat?”, “When was it that the weather was so fucking awful that you couldn’t see?” etc etc. As a novice to all of this cobbled-stuff I stayed quiet and try to quell my jittery stomach with yet more tortiglioni, telling myself it was just blokes talking it up as they are prone to do. But equally I could tell that they weren’t joking about that much and were very serious about what lay ahead by the fact that no-one drank any beer that night.
I had been taking my preparation pretty seriously too. I know we are only talking about a sportive but I had double-wrapped my bars, put on slighter wider tyres and lowered the pressure. I’d picked out my least favourite bidons so I wouldn’t care if they rattled off mid-ride, and also worked hard to put a few extra kilos on my normally slender frame. I had even taking to riding up the cobbled gutters in Greenwich Park to put in a bit of ‘practice’ but in truth I was still feeling very under-prepared by the time we headed up the spiral staircase and through the trapdoors to the bedrooms in the upper part of the mill. I slept well enough but my dreams were heavy-going and juddery - just like the pavé ahead.
The Greenwich Park Gutter – Proving Ground for the Ronde
We wanted to get an early start to avoid the worst of the cycle jams on the early bergs so we were up and eating honeyed porridge before 6am. There had been a vivid red sky in the West the previous evening but when dawn eventually came as we made our way to start line about 20 minutes drive away it was still grey and chilly. The usual debate about clothing and layers was had; too cold now or too hot later? I settled for hot later and, as I imagined the ever more bulging jersey pockets that I would accumulate as the ride progressed, was envious of the pro’s - and their teams cars – for the only time during the weekend.
We were riding the 131km middle distance route. It starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and includes all the cobblestone sections – flat and bergs – of the main race. There’s also a 55km shorter route, and a full 250km route that matches the long drag from Bruges that the pro race does before hitting the more famous cobbled sections in the second half of their race. We saw a few of the riders who had done the long route later in the day, marked out equally by their green coloured ride numbers and their grim-faced expressions.
Our route started with a pleasant 10km up and down both sides of the Schelde river. It was very much a ‘phoney war’ but gave a good opportunity to warm up, loosen up and pause to re-align a back wheel which had shifted slightly on the roof rack journey over from the UK. I was already surprised by the numbers of mountain bikes doing the route – later on it made a lot more sense but at that point it still seemed a bit odd.
I rode my aluminium Cinelli Zydeco cross bike for the Ronde. I have an ancient carbon-tubed Specialized road bike but felt that the parcours would probably shake the glued tubes from their metal lugs so left that one at home. Besides the Cinelli has a compact chainset, which I suspected I would be grateful for later in the day as the hills got steeper and busier.
Condor supplied a handy set of notes listing the cobbled sections.
Due to changes in the route the first berg this year was the asphalt covered Wolvenberg rather than the cobbled Koppenberg, so my first tastes of the lumpy stuff were on the flat roads of the Ruiterstraat – an 800m section at the 11km mark – and the much longer 2.5km Kerkgate. By the time we reached the first cobbled climb at the Molenberg I had got my loose grip on the tops pretty sorted and felt some confidence with just letting the bike ‘guide itself’ over the bumps. Fine on the flat stuff but as the road ramped up to 14% on the Molenberg it was more a case of finding a sweet spot that got enough weight forward to keep the front wheel down whilst remaining seated in order to keep the back wheel from spinning on the smoother surfaces of the cobblestones. For first time – but certainly not for the last – I was thankful that it was dry.
The long flat cobbled section of the Paadestraat at just 28km in hinted at the pain to come later with my kidneys making their first grumbles heard. We were making good progress though and enjoying the atmosphere. The 3 feed stations spaced out along the route were excellent with free waffles, juice, toilets and a Shimano service centre for those in need of it. Roadside mechanicals and incidents has so far been limited to a few riders seen repairing punctures as we went past. The feedstop DJ’s were blasting out a steady stream of Euro-trance music and the mix of pumping beats and bright lycra-clad, energy gelled-up blokes was reminiscent of the morning afters of early 90′s raves. We moved on before the beats took hold..
Leburg, Valkenberg, Boigneberg, Eikenberg. I’m a little ashamed to admit that these four hellingen in the middle of the ride have fused in my mind to become a long single line of cobbled hardship. I big-ringed one but can’t remember which. I did about 15metres on the smooth pavement beside another but instantly realised that dictating my own pace on the cobbles in the centre of the road was a better strategy for me than sitting behind some else on the path alongside. I learnt to say “Links” as I overtook slower riders, and then to shout “Hup!” if they didn’t move quick enough.
I definitely lost a bidon just before the Valkenberg; it slipped through my fingers as I tried to put it back in a tighter than usual bottle cage. It joined the growing stream of detritus that littered the route – the cobbled sections in particular. I saw many lost bidons and bike lights along Paadestraat and Haaghoek, and even a top-cap followed a short while later by a couple of stem spacers on one particularly rough stretch, which was more worrying.
David and Graham had been talking about the Koppenberg long before we reached it at kilometre 74. It had featured much earlier in the ride the previous year and had been a huge snarl-up with everyone forced to walk it due to sheer weight of numbers. The ride organisers had issued 25% fewer tickets this year – stewards and police operated a couple of checkpoints along the route and were being pretty unforgiving with anyone not carrying a race number – so we were hoping for a clearer route. It was not be to though as many of the short route riders joined us in the kilometres before the climb, which averages 11.6% but has a maximum gradient of 22%.
I had stowed my wind jacket some while earlier and was in the middle stage of progressively lowering my arm warmers before removing them when they end up as wrist warmers. With them appearing as like white gauntlets to my long fingered black gloves which were still on, I looked like a Dutch traffic policeman as I started up the slope. By halfway I was certainly acting like one too, waving an arm to implore people to clear a path so that we could inch our way up the slope without coming to halt and being unable to restart. It seemed to be working until a couple of guys on mountain bikes came together in their erratic weaving and blocked the route ahead of me. I unclipped one foot and cursed the lost opportunity to ride the entire course. No sooner had I put my foot down though, a gap reopened and I turned to an unknown rider walking beside where I had stopped. I asked him to push and got the half revolution I could manage with the clipped-in foot going. He obliged and gave me just enough momentum to get the other foot in as the first one came around again. The jam had caused a small section of road to clear ahead and I made the top without another incident.
The Jersey Pocket in full grimace on The Koppenberg.
Just as I was start to feel pretty damn great about my ability to go up cobbles, the Ronde threw something new into the mix. I’m not the best descender at any time but going down cobbles scared me more than anything else that day. The downhill section of Steeneekdries was truly horrible. Brake? Don’t Brake? Loose Hands? Tight Hands? Hoods? Tops? Wide Lines? Tight Lines? Nothing felt comfortable and I went down the section almost as slowly as I had come up it. Again, my mind boggled at the thought of doing it in wet conditions.
Luckily for us the weather was doing the opposite and by the Taaienberg and the Kaperij the skies were blue and the shadows were sharp. It was near there that we passed Joff Summerfield atop one of his hand-built Penny Farthings. I offered a “Chapeau!” as we passed by and the pith-helmeted rider from the Londoner, who is doing all the Classics this year, looked down from on high to return the greeting. There was a lot of carbon road bikes on show of course, but it was good to spot the odd unusual bike along the way. We’d already seen a hand cycle coming into the first feedstop and later saw a solitary Brompton near the finish.
The Kanarieberg was the end of the road for David who suggested that we should not wait at the top of the next climb if he wasn’t there with us. I had looked at the average gradients on the list taped to my stem and somewhat optimistically suggested that there were only 3 ‘easy’ bergs and one ‘tough’ to go but he clearly knew better than I did and found a shorter, smoother route back to Oudenaarde. Graham and I toiled on; the toll beginning to tell on both men and machines. I had to pause at the last feedstop to refill my sole bidon and oil my chain, which had also started protesting loudly about the abuse it was being subjected to. With thirst quenched and squeaking silenced we passed the 100km mark and headed for our Calvary on the Oude Kwaremont.
Having dismissed it less than an hour earlier as an ‘easy’ one, I was feeling full of contrition after painfully hauling myself up that long, tortuous drag. For the first time over the weekend I felt that I understood the Flemish word for the ‘bergs; ‘Hellingen’. Knowing that the Paterburg was the last climb of the day helped the ascent of that one mentally and the steepness dictated that it had to be climbed out of the saddle which lessened the jolting on my battered kidneys. It’s the shortest climb of the route but the top was still a hellingen of a long time coming.
Looking slightly more ‘pro’ on The Paterberg
The run in from the Paterberg to Oudenaarde is often maligned in the pro race and it is hard to get really excited about it. It quickly became an exercise in drafting technique. I had been sheltering behind Graham’s Stijn Vandenbergh-like frame at various points in the day but now it was his turn to suffer and I tried to take some wind off him for a change. We sighted a very broad shouldered man wearing a US Postal maillot jaune in the distance and the goal of catching him up spurred us on for the last few kilometres. The unsurprising discovery that it wasn’t actually ‘Big Tex’ himself was mollified by the fact that he was a better windbreak than the pair of us put together and we rested for a while and planned our big finish.
Actually only I was planning the finish. Graham was more interested in telling me about what happens after the line and kept reminding me that on no account should I trade my race number in for the bottle of Decathlon energy drink that would be offered. “Don’t take the drink,” he kept saying – obviously having been stung by this underhand tactic before. “Don’t take the drink when they offer it, don’t say yes to a T-shirt either. Keep your race number right till the back of the area and you get €5 back.” I began to suspect that he was trying to play mind games and put me off my sprint.
Graham was gracious enough to let me win the sprint before we headed back to our start point in search of David, some large cones of frites & mayonnaise and a couple of beers. When we found him David was holding a bottle of Decathlon energy drink, which caused more pain to cross Graham’s face than I reckon the Paterberg had inflicted. I eventually succumbed to a T-shirt but when we left the finish area and headed back to the car Graham was still clutching his regained €5 note, proud to have beaten a system that was plainly designed to trick you into not getting it.
Flemish Cobbles: best viewed in the evening light, with a beer and a soft cushion on your chair.
We returned to the Oude Kwaremont the following day to watch Cancellara, Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke and the others hammer up it three times. I was glad to see that they were grimacing too. After sitting in the sunshine all afternoon, I’d spent much of the evening limping around Geraardsbergen, wondering if we were being a bit rash in saying that we would do the Kapelmuur in the morning. As it was we settled for a very Flemish Sunday recovery ride, being guided home by church bells when we lost our way amongst the identical agricultural roads surrounding the mill.
The Kwaremont turned out to be a good spot where you can almost hear the riders breathing as they brush past you on the barriers, even with the roaring crowds and clattering helicopters. There was a big screen set up in a field nearby so we watched the race between ascents and stayed on for the gripping finish even though our Channel Tunnel crossing was beckoning. When watching the Classics on TV they feel very remote but we were back in Calais in under an hour and a half and I was back at home in good time to watch it all again on the highlights show.