Last Friday saw us heading to Flanders. Having left early, I beat the M25 Friday gluepot and arrived in Chatham far too early! Nearly a whole hour early.
I spent most of the week moving house and getting the bike ready. Panicking that I didn’t have the right stuff or know where on earth I’d packed it all to move, let alone take with me.
I’d decided to ride the Scott Addict CX bike, with an added 52 chain ring (thank you George Gori), 28mm Continental GP GTs from Paris Roubaix last year and kept my normal Crank Bros Eggbeater 3s so I could wear my Giro VR90s. A whole range of kit was packed, with only a new Castelli base layer my last minute addition.
Running through all of it in my head whilst I waited for Phil to arrive home, I hoped I had all the right gear… and yet still no idea what really lay in store. A frustrated message to the group chat as I enjoyed the sun in the car yielded no joy when asking for Rock Tape. I’d managed to turn my ankle over on the shale path outside the house whilst putting rubbish in the bin.
Rob and Phil had kind of convinced me earlier in the year to do the Flanders sportive, and now that we were nearly there, I’d started to really look forward to it. Checking my last minute Fantasy team on road.cc, I pondered my team choices and decided to leave them. Surely between GvA, Sagan and Gilbert, I should have some chance of points?
All too soon Phil had done some kind of superman, leaving some bewildered schoolkids to wonder how their teacher had beaten them out of school!
Steve was first to arrive, cycling up a hill of the type that I thought existed only in Wales, in casual clothes with a huge bag slung even more casually over his shoulder. He wasn’t even sweating, showing that Zwift and turbo training through the last few months is rather good for you!
Phil was next. Bike already on the roof and stuff already packed. I left the two pro’s to attach bikes whilst I slung my bags in the boot.
Shotgun had already been called by yours truly a week or so before, mostly because I get travelsick.
We had one other to arrive before we set out to search for Matt, hoping that Phil knew where he was going to pick him up.
Somehow we managed to get in convoy with Rob before we had picked Matt up, pure chance rather than millisecond planning.
Quickly through Dover and onto the ferry, time for a bite to eat and to say hello to the rest of the crew; Sparkle (Neutral Service Extraordinaire), Tom ‘Crash’ Kennison, Lord Muir and Roberto ‘I’ve Crashed In Better Races Than You’ll Ever Ride In’ Kennison. Better known as Flandrian.
A late arrival at the hotel, and I got the keys to my room for the next two nights. A nice little room. That smelt of drains. Shutting the bathroom door helped, but not much…
A beer/ wine/ Fanta and plans were laid to be ready to leave at 7.00am. Luckily we convinced the receptionist that we really needed breakfast, and we we allowed to take a selection to our rooms. We also had Canadian Jamie join our gang, he’d picked up our sportive number packs.
Tom managed to break the self serving coco pop machine, but gave me the idea of grabbing a bowl of dried fruit and yoghurt instead.
Anxiety had me up at 6, ready to go by half six and forcing breakfast down. A group chat call for milk had gone out as I blearily opened the door and passed it rather grumpily to Lord Muir. A check outside saw rain, and I made sure my Castelli Sotille jacket was at the top of my dry bag.
Leaving a little later than planned, and after Phil argued with his sat nav, it rained most of the way to Oudenaarde. Or at least to the Stijn Devolder (nope I can’t spell it either!) sportive car park.
Kitted up, a thousand mixed feelings crossed my mind as we ride down to roll over the start. I thoroughly loved sitting on the front of our mini Peleton chatting to Rob whilst we rode down and up the river on the lovely flat cycle paths.
All too soon we went up a hill, and I was dropped fairly quickly. Phil soft pedalled, being far too patient and waited as the group drew ahead out of sight.
We chatted and pointed, looked and laughed, shuddered at choppers and exclaimed our disgust at the tens of idiots behaving stupidly as we rode.
The first cobbled climb showed exactly what madness the Flanders sportive can throw. People walking. People getting gears all wrong. Diving up the cobbles and slipping and sliding everywhere. Ahead Phil pulled off to one side and unclipped, but I dropped down the gears and soldiered my way up. Faster riders passing and chopping each other up six ways of stupidity. I held my line and ground my way up until a blockade of swearing Europeans halted me. Trudging the last bit before swinging back on and riding again.
The flat cobbles were great, although my right lower leg and back felt twingy, I dismissed it.
Glad I’d kept my gilet on (Scott do awesome gilets!) as it wasn’t as warm as I thought it would be. Every hill was an effort, and the twinges got worse the more I climbed. Stoking off downhill had me grinning from ear to ear, passing a fair few on the cobbled sections had me feeling like I was at home as I stayed in the big ring as much as possible. The first feed zone was a calamity of bikes, riders, a hundred hues of kit and sticky isotonic drinks.
Oranges, waffles, refilled bottles. We rolled out again, shooting the breeze like only good mates can. The next hill had me nearly in tears, twinges now abhorrent jabs in my lower back. Suddenly we were on the Valkenberg,
‘See you at the top Phil.’ I called, trying to ignore the flare up of pain. It was hard, every downstroke of the right pedal had a white hot poker stabbing me on the back, but I had to get to the top. A false flat as we turned the corner, and I pulled in by Phil knowing that was me done. I could barely put any weight on the leg, and had to lean the bike down to get off it.
A hard decision to call Sparkle put an end to my Tour of Flanders, and I ushered Phil to go ahead and finish. Luckily I didn’t have to wait long, and was soon off my leg and sat in the car on the way to the third feedzone. A million émotions; frustration, sadness, anger, more frustration. Guilt at leaving Phil to ride on his own after having to wait for me.
We saw the fast group into feedzone 3, Tom finding me some stroopwaffles from the feedstation. Oh my God. I love stroopwaffles! Lord Muir was next, then someone who thought they were at the finish but were at the 2nd feed zone. Phil wasn’t far behind, and we were off to the finish. Eventually I ended up getting dropped off whilst Neutral Service found somewhere to park.
Hobbling up the street – painkillers had taken the worst edge off – I saw familiar Sigma Sport kit, in the form of the just finished Callum and Rupert from work. Both looked knackered but happy! And then more familiar kit in the form of Hans Stiles Kingston Wheeler kit.
A bit further on, location dropped by WhatsApp, the faster group and Sparkle were enjoying beverages well earned. Banter flowing, Phil was suddenly spotted riding fast past us…
We later found they had stopped at the unofficial finish, and timing chips would show a gap of a couple of hours…
I had to ride back out to the car, the only bit that hurt badly was trying to ride a small hill in trainers on Eggbeater pedals, pressing down with only the left leg.
Pizza, frites and beer were well earned that night. Even after 9 men couldn’t find the restaurant in Menen…
Sunday was race day. The Medway Velo organisation meeting held in the breakfast room at the hotel had outlines of a plan. Ride into Oudenaarde, watch the women’s and men’s, then head out to the Kwaremont (ish).
Backpacks were not allowed in the town centre, and that and an achy leg nearly had me a meltdown. Sorry guys!
A ride out to the bottom of the Kwaremont in jeans had me rethinking about wearing them! Bikes locked to a metal gate, all stuff in a carrier bag to get through security and we set up camp on the side of the road by the cafe.
Leffe Blond and Brun, Coke and Iced Tea. Hamburgers and banter with the good guys around us.
Suddenly out riders on motorbikes, lead cars and the women were there. Noise levels escalated to those known only by cycling fans as languages from all over the globe encouraged them on.
The noise is followed by quiet. More fans making their way up, us chilling on the grassy verge. Friends checking in from the middle and top of the Kwaremont as we try and follow the racing on twitter. Pictures exchanged. More banter. Race updates from Twitter don’t glean enough information, instead I sit back and we wait for the men’s race to arrive.
More fans arrive. Flandrian finds his fan club. Everyone is getting lightly toasted in the super weather. Even more fans walk up to the famous spot. Our grass verge starts to get crowded.
The helicopter is spotted, and cowbells start to sing as the first vehicles approach. We know it’s Gilbert and the crowd goes berserk, a noise that’s nearly indescribable, but is many decibels higher up the road.
Huge roars in Flemish, French, English to name but a few. A brief silence, then the chase. Splintered groups of hard men on the road. Sagan, GvA, the names are all there.
Banter and beer resume, until Matt points out we can see them descending behind us, the yellow of oil seed rape a more garish backdrop to the sunflowers of France later in the year.
We watch the front few come past again, before quickly making our way to the bikes and back down the road. I’m first away, having to get nearly in the ditch to let the last of the peleton through. Then we are there, just around the corner from the Paterberg descent.
Gilbert flashes through, we know about the crash by then, before we make our way back to the car.
My first Flanders done, I will be back, for I feel I’ve left my pride out in Flanders narrow cobbled climbs. A great group of friends and team mates, two great bike races and endless banter. Food for the heart and soul.
I have something to prove, I will be back. Until next time Flandrians and Medway Veloians.