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Tales from the cobble-riding Peloton
Getting Het up for the Volk
In the days before a Spring Classic, the race area is frantic with teams riding the parcours to train and decide tactics for the day. Jeff Jones joined the fakta team to ride the Het Volk course, and bumped into a few others on the way.
It's Tuesday evening and I get an offer I can't refuse from Team fakta's Aussie captain, Scott Sunderland. He and a few of the boys are going to ride the parcours of Het Volk on Wednesday, in order to familiarise themselves with it before Saturday. I have few doubts in voicing my agreement, although half the parcours will be more than sufficient for me.
Four of us - Scott, Allan Johansen, Magnus Bäckstedt and myself - converge from different directions on Gavere at the respectable hour of 9:30. The weather is cool and overcast, and excellent for riding. The plan is to head along the Schelde to Oudenaarde, then pick up the parcours of Het Volk there. It doesn't really get interesting until Kluisbergen (a few kilometres further) anyway.
Being the most experienced, Scott is the boss. He doesn't want to ride at a hard tempo today, which certainly suits me, as it does Magnus Bäckstedt, who spent all of Monday traveling back from Rhodes and Tuesday recovering from the trip! However, Magnus is in a good mood, happy with his form in Rhodes and clearly looking forward to the spring classics. His mood seems to brighten when we discuss the weather for Saturday: rain is predicted with a moderate amount of wind, a stark contrast to the previous three weeks of bright blue skies and sunshine in Belgium.
"I must be one of the few guys who does a rain dance the week before Paris-Roubaix," he grins. "I love it when there's three inches of mud on the cobbles before the start."
Bäckstedt was a motocross rider previously, and loves the feel of the bike slipping around in the mud. Technique is critical for Paris-Roubaix, he believes. "You have to be careful to put your power on the pedals in the right thousandth of a second, otherwise you'll go nowhere."
We approach Kluisbergen - more precisely Ruien - where the first climb starts, still at a fairly moderate average of 33km/h. However the calm is broken when we are caught by the Cofidis team, complete with following car and France 3 TV crew. They are not hammering, but are moving a little more swiftly than us, so naturally we hop on the back and catch up with the gossip. They are all in good spirits, clearly fired up for Saturday, with the likes of Nico Mattan, Jo Planckaert and Chris Peers eager to test their legs on home soil.
Once we hit the steep part of Kluisbergen, the tempo seems to increase as the guys in front stir things up a little. Afterwards Scott informs me that some teams do this to help their confidence for the weekend, although he prefers to take it a little bit easier. Fortunately, the gap is not too great at the top and they don't hammer down the other side, and I can get back on by the bottom of the descent.
As we make the left hand turn onto Chaussée de la Libération before Amougies, we bump into another rider training on his own along the parcours. By the blue and white Quick Step colours and the fact that he's talking on the mobile phone, it's obvious that it's none other than Frank Vandenbroucke. The "Franky Boy!" chorus goes up within the bunch, and there is more laughter all round.
Frank isn't allowed to train with his Quick Step teammates today, as a bizarre consequence of his suspension by the Flemish government, which runs out on Friday. Frank doesn't seem too concerned by it all, although funnily enough, we're nearly in the French speaking part of Belgium at this point.
As we discuss the cultural significance of Het Volk and the big one, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Allan Johansen remarks that people around here simply don't believe you if you live here and don't ride the Ronde. For them, that race is the event of the year. They can watch it from their front doorsteps and probably have done so for many years. It's great to be in a country that has cycling in its blood like that.
We've acquired a police motorcycle escort, which kindly stops the oncoming traffic as we turn onto the second climb, Côte de Trieu. I wish more training rides were like this! The pace on this hill isn't quite as tough, to my great relief, and my handlebars don't gain any more teeth marks. At the top, it's straight back down to Kluisbergen via the Ronde Van Vlaanderenstraat and the Ronsebaan, then a couple of right hand turns onto the Oude Kwaremont.
Bring on the clown
I've done this climb a few times, and it never gets any easier. I would dread to do it on a wet day as there is no place to hide on the cobbles. It's 2.2 kilometres long, and averages about four percent, with a maximum of eleven percent. There are several flat sections on the climb, but not too much in the way of smooth road. I decide starting at the back is a good option, and am treated to the sight of Nico Mattan riding past with a full face rubber clown mask. The TV crew are getting good value today!
As the climb starts for real, the bunch breaks up into several bits. It looks like Vandenbroucke, a few of the Cofidis boys and Magnus have decided to open the throttle a bit, while the rest of us ride up at our own pace. Thankfully I'm not last up this time, and have the benefit of a Cofidis team car to motorpace back on at the top. A few kilometres later, Magnus and Allan decide they've had enough of the Cofidis bunch for today, and a short while later it's back to a four man bunch.
In terms of the race, there is still 150km to go at this point, so the Oude Kwaremont might not be really decisive on Saturday. Much depends on the weather of course, as this climb is not easy in the wet. Magnus managed it in the big ring, Scott preferred the 42x19 or 21, and I wasn't even looking at my gears. The teeth marks are getting deeper.
It's a fairly pleasant downhill run to the next climb, the Muziekbos, which is only 400m long at four percent. The descent on the other side is much steeper and longer, and I'm told by Scott that they ride up this way in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the next day. This part of Flanders gets used a lot in March and April, that's for sure.
At the bottom, we get onto the Ninoofsesteenweg and ride up towards Flobecq, the back of Brakel and then Geraardsbergen. The next 25km are not overly difficult, but Scott says that this is exactly where attacks go as the riders rest up before the Muur. When we reach Geraardsbergen we don't follow the Ronde van Vlaanderen route over the bridge and down and up the cobbled main street. Instead we must go a little further, and approach the Muur from a different direction. This is not cobbled, but is certainly steeper than the traditional way, and the talk turns to team tactics and positioning in this fairly important part of the race.
The top of the Muur is a fairly short climb, but the bumpy and broken cobbles make it tough. I'm happy in the 25, although 42x21 seems to be the gear of choice. You can't underestimate this climb but there's still 116km to go of racing to go at this point, so things might not explode on the Muur. Over the top and down again, we turn back towards Brakel, taking a flat, rough, and fairly dangerous concrete slab road. It's only 10km but we're keen to get off it and into Brakel, where it's time for a welcome coffee stop.
Scott does a very impressive job of cleaning out the bakery, and we all enjoy various unhealthy things, to the concealed horror of US Postal's top soigneur Freddy Viaene, who happens to be sitting at the next table. It doesn't bother me in the slightest, because I feel as though I've earned something other than a sore bum!
Two coffees later and it's back on the bikes to tackle the Valkenberg, the sixth of the ten climbs in the race, taking the riders out of Brakel. It's not overly difficult but that's a relative term, added to which is the digestive aspect of a large apricot tart and two cups of black coffee trying to work out where to go.
At the top, I have to bid my companions goodbye, thanking them for the ride and wishing them well for the second half, which I believe has more cobbles. For me it's 40km back to Gent with a tailwind, and that's a perfect way to end such a ride.