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86th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) - CDM

Belgium, April 7, 2002

News for April 9

The Wielertoeristen Ronde Van Vlaanderen

By Jeff Jones

What's it like to ride the parcours of a classic? Is riding over cobbles as easy as it looks on TV? How steep are those hills in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen?

All these questions and more were answered by around 15,000 people on Saturday, April 6 - the day of the "Ronde Van Vlaanderen voor Wielertoeristen en Mountainbikers", a unique opportunity for avid cyclists to experience the thrills of the Ronde, up close and personal like.

As a classics fan, the Ronde has always been my favourite race, more so than Paris-Roubaix. I remember watching videos of it when I first started racing in Australia, and being inspired by the likes of Andrei Tchmil (when he was a boy), Johan Museeuw, Johan Capiot and many more. The land of Oz is a bit far removed from Belgium - there are no cobbles to speak of and only one wide road to train on instead of 10 narrow ones. But I hoped one day I could make the trip over to see what it was really like.

In due course it happened, and I spent two seasons racing as an amateur before going back home and getting a real job. That turned out to be editing Cyclingnews.com, which means I'm splitting my time working in Belgium and Australia, depending on the time of year.

I first heard about the cyclo-tourist version of the Ronde when I was here in 2001, and of course had to have a go at it. It was a total blast, which made the 2002 version even better. There are three routes available for the roadies (75 km, 145 km and the full 270 km parcours for the hard core lunatics) and three for the MTB'ers (25/50/75 km). The 145 kilometre loop was attractive for me, as it included 15 of the 16 climbs, and the last 125 kilometres of the actual 86th Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

The start and finish for everyone (except the 270 km lot) was in Ninove. I had not preregistered so had to register on the day and pay my 20.5 euros (5 of which is returned when you hand your number in). By the time I started at 8:45, the ride had been going for nearly 2 hours. Given the biting easterly wind and cool but sunny temperatures, I didn't fancy leaving much earlier.

The first 65 kilometres were very pleasant. A howling tailwind made it easy to keep up a good tempo to get a "head start" for the hills later on. There were masses of people on bikes, a lot them riding in large groups in their club colours, with a support car behind them.

After 20 kilometres we were on the parcours, with the first hill (Molenberg) coming at 35 kilometres. But before that, there was the small matter of the Lippenhovestraat (1.3 km) and Paddestraat (2.5 km) cobbled sections, a couple of bone-jarrers that required a bit of concentration, especially in a group of around 50 riders. No punctures and no loss of water bottles were my aims on all the cobbled sections, and I was relying on my Cateye bottle cage to ensure the latter (it worked).

After we finished the Paddestraat it was onto the Molenberg. No chance of a clear run at this short, but quite steep cobbled climb, due to cars on the main road just before the turn. The momentum wasn't really important though, just find a line around the other riders and grind your way to the top.

A short descent, then another long, steadily uphill cobbled section (ouch by this stage) at Mater-Kerkgate. I found these "flat" parts were harder than the climbs, as there was no way to get comfortable. At every opportunity, I jumped on the grass and the footpath for some relief. It was 3 kilometres long and my fingers and wrists were begging for relief by the end.

There was a nice (smooth cobbled) downhill into Oudenaarde after this, and I could take advantage of the tailwind again. The next 20 kilometres to the Kluisberg were fantastic - a flat road with a strong following wind and I hit the cruise control button at 44 km/h. But it wasn't going to last for much longer, I knew.

The first checkpoint was at the foot of the Kluisberg, so I stopped to get my card stamped and waited in the queue for some sports drink and a few biscuits. Check the speedo. After 65 km I was 16 minutes ahead of my planned 30 km/h average. I began to have grand plans about averaging 31, pushing to the back of my mind the 14 climbs and the headwind to come over the next 80 km.

The climb of Kluisberg is not too bad if you don't have to race up it. It's smooth and wide with a 15 percent section at the top. No hurry, use the 23 cog, that's what it's for. A fairly straightforward descent off the top, turn left and wham! Into the headwind. Very strong. I'm already looking forward to the next climb as it will give some relief.

It comes soon enough, although I wouldn't describe it as 'relief'. The Knokteberg is the third of our 15 climbs - it's a narrow bitumen road, 1100 metres long with a maximum of 13 percent. Lots of riders on this one, and the odd car and motorbike. A bit of a traffic jam at the top as everyone stops for a breather, but I continue on my merry way.

We come out on Ronde Van Vlaanderenstraat, appropriately named as it's used at least once in just about every edition of the race. It joins the main road and there is a fast, straight descent into Kluisbergen, followed by a right turn for a few kilometres and then the Oude Kwaremont, the top of which is also next to RVV straat.

The Oude Kwaremont is one of the more famous climbs in Flanders, and often causes the first selection. It only averages 4.2 percent (max 11 percent), but is 2.2 km long with 1.6 km of pretty rough cobbles. Momentum is more important as it's very hard to start again on a cobbled climb if you have to stop. Fortunately, there were no large bunches of riders to navigate though and I search for any form of relief on the side of the road, without luck.

This section is one of the toughest in the ride (and the race), as the Kwaremont is followed by the Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries and Taaienberg. I get a great run into the Paterberg, with no riders in front or behind. I'm really looking forward to that nice smooth gutter on the left hand side.

Right hand turn onto the Paterberg, with its nasty 20 percent grade near the top. Bugger! They've barricaded the gutter so it's unridable for those who want to cheat the cobbles like me. Only one way up, and that's the hard way. Ouch again. The legs are starting to feel it.

I'm not sure what to expect on the Koppenberg, as I know it's quite passable when there's no traffic. The cobbles are nice now, although there is a bit of dirt to make it slippery. Even when I catch a bunch of 20 riders just before the bottom I think it's achievable.

No chance. I stare in disbelief at the wedding taking place at the bottom of the climb. The bride and groom are getting their photos taken on the Koppenberg! Then I look further up and am greeted with the sight of at least three cars just stopped in the middle of the climb, with riders swarming around them trying to get past, mostly on foot.

I pick the wrong way to go around one of the cars and it's simply not possible to ride further. Oh well, wheel the trusty velocipede past the worst of the traffic, remount and attempt to get some momentum up to get my other foot in. Tricky. Finally reach the top and am very thankful. What a mess!

I'd never come across the Steenbeekdries before. By itself it's not such a bad cobbled climb, but when it's preceded by 2100 metres of Mariaborrestraat (more cobbles) it really hurts. Fortunately it's wide and easy to pick a line to get up it. I'm now very much *over* riding on cobbles!

The Taaienberg (475 m @ 9.5 percent, max 18 percent, cobbled) will be the climb on which Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem make their move to catch the leading riders in tomorrow's Real Thing. Again they've barricaded the gutter most of the way up, so I grind up in the 42x23. But at the top, it's only six climbs to go, and one more to the next check point!

At last, no more cobbled climbs until the Muur. The Kapelleberg is only 700m and nice and smooth. Bliss. Some sustenance is required though and is obtained at the next check point at St Kornelis-Horebeke (km 107). Isostar + waffles. Mmmm...

Must get going again. I haven't bothered to look at the speedo for a while but at least I'm still above 30 km/h. I'm not looking forward to the final bit, which will be all into a headwind.

The last flat cobbled section is the Haaghoek (2000m) which is made even more interesting by the mixture of suikerwafels and Isostar in my stomach. My headset is not enjoying it either, and it now has five degrees of freeplay. I will go on a one year "cobble fast" after this ride.

The Leberg (climb 11) hurts, especially coming right after Haaghoek. However, I don't care at this point. We get to the top of the ridge again before going down into Michelbeke, one of my favourite parts of any ride around this area. I found the Berendries the other day, so I knew what to expect. It's long enough (1 km) but has a very short flat section in the middle. Did I mention the headwind?

I hit the jackpot when I catch a guy with the biggest calves I've ever seen on a bike, muscling his way up. He accelerates and I take shelter behind one of his calves, which gets me over the hardest part of the Berendries. Gravity takes its toll as we hit the next part, and I reluctantly go past to avoid being sucked into orbit around his left calf.

The final fast descent comes immediately after the Berendries as we drop into Brakel. I don't think we pass the official "Peter Van Petegem Supporter's Cafe", but it's not far off the parcours. Through Brakel and I foolishly attack the Tenbosse straat in the big chainring, but the tank is running fairly low at this stage and I pay. But I'm still chuckling at the wedding at the bottom of the Koppenberg. These Belgians are crazy!

There is about 30 kilometres to go, all into a block headwind. Very slow, even on the descents and I'm waiting for it to be over. Even the climb out of Parike feels like a mountain, and this isn't even on the profile! Finally I reach Geraardsbergen, a really pretty town nestled on the side of a hill. There's a lot of traffic through town, as it's Saturday and people like to shop as well.

The famed Muur Van Geraardsbergen comes in about three sections. The first takes you out of the centre of town on smooth road, then you hit cobbles of average gradient, before finally tackling the steep top section of the Muur (20 percent, very rough cobbles). I can certainly feel the history and atmosphere of this climb, and there are even spectators, with the required glass of beer, cheering the tourists onwards and upwards.

I take the footpath up until the final section. Sorry ma'am. Pardon. Excuseert. Oi! I'm very much on "cobbles avoidance" at this point.

No way on the Muur though, but it's mercifully short. I follow a mountain biker up the steepest part, and she's in a gear about twice as small as mine, which is just manageable on the rough section. But at last, I reach the top and appreciate the view for a quarter of a second before dropping down again.

Only 17 kilometres now, with just the Bosberg to come. It's downhill, but still into a headwind which seems to be getting stronger. I'm not. If I was smart I would try and find someone to shelter behind, but I'm not, and I'm in a hurry. Suddenly, a guy in a recumbent comes scooting past on the gradual descent. Oh the shame of it, but I'm betting he didn't ride up the Muur on it.

My theory turns out to be probably correct as he comes almost to a standstill at the foot of the Bosberg. How do you climb in those things anyway?

There are more cars, some going the other way which is a bit problematic. I avoid getting cleaned up on the cobbles and heave the bike to the top. 12 kilometres left. Again downhill, again headwind. This is unfortunate, as last year it was a really nice ride into Ninove after the Bosberg.

At last, I catch some riders who are going fast enough to shelter behind. That's fine by me. I'm looking forward to the finish. We bust our guts to keep the speed around 30. This is where Van Petegem tried a solo attack the next day, and I can see why he wasn't interested, despite the camera motos. Veel wind!

On the last 4 kilometre stretch into Ninove, a van comes by at 50 km/h with a rider in its draft. A couple of us get on - much better! It pulls off with 1 kilometre to go, and we make our way to the finish line via some back streets, as the main road is not closed off. Finally I cross the line, in front of empty grandstands that will be packed tomorrow.

I stop the clock at 147 km in 4:54:00. 30 km/h. That's good enough for me and it gives me a lot more respect for the pro's, who have to do an extra 120 km tomorrow, most of it into the headwind.

For finishing, I get a free ice cream, a finisher's diploma and a whole bag of stuff describing the other cyclo-tourist rides I can do. There are rides for the Amstel Gold Race (Limburgs Mooiste on May 9) and for Liege-Bastogne-Liege (Tilff-Bastogne-Tilff on May 19), which are also part of the UCI's Golden Bike series, a year-round touring program designed to promote cycling as a sport.

For me, the Ronde is plenty. Despite the pain, despite the wind, despite the chaos on the roads, it was certainly worth it. See you there next year!

Interested in doing this ride and watching the classics? The Sunderland Classics Tours, run by Bikestyle, incorporates this as part of the program, and all the riders who did it this year certainly enjoyed it, before following the race for real the next day.

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