After two and a half years, I am back in Europe.
During one of our Saturday rides back in February, I had been asked by my friend Mark if I fancied going to Flanders for the Ronde. At the time there was all sorts of things happening with travel and I said I would have a think about it and let him know.
Then on the 26th of February I watched the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and I recognised many of the roads I had ridden with Mark back in 2017. I immediately dropped him a note to see if the space was still available. The plan was now in place.
We travelled the same way as last time, late departure from home (21:30), catching the 01:20 train from Folkestone to Calais. On arrival at 03:00 we were greeted by snow falling sideways due to the high winds. The outside carriageway of the autoroute was deep in snow and the high winds were blowing the bikes on the roof rack so hard it was a fight to drive in a straight line. We eventually arrived at our accommodation by 05:30 and settled in.
Friday 1st April
When we woke up at about 09:30, the ground was white over, and the snow was coming down fast. Not ideal for riding and watching bike racing.
By lunchtime, the sun was out, the snow cleared, and it was warm enough for a ride. We had brought off-road tyres as we intended to use Saturday to try out a trail route suggested by the bike shop in the village, then walk to the race on Sunday.
To get our eye in, we decided to head out on the Saturday off-road loop, then hit the surfaced road back to Ronse, where we picked up the trails again, back to base. There were some fantastic trails through forests, across field roads and along dedicated cycle paths. Even the drop back into Ronse, which was along the edge of the N60, was on a cycle path, separated from the road by a car width hard shoulder. It was good to be able to use a main road and feel safe.
A final loop took us back into the village through forests and small local roads. It’s a great place to ride.
We wandered round Oudenaade on Friday evening, getting food, and checking out the finish location from Sunday’s race. This is a stunning town centre, full of beautiful old buildings.
Total 38Km and 500m of climbing
Saturday 2nd April
The loop suggested by the bike shop was labelled as a 100km gravel ride, so the map was loaded on to the Garmin and off we went. The route was stunning, with such a mix of surfaces, but it soon became apparent that with some steep cobbled and gnarly climbs/descents, this was more a mountain bike route, where suspension and lower gearing would be useful. I was loving it, but I did have lower gearing and fatter tyres that Mark and Scott.
We followed one trail into the middle of a field where they were building a concrete cycle path from one to small village to another. I love the commitment in this country to cycling infrastructure.
By 36km, two and a half hours into the ride, we stopped for lunch at Fredje Friet, a small eatery where apparently Tom Boonen usually stop. If it’s good enough for him…..
Sat outside eating we rapidly cooled down, so we jumped back on and hit the trails for another 16km, when we suddenly hit seriously flooded trails. It was now getting late in the afternoon, and we were not even half way round and we realised the full route was going to be too much, especially at the temperatures we were out in and the condition of the ground, so we plotted a route back to Ronse.
Once we started to head East again, we began to cross the route of the Ronde Sportive, which runs the day prior to the race. We tangled for a while, then they turned, then they popped out in front of us again.
After we got through Ronse, we hooked up with the riders all the way out and on to the Hotond climb, weaving in and out of guys with very tired legs, until we took a left and stopped at the D’ Oude Hoeve bar, for a brew with a bunch of cyclists and motor cyclists.
Total 77Km and 1146m of climbing
Sunday 3rd April
The Big Day – Ronde van Vlaanderen
We walked out through the villages until we reached the village of Oude Kwaremont, which was absolutely heaving with people, drinks in one hand, large flags on poles in the other. The atmosphere was electric and the spirit high.
We positioned ourselves just down from the junction in the village, up on the banking. People had grabbed every vantage point they could, even the official photographers (one just hiding behind the wall of the bar opposite – wearing his motorcycle crash helmet).
We didn’t have to wait long before the first pass of the Kwaremont.
We then moved further up the Kwaremont to the fan zone to pick up some food. Considering it was only about 13:00, there were some spectators that were seriously worse for the local brews, staggering all over the place.
After bite to eat we walked further up the Kwaremont where we found the perfect location, with fewer people and a great view of the race.
After the second pass we walked back to the village then across to the corner at the bottom of the Paterberg. We got there close to the race arrival time, so were unable to go up the climb, but as it turned out, it was a great location to see what we believed would be the contenders for winner of the race.
I guess the rest is history. Tadej did deserve better than 4th, but I’m sure it was a lesson learned for him, but a fantastic win for MvdP.
We completed our 16km walk back along the same forest trail we used on Friday, stopping off for a coffee in a stunning café, which like most places around here had strong cycling influence.
A couple of hundred meters down the road we dropped into the restaurant for a well-deserved meal to round the day off.
Monday 4th April
Our train was not until 18:00, but there was news of three-hour delays, so we headed out, stopping in Brugge for lunch and a walk around. Sadly, it was raining hard, but another beautiful town, which I need to go back to. Stunning architecture which amazes me how it survived WW2, considering how hard Belgium was hit.
As it turned out we arrived on time for our train, went straight through and I don’t think I have seen so few people at that terminal.