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Expert Blog: Tour of Flanders Sportive

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Article posted: 08/04/2013

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An invite from a work colleague in Gent to watch the Tour of Flanders led to a fairly last minute decision to enter the Sportive that was held day before.

I had done a little research on this event for riders who were targeting it this year and it looked er… interesting! My husband and I decided on the medium route of 133km as it promised the climbs and cobbles without the extra distance. There were 3 routes available ranging from 83-259km.

We had already had a couple of well-timed road trips to Mallorca in Feb and early March, and despite the best efforts of the British weather we had been getting out on mountain bikes all winter so legs and lungs were ready for the challenge. Amazingly neither of us had a cold either, so no excuses.

My good bike was allowed out but with old wheels; new 25 mm tyres purchased, bottle cage bolts checked, ride snacks stowed and we were ready. Eurostar was not quite as well prepared and a 2 hour delay in the UK saw us arrive in Belguim after registration had closed for the day, so straight to the hotel for an early night.

A great event, well organised and marshalled with lots of spectators, made all the better by staying on to watch the pros race the next day.

Six o’clock the next morning and we were eating our porridge in the hotel room. We had brought breakfast from home just to be on the safe side, hotel buffets can be a bit random. A quick check of the temperature outside had me rifling through the bags for extra thermals and better gloves, it was above freezing but only just.

Car parking was brilliantly organised in the industrial estates and spare land around the town of Oudenaarde, a few minutes ride from Registration and the start. There was no timing and no official start time so with our numbers attached we rode off in the company of some singing Dutchmen. It was very relaxed, not at all like a UK Sportive, there seemed to be no particular hurry as we threaded our way through the back roads around the town and away from the river.

The first of the cobbled climbs was the Koppenberg; 600 metres with a maximum gradient of 22%. As we approached it the large number of people walking, pushing their bikes, gave a bit of an indication what was to come. The Dutch stopped singing. Fortunately I had triple on my bike so selected an easy gear, sat tight, looked up and pedalled.

Not really knowing what language to pick to shout ‘get out of the way I am still riding’ I resorted to a very British ‘excuse me’. Brilliant result: the sea of pedestrians parted, shouts went out all around, and bikes moved aside leaving a narrow gap to thread through with minimum hold ups or bumping. A fairly straightforward ride to the top; one down, only 15 more to go!

Whether it was due to spending years riding a mountain bike or just having a good set up on the road bike, the cobbles and climbs were not as bad as I had feared. On the flats you had to find a comfortable gear, hold the tops of the bars (or hands quickly went numb) and just ride as straight a line as possible ignoring the cobbles. On the climbs gearing was really important, it was hard to stand out of the saddle and keep traction on the cobbles. Being confident enough to occasionally bump off or lean on other riders when things became almost stationary helped too.

The cold temperature meant that drinking was difficult and food not very palatable so discipline was required to make sure enough of both was taken over the day. I tried to stick to the one bottle one snack an hour rule. The feed stops were well organised and well stocked (though most of the food seemed to feature honey in some form or another) so ideal to supplement our own snacks and refill water bottles regularly. Loos were available along the whole route too, a real bonus for us girls.

Groups of riders waited at the top of every climb for their friends / club mates before riding on, making for a very relaxed sociable feel to the event. Maybe it was different for those taking part in the 259km event or those who set off in the first wave at 7am, either way the rest of the day was thoroughly enjoyable even with the other 15 hills and the last 15 km into a headwind!

A final sprint under the race finish gantry and an easy pedal back through Oudeaard to registration to collect a certificate and T shirt finished a fantastic days riding.

A great event, well organised and marshalled with lots of spectators, made all the better by staying on to watch the pros race the next day. Big screens, beer and barbeques made watching a great deal easier than riding but it was great to know that you had ridden parts of this iconic race the previous day and had an idea how these top riders were feeling!

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