By the time of the 2011 Witte Kruis Classic I had been living in the Netherlands for nine months. I had done quite a bit of cycling in those months but had yet to meet anyone to ride with. Then suddenly it all started happening. I linked up with Eugene and we rode the Joop Zoetemelk Classic together. A few days later I was introduced to the Not Possibles. A group of expatriates who meet on Saturday mornings for “no drop” rides. I was on the bike paths with them that weekend.
Eugene couldn’t join us on the Not Possibles ride. But he had bigger fish to fry. Around the time we registered for the Joop Zoetemelk Classic he suggested that we try and get into the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) sportif. The Ronde is one of the monuments, a classic one-day road race on the European spring professional calendar. The professionals would be racing from Bruges to Ninove. Amateurs could ride the full 250 km course the day before the race. Eugene and I set ourselves a more modest goal. The profile for the 75 km route showed almost 600 meters of climbing. We thought that was enough, especially as we had climbed a whopping 13 meters the weekend before during the Joop Zoetemelk Classic.
We had left it a bit late to register. More than 15,000 cyclists participate in the Ronde every year. I was frankly surprised that we got places with only two weeks to go before the event. Finding accommodation was another matter. I enquired about rooms at a number of hotels and B&Bs in the Ninove area. I was told that I might just be in time to reserve a room for the 2012 event. But a room in two weekends time? “Ha ha ha ha”! “Ha ha ha”! I got literally laughed at.
So I felt very fortunate to score two rooms at the Schauvliege B&B outside Ghent. We would have a 40 km drive to the start, but that was infinitely preferable to leaving at 4am to make the trip all the way from Den Haag.
My biker chick and I left Den Haag on Friday afternoon. We picked up Eugene and his bike in Rotterdam on the way to Belgium. We got to Sint-Denijs-Westrem in time to have a gentle ride around the B&B before dinner. Here we are with Madame Schauvliege and our fellow house guests. These two guys had just flown in from Ireland to ride the Ronde. I suppose if I had flown in from Dublin I would have opted for the 130 km route also.
Zulfa drove us to the start at the crack of dawn. Well, not quite all the way to the start. A few thousand other cyclists were ahead of us on the road. So we had a 5 km warmup ride. By the time we got to Ninove I wished I had left my jacket and long-fingered gloves in the car. Eugene was wearing his Swift club jersey and arm warmers. A much better choice of cycling kit.
We set off into the crisp morning air. After a few kilometers the terrain turned into rolling countryside.
All very picturesque, but we were somewhat disturbed to discover that what looked and felt like some of the famed Flandrian hellingen (hills) were nothing of the sort. These were the equivalent of bunny slopes at ski resorts.
The early kilometers were the calm before the storm. The combined storm of cobblestones and greater than 10% inclines. The cobbles were literally tooth-rattling. So much so that all manner of items were shaken free of jersey pockets and off bicycles as their owners bounced along, hands in a death-grip on handlebars. The climbs were wall-like in places. This is the iconic Kapelmuur, just over a kilometer long with a maximum gradient of 19.8%.
Eugene got to the top of this climb before I did. A scenario that was repeated all day long. Here he is taking photographs of the suffering riders below him.
You can tell from our pained expressions in this video that we had our share of suffering too.
Eugene and I spent the evening talking about doing the 130 km route the next time. I reckon this gentleman had already made his room reservation for 2012.