03 April 2011

You too can race the cobbles

If you are tough enough

Today in Belgium the race of all races was fought on Flandrian soil - the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). In what was a fantastic race with a surprise finish, the winner in Belgium today was a Belgian, Nick Nuyens. Yesterday April 2, 2011, 20,000 regular riders (cyclotourists) attempted their own personal Tour of Flanders by participating in the citizens race the day before the real pros took on the parcours. The event is called the Tour of Flanders cyclosportive. 

This ride has always captured my imagination, although I can guarantee you that this is one event I will likely never complete in full. It seems brutally difficult, mind pounding, body beating, exhaustively exhilarating and a lot of crazy. Those cyclotourists willing to go for it had a choice of 3 distances, the full 260km (the real race length), 140km covering 17 of the 18 'Bergs', or the shorter Flemish sampler of 75km.

This cyclosportif is very popular. Twenty thousand people of all nationalities gathered together to bounce along the cobbles through the narrow roads of Belgium on bikes. It can be one massive slip sliding movement of lycra. While road riders can opt for the full 260km starting from Bruges at 5am, the 140km mid-distance riders miss out on the opening flat section but tackle the classic climbs and pave. It is the favorite. 

Do you want to ride too? You too can ride the Paterberg, the Koppenberg, the Muur and 15 other cobbled climbs in Belgium. Here is the link for the registration for the Tour of Flanders for cycle tourists and mountain bikers: Ronde van Vlaandren Tour of Flanders Registration. Participants from Belgium and Holland will receive their package by post, one week before the event. All other participants, will need to allow time to pick up their number at the preregistration booth on the Friday night or Saturday morning before the event.

View the Home page for the Tour of Flanders citizens race or tremble at the sight of the parcours (route maps). Registration opens in October before the April race date (traditionally the first weekend in April, the day before the race). Registration is cheap at 25 Euro for the 140km event (considering that many US events are now commonly $100 to $140, or 70-98 Euro). Getting yourself and your bike to Belgium  by plane is not so cheap, but well worth the adventure.
Tour of Flanders Sportive parcour

"You can't blame the cobbles, you gotta know how to handle your bike" "Cobbles make things unpredictable and that’s what bike racing is supposed to be. " ~ Bob Roll 
I like reading the experiences of other riders who dare brave these events. They are my heroes as much as the pros. Some of these articles are from years past, but the route does change slightly every year. Read their personal accounts at:

Cyclo-Sportive: Tour of Flanders Sportive, (2009) "The cobbles on the Molenberg aren't exactly even and there is a gutter of mud which runs down the right hand side. Not wanting to lose my precious gel or litter the Belgium countryside. I locked my teeth around the wrapper and set my eyeballs to vibrate." "The more popular climbs, Muur, Koppenberg, Molenberg become a bit of a bun fight as the riders passed through due to riders of differing abilities snaking all over the shop trying to keep momentum and grind their way up." "The approach to the Muur isn't the same as in the race because organisers are setting up barriers and big screen TV's for the race the following day. Its tough and an epic. To add to the atmosphere huge crowds gathered to clap and greet everyone." "Go armed with a few choice Flemish words. Even if you don't intend to use them, at least you'll know what is being said around you."

Flamme Rouge Tour of Flanders (Flamme Rouge) "You hit it so fast that it's a good thirty seconds before you realise you're still on the big ring.  Clicking down the gears you find your climbing rhythm and just as you get to what you think is the top, and your physical limit, the cobbles start." "It appears from nowhere, without warning. You think you're heading down someone's twistydrive, you can't see more than 50 metres before the next bend then you turn right and in front of you going straight up, and I mean straight up, is the cobbled Koppenberg." "There's 100 metres to go and we can hear the crowds at the top cheering and shouting.  Then bang.  A rider, three in front of me, snaps his chain and is down on the floor.  I'm in the left hand gutter and stick my arm out on the bank with my front brake full on and sliding backwards.  I hit someone behind me who stops my slide.  I turn around to apologise and see that every single person on the hill has stopped." "You get past the first hideously steep part, on to the flat of the cafe area and then you see the cobbles.  You remember that this is where the attacks and the famous photos take place. So history dictates that you dig deeper." "The grandstands are full and you find someone to sprint against, although the energy rush soon disappears as you cross the line.  Totally exhausted and one of the best day's cycling you could ever imagine."

Cobbled Madness - Part 1 of 4 - The Flanders Cyclosportive (Cyclosport) "All sense of staying with my Flemish compatriots went straight out the window." "Having ridden several sportives, we are very pleased to report on how authentic and classic the Ronde is. The Flemish are an all-together different breed of cyclist, and this made for such a great experience of a true hard man's challenge with the cobbles and the meandering course through open countryside."

TRAVEL: Riding Cyclosportif Flanders (Pez Cycling) "You've seen it on TV, you've dreamed about it, but nothing prepares you for just how difficult this is." "Rainstorms came through with regular timing and a horrible intensity and we were battered by gale force head winds." "I really thought the bike would break up and the road was already littered with bike parts!"

Tour of Flanders Sportive (Ludlow Cycling Club) "we rolled out across the start line – unlike other sportives, you just start when ready, rather than at a specific time." "What a fantastic ride – it has everything (except good weather) – legendary climbs, great organisation, plenty of food, good company etc.  Would I do it again? You bet."

After you ride the course yourself, forever after when watching the coverage online, you will recognize the sections of cobble and truly know this is where is gets really hard. Cheering on your favorite riders will have a whole knew meaning. 600,000 - 800,000 fans turned out to watch the 2011 Tour of Flanders today April 3, 2011. Race highlights on Steephill.TV at:  Highlights of the Last 40 Km (32:57 Flemish) sporza, or just the last kilometer 2011 Last Km and Video Clips (5:42 Flemish) sporza.be. 

Read lots of other great information (with links) about riding the climbs of the Tour of Flanders in Belgium at Flanders Recon by PedalDancer.com.

View the Cyclosport Calendar for date of the citizen rides