Riding in Flanders

April. This is the time when cycling receives great exposure. On cobbled lanes, over short and steep climbs, and wearing around complex routes are races that capture the imagination of sports fans everywhere. Flanders is where much of the action happens and, this coming Sunday, de Ronde returns. This is what many believe is the biggest one-day race of the season. It’s been 101 years since the Ronde van Vlaanderen first entered the cycling calendar and while Belgians have long been infatuated with the event, it’s now a cosmopolitan cast that entertains us all. This is a cycling paradise even if the weather often conspires against the rider.

In RIDE #60 (published in May 2013) Jered Gruber wrote about riding in Flanders as part of our Caffeine Culture series. With the Tour of Flanders coming up this Sunday, it’s a good time to revisit Gruber’s rides around the lanes of legend. Discover the routes he writes about and enjoy the descriptions of a place where cycling thrives… settle in for this is a long story about a number of rides – or just take it one-by-one in the lead-up to the big race that’s coming up on Sunday.

(Click here for a summary of the rides listed and the details of the maps.)

 

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Hallowed roads: lanes and legend – cycling in Flanders

 

– By Jered Gruber (words and photos)

 

Set off in any direction from Oudenaarde and there’s a treat in store for cycling enthusiasts. This is the heartland. It’s where roads are so renowned they have celebrity status. It’s where cobbles live. It’s where legends are born. Delve beyond the traditional routes, however, and you’ll find a whole new world of challenges…

 

No matter where you’re from or what you think about the cobbles that define the Spring Classics, if you love cycling there’s always a special place in your heart for Belgium, specifically Flanders. There has to be. If you’re one of those who doesn’t think much of the cobbles, fear not, there are a million non-cobbled roads in the region that can keep you happy for decades. It’s the area that is a playground for the cyclist.

Don’t let the stories of the angsty Belgian weather get you down. Sure, it can be fickle, but it can also be a topic of endless discussion and, for some reason, riding in crap weather feels just that tiny bit better in Flanders. I don’t want to get too flowery – for it can also suck – but when you’re riding the Kwaremont on a damp, grey day, it feels better than if you were riding that random bit of road back home.

I remember when I first saw the Tour of Flanders on TV. I had only just started riding properly and was blown away. I’d never seen cobbles, let alone paved roads like this. Narrow, twisting, exposed, windy… amazing! Then there were the cobbles. The small screen doesn’t do them justice. There’s nothing that can do them justice save for riding them. If you love cycling, if you give thousands of hours of your life to the bike, you owe it to yourself to spend some time in Flanders. It’s a rite of passage.

My first chance to meet Flanders came eight years after I started riding. Like many before me, and many after me, I fell in love. Really. I fell in love to such an extent that Flanders has become a sort of home for us. My wife and I spend the entire year on the road, so to say that we spend three of those months in Oudenaarde is notable. Since my first time in Flanders in 2009, we’ve been back every year. And I hope that streak continues.

Cycling pilgrimages are wrought with exaggeration. It’s a part of the culture, but the legendary places are cycling’s equivalent of catching The Big One while fishing… ‘That was the hardest climb.’ ‘It was almost vertical.’ ‘We were going 60km/h for an hour.’ On and on. We do it all the time. And Flanders encourages those tales.

Flanders, however, is pretty much everything you’ve ever heard and then some. The region is cycling crazy, the cobbled climbs and roads really are that tough, the beer is that good, the frites that crispy, the waffles that perfect, the cycling scene that pervasive, and generally, the drivers are even reasonably understanding. If you do things properly, you won’t have to deal with drivers all that much. There are thousands of side roads to choose from so if you end up on a road without at least a bike path, you’re probably doing something wrong.  If you’re doing it right, you’ll be on roads that are never much more than two metres wide, and you’ll encounter only a few cars all day.

Almost everyone knows about cycling in Flanders. While stopped in the customs at the airport this spring, we ended up having a 10-minute discussion about Sven Nys’ world championship victory in Louisville. It ended with some predictions on who to watch in the upcoming Classics.

It’s not just that cycling is loved and that people engage in it. The area around Oudenaarde is simply a splendid place to ride. The farm roads that cut across the land, up and down ridge after ridge, are endlessly entertaining. The only real mindless riding is along the canals. Once you stray, you should never ride in a straight line for more than a few hundred metres. It’s riding for people with ADD. I love it.

From the legendary roads of the Classics to anonymous lanes, it’s cycling on hallowed ground.

 

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Scheldepeloton: something for everyone

On the road, you’ll see rider after rider at all hours of the day, in all kinds of weather. Some are solo, some are in small groups, some are big, fast moving groups. In the area around Gent and Oudenaarde the biggest, fastest moving group is the Scheldepeloton. It’s your Belgian experience in a nutshell. If you’re not into coming over to Belgium to race kermesses, the Scheldepeloton is the next best thing. Over 25 years ago, a group of cyclists from Gent started a local training ride. As with most good things, it started out small, but has grown and matured into what it is today, a mainstay for riders in the area.

The Saturday ride is a full-on shootout. It begins slowly outside of Gent on the bike path that follows the Schelde river to Oudenaarde. The early going is generally moderate, but it begins to ratchet up quickly when you turn off the path and onto normal roads. The attacks begin in earnest with the first climb. From here on it’s a race, except the roads are open and you don’t have a number on your back.

Attacks, counter-attacks, chases, near crash experiences, sidewalk racing, echelons – you get it all in less than 80km. It’s fantastic fun. If you get dropped, you can sit up, and there always seems to be someone just a little bit behind who is trying to chase on, or just finishing out the loop on another great Saturday morning.

Some locals will bemoan that the ride is dangerous. I disagree. There isn’t a 100-200 rider group jaunt that doesn’t carry some degree of danger with it. Ride smart, keep your head up, and watch out for the echelons coming back on the N8 toward Oudenaarde and you’ll be fine.

If you spend your time toward the front of the group, you might see some familiar faces. Just last week, Thomas De Gendt showed up with a Vacansoleil team-mate. On any Saturday, you’re just as likely to go bar-to-bar with amateur racers, granfondo riders, or pro cyclists like Iljo Keisse, Stijn Vandenbergh, Willem Wauters, Kurt Hovelynck, Bart De Clercq, Frederik Willems, Thomas Vaitkus and more.

Wouter Weylandt was a mainstay of the Scheldepeloton. He won the final sprint countless times and celebrated each win as if it were a Grand Tour stage. He even rode with the group the weekend before that fateful Giro d’Italia, which would cost him his life. Fittingly, Wouter’s memorial is right next to the sprint line on the Schelde path. Wouter’s father and brother-in-law are still regulars of the Scheldepeloton.

There’s more to the Scheldepeloton than just Saturday. On weekdays, riders assemble at the Zwijnaarde Bridge just outside of Gent at 9.00am. The ride is out and back along the Schelde bike path, making for about a 40km trip. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are fairly sedate rides, but on Wednesdays it is raced. It’s the same everywhere, right? The Wednesday Worlds. The current course record for the 40km segment on Strava is 47km/h!

Tuesday offers up something a little bit different in the evening. The ride starts at 6.30pm just outside of Gent, once again along the Schelde, just outside of the restaurant called MacPudding, which is how the ride gets its name. It is organised by some elder riders who like to keep the pace steady, but not too fast. These guys know the area really well. They know all the small roads and fun climbs, and every week they surprise the attendees with new, unfamiliar roads. The evening ride always starts at the same time, but the finishing time changes as they daylight hours grow over the summer. The guides time the ride, so that we’re back at the start once it starts getting dark. It’s a great way of discovering new roads and hills.

 

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The best of the Vlaamse Ardennen

For group rides, there’s the Scheldepeloton. But if you made the trip all the way to Belgium, that ride alone is not going to cut it. It can be an excellent part of your trip, but there are other rides. Oudenaarde has long been the heart of the Tour of Flanders. It is situated on the Schelde River, at the base of the opening ridge that heads into the Flemish Ardennes. In the last two years, it has become the official heart. Changes to the route of the Tour of Flanders have made Oudenaarde the finishing town for the men’s race (and the start/finish town for the women’s race).

If you’ve come this far, you’re looking for cobbles, bergs… the hellingen. This ride, measuring in at just under 100km with 1,300m of climbing, will serve as an excellent introduction to the famous, the infamous, and the obscure.

Starting from the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, the ride heads towards the least angry cobbled climb you’ll find: the Katteberg. It’s a pleasant start. Don’t get too comfortable, because you’re about to get whacked by a tough duo of mostly flat cobbles: Ruiterstraat and the Kerkgate.

Some use the expression ‘bone rattling’. No, no, no! There is no rattling of bones. It’s a whole body vibration. Your spleen, pancreas, liver – hell, all of your internal organs are shaking. Your calves vibrate; arms suddenly feel like they’ve gone flabby; fingers hurt. You try that whole hold-your-bars-light thing – it will, at least, keep you focused on something a little bit different for a moment. Who knows if it actually helps.

You’re forced to pedal hard as reaching the end quickly does behove one. When you’re done and you re-emerge on 20th century paving, you get to enjoy the brilliant tingling sensation when you go from jackhammer to smooth.

Three sections of cobbles down, nothing too crazy. Let’s try something a little more quintessential: the Molenberg. It’s short, it’s steep, and I’d argue that it has the worst laid cobbles in the area. It’s nasty! The post-climb exhale is one of the best though, as you roll down a tiny road, through wide open fields, with an old windmill standing as a beacon against the sky. It’s a special spot.

Next up on the greatest hits parade is a quick trip to Brakel via the Rekelberg, Berendries, and Valkenberg.

They aren’t too memorable, but they hurt, and they give you a good idea of the Brakel hills; they’re important parts of ‘de Ronde’, but they’re not the ones you’ll dream of, but still, they help to soften the legs so you can get the proper feeling come the finale – just as it is for the race itself.

Our route then follows the GP E3 Harelbeke: climbing the Boigneberg, descending the Kappelleberg, and the back up the same ridge one last time for the Eikenberg. The Boigneberg is paved and pleasant. Then starts a brutal trio of climbs: Eikenberg, Steenbeekdries, and the Taaienberg.

Steenbeekdries, while not nearly the hardest climb in the Ronde, is notable in that it has a substantial sector of flat cobbles leading into it (Mariaborrestraat), a cobbled climb (Steenbeekdries), and a cobbled descent (Stationsberg). Next to the cobbles of Roubaix, there isn’t a time you’ll be happier to feel the grit of crappy Belgian pavement.

Before your first respite, you have the Boonenberg – I mean, Taaienberg. This climb is Tom Boonen’s favourite and he has launched many attacks on this quintessential Flemish berg. At the 2012 GP E3, I saw the man go by like he was sprinting downhill. It was startling! His attack in this year’s E3 was impressive, but the damage was substantial.

You can enjoy the Taaienberg how you wish. There’s a perfectly rideable gutter used to good effect by Boonen and friends but, if you dare, the cobbles are there to rattle. The early steep section gives way to a flatter top part, which makes it more friendly. After that, you get a little break from the cobbles. The ride heads south to Ronse, enters Wallonian territory, then climbs back to Flanders via the Côte de Trieu (some call it the Knokteberg). The Trieu is a regular in the spring races. On this ride, it serves as the final primer before hitting the nastiest trifecta of them all: the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, and the Koppenberg.

There’s not much I can add to the millions of words that have been written about this threesome, but to sum it up quickly: they’re three completely different monsters, all with their own, unique demands. The Kwaremont is the first, the longest, and the easiest in terms of gradient. I think it’s the hardest, because it can seem to be never-ending. It weighs in at over two kilometres of mostly uphill, crudely laid cobbles that do everything they can to bring you to a halt. It’s tough. It’s no wonder that Fabian Cancellara always attacks on the Kwaremont, and it always works to shatter the dreams of many rivals.

The Paterberg is the shortest and the steepest by a hair over the Koppenberg. The Paterberg is the easiest one in my opinion though; the left-hand gutter makes it a breeze (okay, not quite that easy) – and it’s only 300m long with a 20-plus per cent section around two-thirds of the way up. If you do opt for the cobbles, they’re some of the nicest in Flanders. If you look closely, you’ll see a centre path up that has been quietly filled with concrete. It’s still rough, but some bite has been taken out, making it a little bit bearable.

Finally, there’s the Koppenberg. That bit of civility we found on the Paterberg is not present on the Koppenberg. Woe to you if it is wet, as it is 99 times out of 100; and woe to you if you move too far right through the middle part of the climb. It’s perpetually wet and slippery on the right side, and once a wheel slips on that pitch, you’ll end up like many of the best in the world have in the past: walking.

I think the Koppenberg is the most beautiful of all of the climbs in Flanders. There’s nothing quite like that first time you see it stretched out before you, a gray ribbon disappearing into the trench midway up. The initial part is open and rather sedate – take it easy here – as you near the tunnel of trees, the road pitches up, narrows, and bites hard. Stay left, stay smooth, and know that it will only be a few angry pedal strokes before you emerge back into the open, get a semi-deep breath, before doing battle with the final pitch that serves as the crest of the climb.

Turn around, look back down: it’s a marvel! This road is special. They all are though. When you’ve taken pictures and caught your breath, it’s downhill home to Oudenaarde.

 

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The Map: noting the undulations… 

If you look at a topographical map of Belgium, the semi-mountainous lumps of the Ardennes in the south-east of the country will jump out first, followed by what appears to be an otherwise flat expanse of farmland ending on the beaches of the North Sea. When you take a closer look, pockets of undulating terrain begin to show themselves, most prominently, the region near Oudenaarde sandwiched between the Schelde and Dender Rivers. The Flemish part of this hilly area is known as the Vlaamse Ardennen, and it’s on the many cobbled hellingen of this region that the winner of Belgium’s greatest race, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, is decided each year.

The Ronde does a great job of showing off the area. The helicopter footage from the race plus the pictures that come out each year are gorgeous, almost of a different world. The cobbled lanes that tackle the steep hills at terrible angles are legendary; they’re a battle just to get up, let alone race.

The race doesn’t take in all that’s special in this region. In fact, after spending a number of months exploring every road I could get my bike on, I think it’s safe to say that while the climbs of legend are great, there’s an even bigger treasure to be enjoyed if you just divert your gaze from the rocks for a little while. The grail is combining the two: cobbles and the small hills. Therein is my happy place.

Going back to the map for a second… look closer and you might notice that the there’s more to this area of hills than just the Vlaamse Ardennen. The hills continue south into the French-speaking part of Belgium, into Wallonia. Here, the hills are given another name, Pays des Collines.

 

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The Pays des Collines 

Pays des Collines – land of the small hills – is an area of rolling land just a few kilometres removed from the Oude Kwaremont. Ever heard of it? I’ve been to Flanders for three years, but it wasn’t until this spring that I had ever seen any reference to it. I, like many other pavé-addled cycling junkies that come to the Belgian church of cobbles, only had eyes for hellingen. Why would I come to Belgium to ride paved roads? I was indignant about cobbles, so any further exploration was never even a possibility.

Everything changed one fortuitous ride on a typical Belgian spring day – cool, damp, foggy, and grey. I met Bram through Strava, you know, the online cycling junkie dating service? We joined forces for the first time in Brakel at the giant cycling sculpture roundabout made of hundreds of old bikes – how romantic. From there, we headed south, chatting, getting to know each other.

The roads he showed me were like nothing I could have imagined when I set off from Oudenaarde on the N8 – I passed hallowed cobbled ground on the steenweg (main road) that connects Oudenaarde to Brakel. I was yearning for cobbles, lots of cobbles. I got none. When I arrived home four and a half hours later with over 2,000m of climbing in my legs, I was excited. I think we did close to 20 bergs that day – rarely anything wider than a car width, rarely a car to contend with. Forests, fields, winding roads, some steep, some gentle, all beautiful, greeted us at every bend.

There were moments when it was hard to register that I was still within an hour’s ride of Oudenaarde, yet so far  that if you say the word Hameau des Papins or Bois des Frasnes or Mont Saint-Laurent, people will give you a blank, impatient stare. I found that day that if one takes a small step back and leaves the cobbles behind, there’s a world that is completely different, perhaps even better.

Starting from the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, head out of town, pass right by the Koppenberg, and head toward the ridge that plays host to the Paterberg and Kwaremont. Today, you’ll avoid both and instead of cobbles and nearly vertical grades, you’ll get a small farm road that cuts nicely through fields and a gradient that never tops seven per cent.

Over the top, you’ll head right down the other side of the ridge, roll around the outskirts of Ronse – always aiming south. A little beyond Ronse, you’ll cross into Wallonia proper. If you see someone along the way, it’ll be appropriate to greet with a bonjour rather than a dag!

You’ll have 10km from the first hill to Bruyeres and Taillette. They’re quintessential Collines climbs: narrow, steep, heavily wooded, no cars. In another word, perfect.

Just as you see perfection, you get a major curveball; Mont Saint-Laurent. After surviving that monster, three more climbs follow in quick succession: Dieux des Monts, Hameau des Papins, and Hoguenne. By now a waffle is in order – not just any waffle but the best waffle you’ll ever taste. A small bakery in the town of Ellezelles makes the waffles worth stopping for. Keep an eye out for it as you roll through town – you can’t miss it if you’re looking for it, but if you’re not, you’ll miss it every time.

With a quick break and a waffle doing the job of refreshing, the rest of the ride is fairly peaceful – two more significant climbs lie in front of you: La Houppe and the Bosrede. La Houppe is a lovely, wooded ascent with gradients that are always pleasurable. Bosrede, on the other hand, requires a bit more effort, but the upper part, with its road deeply inset below the forest floor, is truly special, and well worth the groans of a tough day.

 

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And the cobbles of Wallonia?

There have to be cobbles in the area, right? This is Belgium after all. The cobbles are not a part of the experience of a ride in the Pays des Collines, but they can be, if only once. If the cobbled climb of Mont Saint-Laurent was picked up and moved 20km into Flanders, you would know everything about it. It’s a vicious, horrible climb that takes top honours in my book as the worst of all the cobbled climbs in Belgium. It’s not as steep as the Koppenberg, it’s not as long as the Kwaremont, but what it lacks for in outright steepness and sheer length, it makes up for by being plenty steep, plenty long, laid with wretched cobbles, and worst of all, it’s wide.

It is the crushing exception to the typical Pays des Collines rule, narrowness. Despite the vicious gradients of the Koppenberg and Paterberg, there’s a sensation of forward movement brought on by the narrowness of the roads. You don’t realise how important that is until you’re on the climb of Mont Saint-Laurent. It’s wide. It’s a superhighway of misshapen stones at an unfortunately steep angle, which all leads to one feeling – like you’re barely moving at all.

The imaginary line: Flanders and Wallonia  

Upon arriving home after that baptismal day in the Pays des Collines, I went straight to the computer to see where our ride had taken us; the unfamiliar, foreign names began to ease their way into my consciousness. Towns like Frasnez-les-Anvaing, Flobecq, Ellezelles, Saint-Saveur went from disregarded blah-blah-blahs on the map to focal points. There was gold in those hills. They seemed so far away though, separated by this imaginary line, dividing Flanders from Wallonia, just south of what’s typically the southern boundary of de Ronde.

The line that separates the Flemish-speaking north from the French-speaking south is about as imaginary as a punch in the face. There’s no intermingling of the languages, no buffer zone. Towns were cut in half with the line. There’s a town that sits right on the border – on one side it’s Kluisbergen, the other side it is Mont de l’Enclus. We’re talking one step on either side. The line is known as la frontiére des langues for the folks on the southern side of the border and the taalgrens for the Flandrians.

The differences aren’t limited to language. When you cross over from Flanders into Wallonia, it feels more remote. The procession of buildings are replaced by more open fields, forests, more expanses of nothing. I had long thought this was just a factor of a smaller population, but I came to find out that it goes all the way down to building practices. In Flanders, structures are built along the roads, it’s called lintbebouwing – and the houses are built like ribbons. Just over the border the practice is wholly different; there are clusters of houses and structures, leaving more blank space between towns, leaving more room for quiet.

It’s hard to communicate how close this all is from the roads most people who have visited the Vlaamse Ardennen have ridden before. Sometimes, they’re just a road away. For many, we come to the hills of Flanders and seek only cobbles and the paved climbs that lead to more cobbled climbs, but if only there was half a moment taken from the bouncing jackhammer of a ride provided by the rocks, a moment to look up, you’d see so much more.

The day spent with Bram romping up and down the hills of the Pays des Collines opened my eyes and showed me there was more to this area than I had ever imagined. Considering I was already deeply in love with the region, this took me to an entirely new level of rapture. I could have everything in one ride from the Koppenberg to the Bosrede and everything in between. It opened my eyes to the hills that were still in the Vlaamse Ardennen proper.

There aren’t actually that many different hills; there are a few prominent ridges, but it’s upon those ridges that countless roads are built. For every ridge, there are a dozen roads that climb it. Sometimes, there are half a dozen roads climbing to one specific point. Typically, only a few of those roads are of the used variety, meaning the rest are the equivalent of your own personal bike path. There are so many roads, so many climbs. I felt like an explorer every day I got on my bike, because there was always a new climb to try, another new road to enjoy as it wound seemingly randomly through the middle of a field.

– By Jered Gruber

 

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Author: rob@ride

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