Flashback – RIDE #52 (Ronde van Vlaanderen 2011)

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We interrupt the sequence of features from our back catalogue and jump from issue #50 to #52 as the Ronde van Vlaanderen – or Tour of Flanders – is on this coming weekend. Last year John Deering was RIDE‘s correspondent in the craziness of cycling’s traditional heartland on the biggest weekend of the season. In case you missed reading it in print, here’s his account of the mayhem to get you in the mood for what’s coming up this weekend…

(There are now 10 issues of RIDE Cycling Review available on Zinio. To ensure you don’t miss an issue or to complete your collection, click here.)

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Ronde van Vlaanderen 2011 – A Flashback

Finally, you’ve seen it live. You understand it better. De Ronde: the most anticipated race of the year in Belgium. The Tour of Flanders. It is epic. It draws you in, keeps you awake late and prompts you to cheer anyone. He who survives is a winner. The race is special. So too is the ride. John Deering offers his observations…

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Back rumbling through Flemish fields in April again, the thing that you recognise first isn’t the thing you might expect. You would think that the cobbles that ruptured your spleen last year would ring a bell. You might think that the sound of a kindly local shouting “Op, op, op!” in your ear as you try to maintain momentum up another backbreaking cart track would be familiar. You might even remember the disconnection of your cleats slipping on the setts as you try to walk your bike up that same hill when it all gets too much. But no.

The thing that immediately, unquestionably plonks you right back in Flanders is the smell. Occasionally, it’s the 21st century choke of chemical fertiliser but for the vast majority of the time, it’s the timeless cheesy rotten stench of chicken shit, spread across the fields to promote the green shoots that are sprouting from the plough-churned grey soil. It doesn’t smell like this in summer, autumn or winter, but I wouldn’t know: why would you ever come here at any other time? Obversely, who on earth wants to be anywhere but here on the first weekend in April? This is the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

How could you be a cycling fan and not want to “do” the Tour of Flanders? Everything about this trip is epic: a weekend in one of the world’s most captivating cities, joining 20,000 people to ride the most amazing sportif in world cycling, then watching the best race of the year tackle the same roads you so proudly conquered the day before.

So this is how to do Flanders. Firstly, go to Bruges. Gent is cool, Oudenaarde is cycling central, but Bruges, as Ralph Fiennes swears in the film – In Bruges – is “like a f—ing fairy tale”. Rock up to your dirt-cheap hostel right in the centre of the 14th-century canal-ringed medieval Brothers Grimm film set on the Friday morning, and you’ll have all day to buy chocolate, beer and lace. Okay, forget the lace, get some frites to go with your chocolate and beer instead. Crucially, get a car. You’re going to need it to make the most of your stay. As a Johnny Foreigner, you’re going to have to drive an hour or so to the race HQ in Ninove to sign on and pick up your ride number.

A few months ago, munching Christmas dinner, thinking of what your big target was going to be for this year, you already made the big decision about which distance you were going to do. You have clearly not come all this way to do the 75km ride. We can write that off. The tricky choice is whether you go the whole 260km, or the popular 140-170km (it varies) version? While you might think that the full distance is a prerequisite for this trip, there are a number of things counting against it. Firstly, the main plan of the race organisers is to bore the riders to death over the initial 100km: it’s long, straight roads traversing the dullest territory to be found in Europe. You will have nothing but a crosswind to entertain you. Secondly, it presents a logistical nightmare, as the start in Bruges is an hour’s buzz up the motorway from the finish in Meerbeke. Your 260km day could be 400km if you’re not careful. They lay on a shuttle, but you’ll have to leave at 5.00am.

We say: get up at 7.00. Drive down to Ninove. When the traffic stops moving on the dual carriageway, pull over and park up. You have now got in the region of 160km in front of you once you have ridden the last bit of the journey through Ninove to the HQ, completed the Ronde, and back through the town to your car after the finish in the suburb of Meerbeke.

You could call it a suburb, but that suggests Ninove is a city. In fact, it’s pretty much like all of this country from here up to the coast: you’re never really anywhere, but you’re never really nowhere. In fact, you could take a cricket ball to Flanders, throw it from house to house and never have it fall short of somebody’s property. It’s not until you get south of the River Schelde to where the low hills of the Flemish Ardennes crouch that there is anything to look at in the slightest. But fear not, traveller, for that is exactly where we are headed.

This is when you start to realise how big this thing is. There are cyclists absolutely everywhere. Yet the organisation is so low key, you might be at your own local race with a hundred or so competitors: there are few marshals and fewer police, the roads are open to traffic, but it doesn’t matter in a country where everybody understands bike racing. Motorists avoid the smaller roads you’re going to be using, and when they do use them, they unfailingly give way to you.

The 2011 route had a few changes from previous editions. Not the big change touted for 2012, where there is talk of moving the long, straight, uphill finish that produces such great sprints from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde, a much more interesting town. Tom Boonen says that moving the finish away from Meerbeke would be like taking the finale of Paris-Roubaix off the velodrome, but we’ll have to see. No, this year’s changes involve moving the order of some of the climbs and cobbled sections, putting some in and taking some out. The sacrosanct triumvirate ending of the Muur, the Bosberg and Meerbeke is, as yet, untouched.

The first 50km are a breeze as you head off in pleasant sunshine, smiling at the odd lonely cow or horse, finding a decent sized group and allowing yourself to be towed along. Now is the time to enjoy the full spectrum of fashions on view: see-through yellow shorts on wide hairy arses, jerseys advertising the meats available in a local slagerij, woolly socks. These people share something with Lance Armstrong: it really isn’t about the bike. It’s about how you ride it.

In years gone past, there would be a little knot of fear about what’s in store. There were two long cobbled sections in this part, one in particular rising steadily and brutally through the village of Mater that punished the rider who was not ready for the challenge of the big stones. They seem to have disappeared. Then there was the bit where you sailed down a gentle descent on a wide road, wondering what all the shouting was about up in front, when suddenly you were grabbing two handfuls of brake, swinging wildly to your right and stabbing both hands desperately at your shifters to get down to a gear that might see you up the ludicrously steep and narrow little track you have found yourself on. That was the Molenberg.

Next up is the Kluisberg, only a little climb, but nine per cent on cobbles is a bit of a shock. If you stand on the pedals, your tyres slip on the shiny surface. If you sit down, you run the risk of slowing down so much that you lose all momentum. And that’s the key. Lose momentum, and you’re lost.

Give a look of praise up to the blue heavens and thank the Lord that this isn’t 2008. By now, you would be soaked to the bone, blasted by a westerly typhoon and chilled to well below your comfort zone. Many of those reaching this point turned and headed back up the main road you’ve just joined, thinking only of the shelter of their cars, parked 30km away on a dual carriageway outside Ninove.

I hate to worry you, but the next three obstacles are the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg and the Koppenberg.

The Kwaremont has a long draggy start on a little lane before the cobbles kick in, and they are seriously knackered cobbles, screwed by hundreds of years of farmers’ boots, horses’ hooves and cyclists’ broken wheels. You know you’re in it now, and you’re probably wondering if it’s all been a big mistake. You can’t even rest over the top, as the cobbles drag on vaguely upwards for another kick, before you plunge down back into the same valley and swing a sudden right… oh no, here we go again, you haven’t even got your breath back and you’re on the Paterberg. This one is 20 per cent; so you try and get into the little concrete drainage channel at the side of the setts but you get slower, and slower, until the guy in front of you gives up and clicks out. Are you moving quick enough to jump out round him? If not, you’ll be pissed off, because it’s only another 30 seconds of anaerobic torture to the top.

Okay. You’re okay. You’ve beaten a couple of bullying hills. You can do this. Just swing right around this dead corner at walking pace, notice the little plaque by the cottages that says Koppenbergstraat, and… holy shit! Look at that. In front of you is a road that looks like a climbing wall. It’s nearly vertical and there are hundreds of people in brightly coloured clothing hanging on to avoid plummeting to a crunching doom. If I were you, I’d get off now.

But you don’t, do you? You’re going to make it up the Koppenberg, you’re going to beat the two-metre wide 22 per cent bastard, with its half a mile of stupid archaic squared-off stones… oh when is tarmac going to arrive in this country?

The view to the north as you begin to descend is stunning. Why do these people go so slowly downhill? Surely, this is what bike riding is all about? Just let it go; a sweeping right hander, stay off the brakes, a tighter left hander – actually, quite a lot tighter and… Jesus Christ you’re a nanosecond from going headfirst into the biggest pile of dung in Belgium. The Michelin man on the side of your tyres is screaming in horror as you lean your bike over so far that you’re in danger of dabbing a knee like Casey Stoner and the manure mountain kindly deposited by a Flemish farmer on the apex of the corner whistles past your right ear in a cloud of shit-eating flies. If your legs were shaking from the cobbles, everything else is shaking now from the shock of narrowly avoiding a pungent death.

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It’s a daze now. Hills come and go. You’ve lost all sense of direction. All will to live. The long stretch of cobbles you thought you’d avoided at Mater returns to shake the hair out of your head. Your wedding ring shot off somewhere near Ronse and you’ve lost your bottles. You do what you’ve been told, putting it in a bigger gear, taking more weight on your feet, trying not to grip the bars too tightly, but it’s really not helping. Then you see a sign that says the next hill is the Muur.

The Muur. The Keppelmuur. The Mur de Grammont. You have to be a real bastard of a climb to have this many names. The pros get to head over the bridge and straight through the town. But on the Saturday it’s busy so you, cyclotourist, will be forced to skim the town centre and climb up a horrible long drag before you even get to the Muur.

You already know the Muur is bad, because it’s the only road you’ve ever seen that looks steep on TV. You’ve just ridden the hardest four hours of your life. You’re screwed. Nailed to the road. Can you just walk up it in contemplative solitude? No, afraid not, because it’s packed with people encouraging you, pushing the people who’ve stopped and want to get going again. You cannot stop. When you finally come round the last corner, gasping for breath like a goldfish on the kitchen floor, quads burning, eyes watering, it’s out of the dark tunnel and trees and into the sunshine bathing the domed chapel ahead. You are redeemed, my son. Now go forth and get to the finish.

You don’t even feel the Bosberg. Well, in honesty, you were going to get off and walk up it, but you saw the official photographer halfway up, and you thought that you needed to at least get past him, and then you were nearly there, so what the hell. It’s all downhill from here.

And it really is all downhill from here. With a tailwind. You’re laughing in sheer delight. You’re glad you upgraded to carbon. Okay, nothing’s going to make those cobbles comfy, but these crappy arse-numbing slabs of concrete that pass for roads sure tell you a few things about your body. You’re glad you put those 25c tyres on because you’ve seen the number of people slipping on the shiny stones, and you’ve seen that guy in the white legwarmers fixing at least three punctures, even though he clearly rides three times as fast as you.

Now you’re dreaming about beer. It’s just a couple of kilometres away. And tonight, you’re going to destroy a steak the size of a boy’s head, rare to the point of refrigerated, blood pissing out all over your frites, chewing each mouthful like it’s your rival’s flesh. And you’re going to love it.

Pause. Reflect. Tickle the cranks over and enjoy the final part of the journey while quietly considering lessons learned about other peculiarities of local culture (see sidebar).

When you’re standing on the Oude Kwaremont on Sunday afternoon, you will need the Triple to help you forget about how your arse feels. Because this morning, when you strolled through the crowd leaning on the barriers shouting for Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara as they made their way to the sign on, your arse probably looks much like that pavé of ribeye you butchered last night.

If you go to watch the race on the Muur, you’ll have fun, but you won’t see much; it’ll be crammed from about 10.00am. If you go to watch it on the Bosberg, you might get lucky and see Philippe Gilbert bust a gut trying to distance the others, but more than likely, most riders’ races will be run by then. No, the Kwaremont is the spot to be, with everybody gunning to be in the first 20 when it hits the bottom and nobody wanting to get caught behind the crashes that inevitably stack up when you wedge hundreds of speeding riders into a cobbled uphill funnel. When you’ve screamed in their ears and pushed the fallers back on their way, you can follow them up to the top, drink Triple, eat spicy hot dogs, and watch the last 80km on the big screen in the square by the church.

You might see Boonen ruin the race for his team-mates. You might see Cancellara riding as if to prove to us all that he’s read his own press. You could see Chavanel heroically refuse to give up. You may even see Nick Nuyens stick his nose in front for the first time all day when he’s about 50 yards from the line. You will have a brilliant weekend. (By John Deering.)

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The race report… In the end, it could have been much worse for Tom Boonen and Quickstep.

The Man Who Would Be The New Museeuw had watched as his team-mate Sylvain Chavanel had powered up the Oude Kwaremont to outstrip the long-term lead group and form a two-man spearhead with Astana’s Australian Simon Clarke. After the Paterberg and the Koppenberg, Chavanel motored on alone, leaving the young Aussie in his wake and holding the star-studded peloton at around 40 seconds.

Despite the forceful presence of Thor Hushovd, Greg van Avermaet, Alessandro Ballan, Philippe Gilbert, ‘Pippo’ Pozzato and Lars Boom alongside him at the front of the chasers, three-time winner Boonen was really only watching one man. He had every right to follow Fabian Cancellara’s back wheel all the way to Meerbeke, saying, perhaps, “Go on then, Fabian. That’s my team-mate up the road. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Instead, as Chavanel ground his heroic way closer to the Muur, Boonen made the baffling decision to attack the group. While his move was enough to put Hushovd, Gilbert, Pozzato et al in difficulty, it was meat and drink to the defending champion, who could scarcely contain his glee.

Swiftly covering Boonen’s acceleration, Cancellara used his rival’s efforts as a springboard to counter-attack him and sail across the gap to the lone French leader.

Perhaps Boonen had been trying to disrupt the chase, maybe he thought he could bridge across to his team-mate alone. Or maybe he was just worried that he wouldn’t get a chance to win. Whatever his story, when Cancellara hit the Tenbosse in Brakel with Chavanel grimly clinging to his tail-bone like a stubborn stain, it looked very much like game over.

But then something peculiar happened. Van Avermaet and Ballan’s BMC team, brilliantly marshalled by the hand of George Hincapie, massed at the front of the peloton and drove the race after Cancellara and Chavanel. Around 800,000 fans along the route held their breath as the Muur approached: surely, this would be where Cancellara would press his little button again and leave the world stumbling up the cobbles behind him. But no – BMC flashed through Geraardsbergen and engulfed the Swiss just as his moment of glory approached. Cancellara looked around him as the Muur faded away and the Bosberg loomed up and, instead of glorious isolation, found himself at the heart of an unlucky 13.

It had been the swashbuckling Gilbert who had led the way up the Muur, and now he fired all his remaining missiles at once. Flying up the cobbles of the last climb as though it was a smooth stretch of flat black asphalt, he left the dozen contenders weaving in his wake. For a few glorious moments he was alone on the road to Meerbeke and could almost smell the hot dogs and frites. But that pesky BMC bunch spoilt another rider’s day, as this time Ballan hauled him back. British champion Geraint Thomas had pulled out a stunning ride to keep his captain Juan Antonio Flecha in the hunt, and once again, the Sky duo managed to rejoin the front. We moved further forward in our seats, anticipating a group sprint in Meerbeke for the first time in… in a long time.

It wasn’t to be. The mark of great champions is an unreasonable unwillingness to give up their crowns.

Cancellara somehow found the power to trawl one more attack up from his shoes. Defying belief, his partner in the move was Sylvain Chavanel, shrugging off the last 70km of effort as a mere footnote in the story of this incredible race. There was some other guy with the two of them, but we didn’t really know who he was until he popped out in the last 100 metres to win the race. Wow. Nick Nuyens. He was riding today, then? Oh, and he rides for Saxo Bank, doesn’t he? And Bjarne Riis? You know, that Saxo Bank and Riis, the team and manager who Cancellara left in the winter?

Chavanel, accidentally baulked by each of his rivals in the sprint, was second. Boonen was fourth. Museeuw’s thoughts on his progeny’s actions remain undisclosed.

As a wise old sage remarked after a wonderful display of cycling: a great race with a boring result. (By John Deering.)

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