BellaVelo and ride for InternationEll2
2019 was my third year in a row of the Tour of Flanders. There's something about this weekend that keeps me coming back for more. It's certainly not the most picturesque of countryside but it has charm. I think it's more about the energy of the weekend. There's so much drama, excitement, passion, fun and a few tears packed into 48 hours, it's like a whirlwind!
The sportive takes place on the Saturday and there are four distance to choose from. The three shorter ones (74km, 139km and 174km) all start in a pretty little town called Oudenaarde, which is in the heart of Flanders and home to the Tour of Flanders museum, and the big one (229km) starts in Antwerp. I did the long route again this year with my husband and a friend who'd never been before - we couldn't deny him the full Flanders experience now could we?!
We stay in Oudenaarde so we can roll home in minutes after we finish but that means a 4am alarm call, an attempt to shovel porridge down our necks and then a bus journey to the start. The buses are put on by the organisers at a small additional cost and it's all very well organised. The start is very relaxed, you just roll through when you're ready and away you go! I was looking around me all the time for the other women from the start and we are definitely in a very small minority on the long route! It means you get extra cheers along the way, especially up the climbs!
The first 80km is pretty uneventful and then suddenly, you're back near Oudenaarde and you get your first experience of cobbles! Nothing quite prepares you for the very first time you ride cobbles. The experts tell you to ride hard into them and you'll fly over them. Sounds easy?! Except they hit you like a hammer and drain the power from your legs! And suddenly you're crawling along these bone shaking cobbles hoping they will end soon! The more you ride cobbles though, the easier they get and I can happily say that this year I flew over the cobbles with a big smile on my face - so this is what they meant when they said that you fly!
The bergs then start to come regularly, some cobbled, some not. A typical Belgian berg is generally short with a cheeky steep section - so get practising on the Wimblebergs! The three most challenging bergs that feature in each of the distances come towards the end. The mighty Koppenberg, the long Oude Kwaremont and the wall of the Paterberg. Each brings it's own challenge and you have to stay strong in your mind - you can do this, you've got this - and before you know it you're at the top wondering how you got there! Once you've conquered these bergs you can call yourself a true Flandrian.
Watching the pro races the next day brings you a new found respect for what the professionals do. The way they fly over even the steepest of cobbled climbs is impressive when you've felt how tough they are. We watched from the side of the Kwaremont because you get to see the men's race come through three times and the women's race once. The atmosphere is electric and the excitement is palpable. You are so close to the pros as they come past that you can see the pain on their faces and their whole bodies shaking from the cobbles. We saw the women's race had been blown apart at that point and witnessed the eventual men's winner as he sped past, making his break for freedom. Then you watch the finish on one of the big screens in the field by the climb surrounded by a lot of drunk, happy Belgians. Once it's all over you're left buzzing from the whole weekend, wanting to come back for more next year. So who's with me?