For a few days last week I took a short break to Belgium to sample some of the cycling in the famous Flanders region.
The Flanders region in Belgium is well known for hosting many cycling races including one of the Monuments: Ronde Van Vlaandaren (Tour of Flanders). The race is well known for its tricky short sharp climbs (or hellingen in the local lingo), many of them made even harder by virtue of being run over cobbles. The race, as well as some of the other events in that use the same roads (E3, Gent Wevelgem, Omloop Het Neiusblad) have been one of my favourites to watch and I wanted to get an experience of riding over those climbs.
I decided to spend a few nights based in the quiet town Oudenaarde (less than an hour away from Brussels), which services as finish town for the race and a short ride away from the crucial climbs in the race.
This part of the world is built for cycling, with cycle paths all over the roads both in and out of town. Everywhere you go you see signage for cyclists to help them navigate the roads in the Flanders regions. Not only are their themed rides (mentioned later) but there are signs to help people navigate between towns and villages. Want to get to a particular place? Then simply note down the number of the waymarkers you need to pass and follow those numbers on the green and white signs.
Rather than hassling with my own bike I decided to rent a bike from one of the many local bike shops. I arranged a few days rental (€30 a day) from Ronnie (@) at Asfra Flanders (asfra.be) who build and sell ‘Flanders’ brand bikes and also have a race team. The bikes I used were excellent, light (carbon frame) with plenty of gearing options for the flat and the hills.
For the first ride I wanted to follow the Tour of Flanders Blue Route; one of 3 coloured routes that take in all the important roads and climbs of the cycle race. At 80km/50miles it was the shortest of the routes but suited me perfectly, hitting all the climbs I wanted without having to spend all day in the saddle (which I’m not really used to). Each of the routes starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and are handily signposted along the route in their respective colour.
The first few miles I was able to spin along the long Schelde cycle path (more here) passing barges and fields on either side. Very soon the route turns away from the river and heads into the first climb: Oude Kwaremont. At 4% for 2.2km it may not sound difficult but this belies the fact that after the first 600m the road becomes cobbles for the remaining part of the climb with a section at 11%. As soon as I hit the cobbles for the first time I felt the shaking of the bike through my hands and arms and the movement the bike as it rides each cobblestone. Its quite an experience and immediately slows you down. These climbs require you to sit in the saddle and grind the gear because if you try and get out the saddle to bike wheel becomes light and you are in danger of sliding out. With it being quite early in the morning the cobbles were still a bit shiny in places so I made sure I sat in. The climb is tough because of its length and and ever changing nature of the cobbles. In some places they are evenly set and sit flat, whilst in other places they are uneven with grass and mud growing in between each stone. The Oude Kwaremont passes the village halfway up and whilst its tempting to think you are done there is still another km of cobble riding to tackle.
Once you do reach the top there is quite an interesting little road that has every previous winner of the Ronde written on the road as you ride past. A short windy descent follows before you hit a sharp corner straight into another short, but much steeper cobbled climb: The Paterberg. A real struggle to get up this but once you reach the tree at the top its all flat and there’s a nice view (when its not misty….)
A few kilometres further on is the fabled Koppenberg, left out of the race for many years because it was too narrow and dangerous with instances of team cars running over stricken riders’ bikes. No such vehicular problems for myself but this was the only climb I couldn’t get up without getting off. The initial part of the cobbled climb takes all the momentum out and as soon as you arrive at the steepest (and worst cobbles) section you’ve got nowhere to go. Combined with the tree cover and the dewey morning the cobbles were far too slippy and saw a few others also have to get off and push.
A very fast descent follows and you get good views of Oudenaarde as you drop down to the villages nearby. The route continues along a number of cobbled streets including the long and difficult Marienstraat which although it is flat is just as tricky as the faster you go the more you are shaken up. Just when you think its over there’s a nasty little climb (Steenbekdries) to contend with before you are back on forgiving tarmac.
Other highlights on this route was riding the Taaienberg (Boonen’s favoured place to attack) and the Kruisberg, a long but quite forgiving drag out of the small town of Ronse. A few more climbs come and go before the last 8miles back along the Schelde towards Oudenaarde.
For riders completing any of the routes its definitely worth popping into the RVV Centrum, a museum dedicating to the event as well as a brasserie. Lots of good hearty fare (Spaghetti Boonenaise anyone?) as well as Belgian beers in a bar adorned with cycling jerseys and other cycling paraphernalia.
A few days later I decided to take a shorter themed ride following the Oudenaarde Bruin or Beer Route. This ride was a lot more rural with plenty of long cobbled paths and climbs as it criss crossed through villages and passed brewies. The route intersected the RVV routes mentioned before and I decided to take a short detour to have a second crack up the Taaienberg before returning to the route.
Eventually I wound my way back to Oudenaarde but not before passing the Leifmans brewery which had a powerful scent of cherries emanating from it. Deciding I wanted a closer look I rode up the buildings sat along the banks of the Schelde and was beckoned in by one of the employers who offered me a quick view of the huge fermentation tanks as well as a glass of Oudenaarde Oud Bruin (looks dark but tastes nothing like it should). Before I left I was even given 2 free bottles before good measure.
After a quick bit of lunch I rode out towards the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg loop to have another go up them. Riding them for a second time felt easier and quicker as I had a much better knowledge of each climb.
Running wise the Schelde offers the perfect car free options although it can get a bit blustery at times. The Koppenberg is only a few km away and is used as part of a trail race help in the spring. Running up it on the slippery cobbles was tough and it feels endless as it rises above the trees that line its path. Its quite a different experience riding the cobbles to running them however!