The Freedom To Explore

Riding De Ronde Van Vlaanderen

The toughest test in cycling awaits – the ultimate spring Classic Tour of Flanders

From babies’ heads to block paving, smooth and dry to rough and slimy, random to regular… a thesaurus of adjectives could never come close to capturing the essence of Belgium’s fearsome cobbled cycling routes.

The pavé is where the hard men of cycling come to play. The bold and the brave prepared to break their bones and bust their balls. Ride here and people doff their caps. Win here and join the ranks of the sport’s heroes… Simpson, Merckx, Boonen, Cancellara.

One race over the cobbles seizes the imagination like no other. The Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen to give the event its Flemish name, is one of cycling’s five monuments, although monumental seems more apt. It starts in Antwerp and more than 260km later finishes in Oudenaarde; the intervening kilometres have a single purpose – to link every stretch of treacherous cobbled road into one bruising, brutal encounter.

It’s a challenge that demands a place on every rider’s bucket list, a right of passage to endure and survive. And it’s open to any cyclist in the form of a sportive, a non-competitive event that follows the route of the pros the day before they race.

All of which goes some way to explaining why four friends, Dave, Andy, Annabel and Christophe, crossed the Channel to tackle the 100th edition of the event. Except nothing truly explains why sane humans would choose to clatter over cobbles so uneven they shake fillings from teeth.

Two pairs of shorts? An extra layer of bar tape? How else to numb the bone-rattling impact of the dreaded pavé?

“Drop the tyre pressures,” advise the gnarled old experts, and above all, “ride faster – you’ll float above the stones.” The theory may be sound, but it feels like insanity to accelerate towards cobbles capable of swallowing a wheel.

“Flanders was a first for me,” says Andy. “I’d heard stories about how harsh the cobbles were and how the vibrations battered the body, and I assumed it was all a bit of hype. It wasn’t. The cobbles came thick and fast, some on impressively steep gradients, and there was no respite. They were totally alien to anything I had ridden before. As a group we hit the pavé hard. Really hard. People we passed had suffering etched on their faces. We just gritted our teeth.”

Cobble virgin Dave struggled to summon the confidence to match the pace.

“My lack of speed made the whole thing a lot more painful,” he recalls. “I hit the first sector gingerly, slowing down to a manageable speed in case I hit the deck. I could see people walking up the side of the road, pushing their bikes. Others had stopped to collect water bottles that had bounced out of cages.”

Any excuse for a reprieve from the onslaught. Even pros have walked up the Koppenberg, with its vicious 19% gradient and greasy stones. Hands take a pounding, knuckles swell, cleats fracture and crack. Ride the ridge in the middle of the road or dive into the smooth-looking gutter at the side? Mud sprays, tyres slip, bloodied riders sit forlornly by the side of the road.

Gradually, however, confidence builds, technique improves, and a glimmer of the glamour of this iconic race starts to shine.

“I shifted the chain to the big ring, clicked down to the 11T sprocket, and mustered all the power left in my legs,” recalls Dave. “Speed, speed, speed as I looked ahead to find the best line over the cobbles and camber. In my head I’m Cancellara!”

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Photographs by Adam Atkins.