It starts before I’m even out of the confines of the airport terminal. Airport bars tend to feel like a lawless rip in the space-time continuum (“Sure, I’ll have a morning beer!”), but this particular bar had something else going on. In addition to the 8 a.m. Heineken, the only TV in the bar was showing a bicycle race. On a Wednesday. In March. This must be the place.
The place is Belgium. And I am arriving here a couple of days before one of my favorite events on the pro cycling calendar: Ronde van Vlaanderen, or—much easier on the mouth—Tour of Flanders. I catch the train from the Brussels airport heading to my home for the next few days, the town of Bruges, which also happens to be the capital of West Flanders, which in turn, some may argue, is the center of the world when it comes to cycling.
I arrive a bit early as we do not start riding until the next day, so there is not much to do besides walking around the canals and cobbled streets that line the town and stumbling in and out of a couple of cafes and beer shops. Besides riding all of the famous bergs that dot the area, my other mission on this trip is to seek out all of the Trappist ales that Belgium is known for. I strike gold at my very first stop. A quaint little spot called Cafe Rose Red just happens to sell bottles of Westvleteren 12, one of the most sought-after bottles on the other side of the ocean. I proceed to have one or two. This will be a good trip.
Day 1. Shakedown and the Dutch Wind
After breakfast, we head outside to meet the trip guides, Marcia and Wiebe. We go over the bike fits and make sure that everything works and we head out. The cobbles of Bruges are just a preview of things to come as we leave the town behind and head for the flat roads and bike paths that line the canals that criss-cross the area. Dark clouds are swirling around us as we start to feel a drop or two of rain. Wiebe points to the sky: “Every cloud here has a little rain in it.” We ride through a town and suddenly I realize that we are no longer in Belgium.
At some point, we have crossed into The Netherlands. We make our way around the countryside and all the way to the North Sea before turning around and making our way back to Bruges. That is where I experience it for the first time this week: the wind. It is not gusty or undulating. It is firm and constant. And it makes you feel like you are towing a large rock behind you. Everyone feels like a bit knackered by the time we make it back to Bruges. Good thing there is food. And more beer.
Day 2. Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo-The Citizen’s Race
We wake up early and pile into the van. Our destination is on the outskirts of Oudenaarde, a town synonymous with Ronde van Vlaanderen, or-more palatable to English speakers-Tour of Flanders. We are taking to the start of the Citizen’s Race, a 95-mile loop around the hills, cobbles, and farm fields that make Flanders one of the best and most memorable races on the calendar. We will not be alone. There are more than 17,000 other participants taking to the start line. We roll off into the cold, but sunny morning and make our way out of town and into the countryside.
Less than 10 miles into the ride we hit it. The first of the many cobbles climbs to come. Over the next few hours, all of the tongue-twisting names that have been emblazoned into my brain from hours spent watching racing on TV stream by me in the form of signs along the road and the cobbles under my wheels. Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Padderstraat, Huisepontweg, Kwaremont, and, of course, Koppenberg.
Oh, Koppenberg. We are now well into the ride and our bottles and bodies have been replenished by the Trek Travel feed zone. It starts drizzle right before I hit the infamous climb. It is hard to explain just how tough it is to stay upright on those cobbles while also trying to keep your bike moving forward. All you can do is pedal as fast as you can and hope for the best. Thanks to the rain, the already tough cobbles turn into tiny ice rinks. Yes, it is still possible to keep moving, but if you hesitate for even a second and your foot comes down, there is an absolute zero chance of you getting back on your bike again. And because there is a lot of hesitating and lots of feet (and bodies) down on the hill ahead of you, you have no choice, but to hop off your bike and walk it up the remainder of the way. It is a part of the experience.
And then the climb up Kwaremont, followed by some twisty and tight decents leading into the last climb up Paterberg and the long, flat run back into Oudenaarde. And then it’s over. Hydration? A Duvel (or two) will do.
Day 3. Ronde van Vlaanderen
I have watched the Ronde on TV more times than I can count, including finding myself digging into the wormhole that is YouTube looking for replays of old races. But nothing quite compares to standing in a muddy field alongside Belgian fans in varying levels of inebriation and watching the race go by. We had access to the VIP tent at the top of Kwaremont and I found myself going in and out throughout the race to get an update from the giant screens inside the tent before heading out to check out the scene outside.
The women’s race went by once with the eventual winner Anna van der Breggen already well in the lead. The men follow, making their way up Kwaremont a total of three times, the final being just a few miles after Niki Terpstra’s winning breakaway move.
Yes, watching the race on TV may give you a better perspective and a better idea of what is happening, but nothing quite compares to standing in mud, drinking crappy beer and having your view blocked by hundreds of waving black and yellow Flanders flags.
Read on for Part II: In search of history and Trappist ales