Another day, another dollar…..or as I’m starting to say another week another blog. Following a recent poll on Instagram I have decided to write this blog entry on the Tour of Flanders. Yes you guessed it I’ve been there, done it, completed it and of course got the t-shirt (literally). I have a funny response when people ask my opinion on it I always give this answer…..
I believe there are two types of people who ride bikes. There are cyclERS and cyclISTS. A cycler is someone who loves riding the bike, appreciates the health and exercise benefits it provides but that’s as far as it goes. Then there is the cyclist, a man or woman who embraces the sport as a whole who not only loves to ride the bike, but indulges in the art of buying bikes and bike parts. A person who mulls over every intricate detail of the bike. One who reads cycling weekly as if it is the Bible, who looks up to the PROs as Gods and can only ever dream of having a seat at the round table.
So I relate this analogy to the Tour of Flanders. If you are a cycler then it may not be the holiday/trip for you, maybe something like Mallorca is better suited with the nice weather, smooth roads, coffees, climbs and descents. Tour of Flanders is a different kettle of fish. It is for the cyclist. The parcours itself is world famous having so many cobbled sections with many being cobbled climbs. There is an outstanding museum in Oudenaarde that showcases the history and prestige of the race. And the sportive, well, I believe doing the Tour of Flanders sportive for cyclists should be held in the same regard as visiting Lourdes is for Catholics. A must do!
I did Tour of Flanders this year for the first time. I did it with my fiancée, my oul man, few of his mates and a few of mine. We went over on the Friday and stayed to the Tuesday. We stayed in a chateau on the outskirts of Oudenaarde. Oudenaarde is the big town where the race finishes. The majority of the iconic cobbled sections are in and around Oudenaard so you can imagine it is a very cyclist friendly place, even good for cyclers too (Laugh Out Loud). The sportive has 4 main distances 240km, 172km, 140km and 76km. We chose to do the 140km. The 240km is ridiculously long and the first 100km is basically cycling on flat roads from Antwerp to Oudenaarde. In hindsight we should have done the 172km but chickened out and did the 140km which I’m glad we did in the end as you will soon find out. 16,000 people take part in the sportive every year. You literally get ALL kinds. I can remember getting passed by two Belgian lads on a tandem mountain bike going up one of the climbs. They were chatting away, I was breathing out my arse. Animals! It’s very different to doing a sportive at home. At home you get so many ‘FREDs’ and a lot of dodgy riding. 16,000 people at Flanders and I think I was the only FRED. It was €35 which included a free t-shirt, timing chip for the event, free lights and there were 4 feed stops. Every stop was brilliant, unlimited supply of Belgian waffles, oranges and electrolyte drinks on tap. It truly was extraordinary value for money, and those who know me will know I’m a sucker for a bargain!
One regret I had for this particular trip to Flanders was not training enough for it. I was carrying a lot of extra weight coming off the back off a poor winter and boy did it tell. The sportive was a struggle for me from start to finish. The reason it was a struggle at the start was because I HAD to wear my Bike WorkX kit. Unfortunately the extra weight that I was carrying made it a struggle to get on and the zip on my jersey was under as much pressure as the tires on my wheels. On our particular route there were 14 cobbled sections with the most notable ones being the cobbled climbs, Koppenberg (or as we called it, the Kopparberg), Oude Kwaremount and the Paterberg. The Koppenberg was a bit of shame. Due to heavy rain the day before it was a mucky mess. An ambulance stopping halfway up the climb to help a suffering participant also didn’t help. Yes you guessed it, we had to walk it. Which in fairness was probably harder than riding it as cleats don’t give you much grip on wet, mucky cobbles. My struggles up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg I will never forget. These two climbs came pretty late in the sportive. My legs were in agony, my body running low on energy and my head was completely gone. I didn’t really know much about the Kwaremont other than there was a beer named after it which was the same in strength as the average gradient of the climb, 6.6%. It was also one of the longer climbs, it is sort of split in two sections as it levels out half way through before a steep ramp to finish. My choice of gearing for the trip wasn’t the best, riding a 53-39 on the front and an 11-25 on the back. I figured it would be grand as it was what I always rode in Mallorca, mind you what I didn’t realise is cobbled climbs are much harder than smooth tarmac ones. I hit the start of the climb and straight away I knew it was going to be make or break whether or not I would get up it on the bike. My legs felt like lead and I was nearing empty. In true Murray fashion I battled on. Halfway up the Kwaremont there is a crossroads, with a few houses, sort of like a village. As I approached it I could see large amount of spectators standing at the side of the road. Both young and old. By this stage I was really on the limit. Then from the side of the road I could hear a young kid, no older than 10 shouting “Come on Josh!! Go! Go! Go!”….His father with him started shouting my name too, as did many other spectators. The encouragement was phenomenal. Tears began to trickle down my face. I was so tired. Physically and mentally exhausted. The emotions of the occasion got to me. These local people who have a pure love for the sport were out to cheer on the participants of this magnificent sportive. I must add at this point that my name was on a placard on the front of my bike, but don’t let that take away from this moment. Even as I write this the memories are flooding back, the hairs standing on the back of my neck as I recall this moment, probably the most epic moment I have ever had on a bike. I was riding in the home of cycling, up one of the most epic cobbled climbs in the world, locals cheering my name……..I’m lost for words! *taking a minute to gather myself* ….. I eventually got to the top, filled with pride. I got on to the wheel of a young lad from England who was trucking on rightly. Fair play to him for giving me a tow, he didn’t even flick the elbow or ask for a turn. We then took a left turn off the main road down a Belgian country road. At this point I thought that was all the climbs and cobbles over. As we descended down this country road I could see in the distance the Paterberg!! Whoops, forgot about that one! The Paterberg isn’t very long but is extremely steep and it’s the last climb before the finish so extremely iconic. It’s also where we watched the Pro races on the Sunday. Again this was another epic moment for me, more spectators, more fans (as I was now calling them) cheering me on up this challenging climb. Again the tears started to trickle. *gathering myself again* After this it was a good 10km to the finish but on flat fast roads. I got in to a really good group and we were trucking along, doing up and overs sitting at 30mph. There was a bit of a ‘bunch sprint’ for the finish but I sat up and soaked in the moment of crossing the finish line. After the finish I met up with the crew I had started with, we went to a local pub, had a few Kwaremonts and reminisced on the events of the day.
On the Sunday we watched the women’s and men’s races at the Paterberg, drinking Belgian beer, eating Belgian waffles and French fries. It was brilliant to see the Pros up close and see how easy they make the climbs look. Peter Sagan is something else! On the Monday we cycled to Roubaix velodrome which wasn’t that far away. We bumped in to team Sky and got chatting to Dave Brailsford. I was star struck when I met Yogi Bear (Ian Stannard) a true gent and a model pro. I even had a tumble on the velodrome bringing home some road rash and scars as souvenirs. Tuesday we visited the Tour of Flanders museum in Oudenaarde before flying home. It’s class, definitely worth a visit. So many legends have taken part in the race and so many epic battles over the years.
So yeah! That’s my experience on the Tour of Flanders. I hope reading this will encourage you to go, you won’t regret it. If you’ve already been you will agree it is a life-changing experience as a cyclist, it might even convert a cycler to a cyclist if they were to go. If anyone has any questions on how we organised or booked the trip please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Until my next blog, Saluu!