The cycling world returned to Belgium last week for the start of the Flanders Classics. Given the bombings and tragic loss of life in Brussels earlier in the week, it felt fitting to be riding hard into headwinds, up cobbled climbs, drinking amazing beer in the evening and celebrating what makes this country so great.
Our base for the weekend was the fabulous ParkHotel in Kortrijk. We kept good company. Both Tinkoff and Katusha make this place home for a few weeks each spring and its easy to see why - an amazing breakfast, buzzing bar and stunning spa area. We needed all the help we could get, the weather forecast said high winds on the Saturday, we can testify they were correct.
Gent Wevelgem Sportive
The organisation for Gent Wevelgem was much better than the Het Nieuwsblad and check in took seconds with everything well laid out. We started from under the finish line and the route was well sign posted and marshalled well where needed though most of the route was on small country lanes with no traffic.
The pro race is defined by cross and head winds splitting the peloton and a couple of decisive climbs towards the end. The sportive is no different. We rode the 135km route which had more climbing this year than normal at around 1300m (the 220km route had around 1700m) but is still a pretty flat course compared to most European sportives. But the stats hide the difficulty of this ride.
First section - 52km to feed station
We rode out of Wevelgem for what looks on paper as one of the easiest 52km of cycling a sportive can offer – no named hills, no cobbled sections, about 300m climbing. As soon as we got out of town we were onto small tracks with absolutely no protection from the gusty winds. Being so close to the start the groups were big and pretty quick. With frequent head winds the protection of the group was critical and people were working hard not to be dropped. The small lanes twisted and turned often and after every corner there was a rapid acceleration to stay on the wheel.
This was to be the pattern for the first 52km. No rest, no time to let the mind wander, just 100% focus on not losing the wheel ahead. We rode in a team of 3 and there was time for quick discussions as we approached a slower group or got overtaken by a faster group. At one point we accelerated from a slower group in the attempt to reach a bigger, quicker pack only to be left in no mans land and spent a lot of energy going not very fast until caught. As we turned 2km from the first feed we had a gentle descent and strong tailwind and we flew to the rest stop to feed ourselves with waffles and questionable sports drink.
Second section - the climbs
The meat of the sportive is meant to be in the hilly section between the first and second feed. We still had 23km to get to the hills and all the work of the first part was taking its toll. Groups were now smaller and breaking quicker, accelerations out of the corners more desperate. With tired legs, we hit the first climb at the 75km mark, the first of 6 climbs in 17km. The Catsberg was our first challenge and had some very sharp sections (over 20%). However, the next three hills were all straight forward, short and not steep. This took us to the Baneberg, a very short (250m) climb with a vicious 23% corner. This would be a key part of the pro race the next day and would not have been fun if it had been any longer.
Having warmed up over 5 climbs, we were now ready for the main challenge – the Kemmelberg. There are numerous ways up this climb, our way and the final loop of the pro race was short but steep. This was the first cobbled climb of the day but as the route is open to cars the cobbles are nice and smooth and distant cousins of the brutal sections from Roubaix or Flanders. The Kemmelberg is wide, straight and for better or worse you can see the top as soon as you turn the corner and hot the main section. At its steepest it is 23% but the pain is over quickly. From the top, it is a fairly quick 15km to the second feed at Ypres.
Rolling through Ypres is pretty special. The town was decimated in WW1 and rebuilt beautifully. We cross a moat into town then ride across cobbles and finally through the Menin Gate. Of all the sportives in Europe, few can match this for beauty and to offer the rider a moment of reflection.
The Finishing Straight
From Ypres we had a quick re-fuel and the obligatory waffle before the last stretch home. Again, this was through open country and sticking to the wheel was critical. The groups were more sparse by this point and often a group went passed that was too quick to hang on or we caught a group that was too slow for us and had to ride just the three of us for long parts. Eventually we reached Wevelgem and could see the finish line from a long way away. The finish is long, wide and very flat, the perfect ingredients for a sprint to the line.
This is a unique and amazing sportive. There is never a dull moment as you need to focus on positioning, accelerating out of corners, picking the right groups and staying out of the wind for the whole sportive. The hills are mostly straight forward and the Kemmelberg is an iconic cobbled climb that is a lot of fun. The route is rolling outside of the climbs so rewards both strong climbers and powerful riders alike. The organisation is light but more than adequate and the atmosphere is more personal than some of the bigger spring sportives round the corner. If you have only done Flanders / Roubaix / LBL before, this is definitely one to consider and makes for an easy and excellent weekend of cycling.
RIP Antoine Demoite
Hearing the news that Antoine Demoite has died riding the pro race on Sunday was incredibly sad. Sharing a hotel with two pro teams for the weekend had given us a brief insight into the dedication, camaraderie and bond between team mates. We will leave the ideas on how to make bike racing safer to more qualified experts, for now we will just pass our deepest sympathies to his friends and family that have lost someone they love and to his team mates that will be struggling with there being an empty space at their dinner table. RIP