Our trip to ride Flanders has been planned for some time. Looking for accommodation we booked through Sportive Breaks and got ourselves sorted: 3 nights based in Kortrijk and registrations for the ride. We decided to do the medium course, simply because it’s a loop in an out of Oudenaarde. The only extra thing we needed to book was the Channel Tunnel. Easy!
We booked an early crossing to give us plenty of time finding our bearings in Belgium, time to collect racepacks, look around Oudenaarde and check into the hotel. We were in The Square Hotel. Really nice and totally recommended PLUS we were just round the corner from where Team Sky were based- I assume they are there for the whole of the spring classics as Kortrijk is really central for the Belgium one day-ers and for Roubaix. (Oudenaarde is approx. 25 mins drive) Parking at the hotel was a doddle- less than 50m from the hotel is an underground carpark- cost was approx. €11/day… one of the nicest car parks I’ve ever been in! And that’s Belgium all over. If you’ve never been before, it’s so clean! Seriously, it is really clean. You’ll notice how much nicer it is literally as you cross the France Belgium border… France: roads are not so good, potholes, the usual…. Belgium, OMG the roads are amazing- like driving on carpet. Hard to believe but wait til you come!
So, settled in, bikes stowed away in the hotel- staff here are amazing- a few beers (try the local beer, Pater Pitte- very nice) and found a very nice restaurant in Kortrijk square for a meal and a few more beers!
The hotel had sorted an early breakfast for riders (there were quite a few) so up at 6am to a great selection all washed down with coffee then pack bikes and off to Oudenaarde for a days riding. Race HQ is at a place called Qubus and there were plenty of places to park up close to HQ. Bikes off, riders on, let’s go!
Set off was fairly relaxed with the usual euro-pop music blasting out and plenty of cyclists about giving the place a really nice buzz. So, the start was out and under the inflatable arch, set the Garmins going and we are on our way!
For a course that’s holding 16000 people, it didn’t feel that crowded. Pace was steady and the further out we headed the riders thinned out as we all found our pace. First climb is at 9km followed by the first pavé at 10km.
If you’ve ridden cobbles before, these are fairly easy going. I’ve ridden Roubaix a few times and Flanders is way smoother. What does feel weird is going up and down hills on cobbles. With Roubaix being pan flat, I always rode with high cadence and never touching brakes. On this course the downhills get quite hairy so you do have to feather brakes- something that feels wrong (but certainly necessary!)
The first feedzone is at 30km (there are 3 feedzones on this course) and they are huge and very well stocked: waffles, fruit, Haribo, it’s all here!
By 77 km and through the second feedzone, youre ready for the first iconic climb: the Koppenberg. I was amazed how narrow it was and as we are all funnelled into this cobbled hill, we get 50m up it and…. dismount. Such a shame but due to the amount of people, we have no choice but to walk up it. And that’s not so easy slipping about in cleats!
The days weather is constantly improving from slight drizzle first thing to broken cloud & sunshine and we are loving every minute of this iconic course. We’ve even picked up a tail wind! Result!! Next stop is the Kwaremont. This is another famous climb and the cobbles that keeps on giving... you struggle to the top dodging other riders, it flattens out and still the pavé keeps coming! Followed 5km later by the final climb of the day- always saving the best til last- the Paterberg topping out at 20% which feels a lot worse with 120km in your legs already! Finally over this last bit of cobblestone, it heads down, ass up and sprint the last 20km for the finish. Riding down the final straight that the pros will use the following day is quite emotional and crossing the same line that Phillippe Gilbert will cross in 24hrs time to take an amazing victory is quite something.
Once you’ve taken your selfies and congratulated your fellow teammates, don’t forget you still have to get to the finish! This is the ‘official’ finish, however Qubus is the ‘real’ finish- confusing I know, as all we wanted to do was go for a beer to celebrate in Oudenaarde Square… which we did anyway, just don't forget to get back to Qubus and over the final timing point.
Once back, the organisers will want your timing chip/race number and they’ll swap that for a t shirt, jersey or €10…not bad!
So, with the excitement over, the lactic acid building up in our legs, we pedal back to the car and head back to Kortrijk to get cleaned up and head out into town. Food and beers! Sorted and we’re only half way through the weekend! Ace!!
The advantage we found of staying until Monday is we were in no rush at all watching the pro race on Sunday. We drove as near as we could to get to the Kwaremont and cycled the last few kilometres through the road closures.
TOP TIP If you are heading to Kwaremont or Paterberg or any of the major points on the course, take as little as possible with you: Security will stop you taking any backpacks or bottles in. You have to leave them out of this secured area. To be fair, everything was safe and on our return, the bikes, helmets and bags had not been touched… I don’t think the same would be the case in the UK. So, if you have a fold up bag or mousette you can fit in your pocket, take that! Cameras, plastic bottles, food is fine (and I think a carrier bag is okay too)- just be prepared!
We had a great spot on the Kwaremont and good atmosphere all day. Nice and sunny- could not have wished for a better day. I have never seen so may drunk (but friendly) Belgians- all ages- it was brilliant! When Gilbert crossed the finish line the whole place erupted! Amazing atmosphere and a great win for the Belgian team!
Getting out was not so easy. Be patient, as this will take a while. Once through the security point and back to our bikes, it was fine. Having the bikes was a blessing as the ride back to our car was super quick. Remember, in Europe, people have a lot more time and respect for bicycles than they do in the UK. There is a lot we could learn!
Another evening of food and beer (well, it would be rude not to!) and we have had another amazing day! Such a shame it’s nearly over.
On the final day, we check out of the hotel and head over the Arrenberg Forest. We’re in no rush and it’s sort of on the way home. Don’t forget to stop at a supermarché and bring some beer back. The price of Leffe compared to here…wow! Stock up folks!!
So, concluding our trip, that’s easy in two words: Do Flanders. An amazing weekend away. Great country, great cycling, a pro race and great beer. What more do you need on a boys weekend away! Here’s to 2018