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A foreign interloper blogs away...

simonsaunders's picture
on Fri, 15/05/2015 - 20:20

Whilst I sit thinking of yet more "interesting", funny and poignant topics, related to cycling to blog about, I have asked a more educated man than myself to give you his thoughts on foreign climes.

Ladies and Gentleman I give you John Doyle and his thoughts on riding an overseas sportive.


Flanders 2015


As a relatively recent convert to road cycling (wish I’d discovered it sooner, spent 15 years not liking running 4 miles each morning and only got my first road bike in my mid-40s) I’m pretty ignorant of cycling folklore.  If you’re not immersed in it from an early age you don’t have the depth of knowledge that I have about, say, cricket from spending most of my summers as an early teenager in darkened living rooms watching Geoff Boycott making a four hour half century.  My cycling experience, like most people’s at that time, was limited to World of Sport and, later, coverage of the Tour on C4.  Even today (whisper it) I don’t much like watching cycling on TV and don’t have Eurosport.  But I love getting out on my bike and challenging myself and I’ve watched the crowds on Tour mountain stages with massive envy, knowing that is something that has to be placed in the drawer marked “retirement” because of my work patterns.

In the last five or so years I’ve found out that cycling is not just about the Olympics and the grand tours and I remember a few years ago reading on the club forum when Dave Jackson and Martyn Gordon went to Flanders.  Around November 2014 I realised that my Easter Holiday would be at a different time from schools in Sefton, so John Wood and I would have a free first week….which culminated in the Ronde Van Vlanderan sportive and the professionals’ Tour of Flanders the following day.  John’s caravan was at our disposal, entries were made on-line and plans were drawn up.



After a good early autumn, enjoying fantastic weather through September and early October, my riding tailed off around Christmas.  I ride pretty much exactly 4000 miles per year, but with work commitments, icy weather and hatred of my turbo (not been out of my shed this winter) I managed fewer than 200 in December and fewer than 150 in January.  Added to this, I spent nearly two weeks over Christmas and New Year in America doing no exercise and came back weighing 95 kilos.  I then immediately caught a heavy cold, so training in earnest only began in the last week or so of January.

John and I entered the middle (80 mile) sportive which has all the same climbs as the long (120 mile) event but not the 40 mile grind on major roads from Bruges that the latter begins with.  With 15 climbs, all of less than a mile in length but often hitting about 20%, two things seemed important in preparation – long steady rides with plenty of hills and as much experience as possible riding on cobblestones.

Through February and March I ensured I got at least one long ride every weekend.  Sometimes those were club rides, and often John and I would do a 50 miler or so on Saturday as well.  We did one tough ride in early March to Llangollen and back, catching the train from Town Green to the Wirral and riding from there with my brother-in-law.  That was in excess of 90 miles with a tough climb – the Horseshoe Pass – towards the end of the first leg and at the start of the second one.  We rode there into a block headwind too and I dehydrated badly even though I had two bottles – an important lesson.  With a helpful tailwind all the way home we made it and I knew then the distance wouldn’t be a problem even fairly early in the season.

Climbing-wise we made sure we did all the local climbs pretty frequently and got out to Rivington earlier in the year than we probably would have done otherwise.  A couple of weeks before the event we went up to the mast via Foxholes and then dropped back down to Horwich and went up Sheephouses.  We were both going strongly and though neither of us are built for climbing we were pretty sure the gradients wouldn’t faze us.

I watched what I ate from early January and cut out the crap.  Together with the training I dropped more than 5 kilos which makes quite a bit of difference on climbs – I always imagine how much more difficult it would be carrying a rucksack with 5 or six bags of sugar in it.

The difficulty was finding cobbled climbs, but John located a few near Alderley Edge that we had a day of February half term trying.  They were tough.  The steepness was hard to cope with but the uneven surface was really tricky when going so slowly.  Both of us fell off.  It was clear that the bike needed adjustment in preparation so I had a 12-29 put on the back (I’d been trying it with a 11-25), 29mm tyres, removed the mudguards (which kept getting clogged up with road debris) and had the bars retaped with a gel tape underneath.  I’d decided fairly early that I was going to ride on my Ti bike – though the weather can be nice and plenty of people do use carbon bikes, I wanted the security of heavier wheels and a bulletproof frame on cobblestones.



John dealt with all the booking arrangements for ferry and caravan.  He was going on the Friday night, eight days before the sportive and I gave him my bike and a load of kit to take.  It was really difficult to predict what the weather would be like in Belgium in early April – literally there could be any temperature between below zero and 20C+, so everything from short sleeves to full winter gear went.  It helped massively having the van to take loads of stuff of that sort.

Because of home commitments, I couldn’t go until the following Monday morning.  I stayed with family in London on Sunday night and got the Eurostar early on Monday morning to Lille.  I’d never travelled through the Channel tunnel before and it was absolutely great – less than 90 minutes from St Pancras to Lille.  Our campsite was in Ghent, about an hour away and there were quite a few other cyclist, including some Brits, who had come for the same reason.



John picked me up in Lille and we drove to Oudenarde where the Tour finishes.  We had some early lunch and immediately set off on a training ride.

I’d read about the Koppenberg but didn’t know much about some of the other climbs.  We tried five that day; Oude Kwaremont (the longest at about 2.5km but mostly at about 3-4%), Patterberg (short but brutally steep at 22% in places), Taienberg, Stikenbriies and the aforementioned Koppenberg. 

I thought the Kwaremont would be fairly straightforward but wasn’t ready for the fact that I’d just eaten, the cobbles in places are extremely uneven and the bottom part of the climb is actually quite steep at about 10%.  After about five minutes I felt pretty sick, but the climb evens out for about a mile which is virtually  flat and then ramps up slightly again at the end.

At the top we headed for the Patterberg, about 3 miles away.  You approach the climb from the side and about half a mile away I saw a van struggling to make it up the gradient.  There is a short, sweeping downhill, a sharp right turn and the fun begins.

A couple of cyclists had passed us just before the climb and I thought that would be the last we would see of them.  In fact, one of them was very strong and went up the climb at some speed but used the gutter to avoid the setts.  John and I both overtook the other guy and stuck to the cobbles.  The stones were much more even and though the climb was steep it was possible to stay in the saddle for most of it – and even when you had to stand up traction was still OK.

The Koppenberg was a different matter.  It starts off on reasonable stones and the gradient slowly ramps up.  About a third of the way up you pass under the trees and it becomes a lot more tricky – the stones get much worse and the slope gets a lot steeper.  I tried to stay in the saddle, but eventually had to stand and then lost all traction.  The stones are smooth and because they are sheltered are also pretty damp.  I was only travelling at about 5mph anyway because of the steepness so it was quickly a choice between falling off or dismounting – and at that gradient once you’re off it’s time to push.  I quickly saw why Eddy Mercx had to walk on the climb.

It was good fun trying the climbs while they were deserted and while the weather was good.  It was evident that the main points to bear in mind on cobbles were:

  • Accelerate into them (even though you feel you should be slowing down)
  • Keep the cadence as high as possible
  • Loosely hold the bars and ride on the tops
  • Let the bike find its own way and don’t try to steer too much

We had rides on the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and clocked up about 120 miles around the bergs in between watching the pros on a three day midweek ride, sightseeing in Bruges, Ypres and Oudenaarde and enjoying the Belgian delicacies of beer, frites and waffles.


The Sportive

After a pretty dry week the weather broke on Friday which was miserable as we collected our entry documents.  We didn’t do much else that day other than checking bikes and kit and feeling nervous.

We were up early on the Saturday – about 6.00 – and it was still raining despite the forecast which had been for it to clear.  We drove down to our designated car park, got ready and pedalled down to the start.

At 8.00 it was still pretty dark, but hardly anyone apart from us had lights despite the warnings about the aggression of the Belgian Police.  The first 15km or so are flat and mainly involve cycling a loop down one bank of the river and up the other side.  Then the climbs begin and come thick and fast.  One I had been worrying about was second after about 25km – Molenberg.  We hadn’t practised the climb and the photos showed the cobbles to be worse than any other.  I knew they would also be wet and muddy.  It wasn’t easy, but with the lower gearing and the wide tyres it was much easier than it might have been and we got up without a problem.  At that point I knew we would be OK and started to enjoy it.


The rain continued for about 3 hours, with an accompanying strong wind.  Your direction changes frequently, which at least meant there never seemed to be long periods into a headwind.  Enormous numbers were riding, the majority on road bikes but some on mtbs and one guy on a wooden bike which he powered by pushing on the ground!  Riding was fine, the course was brilliantly signposted and progress was good.  After every cobbled section there would be a small group of bikes turned upside down while their owners fixed the inevitable punctures.  As long as you kept riding you were fine, but stop, as I did for about ten minutes at the second feed station and you were quickly shivering.

There was the opportunity to by-pass the Koppenberg, but we gave it a go.  It was totally impassable because of the number of bikes being pushed up, but even if it hadn’t been I’m not sure I’d have made it as it was incredibly muddy.  The Patterberg was also too crowded to get through – though John made it.  Other than those, we made it up everything without much difficulty.

John’s rear hub went with about ten miles to go which meant we crawled home and got back at about 2.45 with about 6 hours in the saddle.  As soon as we finished the sun came out.

I was tired afterwards and slept well that night after a big meal and a few beers.  It was a great experience, both the sportive, the riding beforehand and watching Brad, G and the professionals the day afterwards powering up the climbs that we had crawled over.  I would thoroughly recommend it, especially because it is so convenient on the Eurostar.  Theoretically, you can ride a monument that is about two hours away from London – why would you not do that?


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