Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tour of Flanders 2012

My Tour of Flanders 2012 
(95.7 km from start to finish)

The night before, I laid out my cycling gear in the guest room so that when I got up at 4:00 in the wee hours I wouldn't wake the wifey-poo.  I had already packed all my gear, water bottles and "power balls" (i.e. my bag of figs) into the car, so all I needed to do was load the bike onto the rack and wait for George to show up.  George is a colleague of mine from work who I'd been harping to join me for the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen - or simply the Ronde) for the last 4 months or so.  He'd had second, third and fourth thoughts during the last week, but he arrived at 4:30, as promised.  We loaded his bike onto the rack and began the 3 hour drive to Oudenaarde - this year's starting line for the Ronde.

Now, I did the short version of the Ronde last year too.  Every year, they label the short version as 85 km, and it never is.  Last year it was labeled as 70, but was really 65, while this year it was 87 km.  Last year there were 4 climbs on the short route -- this year there were 12 (link to the climbs with all the nasty stats about gradient, etc).  Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that the extra 22 km and 8 more climbs might be a bit much.  I had finished last year's Ronde completely exhausted, legs shaking and vowing never to do it again.  To my credit, I did NOT vomit before, during or after last year's cyclo.

George and I agreed that neither one of us have anything to prove (we were both lying to ourselves -- cyclists ALWAYS have something to prove - to themselves, at least), and that we're not out to break records (true), and that we're going to look at the whole things as a nice outing (true).

We got to Oudenaarde around 7:00 to join the traffic jam into the designated parking area.  The traffic jam was the ONLY organizational inconvenience of the whole day -- Golazo, the company that organizes the event proved both last year and this year that they are simply awesome organizers.

By 7:30 we had cycled the 3 km. to the starting area, gotten our numbers, smiled at the official photographers snapping photos of each cyclist passing the starting line.  It was a fine Flanders morning -- around 5 degrees Celsius, overcast, but thankfully windless.  Pretty much everyone was in winter gear.  Not your's Truly -- I was in shorts.  It looked like I was the only badass on the road that day...

The first 16 km were a nice flattish warmup.  Then suddenly at 18 km. the Koppenberg reared up at us -- the first challenge.  "Koppen" is an abbreviation for cobblestones which in Dutch slang language are called kinderkoppen, or "children's heads".  Most of the 12 climbs were cobbled.

Cobblestones are both awesome and totally suck at the same time.   They totally suck when you need to ride them.  Unless you've operated two jackhammers simultaneously (one with your hands and one by the seat of your pants), you'll be hard-pressed to imagine the feeling of going over cobbles.  They're totally awesome when you see the pros riding over them, because they're going 40 km an hour, when you can only dream of doing half that.

I hit the cobbles at a good speed, downshifted and promptly lost all momentum.  The cobbles are unforgiving - if you slow down at all, they suck even more speed from you - if you lose your line and hit the rougher bits, you slow down some more.  The trick is - the faster you go, the easier it is.  I didn't get the trick.  I went slowly, really slowly.  Having downshifted into my lowest gear, I slow-danced on the pedals to the sound of my own huffing and puffing.  I was passed by pretty much everyone within shouting distance, including an older couple on trekking bikes.

I did the Ronde with my trekking bike last year.  Aside from the snide comments I got from the carbon-frame crowd, it was a most enjoyable experience, and I was very happy with my performance.  During the intervening year however, I had bought myself a vintage steel road bike, with the idea that it would be my sportive bike:

My Dawes Impulse -- a handbuilt English road bike made of 531 steel.  The saddle looks funny, because the clamp broke on the second cobbles, which started as a flat that I took at speed, imagining myself akin to Faboo Cancellara.  After that, the saddle kept rising up (for the next 77 km).  Not very comfortable.
Trekking bikes are great, because they have a "granny-gear" -- a really really really low gear that can get you up really really really bad hills.  Road bikes don't.

I'm the first to admit that I know very little about the technical side of my bicycles.  Sure, I can adjust the brakes, spokes, cables, derailleurs, etc., but I know NOTHING about gear ratios.  Well, I do NOW.  It turns out that my lowest gear is a 42-23.  George, who is about the same height and weight as I am (a clydesdale) knows a LOT more about gear ratios that I do.  After he took a look at my rear wheel, he said something along the lines of "wow, you actually made it up that hill with THAT?"  I'm not sure if that was supposed to make me feel good about actually making it up, or if I should have felt like a complete idiot... probably both.

My downfall.
  I would not make it up all 12 climbs.

The next five climbs, SteenbeekdriesTaaienbergEikenbergKapelleberg, and Varent were all just different circles of hell -- each with too much gradient, too little speed and too many skinny people passing me.  That said, I kept passing the little people on every descent and every flat that came after every hill (gravity loves the big people on descents), so I shouldn't complain -- if a race finish would have come on a descent or flat after any of those climbs, I would have crushed the field :)

Unless I would have taken a wrong turn.

Which I did.

I got up to the top of Varent, cursing and promising that I would NEVER, EVER do the damn Ronde again.  George, in his steam-engine fashion had dieseled up, out of sight before I got to the top.  At the top I noticed that the markers for the amateur cyclo had disappeared.  Only the signs for the pros were to be seen.  

Blinded by the sweat (or was it blood, or tears?), I took a left and started picking up speed on a false flat that was bringing me to a glorious descent.  As I approached 60 km/hour on a 2.5 km descent BACK into Oudenaarde, I starting thinking something was amiss.

All the signs were gone.  I was in traffic.  Amongst cars.  I saw two kids on road bikes with the Ronde numbers on them, looking confused.  I stopped and asked if they had any idea where the course continued.  They didn't, but were of the friendly sort and asked where I was from.  I returned the favour and they sheepishly admitted that they were from Flanders, from the local area no less... if anyone should have known the route...

I had to climb back up that hill...

Finally, after a total wandering about of about 10 km., I returned to the Varent, rode down a bit and noticed a right-hander that I had completely missed.  The cyclo route turned to the right BEFORE the summit.  How had I missed that?

It was not the organizers fault.  It was clearly marked - there was no way I should have missed it.  Well, it WAS their fault for putting all those climbs in... bastards.

Back on track, I put down the hammer, hoping that I might catch George at the feeding zone.  No such luck.  I later found out that George had waited around for me on the Varent, but after 15 minutes realized that there was no point in waiting any longer, because a) I was dead, or b) I was crying somewhere in the bushes below or c) lost.

So, I rode the remaining 65-ish kilometers alone - just like last year.

There are advantages to riding alone.  It's slightly less embarassing to get off your bike and walk up a particularly difficult climb, but only slightly.  The main advantage is that dancing, struggling, huffing, puffing, wheezing and cursing up the climbs, you are doing it for yourself.  There's no one else, no one you're performing for.  The only person you're concerned about is you and that bastard slightly ahead of you, because you WILL pass him.   

When I came to the flat straight that led to the finish, I started feeling good again.  It was over.  I'd done it again, and I'd watch the next day's real race with the unique personal experience of knowing how incredible punishing the climbs are.

As I cruised into the starting zone to get my swag bag, I met George who greeted me not with jokes about being slow or getting lost, but with a "thanks for making me do this".

After a beer and a portion of Vlaamse frittes (french fried potatoes, there is a story behind why they're called "french" fries, but it isn't to do with France as such) with mayonnaise, we got back on our bikes to ride the 3 km back to the car.  Now it was really over.  As we rode out of the corral, kids from the Primus brewery were handing out freebie cans of the beer brewed/canned specially for the 2012 Ronde.  I grabbed a can and rode one-handed back to the car, gripping the beer like a trophy.

This is NOT your average Belgian beer.  It's more like your average big-corporation, bubbly any-beer that you can find anywhere InBev/Miller, or any other global brewer have sunk their talons in. NOT very good, except when you've just finished the Ronde.  Then it's sublime.
On the way home, I called the wifey-poo and told her about the ride, and about how I'm never doing it again, especially because my gear ratios suck.

She said I should get a new bike.

I love my wife.  

I'll do the Ronde again next year, but only because she wants me to.