Cobbletastic! Club Belgian Training Week 2010

Cobbletastic!  Club Belgian Training Week

March 27th to April 4th 2010

Attendees: Tim Brown, Dave Kiely, Steve James, Chris Glithero, Brian Goodwin, Nick Harris, Steve Blackwell, Richard Somerset, Derek Evans, John McDowall

Photos added to Gallery

With bike riding camp in Majorca and Italy attended in previous years some thoughts had turned to other ideas for a training week. When John suggested riding in Flanders whilst also watching some racing, it was Richard that took the ball and ran with it.  Richard booked the whole of a classy B&B near Zwalm just outside of Oudenaarde, in the heart of the Flanders cycling region. Ten members of the North Road packed their waterproofs, left their sunblock at home, and headed off to Belgium for nine days of cycling fun.  

After an uneventful drive out on the Saturday, a reasonable days weather (for Belgium), and the church spire at the top of the classic Flanders climb the Molenberg in sight from where we where staying, a quick ride was on everyone’s agenda; so we all set out for a twenty mile loop to the hallowed cobbled climb. It served as a little taster for Flanders newbies Tim and Steve B of the short, sharp cobbled climbing that would be required in the coming days. 

The plan for the Sunday was to catch the end of the Ghent-Wevelgem classic as the riders climb the cobbled slopes of the Kemmelberg. After some Leffe fueled talk the night before of riding the whole way (a round trip of 100 miles) sounder heads prevailed and we drove part of the way making it a sixty odd mile there and back ride. Whilst unpacking our bikes from our cars a rider passed by resplendent in head-to-foot white Italian national champion kit. John admitted to thinking ‘who does that poseur think he is Filippo Pozzato’, only to be informed that it actually was Filippo Pozzato! 

The portents for the ride where not good, a heavy squally shower at the start of the ride, Derek Evans punctured and Richard suffered traumatic chain failure. However, the weather cleared, Del sorted his deflation problem, but Richard’s chain failure was terminal and after ensuring he could get a taxi back to the car the ride actually got going. A sixty mile ride on flat terrain does not sound a trying ride but on the exposed wind swept tundra of Belgium, it did prove a tester. Some stopping for map checking was also inevitable and although Del proved his worth with the navigation skills of an Assos clad homing pigeon we arrived a little later than expected but just in time to witness the peloton at the base of the Kemmelberg.  

We met up with a slightly more cheerful Richard whilst we waited for the riders to complete a loop and come up the climb again. The North Roaders all stocked up on fuel reserves like good pros (er...chips and mayonnaise), before watching the riders do the climb one more time. We all had a little go up the cobbles of the Kemmelberg before saying our farewells to Richard and Nick Harris who had to drive back together due to the earlier mechanical problems. We retraced our steps battling with the gusty wind and eventually found our cars mainly due to the ‘get-you-home‘ feature on Steve James’ Garmin GPS computer. A massive steak and rib feast that night in the local hostelry ended a good start to the week. 

As was the case for most of the holiday it rained heavily overnight but during the day, and into the afternoon we managed to avoid the feared for Belgian soaking. We had discovered that there was an almost endless set of cycle routes through the area that were for the most part well signposted. So for the Monday ride we selected the orange 72km route that took in a large number of the cobbled Flandrian climbs. This route included the dreaded monster of the Koppenberg, the steepest at 22%, and the most challenging of the Flanders climbs. This steeply ramped cart track has even reduced the pros to some energetic off bike cross training in their efforts to reach the summit. Wet cobbles also make the challenge tricky in what is not only a test of climbing ability but balance as you inch upwards, and of skill in picking the right line. Only three riders got all that right - Nick, Richard and Brian - the self-proclaimed Kings of the Koppenberg! That evening the North Road version of Masterchef began with some in-house catering from Chris Glithero, offering up a chicken curry for ten that was fit for the table of the Maharajah of Nawanager. 

On the Tuesday and with the start of Three Days of De Panne that was finishing in the local town of Oudenaarde we decided to take the opportunity to ride out to the famous Kappelmuur and then end up back for the finale of the race in the town square. It was about now that we noticed the difference in cycling in Belgium, large numbers of wide and generally excellent cycle paths on main roads keep you away from road traffic and pedestrians. Cyclists also have complete right of way so these cycle lanes extend through junctions and roundabouts allowing smooth and quick progress. Cars almost never park in these lanes and pedestrians remain clear too. It was also nice to see a good number of youngsters in club kit out riding their bikes in such a safe environment. It was a teasing glimpse of how it could be done. 

After a pleasant ride out and an energetic climb up the iconic Kappelmuur with a stop for coffee at the top, we rode back to catch the De Panne race as it did circuits round and up a nicely angled cobbled climb called the Leberg. We then had enough time to tackle the Leberg ourselves before rolling back to Oudenaarde to watch David Miller in action (on his way to eventual overall victory) on the big screen as we awaited the bunch sprint finish into the town. It was here that Steve B was interviewed for Flemish radio, much to the amusement of us all, although it was unkindly suggested that he had been mistaken for Sean Kelly. With the urbane and classy Nick donning the frilly apron in the evening, we all wondered if his signature dish of pheasant stuffed with truffles on a bed of quail’s eggs would be possible. Sadly the lack of the correct pheasant stuffing implement lead Nick to lower his sights a little and an excellent spaghetti carbonara was served up instead. 

Wednesday dawned windy, actually REALLY windy with some heavy showers blasting through. With a fair few miles in our legs some fancied an easier day whilst others were ‘up for it‘. Richard, John, Nick and Brian decided to take a history trip over to the battlefield of Waterloo and try their luck with a ride in the afternoon, whilst the remainder went for a ride in the morning and a tussle with the Belgian climate. This group did a section of one of the longer marked routes that passed close to the hotel whilst the afternoon group did a shorter version of the same ride. Although conditions had eased slightly in the afternoon, both groups got in some valuable Belgian wet and windy riding experience. It makes the pros look even more superhuman when you consider that they had to race in those conditions for the second day of De Panne. Brian took over the serving prongs and dished up some tasty chili washed down by the usual bizarre range of Belgian beers. 

Thursday was reserved for the big pre-Flanders ride, the 114K loop that actually passed close to the B&B and took in lots of the climbs that we would be tackling on Saturday. We started as a group but Richard feeling strong had gone off the front, missed a sign, got a bit lost and was not seen again until mid-way round the ride. A further split occurred when Nick, John and Steve J turned off having spotted the direction sign whilst others sailed onwards. This mix-up occurred at the same time as a threatening cloud produced a stinging hail shower that made the split group decide to carry on rather than stand around getting cold. Everyone collected at a various times in the bar at the top of the Kappelmuur.  Brian also had the misfortune to break his chain on the climb so some running repairs where required. 

The small group of three that had arrived earlier at the bar than the others headed off before the main group and struggled a little to keep on the signposted route. They decided to cut the route a little bit short and a rather weary trio made tracks back to the B&B along a series of straight, rather dull rolling cycle paths. Having not seen a cyclist for ages and spotting the turning to the B&B late they wobbled to a rather amateurish stop, only to receive a warning shout, and a withering look from an overtaking Sky rider called Kurt Arle Arveson, out for a brisk spin with another, unidentified Sky rider. Nick recalled that Arveson was only just back to racing after a broken collarbone so the possible Cycling Weekly headline flashed through the North Roaders’ minds: ‘SKY RIDER RE-BREAKS COLLARBONE IN COLLISION WITH THREE NORTH ROAD CC NUMPTIES‘ -  the classic school-boy error. 

The remainder of the group also had to wing the last bit of the ride but sadly Del’s homing instincts let him down as the group ended up seeing the same quaint Belgian village several times. It was a weary but happy group of riders who sat down to another Glithero cooking master class as he produced a chicken and pasta number that helped replace the energy lost on a long day in the saddle. 

Ironically Friday, long destined to be the rest day before the Flanders randonee was actually the best weather of the week. A later start for breakfast, provided by the hosts Mr. and Mrs. Wim, left us with a day free to look round. All of us headed into Oudenaarde to have a wander round the Tour of Flanders museum. It was certainly worth a look with lots of bikes and memorabilia. The Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw was also in the building and the great man and local hero was receiving and accepting the good wishes of visitors and passers-by.. After the museum we headed over to a bike store at the foot of one of the tarmac climbs we had tackled earlier in the week. It was impressive with a complete lack of bottom or middle range kit - only top end stuff seemed to be on offer! An early night was in order with a prompt start required for the big day tomorrow. Dave and his erstwhile assistant Steve J, produced copious amounts of ‘spag bol‘ to assist the carb-loading requirements of the riders for the challenge that we all faced the next day. 

The forecast for Saturday had been the worst of all those that we had seen in the week.  However, with a remarkable inaccuracy the weather had been far better than predicted during the week with only one thankfully short dousing received so far. Sadly, on the big day, the forecasters got it right. After the normal slightly fiddly departure from Ninove the landscape opened up and so did the grey never-ending rain clouds. The first 50K route winds through some fairly ugly scenery before reaching a whole series of climbs and cobbled sections of pave. The first two hours we where therefore exposed to the lashing effect of the rain before it eased allowing a brief glimpse of the sun. Richard, John and Dave mostly rode together before the first climb, the Kluisberg. A frisky Richard climbed away with Dave, leaving John a little way behind. At the Koppenberg all three riders looked strong and were confident of making it to the top but as is usually the case a rider in front faltered, and with that they lost the chance of a successful ascent of the cobbled monster of Flanders. Tim later reported that he managed to successfully tame the beast, a sterling effort on his first Flanders trip. With Richard suffering from a cold and the after effects of his lost meanderings round Belgium on the Thursday he was the first to be dropped by John and Dave after the Koppenberg as the climbs came up one after another.  

There were also much more cobbled pav€ sections this year than in previous years and they had to be tackled with a little caution due to the slippery conditions. With Nick catching the leading pair the ride became the ‘keep up with Kiely’ show, as he was clearly on a float day. Constantly moving up groups and descending with commendable skill in tricky conditions he wore down first Nick and then John. He was last seen by John bounding up the Kappelmuur like a tail wagging puppy dog chasing a playfully flung rubber bone. Just as the leading group of North Roaders came towards the finish and having dried out from the earlier rain the heavens opened again and another soaking was visited on the weary riders. Dave got back first followed by John, Nick, Richard and a hard charging Tim who had made great speed towards the end of the ride. Steve J had to pack after suffering badly from the terrible weather early in the ride. Brian was next back with Derek, Steve and Chris all completing the ride and having to endure further torrential rainfall whilst the earlier finishers cowered in their cars trying to get dry. What a day, amazing riding in fairly dismal conditions but a real sense of achievement in completing the event. After getting back to the house and with the local restaurants fully booked, a pro quality re-fuel take away for serious cyclists was the order of the day - twelve inch pizzas all round then!   

The day of the Tour of Flanders had the feel that FA cup day used to in the dim distant past. Everyone is either indoors for the big race or heading out to vantage points that you feel have been the family spot for generations. We decided to watch the race from the Oude Kwaremont, the longest draggy cobbled climb on the route and fairly early in the race.  Having parked our cars we headed to the town square to watch the race on the big screen just yards away from the climb. We left with some time to spare before the riders appeared to get a little way down the climb and secure our place. The atmosphere started to build amongst the gathered masses before the riders appeared. Big cheers and chanting for any publicity cars or cyclists that came up the hill, boos for any police vehicles! The first notice of the arrival of the race was the helicopters overhead, three of them all jostling for position. Then the riders: a small break away group of three closely followed by the surging mass of the bunch battling up the narrow climb. At the back of the race come the stragglers already finding the going tough and they somehow look scruffier and downbeat, the demands of the race written across their lined faces. With the riders on their way it’s a short walk to the big screen to watch the race unfold. Chris had managed to get interviewed by French radio in the meantime on the basis that he actually spoke some of the lingo. When Cancellara broke free of Boonen on the Kappelmuur the collective groan from the crowd in the town square showed the locals knew that the game was up for the big local hero. We all left then to make the dash for our ferries, fairly sure that it was a clear victory for the big Swiss star.  

All-in-all a fantastic nine days. Lots of top quality pro race watching, good riding with between 350-380 miles covered, and although Majorcan weather was never going to be on the cards we just about got away with the Belgian climate. Thanks to Richard for organizing and selecting such a good place to stay.

The Highway Code

Know the rules of the road

Your safety is dependent on everyone on the road knowing and obeying the rules, so get the low down and don't get mown down!

Group Riding

If you're new to riding in a group, read our handy guide on how to stay safe.