Ride bikes. Have fun. Feel good.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2011

Rob Dickson writes…

In December 2010, much against my better judgment, after much hard work and persuasion I was eventually cajoled by three work colleagues into committing to ride the full route of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on 2nd April this year.

About 17,000 riders take part in the Sportive over the cobbled Bergs the day before the professional race, with approximately 4,000 hardy souls, including us, signing up for the full 260km (154 mile) route.

Being one of the worst club members in the country both in terms of performance and contribution, I often believed this was an impossible task. This was only confirmed at our first group ride in January, eleven weeks before the day, when I slowed the group to a disgraceful average speed of 11.5mph over 45 miles.

However, my work colleagues gave me two crumbs of hope.

  • The first being a “new century” rider training programme from the “Time Crunched Cyclist” that showed it was possible for an unfit individual to be capable of a 100mile ride within the eleven weeks I had on typically eight intensive training hours a week.
  • The second being downloadable training videos from the “Sufferfest”. I had never heard of these, but in terms of relieving turbo boredom, and boosting exercise intensity, these were incredible and very good value.

By following this programme, and with a training weekend in the Peak District thrown in, by mid March I was able to ride the 71mile Burgess Hill classic sportive course in 4hrs 45mins, still slow (obviously) at just over 15mph average, but a distinct improvement.

By the time of the Ronde, the one critical piece of preparation I knew I hadn’t done was a really long ride, 81 miles being the furthest I had been. On this basis, I was pretty confident of getting round 100miles, but was very concerned about the remaining 54.

The day started badly. Of the 4,000 riders signed up to complete the 260km route, we were last to start but for four. This was not what I needed, and my work friends, all regular club riders from either Dulwich Paragon or the Sheffrec (Sheffield) cycling club determined that the only solution was to chase down other large groups until we had made the first feed stop at the 54km mark.

This we did, hurtling down 2m wide cycle lanes with numerous bollards and other street furniture (a lot of the ride is on these) at typically 20-25mph into a headwind. Even before the first feedstation I was spent, but after a brief recovery I was able to continue fairly comfortably until about the 170km (105 mile) mark. This was unknown territory for me, both in terms of distance, and also the effect of the various cobbled sections. The worst of these made not only my hands and shoulders numb, but also threatened to shake any bike apart.

It is also about this point that the famous short steep cobbled climbs kick in, the Kruisberg, Knotberg, and even Paterberg (although only 360m in length, this includes a 20% section) passed uneventfully, before we arrived at the infamous Koppenberg.

About halfway up, this short climb suddenly took on the persona of a very narrow wall of greasy cobbles, and slowing to about 4mph, and with very poor handling skills I simply steered into the bank at the side of the road on the 22% section, completing the climb on foot with many other equally ashamed Belgians.

It was at about this point that I began to doubt whether I could get round. Although my legs felt serviceable, my shoulders and neck were seriously hurting, especially on any downhill or flat cobbled sections.

These thoughts persisted until I had made the top of the Molenberg at 209km (approx. 130 miles). With only 50km (31miles) to go I needed a pep talk not to stop and rest for about half an hour.

As it proved, it was fortunate I didn’t stop – by the time we came to the iconic Muur-Kapelmuur after 243km (approx. 150 miles) I had a second wind, and was able to climb both this, and the Bosberg without a hitch, before the final 12km downhill false flat into the finish at Nivone in the half-light.

The ride had taken about 11hrs (including food stops), very slow at about 15mph average, but I was elated to have got round. The key lessons for me if I am to do similar again are:

  • I didn’t like the cycle-lanes which are a perhaps dangerous feature of this ride.
  • My group riding needs to improve – (note to self on obvious club solution there)
  • Improved upper body strength and / or bike fit required
  • On the plus side, although they refuse to rotate quickly, my legs didn’t feel too bad

Following this, the next day was spent on the Muur with beer and frites, watching Cancellara being chased down by the peloton in a fantastically exciting race. I hadn’t followed the Classics before, but the Tour of Flanders 2011 made a very significant impression on me.