To quote Jean-Luc Godard, a story should have a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order. Previous readers will have noticed a distinct theme – enthusiastic amateur cyclist takes on a decent but definitely attainable challenge, fails to prepare bike or body, has an unfortunate toilet related incident, suffers a setback that surely heralds failure but somehow muddles through to the end. But not this time baby, oh no. And not only because I didn’t have cause to utter waar is het toilet alstublieft? once.
I really wasn’t having much fun. And I only had myself to blame. The wind was bitter, my shoulders slumped and I’d last seen my cycling companions a couple of hours previously. I also had no idea where I was or how far I had to go. But what I did know was that I had Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg still to come plus “a 10 mile slow tap” back to the campsite afterwards. Suddenly the gung ho bragging the night before about not carrying food and drink didn’t seem so clever. Clearly I’d cooked my own spleen, farted into a fan if you will.
I’d ridden the Ronde van Vlaanderen with Ruddock and The Mechanic in 2012 and, quite bizarrely, wanted to return. This time I was with a different group, keen and lean cyclists all who were thinking nothing of riding 10 miles to the start (easy enough) and then 10 miles home again at the end (dear god). Weighing myself before leaving home, I was just shy of 16 stone and with the defined musculature of Spam. Julian, who I was travelling with, was 11 stone and had written strategies for food, clothing and hydration. But I’m getting well ahead of myself so, embracing the spirit of La Nouvelle Vague, I’ll go back to the start.
After completing the Festive 500, a combination of sloth and dreadful weather had limited my cycling in three and a half months to one ride of just shy of 40 miles and nothing else over 90 minutes and then infrequently. Even I knew that this was not nearly enough to take on Vlaanderens mooiste but still I did nothing but eat crisps and lay down some decent fat. Bike preparation was similarly half hearted – I fitted some new old tyres and wiped mud off the frame. I didn’t think to check that I could still engage all gears but I was using the Panasonic PR-6000 that did me proud in 2012 so it would be fine.
Did I mention that I was camping? In Belgium. In March. The weather forecast for Oudenaarde on the Friday night was -5C with 11cm of precipitation, most likely as snow. I packed an extra blanket but, for reasons that I will not explain, elected not to pack the bibtights I’d bought specially for the trip. At least my last meal before leaving was sorted – an eat all you can curry buffet. The tepid chicken was especially tasty, once you’d pierced the sauce skin on top.
“Ik heb hulp nodig”. Did I really say that out loud, or just in my head? I looked around at the crowds of cyclists around me, all of whom seemed jolly and really enjoying themselves. No one reacted so it must have been in my head. My head lolled. I was as far from bella in sella as it was possible to be – no doubt, this was officially un jour sans. And I only had myself to blame.
On the journey to Belgium, Julian explained his nutrition strategy – 50g of carbohydrate per hour with a bidon of fluid (with energy powder, natch) every 20km. I queried the science and he proffered a spreadsheet. I couldn’t argue with the thoroughness – I did try – although the Harvard format references did seem a touch excessive. Julian also had a route guide that he’d taped to his top tube – in kilometres as well as miles – and an approach to gloves that gave no room for a dissenting voice. I was out of my depth, physically, mentally, psychologically. My only hope was to try to ruin things for Julian as I was beyond help so I explained my hydration strategy (an empty bidon that I’d fill at the feed stops), refuelling strategy (feed stops) and approach to gloves (wear the only pair I’d packed). He looked at me as if I was crazy and I was beginning to think he had a point.
“Edwards, get a tap on you tubby prat”. Did that Flandrian woman on the side of the side of the road with a megaphone really say that? I turned back to offer a bon mot of my own to see that there was no one there. In the dessert you see oasis’ where there are none. Here I was seeing imaginary hecklers. My refuelling strategy was clearly wanting, especially as we’d skipped the first feed as there was a long clue and I’d forgotten to have a drink at breakfast. Still, the next stop couldn’t be too far, could it? Cresting one of the infernal cobbled climbs, the food station came into (blurred) view. Even better, it was real although there was a long queue. Like a British gent, I lined up and waited my turn. As I accepted my food (honey filled Belgian waffle, slice of cake, tube of honey, cereal bar, banana) I realised that under my top layer I had a short sleeved jersey. Which meant extra pockets. Greedily I stuffed as much food into them as possible while somehow simultaneously managing to force food into my gaping craw with both hands. I think I also held aloft several waffles while babbling “I’ve got four, I’ve only bloody well got four”. I was less than half way into the ride and already I was a busted flush.
Arriving at the campsite in Oudenaarde on Friday evening, I set the tent up in subzero temperatures and then hurriedly repaired to the friends campervan for some tasty food and some good old fashioned bragging (I think at one point I declared “I am Spartacus”). By 9.30p.m. it was time to get some sleep and I’d almost convinced myself that it would be alright. Almost.
Unfortunately the Koppenberg was right at the start of the event so, like everyone else, I walked up (a few tried to ride but it was literally wall to wall walkers). I wasn’t feeling too bad so far and, although a long day was promised, I attacked the first section of flattish cobbles with something approaching gusto. Subconsciously channelling Sun Tzu (“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”) but as far as I could tell I was on top of my gear, floating over the cobbles and leaving my riding companions far behind. This was what I had come for, smashing it like a Belgian! Then, suddenly, the gear was on top of me and I was bouncing into the dirty gutter like a neophyte.
Leaving the campsite for the “gentle ride to the start” I was disconcerted that a) it was -6C and I couldn’t feel my fingers; b) I was in the big ring and working quite hard although my companions assured me that we were soft pedalling on glass cranks. Still, my empty bidon meant that the bike was light and there was no chance of it bouncing out. By the time we arrived at the start I was nicely warmed up although slightly weary. Still, only 82 miles to go and then the 10 mile roll home.
I filled my bottle at the foodstop while also continuing to cram food into my mouth. I’d regrouped with my companions and we set off together down a cobble section. Instantly my full bidon bounced out of the cage, vindicating my decision to go ride with it empty but also showing my folly in not having drunk anything in the first 50 miles. I watched my friends gradually ride into the distance – the selection had happened, the elastic was well and truly snapped. I would gloss over the following hours but I genuinely can’t remember what happened apart from a gradual winching up the slightest of gradients (forgot to mention but I couldn’t engage my smallest spocket so was left with 42×25, a young/strong man’s gear when neither descriptor applied to me).
Somehow I made it to the next feed station and snatched the sausage proffered (despite bulging pockets of food I’d managed/forgotten to eat since the previous feed) and realised that I might just finish as there was only 28km left made up simply of descend to Oude Kwaremont then climb, descend to the bottom of the Paterberg and climb then a flat 9 mile roll into the finish. At the top of the Paterberg I rewarded myself with the Belgian sausage (chewy, garlicky, stuck in my teeth) and a Red Bull which I found in one of my pockets (I have not the foggiest how it got there). I’m not sure which one kicked in but I managed to ride hard to the finish, jumping from group to group like, well, Spartacus. Wanting to cross the line in style (and hoping there would be a photographer to record it), I made like Hugo Koblet and sat up to rummage for the cologne and a comb that I had stashed earlier. All I could find were a multitool and a squashed, leaking tube of honey so I did what I could with those and finished sticky and flushed.
Freewheeling to a stop, I heard my name called. It was daj who had finished the 80km version and was euphoric. I was equally babbling but for different reasons. I unclipped and, deftly, removed the pedal body leaving only the axle attached. After chatting for a while, I rode the 4km back to the start, one legged. No one offered a tow although they were probably too impressed by my smooth stroke – it’s true, riding fixed really does improve the supplesse.
I mentioned at the start about Jean Luc Godard’s thoughts on the linearity of story telling. I could have compared myself to Jean Paul Belmondo in convoluted style or made reference to breaking the fourth wall. However the more accurate cinematic reference was when a Slovenian chap, as I rode back to the campsite, asked me if I was Anthony Hopkins. Great – in my mind I resembled a young, suave star of French New Wave cinema, in reality I was a 75 year old Welsh actor. Never let it be said that cycling doesn’t take it out of you.
And that was that – 100 miles in freezing conditions with, thankfully, 25 miles totally erased from my memory. I slept well that night but less because of the temperature which had dropped to -8C with quite thick ice on the outside of the tent the next morning. All that was left was to get to Oude Kwaremont in plenty of time to watch the pros, beer in one hand, frites and mayonnaise in the other and a ‘Lion of Flanders’ flag in another. As I waited I put my iPod on Shuffle and ‘God Is A DJ’ came on. “This is my church”. Indeed.
So, what have I learned?
1) Not getting much riding in before such an event is very stupid.
2) Not drinking water or similar during the event is very stupid.
3) In freezing conditions a lot of energy is expended on keeping warm so more important than ever to eat.
4) Make sure that your bike works.
5) I ignored all of the above and got round relatively unscathed.
I’m offering no guesses on which of the above I will remember when getting ready for the next event.
Click here for the rest of the ride report on Ronde van Vlaanderen 2013 and discussion.