The Tour of Flanders 2012 AKA 'The Magic Ronde-about' AKA 'A Ronde of Applause' AKA 'Knights of the Ronde Table' AKA 'Da Do Ronde Ronde Ronde Da Do Ronde Ronde' etc.
Woken by a rhythmic thrumming and a furry taste in my mouth I looked around. I seemed to be in the back of a van. But how had I got here? And why? Opening the side door I took in the scene – to the right, an elevated motorway, to the left a busy railway line and behind a school with a solitary plastic bag bowling around the playground, borne by a bitter wind. Surely getting out of the van would add some clarity. Tripping over a half empty bottle of port and narrowly avoiding a still smouldering cigar, I stumbled out, eyes still bleary with sleep. What the hell I was doing in this godforsaken place? And then, as if in flashback, a moment of clarity……
With Gent-Wegelem and Paris-Roubaix, The Tour of Flanders is one of the three cobbled ‘monuments’ of cycling, dominated by Belgians (there have been 68 winners compared to the next best of 11 for Italians). Having taken on Paris-Roubaix and it’s gnarled pave in 2010 (and tediously related the story), surely De Ronde with it’s fearsome 25% cobbled climbs that whetted the appetite and inspired fear in equal measure – the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg - had to be on the cards?
I entered the Ronde in 2011 and then, for a variety of reasons, failed to take part, so 2012 was going to be the time to scratch the itch. In a loose tongued moment I mentioned it to the venerable Mr K and before I knew it we were three – Neil 'The Truth' Ruddock, The Mechanic and myself (we were supposed to be 4 until Ben the Piker discovered the night before that he was doing an MA – say what you like about governmental educational policy, you’re able to get on courses more promptly than in my day). There was much talk of bike selection and preparation (steeped in cycling tradition, we casually talked of ‘faire le métier’) but, too soon, it was 6 a.m. and I was boarding a train to Oxford, PR-6000 by my side (I had convinced myself, despite absolutely no evidence, that John Talen had ridden De Ronde on it in 1991). Ruddock and The Mechanic arrived within 5 minutes of schedule, we embraced and headed for the ferry. If only everything had gone that smoothly. If anything at all had gone smoothly. Here’s what happened. I was there and it’s all true, no matter what anyone says.
Friday 30th March 2012 – Day -1
Bike loaded on the back of the van and The Mechanic banished to the rear seats, we were making good time on clear roads. The sun shone, the air was fragrant, there was promise all around. We stopped just shy of the port and immediately some knowledgeable chaps came over to look at the bike rack – Ruddock’s resprayed faux Harry Hall, The Mechanic’s delaminating carbon Look (with various components swathed in mysterious black sticky backed plastic, it looked like a Blue Peter project gone wrong) and the PR-6000. I was pleased that it added ‘Service Station Carpark Bike of the Month’ to its illustrious palmares. But there was no time for social nicety, we had a ferry to catch. This didn’t seem to worry the laidback Mechanic who ordered a fried egg bap. Cue missing the ferry. No problem.
We almost missed the next ferry too despite waiting for an hour but somehow made it. Spirits high, I moved my watch an hour forward and resisted the temptation to ask the attractive lady offering shoulder and back massages whether she wanted to earn 5 euros the hard way.
It seemed a little cooler when we arrived in Calais but the temperature in the van dropped several notches when we realized that a) Ruddock’s satnav did not work within 10 km of the port; b) we had no map; c) we hadn’t even popped any Plastic Bertrand on the iPod. Undeterred, we ploughed on using the map of the Ronde from Cycling Weekly to navigate by. This wasn’t so hard, and we looked as if we’d caught up on the schedule which was going to allow us to sign on, get to the campsite in Ghent and have a good meal to load up for the next days exertions. But what time was it, exactly? Ruddock maintained that there was no time difference between the UK and continental Europe during British Summer Time. I was not convinced but Ruddock was persuasive and sure (plus he was driving) so I reluctantly turned my watch back.
In hindsight, this is where it all went wrong. We got near to Oudenaarde with 90 minutes to go before sign on shut at 7 p.m. but then, for reasons still unclear, began to circle Oudenaarde like a crafty but ultimately crap kestrel stalking it’s prey. We arrived at sign in at 7.03 p.m. but knew that with their relaxed approach to time on the continent that wouldn’t present a problem. Inexplicably we were shooed away. Indignantly, we dug our heels in and requested that they stopped being unreasonable. Finally, after using negotiation skills with which David Cameron would have been proud, we were told to come back in the morning and the door slammed shut. Rebuffed, we headed to a supermarket to get some provisions and, buoyed by raw minced meat and a crab baguette each, realized that we’d also missed getting to our camping spot. Chastened, we responded in the way only British gentlemen in a van can and starting leering at the Belgian ladies. The Mechanic generously noted that “everyone has something to offer” and we pledged to wild camp. On a rundown industrial estate. What follows is a bit of a blur but involved Ruddock cooking pasta, port, cigars, Top Trumps and the awful realization at 10.30 p.m. that it was actually 11.30 p.m. which rather explained our less than warm reception at sign on. The Mechanic then decided to change one of his tyres. In the dark. Which is kind of where we came in…..
Saturday 31st March 2012 – Day 0
It was no good – I couldn’t rely on the Muppet Brothers and was going to need to sign on for the three of us. Rolling up my jeans, hipster style, I pedalled off on glass cranks. After 10 minutes in the wrong direction and some sweet singletrack I turned around and headed back into town. Signing on was stress free and while I waited for a sachet of Tiger Balm embrocation I read that the event which expressly forbade peeing in people’s back gardens (at first I thought this was a euphemism. It wasn’t). Obviously, as a law abiding citizen, I would gladly abide by this guidance. However, I’m also a pedant and had spotted a loophole as it said nothing about dumping in someones field which I promptly did on returning to the van. Luckily it was Saturday and there were no children in the playground.
Carried away by the balmy 23C weather we had left behind in the UK, I had packed only a short sleeve jersey and shorts with gossamer weight gilet, arm and kneewarmers thrown in at the last minute ‘just in case’. And only thin mitts. The weather was dour, the wind spiteful. Ruddock was in tights, longsleeved thermal winter jersey and rain jacket. Despite ruefully reflecting on the adage “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”, there was no escaping it – time to ride Vlaanderens mooiste was upon us. Or it would have been if only The Mechanic hadn’t taken his Campagnolo equipped Look to the Shimano stand to get the gears and chain adjusted. Setting off with banter already started (Ruddock’s mudguarded pink beast and The Mechanic’s ‘surely about to debond’ early carbon forks featured heavily), it was straight in the big plate, grip the bars and crank it up to 15 kph like the cyclotourists that we clearly were. Nerves soon got the better of my bladder and, when I stopped, Ruddock instantly dropped the hammer (it was a small toffee hammer). Furious, I chased and caught him on the first cobbled section, riding in the dirty gutter like the scoundrel that he was. Spitting out a few bon mots as I passed - it was ‘on’.
And so it went for a while, the joy of being involved in the event only shattered occasionally as some modern Mondeo of a bike clattered past on deep section rims while I calmly watched my forks twang back and forth. My bottle was soon shaken loose but that wasn’t a problem as only 110km to go. Entering the first unofficial food stop in a village, the church clock read 4 p.m. I was slow, but surely not that slow. Or was it just that cruel mistress time, playing yet another trick? Whatever, we regrouped and headed on to the proper food stop to gorge on waffles, honey filled biscuits and energy drinks (or 'Capstan Full Squash' as it soon became known). Despite not drinking anything, I was still regularly stopping to urinate, although taking care not to do so in anyone’s garden. More of a problem was that, everytime I did urinate, I seemed to retain just enough that when I popped Lil’ Ed away I managed to unleash a thimble of fresh urine – soon my shorts were as sodden as an unchanged diaper worn by an incontinent septuagenarian and I was developing nascent nappy rash. Still, at least no one rode too close.
Almost as we excited the food stop we were on the Koppenberg, a narrow ribbon of broken cobbles that, while only 600m long, reared up to a maximum of 22%. With barriers at the sides for the pros there was nowhere to go if anyone stalled. To avoid the embarrassment of coming to a halt and gently toppling on to the granite, I rode into the back of The Mechanic and got off. I suddenly saw the value of the Muppet Brothers wearing SPDs as I made my sorry way in Look-cleated Carnacs. Still, it wasn’t too far until I was back on and then bumping down the truly horrific cobbled descents – at least I had the extra cushioning provided by my drenched shorts.
This continued for a while, up, down, clatter. Even though I’d used my uncanny descending skills to drop Ruddock on a cobbled plunge like 3rd Year French, I was starting to feel weary – more John Vallins than John Talen. I had no clue how long we’d been out or how far we had to go and I realized that although I could tenuously describe myself as a hardman, I was more MDF than teak. Suddenly, like an oasis in a cobbled desert, a Red Bull stand appeared. I cheerfully accepted a can from the pretty Belgian girl, then another. By the third can, she looked awfully like Victoria Pendleton. Or Jessica Ennis. Giving a cheery smile (looking back, it was probably a leer. And, dear god, I think I may have winked), I headed off again. Somehow The Mechanic had got ahead of me. This would not do. Pride was at stake so I cranked it up to 16 kph, downhill, on smooth asphalt.
Negotiating the turn off the main road into the approach to Oude Kwaremont, I encountered a distraught Mechanic, broken chain in hand – served him right for trusting a Shimano mechanic. My first instinct was to curl my lip into a snarl, snick down a gear and hammer away. Luckily, my second thought was that if I gave assistance, towed even, then I could really take the piss. Making like Cancellara (“I am Spartacus!”), I told The Mechanic to grab on and we set off up Oude Kwaremont. Now The Mechanic was a slight chap but on those cobbles he felt a right lump. Still, we operated a towing approach on the flat and climbs, and fierce freewheeling on the descents and suddenly we rounded a corner and there was the fearsome cobbles of the Paterberg stretching into the sky. Only 360m but topping out at 20.3%, it was easily the equal of the Koppenberg. Leaving The Mechanic to his own devices, I made it to the top despite almost falling when a Cervelo ridding chap broke his chain and getting a Sidi in the mouth as someone dismounted (a Genius2, if memory seves). Sadly, despite walking, The Mechanic was only 4s behind me at the top. However, there was a chaintool to borrow. Fumbling like a 14 year old boy with his first bra strap, The Mechanic finally fitted the chain. Unfortunately he’d managed to wrap it round the chainstay in the process. Swearing, it was removed and refitted and we set off – the climbs were over and it was just a gentle roll onto the finish. Except for the relentless headwind.
Despite the time taken towing and chain fixing, Ruddock was nowhere to be seen – perhaps the hip flask of brandy that he’d been packing had taken its toll? Not worrying unduly, we pottered on, meeting a couple of fellow Retrobikers with whom to parlez le merde. And with that, we thought we were done for the day. If only we had known that the difficulties were just starting.
Returning to the sunshine bus, The Mechanic and I cracked a beer and congratulated each other on 'knocking the bastard off'. We weren’t referring to Ruddock who miraculously appeared 20 minutes later, having failed to get his card marked at the finish. Elated, more beer was drunk and then we headed the 28km to Ghent and the campsite. Two and a half hours and several roadworks later we arrived and set up the tent to store the kit. Not pausing to shower, we headed into Ghent. Which seemed to be shut, the lack of people making it look like the set of ’28 Days Later’. OK, supermarket for more beer. Except it was closing as we arrived. It was no good, we were going to have to rely on a Nacht Winkel for supplies. Having taken out a second mortgage, we emerged with three cans of beer and a jar of hotdogs – after a day in the saddle we were going to eat like kings, albeit kings down on their luck.
Back at the campsite (following several wrong turns,natch). I finally I peeled off my stinking shorts and luxuriated in the shower, whistling Girls Aloud hits. The bliss of the hot water was only shattered when I heard Ruddock in the next stall, re-enacting the Lemond/bad peach scene from the 1986 Tour. Suddenly those hot dogs weren’t so appealing.
After a spot of rubbish food – by now we hadn’t eaten properly in two days – some beer and some port, Ruddock declared that he was heading into Gent to check out some Belgian DJ called Move-D (a distant cousin of Heavy D?) and wanted to know who was bloody well up for it? By now it was 11.30 p.m. and freezing cold. I declined like the lightweight I am, but The Mechanic was more easily groomed and off they headed. I snoozed……
Sunday 1st April 2012 – Day +1
…to be awoken at 6 a.m. by the warriors return, full of tales of “playing chess with Belgian women” (surely a euphemism this time?) and, by the smell, several large JD and Cokes. Still, this was good, as we needed to leave about now to get a good spot on Oude Kwaremont or the Paterberg (belching, Ruddock wittily renamed it ‘the Battenberg’). No, the Muppet Brothers slept. And slept. By the time they were roused, the race had already long started. Not noticeably downcast, I bought us a round of breakfast beers (Duvel for me, Chimay for The Mechanic and a children’s training beer for Ruddock, who was driving) and we set off for Oudenaarde. Somehow the road works had multiplied overnight (was this the reason for the empty streets of Gent, all the people were burrowing underground like sightless human moles?) and we set a personal worst by covering the 28km through the Belgian badlands in a shade over 3 hours. It would have been quicker on a dandyhorse.
No matter, we parked up, unloaded the bikes and set off to find a suitably atmospheric bar. Locking the bikes up, we spied the bar at the Ronde van Vlaanderen Museum and headed on in. The place was packed, the atmosphere was great, the bar staff were clearly part time podium girls (who go Ronde the outside?) and the frites and mayonnaise were generously served and competitively priced. Even better was someone leaving a table free within a couple of minutes of arrival – surely our timing was improving? Sitting down we learned of Cancellara’s fall and then it was lean back, sip our beer and watch a tactical masterclass from Tom Boonen – but could he win and take the atmosphere to the next level? Ground control to Major Tom – of course he could, outsprinting Ballan and Pozzato to equal the record for most wins. Freddy Maertans, the curator of the museum, appearing at the point of the win was the icing on the cake and we headed into the square to soak up the ambiance and check out the bikes. Getting far closer to the action than any other sport – at one pointed I clapped Alessandro Ballan on the back, as well as getting honked at by an impatient QuickStep car – Ruddock was reassured that he’d ridden the event on the same gearing as Thomas Voelckler. Gradually the team buses dispersed and we headed back to the bikes as we apparentlyneeded to check out the clubs in Ghent on a Sunday evening (I was rather concerned that the Lonely Planet talked about 'throbbing gay clubs' – were these the Belgian hardmen of cycling mythology?). Then, disaster stuck – the lock would not open no matter what we did, the sun was setting and the town square was rapidly emptying of people – it felt like as the shadows stretched out there were lycanthropes about to emerge. I glanced at Ruddock and was concerned at what I saw; he’d aged 10 years in 10 minutes, his mechanism was gone. Showing the fortitude that only an expensive education provides, he gathered himself and headed off to find a helpful policeman. The Mechanic and I looked at each other, shrugged and opened a couple of cans of emergency Jupiler that we’d have the foresight to pack just in case. We were deep into the second can when Ruddock reappeared with an offduty cop brandishing a hacksaw. He wildly flayed away at the lock for 5 minutes with no success. We turned the blade the right way round and off he flailed again. Nothing. Muttering in Flemish he sloped off, only to return with some 3 foot bolt cutters. After blunting the blades of the bolt cutters while making no impression on the lock we admitted defeat – we’d have to load the bikes, still locked, onto the back of the van. Ruddock was dispatched to fetch it while The Mechanic and I opened a consoling Jupiler (we looked so forlorn that by now strangers were coming up and offering us beer).
Having finally loaded the bikes, we set off again into the Twilight Zone hinterland between Oudenaarde and Ghent. Several hours passed and we arrived near to the socialist workers café that Ruddock insisted we must visit. While the chaps sorted out the food, I headed off to the toilets to “make pi-pi”. Over the urinal was a printed sheet of local bands and forthcoming CD releases. I idly stared at it while conducting my business and at eye level was the release date by the creatively named ‘Kiss The Anus of a Black Cat’ (was my nutritionally starved mind playing tricks on me? A quick Google on return to the UK confirmed not). Suddenly I didn’t feel so hungry……
Monday 2nd April 2012 – Day +2
..the final day dawned like the day after the day after the Lord Mayor’s Show. The Mechanic was like a husk and Ruddock had the air of a man who had come on holiday by mistake. As I showered I realized that the trip was coming to an end and my shoulders sagged with the weight of the Benelux Blues. The only solution was some more breakfast beer – The Mechanic had declared himself teetotal by this point – and head for home without my bike (we’d need an angle grinder to get through that lock and I wasn’t overly confident that it wouldn’t continue through the top tube). Somehow the journey back was in chipper spirit – I’m not sure how we got on to Clown Porn (“quick bring the camera, Hans has got the jesters shoes”) and then the Chinese finger cuffs. Chatham House Rules and general decorum prevents me from relating the rest of the conversation
And that was, basically, that. Except for the stop at the service station when The Mechanic declared that he'd try the bike lock again "now we were back in Blightly". Our smiles were thin and didn't reach our eyes. Then The Mechanic emerged from the back of the van with the expression of a man who had secretly defecated in his shorts and was enjoying the warn glow more than strictly necessary - the key had worked, the bikes were free at last!
I’m not sure my mind, or liver, can take another trip like this one although that’s only two of the three cobbled monuments down so surely it has to be Gent-Wevelegem in 2013 to complete the set – anyone fancy joining me?