Spring Classics 2015 – A British Great Bows Out Part 1

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Spring Classics 2015 – A British Great Bows Out Part 1

For keen fans of British cycling, the spring of 2015 promised to be melancholic as a bona fide great of British cycling bought his storied road career to a shuddering climax at Paris-Roubaix. Coincidentally Sir Bradley Wiggins was also retiring from international competition on 12th April 2015. In more ways than one, April promised to be the month of the double.

In the past few years I’ve become much keener on the One Day Classics than the Grand Tours, not least because of Tyler Hamilton’s assertion that it was possible to win a one day clean or “pane e acqua” (on bread and water) but not stage races of more than a week without “assistance”. There are One Day Classics. Then there are the five Monuments. And rising above them all are the true giants, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix run over consecutive weekends in April. Win one and your status among the greats is secured. Win two and you should never have to buy a drink in a bar in the Roubaix-Flanders region again (and what higher motivation could there be than that?). And then there is the evocative list of those who have not only won both but in the same year - Van Looy, De Vlaeminck, Van Petegem, Boonen and Cancellara (the last two having done the double double i.e. winning both in the same year twice). For someone who has always had the equanimity to wear legendary status lightly, it seemed only just that I added my name to this list. But there are many speed humps on the path to greatness……..

Having ridden the Tour of Flanders three times before (ok, one of these was the shorter RetroRonde), I was clear what was involved – spiteful weather, viciously steep cobbled bergs, waffles at the food stops. Not a piece of cake by any means, especially with camping adding to the challenge, but with suitable training well within range. And there lay the biggest obstacle – preparation hasn’t always been my strong suit.

Getting Ready
In late 2014 things were looking pretty promising – weekly club rides of 60 to 70 miles at a stiffish pace were leaving me weary but not broken. As 2015 dawned it looked like it was going to be ok. Then, cycling to work in early February, I fell on ice negotiating a tightish right hander. Despite my relatively pace I slid about 15 feet with the accompanying swearing disappointingly conventional. Crawling pathetically to the side of the road I noticed that there were people sitting outside their houses, watching keenly. They obviously expressed concern at my welfare and then told me that several others had slid off on the same corner. Under the circumstances my mother would have been proud of how politely I eschewed the offer of a recuperative seat on their stoop. I surveyed the damage. Gnarled bar tape, scratched brake lever, an ugly smear of dirt on my smart courier bag and a hole in the elbow of my Christmas jersey. Gingerly I remounted and wobbled slowly into work.

Sensitive souls may wish to skip this paragraph as I’m about to cover what happened in the shower. Peeling off my kit I discovered why my right side was feeling a little tender – a deep purple bruise covered hip to knee, the shape and size of a substantial steak and, when the hot spray hit there was certainly ‘smoke on the water’. My shoulder, while mark free, was also pretty stiff. Cue weeks of waking when I rolled onto my right at night and disrupted training.
Worse was to follow with three bouts of man flu during March. Training, what training. I persuaded myself that it was long distance tapering but at least the bike would be ready, right? Wrong. Having half a dozen to choose from I elected for the Zullo with newly fitted cranks. The Look pedals with World Champion stripes added a classy touch. Obviously there was no point in test riding. I was as prepared as I was going to be and I better have it right as there would be precious little time between the two events for tweaks.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2015
Despite leaving home at the unearthly time of 4.30 a.m. I could still giggle at the Tour of Flanders nickname of Vlaanderens mooiste that, to my childish ears, had a suitably rude ring to it. I also recalled Sean Kelly words “Flanders was one of the most horrible races to ride but one of the greatest races to win" and the excitement/fear was palpable.

The journey across was uneventful, registration and shopping for provisions completed, camp was set. Checking the weather forecast all looked set fair – 5 degrees early morning rising to 9 later with light winds and only a slight chance of a rain shower. Having eaten well I retired to my tent early, almost looking forward to it.

Rising at 6.30 to a mild morning, tucked into the breakfast that I had purchased the previous afternoon with gusto. They say never to experiment with nutrition at an event but I am of stout constitution so how could I go wrong with a large tub of potato salad that had been stored overnight in my moist, fetid tent? Not wrong at all as it slipped down beautifully although the light mist of rain was a bit disappointing. As I fitted the number, pumped the tyres and oiled the chain, the rain increased as did the wind. This wasn’t forecast and, although I didn’t want to be overdressed, I decided after all to add a softshell gilet to my long sleeve base layer, long sleeve Roubaix jersey and rain jacket. Naturally, with this being Flanders, I elected for knee warmers. And, just as we rolled out, I grabbed my rain gloves.

It’s a flat 10 mile ride from the camping in Kluisbergen to the start in Oudenaarde. Within a mile I was soaked through and shivering as were the others – mizzly rain and a headwind really gets into your bones. The plan had been a soft tap but we pressed on in an effort to stay warm with the choice of getting to the front and taking the wind full force or eat gritty spray. I chose the latter and don’t think my teeth have ever been so clean.

Of greater worry than the deeply unpleasant weather was the state of my digestive system; I may not have eaten a dirty peach but something wasn’t agreeing with me. My companions were very supportive but I couldn’t really ask them for a cap. I needed to get to the start, pronto.

Have you been into a portaloo that has been used by several hundred nervous cyclists? If not, picture Renton’s toilet scene in Trainspotting. Add in a lumbering MAMIL stuggling to remove several layers of sodden lycra in an extremely confined space and it’s far from a pretty picture. Best to draw a veil over it although I will say that only the gentlest of pushes was required and that, as so often in the past, I started a Monument ashen and shaking, albeit at a weight I haven’t realized in nearly two years.

Under the emergency circumstances I’d been unable to explain to my colleagues what I was doing and, rather than wait around in the cold and rain, they had sensibly started. I was fine with this as I could potter along at my own pace. Within half an hour I was feeling fairly good despite being soaked to the skin and quite peckish. The 127km course I was doing covered all of the climbs bar the Tiegemberg and I settled into the ride nicely, climbing the slippery Molenberg with relative grace. I was almost enjoying myself, despite the persistent drizzle. I was mindful however that the mighty Koppenberg awaited.

Two of our companions had arrived early and on the Friday set off for a recce ride on the way to sign in. Both are very strong and experienced cyclists. Both declared in no uncertain terms that the Koppenberg was unrideable with liquid mud running off the fields and then down the shattered 20+% cobbles. With the weather on the day it looked no more likely but then when a legendary hardman like Bernard Hinault says “it’s hard to explain what the Koppenberg means to a racing cyclist. Instead of being a race, it's a lottery. Only the first five or six riders have any chance: the rest fall off or scramble up as best they can. What on earth have we done to send us to hell now?" then walking is no shame.

I approached the Kopenberg after 70km, nicely warmed up/sodden. As it reared up ahead of me I could see a wall of riding pushing and sliding backwards (it rather reminded me of Simon Fell in the 3 Peaks Cx). Figuring that it made sense to get ready for a trudge I went to unclip my right foot. Nothing. I gave a sharper tug. Still nothing. Not wanting to end up face down in the filth, and mindful of my broken wrist from 2014, I headed to the dirty gutter thinking that I could cling to the fence. Unfortunately a helpful spectator thought I needed assistance and, with a mighty shove and an accompanying yelp from me, propelled me back across the greasy cobbles towards the opposite bank where thankfully I embraced a telegraph pole like the sorry drunk that I hoped to be later that evening. Still resolutely clipped in, with a mighty wrench that would either release the fierce mechanism or dislocate my ankle, I came free.
I was in plentiful company in the walk of shame up the right hand side of the berg where the mud was thickest and flowing freely. Thankfully it didn’t take too long before I was digging mud from my cleats, jumping back in the saddle and rolling free.

The rain had relented a bit but the sky remained grey and full of threat and I wasn’t overdressed despite the number of substantial layers. I rode on feeling relatively comfortable. Kaperij came and went at 80km and shortly afterwards I decided it was time for a road side pitstop. Checking over my shoulder I rolled to a stop near a low wall, unclipped and micturated.

Strolling back to my bike my gait seemed more unbalanced than could be explained by the uneven ground. Approaching my bike I realized with horror why – where the right pedal should have been was shiny silver axle. Checking my right foot revealed the pedal stuck firmly to my cleat, World Champ bands mocking me. I sat on the wall, striking a pose like Rodin’s The Thinker as riders streamed past. I still had almost 50k to go including Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg plus the 10 mile roll back to the campsite. It was no good, brute force was in order.

I removed my shoe and began beating the pedal body against the wall with increasing vigour. Suddenly it sprang free. With mud soaking into my soak, I got my shoe back on and, oh so delicately, spun the body back onto the axle, nipping the plastic collar up as tightly as my elegant, pianists fingers would allow.

Very carefully I remounted, resting my foot on the pedal rather than clipping in. Fortunately this was made easier as the road was uphill. The pedal lasted about 100m before leaping off into the verge as the threads were cunningly in the direction of rotation. Refitting seemed pointless so I saddled up again and rode on, one legged. This wasn’t easy but the smoothness of my stroke from riding fixed meant that at least I wasn’t pedaling squares.

I continued like this for “quite a while”, occasionally experimenting with other techniques with varying success (I have learned that a smooth plastic soled shoe has no purchase on a well greased axle but that if you dangle your free leg and then swing in a deft, timed pendulum action you can get quite a decent turn of speed). Strangely none of the riders who passed made comment.

After a couple of climbs – I actually made a pleasing way up before dismounting and wasn’t alone in walking – I started to wonder whether finishing was becoming unlikely as I was progressing slowly pretty much nowhere. However there had been mechanics stands at the previous foodstops so I had my fingers crossed that there would be one at the final stop, just before the drop down to Kwaremont.

The stop was at the top of Karnemelkbeekstraat and, looking at the map, I’d been Jake the Peg for between 15 and 20k which was sort of satisfying. What was less satisfying was the lack of a mechanic stand. Resolving myself to 20k plus of leg swinging joy to the finish, I overindulged on waffles and headed out, axle shyly glinting in the watery sun.

Elation followed as 150m up the road was the mechanics van. Employing the international language of pointing I explained my issue. The mechanic said that he couldn’t do anything until, with a magicians flourish, I produced the pedal body from my back pocket. Teeth sucking followed, then a succession of ill fitting spanners until finally the appropriate tool was located and the collar was tightened (I didn’t care at this point that the formerly shiny axle had gobs of mud from my shoe). With a push and a "good luck" I was on my way again.

I remained cautious however and used the pedal to balance my foot on rather than clip in. But at least I could give my bulging left leg a rest and, firing up the Guns of Navarone for a final salvo, I headed for the Kwaremont, Paterberg and glory.

What followed was rather mundane, consisting of cycling and then a leisurely stroll on the blocked Paterberg. Knocking off the final few km I couldn’t be bothered with even a desultory sprint over the line. Returning my chip I ignored the gravitational pull of a cheap beer from the local Albery Heign supermarket and pedaled back to the campsite with increasing confidence (I was still not clipping in mind), sur la plaque and making it count.

And that, bar an evening of beer and banter about riding on a 20+ year old bike, sleeping in minus zero temperatures in a tent and then getting neatly sunburnt watching the pros clatter at frankly crazy speeds over dry, dusty cobbles, was that for De Ronde. Interestingly the pros had taken note of the conditions for the cyclotouristes and fitted generous cassettes, typically with a 28t although Bora-Argon 18 had gone with a dinner plate 32t (even I had enough self respect to go with only 28t although mating it with a 42t small ring meant I felt at least moderately fierce).

Anyway, enough of this. One down, one to go. But would it be double and quits, double down or, more likely, double chins? Look out for the next installment on a popular retro-themed bicycle website soon……
 

Mike Muz

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Re:

Good reading Ed !

I was reading your tales of woe in the breaks, while watching Amstel. What pedals were you using?
Hope you had more luck in Arenberg!

Mike
 

bobbinogs

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Re:

Fantastic tale Ed, you can certainly write a blog that maintains its interest throughout. I don't know if it means you are a good writer or just one unlucky bstard when it comes to rides :)

Pt2 beckons...
 

ededwards

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Re: Re:

Mike Muz 67":wctp4c56 said:
What pedals were you using?
Just regular Look, nothing special although if anything they were in very tidy condition compared to most 20+ year old pedals. That said, they were in better condition before being beaten against a shin high Belgian wall.

drystonepaul":wctp4c56 said:
Remind me never to lend you my cycling cap Ed...
If I remember rightly I loaned you a cap last year. Versatile things caps.........

bobbinogs":wctp4c56 said:
Fantastic tale Ed, you can certainly write a blog that maintains its interest throughout. I don't know if it means you are a good writer or just one unlucky bstard when it comes to rides :)
My genius, like my modesty, can be applied to many spheres of life. In moments of clarity, I like to think of myself as a literary cycling Dr Jonathan Miller.....
 

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