Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Ronde van Vlaanderen: Part II

After the success of my last outing in the Flemish Ardennes, dragging myself through the 160 or so kilometers of rolling country lanes in just under 8 hours, I thought it worthwhile to have another crack at one of the coloured routes they have so conveniently laid out in the area. This time I was going to follow the Oranjeroute, or Orange Route. It has been designed as the "hilly" of the three coloured routes, and as you can see it takes in most of the famous climbs of the Ronde.

The white blocks denote sections of pavé
As I was leaving Oudenaarde to start following the signs, I found myself catching up with a bunch of Australian women, riding in national kit with a guy leading the way. I caught up with them, but unfortunately there was an even number of them, so noone who I could easily get the attention of without interrupting their conversation. What I should really have done is sidled up to them and given them a big "sup ladieeees!" as is the usual approach in New Zealand. But I would've needed to be in my turbo Subaru Legacy with blow-off valve for it to really do justice though. Anyway while I was wondering about the best way to get their attention without crashing into the lot of them, I saw the sign pointing me in a different direction from where they were headed. I followed the arrows, this time vowing to pay more attention and not get lost like last time, and hoping to do the ride in 6 hours.

After turning off a main road, I found myself on a nice quiet flat stretch heading seemingly away from the hills. The last sign I'd seen pointed straight ahead, but then there'd been an intersection with two paths coming off it so I had taken the one straight ahead. Maybe this was the wrong way? I continued for a while, then decided to turn back as I was definitely not heading towards the Kluisberg.

I passed a man stopped, inspecting his bike on the path. I stopped initially to ask him for directions but when I saw he was looking at his derailleur I offered to help. When you hardly know anything in a language the most basic sentences can be used for almost anything. I asked him is everything good? And he proceeded to tell me a whole lot of information about his bike, none of which I was able to decipher. I then had to tell him I didn't speak any Dutch, so he laughed and did his best in English. He was friendly and had a sense of humour, I liked the look of this guy straight away. It turned out his bike was fine, and he was just inspecting/admiring the repair job he had done on his own frame by welding a brace over where the chainstay had cracked. He didn't know about the Oranjeroute, but was keen to tell me about all the bergen that I should ride - Kluisberg, Koppenberg etc. I told him that was the plan, and he proceeded to wave down a passing postal service worker to ask him if he knew where I should go. He didn't know either, and before hopping back into his van he smiled and said he was also a big fan of the Ronde. As I backtracked with my new friend Luc, he told me about how he had recently retired from a career teaching design, and I told him about my plans. He was excited for me, and when we parted company wished me all the best and that he hoped see me on TV at some stage.

I had actually been going the right way as it turned out, but there had been a corner further up which wasn't marked. So after re-backtracking to this point I turned there and found myself once again in the orange. I remembered that the map shows quite a long flat section heading West before you get to the first of the climbs, so I needn't have worried about seeming to head in the wrong direction. I had a pocked full of muesli bars, a bottle with electrolyte solution and about €7 to burn, so I was all set to be able to last the day.

I decided to try out one of the muesli bars, and found it was a coconut flavoured one (they are all packaged in the same blank white wrapping for surprise's sake). It was absolutely delicious! I couldn't believe my luck, having just grabbed it off the shelf in a supermarket. I got halfway through it then going over a bump on the cycle lane it slipped out of the wrapping and disappeared behind me. I couldn't carry on with the knowledge I was only halfway through it, so I stopped and turned around. Only to find this wee chap eyeing me up suspiciously.

I looked all over the path, up and down over a section of about 10-20 metres. My delicious muesli bar remnant had to be there! A puffed rice and coconut base coated in rich sweet chocolate, delectable. I looked back at my little mate in the grass, and before my very eyes he poked his tongue out at me!

Was he toying with me? Smug little thing, I started to wonder about his motive for being there. Surely he couldn't have grabbed my precious snack travelling at about 30km/h and wolfed it down in the space of a second? And now expected even more? I wouldn't have thought it possible, until he had the scurrility to expose his tongue to me in such audacious fashion.

It was a fairly hot day, perhaps this was getting to me a bit. Sure enough after a few minutes of wandering about wondering, I found my treat lying happily nestled under a few strands of grass right on the edge of the cycle path. With a flourish I popped it in my mouth before the little brat could sink his teeth into it, and continued on my way.

Before long I made it to the base of the first hill, and it surprised me with its length. I kept expecting it to turn into pavé at any moment, but it remains sealed the whole way up. This is the Kluisberg, and I'm sure the scene of many crazed cheering fans during the actual race. Today it was, well, pleasantly devoid of activity.

The next section took me, funnily enough, out of Flanders and briefly into Wallonia, the French-speaking region of the country. The next few climbs are technically just going up the same ridge as the Kluisberg (here called Mont de l'Enclus) but from different sides and further East. I wouldn't complain though, as they are all nice leafy affairs, each with different characters. Most importantly they are rare hills in what is a fairly vast sea of corn fields and pasture which, coming from New Zealand and especially Wellington, you can't help but notice, and certainly never forget.

The Oude Kwaremont was a really nice one - a very steady 4.2% average gradient, maxing out at 11%. At over 2km in length it certainly starts to feel long enough, and is pretty rough in parts. I hadn't gone up too fast, so the bumps weren't so numbing, but they are always discomforting no matter what speed you attempt it.

People live on these streets, that's probably the thing I find most curious about these places. You can be riding up here in a pastoral haze, just thinking about Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck stretching the pace, suffering, and imagining the crowded fans frothing at the mouth hoarse from passionate shouting, soaked from rain or beer (or probably both). Then the next minute you look around and see people opening the boot of their Renault, Peugeot or Citroën taking out their groceries, calling to their children to hurry up, pressing their remote to lock the car and walking up the path to their front door. This was especially the case on the Kruisberg, which is in the middle of the town Ronse. The pavé starts a bit further up, just after the white van.

It's hard not to try and find equivalents to everything back home, or at least make comparisons with what you see and experience. But in cases like this, it's hard to find a reference point. The history is just so different in this part of the world, and it seems humans are the same the world over, whereby we grow accustomed to our environment and stop taking note of what we have. Some of the roads around here were originally built by the Romans, so are a couple of thousand years old. Perhaps, if it were possible, biking through a forest of thousand-year-old Kauri in Northland would elicit a similar sensation. But the nonchalance with which people go about their daily lives here around these historical artefacts piques my interest almost as much as my desire to be a part of and share in its rich history. In the end though I suppose they have lives to live and this is where they're doing that. They would, I'm sure, have similar thoughts if our positions were reversed and they were visiting New Zealand.

The next berg was one of the most challenging, and certainly one of the steepest. It came at me suddenly, around a sharp bend at the end of a glorious flowing downhill. I've been borrowing a wheel from the local bike shop after I broke a spoke in my own one last week. I hadn't adjusted the gears properly, so inadvertently put myself in hard man mode, as the rear derailleur won't let me onto the 26t at the back, reaching instead lazily as far as the 23. I managed to ride it all seated, but this is also out of necessity - traction is very minimal at best on the pavé, and standing up just exacerbates this.

At the top I took the opportunity to avail myself of the facilities provided. Namely, a bench seat with a great view of a nuclear reactor and a jam-packed rubbish bin.

I think it's just one of those wannabe nuclear plants. They're a dime a dozen.
After a brief battle with a wasp for the remainder of another delicious muesli bar, I continued on my way through this much more enjoyable day's worth of riding. I had been looking forward to this next climb for the whole ride, as a lot has been said about it. It is the hill with the cobblestones from which the term kinder koppen has been coined. This translates as "children's heads", I assume because they are rounded and about the size of a child's head. This has in turn been abbreviated to koppen, and thus we have the de Koppenberg

Over the course of the last century this road had degraded so much so that riders complained and it was even removed from the Ronde briefly due to safety concerns. It has since had a lot of work done to it, and now if it weren't for the distinctive "koppen" shape of the pavé it wouldn't be especially remarkable. It was certainly challenging in its gradient, getting up to 22%, but due to the generally excellent condition it's actually not as arduous as it could be. On a fine, sunny day that is......

Token shameless self-promotion shot
I always find these mirrors a little confusing. I understand what they're there for, but the reality is that in order to get to the point where the angle is right to be able to see what's coming in the other direction, you've gone so far as to be practically in the intersection already. At the very least, if you haven't slowed down to a crawl by now, you're certainly not going to be able to stop in time should you meet something coming the other way and only see it when its reflected gaze meets your eye.

This leads me to another thing I've noticed so far in my time here. Roads, and in particular the system of physical markings on streets and the use of roadsign designations is very different from New Zealand. At first it's a bit of a shock - when you stop at an intersection, it's easy to go too far forward and not be able to see the traffic lights. They often only have one light per entrance to the intersection, so you have to keep your eyes peeled for it. In fact you have to keept your eyes peeled for everything, and I think that's probably the point. There tend to be few paint markings on the ground, but many more signs about the road with warnings of upcoming features and your responsibility thereby. Combined with generally rather narrow roads, and the excellent law based on your relative danger to other road users (a sliding scale whereby the more dangerous/larger vehicles bear the weight of responsibility in any events that involves others. For example a truck is responsible in conflict with a car regardless of fault, likewise a car is responsible for the safety of cyclists, and in turn pedestrians are at the top and even as a cyclist if one jumps out in front of you it's your job to ensure you don't have an accident) I think this creates and necessitates an increased awareness of one's surroundings, which can in turn only lead to a more cooperative and safer transport environment.

On a different note, but equally uncommon for a Kiwi such as myself, is the somewhat humorous practicality of this machine.

Gone are the days of having to go to the bakery when it's open, inconveniently paying money to a person in exchange for their produce. With the Brood-matic out and about in the town, you can simply put the correct change in, push a few buttons and 'pop', out comes a fresh loaf of bread. Despite my somewhat insolent tone, I do think it's a cool idea. However, the convenience becomes somewhat less substantial when inevitably the machine is empty by about 9.30am.

There are also apple vending machines, seeing it is the season for such fruits. But nothing quite takes the cake for novelty goods in a vending machine as this one

come on kids, what do you want to drink?
Yes, I'm certainly somewhere with slightly different societal values, culture and expectations. But it's a great place, and I'm having a blast. My estimation of the ride taking 6 hours was only slightly under the actual 7 hours it took, due probably in part to my improved sign following navigation. Not only was I feeling pretty good throughout the ride (potentially meaning I am getting better at this bike riding thing, or just that I had enough food and drink) I'm also now two thirds of the way through the Tour of Flanders, albeit not quite at race pace. Next up: The Cobbles.

You can say that again

Friday, 24 August 2012

Gent - City of Cyclists, Streetcars and Drunk Chainsaw-wielding Madmen

Last weekend I took a train to Gent, with a plan of meeting fellow New Zealander and cyclocross rider (amongst other things) Darryn Medhurst. He had invited me to stay a few days and go for a couple of rides - around his local off-road trails and then as part of a Sunday morning bunch road ride.

The country has been under a heatwave for the past week or so, and everyone here has been going on about it. They express surprise at the unseasonal temperatures, and with some irony their lamentations of how it was too cold in the preceeding weeks have been tempered by complaints of it now being too hot. The Goldilocks of the meteorological world.

Anyway, it was a stinking hot day so leaving the comfort of the countryside behind me I headed into the heat and urban haze of Brussels, waiting only briefly at the station to catch a connecting train to Gent. For all the country's passion for cycling, and its generally excellent infrastructure around cycle lanes and paths, there is little facility for taking bikes on the train. Luckily I had two pretty empty trains, so just took it on and rested it in the aisle by my seat.

A few hours before leaving Enghien to catch the train, I had noticed a broken spoke on my rear wheel. It definitely hadn't happened while I was last riding it, because the wheel no longer turned without touching the brake pads. It makes me sad when spokes break while not in use, as if the wheel has been suffering quietly, putting on a brave face only to crumple when the pressure gets too much. I didn't like the idea of riding it in this state, as it has a fairly low spoke count, so I was lucky to have Darryn pick me up from the train station in Gent, and lend me a wheel for the weekend.

Bikes, trams and... drunk men dressed up as Australians or Brazilians

We went for a two hour road ride that evening, up towards Holland and around through Zomergem and back, following canals and generally quiet calm roads once we were out of the city. It was a fairly casual ride until at one point Darryn was putting his drink bottle back into its cage when he must have suddenly hit a bump, throwing his balance out. He landed with his chest over his handlebars, his weight so far forwards that his back wheel was coming off the ground. For an instant he seemed somewhat in control - first ever nose manual I've seen on a road bike - despite the awkward appearance, but it was only a few brief seconds. Then he landed heavily on his shoulder, on a patch of sandy tarmac, narrowly missing the grass verge. It had happened so suddenly, yet was very drawn out once it started, meaning I had time to manoeuver myself out of the way behind him. Somewhat dazed and confused, and as I found out over the course of the coming days, in quite a bit of pain from his ribs, he was at least well enough to continue riding.

Back to some tranquility

If we thought that was going to be the excitement over for the ride, we had another thing coming. Heading along a cycle lane back towards Gent maybe half an hour later, we were approaching an intersection where a small lane joined us from off to our right. There was an old, wild, slightly frantic looking man riding a bike towards us down this lane. When I say riding, it is in the loosest sense of the word, as he was perched awkwardly on the saddle only just directing his momentum - struggling against physics with one hand on the bars steering and braking as he headed straight towards us, while in the other hand... a chainsaw! I couldn't believe my eyes. He was drunk as a skunk, yet somehow he did indeed manage to stop - the bike that is, while the chainsaw and his arm came flailing around in front of him as he struggled to put a foot down, almost dismembering Darryn and myself. Of course, the chainsaw wasn't going, and he'd even taken the time to put the safety cover over the blade, but I couldn't have been more shocked even if it had actually been running.

We had a nice cruise along the canal back into town, re-running through the scene in our minds, and chatting about plans for the upcoming cyclocross season. Darryn, I later found out, had been a very successful road and track racer in the 90's, including being the NZ junior national champion. Despite living in Flanders for the past decade or more he only got into cyclocross last year. As we crossed the canal and wended out way through a few intersections (the cycle lanes tend to go up and down over the kerb, around bus stops and next to pedestrian crossings - nice to be separated from traffic, but very confusing with paths crossing, things coming at you from every direction and with different give way rules to NZ) I felt like stretching my arms so took the opportunity on a calm section to sit up and take my hands off the bars for a few seconds.

(Photo taken at a later stage)

Immediately I found a cop on a motorbike beside me grunting at me with an angry look on his face. I tried to use body language to show that I didn't understand, as his bike was so loud. This just seemed to anger him even more and he really shouted it at me now. I told him I didn't speak Dutch, so he asked me where I was from. I still didn't know what he was on about, assuming that perhaps I had inadvertantly gone through a red light at some point. But no, he was telling me to put my hands on the bars saying "I think that in New Zealand it is the same?" in a very aggrieved tone. By this stage I had acquiesced and put my hands back on the bars, so I nodded trying to get him on his way. I don't really know whether it is in fact a rule, but I've never heard of anyone being pulled up for it. I think it was more a case of his day not being the holiday that it was for most other people, and a fairly heavy dose of pent up resentment. He also had a patch of facial hair above his top lip, but it was more of a common or garden moustache, and not particularly magnificent.

Cambridge Terrace, Wellington 2015?

We had a nice evening BBQ with Darryn's family, basking in the night time warmth (I think it got down to around 25º overnight). The next morning I changed tyres and we headed out for a ride on some of the local off-road trails. I was feeling a bit fried, partly due to the temperature at that moment but also the lack of sleep from the heat during the night. I only have my designer Italian sunglasses over here at the moment, and they are quite a dark tint. So although they're great for riding in the sun, (or for doing anything that requires style in the sun) transitions into shady leaf-strewn paths and 4x4 roads with big piles of dumped bricks can make for a bit of blind riding. Lifting my glasses would mean I got dust and insects in my eyes, while continuing to wear them made me worry I would puncture if I couldn't see properly. I probably worried about this too much, and combined with trying to keep up with Darryn on his home circuit meant I had just a bit much going on in my head. It was a nice ride, and definitely a good way to see what the conditions of some of the early cross races are going to be like - at the moment everything is so dry and dusty, sandy even.

Later on Saturday we went into town to look around and have something to eat. Darryn showed me a building with the remnants of a bygone era still present:

Within the grey horseshoe at the top

After some poor service we had a very belated meal at faits divers, a restaurant I probably wouldn't recommend - especially if you have children who can't wait an hour for food. We then headed across the canal to a really nice place with a bar, dancefloor and a huge sandpit and playground for children. I don't remember the name of the place, but it was relaxed and really made it feel like the summer you wish for all through the winter months.

In the morning on Sunday I forgot to change my tyres over to road mode again until the last minute, meaning we were running late for the bunch ride. We met Gabe, a friend of Darryn's, part way there and after a brief team time trial along the canal we joined onto the back of the bunch as it made its way south towards Oudenaarde. There weren't as many people as Darryn has expected, but he'd warned me that they can get a bit carried away racing each other on the run back into Gent along the canal, especially in cross winds. It was a calm day however, so I kept up in the first 20 or so riders and enjoyed the early, more sedate part of the ride.

As we neared Oudenaarde we encountered a few hills, none of which were steep but a few that dragged on for quite a long time. A couple of guys jumped off the front - one of whom I later found out has been busted for doping 5 or 6 times, and used to win Kermis races in solo attacks 60km from the finish, charged up out of his brain. He's a bit older now, but nonetheless keen to give it a good go over and over. As the hill wore on I found myself at the front setting a pace just above comfortable, pulling those two back in. I was feeling good, and still able to take turns at the front once we'd reached the top, rolling along undulating roads and back down to the canal.

The pace on the return leg did definitely step up, but not by as much as I was expecting and it was quite a steady tempo, only occasionally upset by someone having a bit of a go off the front. I managed to hold it together near the front until people started to sprint at the end, which I wasn't interested in doing. I was intrigued by the company we had on the ride, as I was aware that pro's often come along. As in New Zealand, there are many people who wear replica team kits, but some people look so smart and slick with all the gear and muscles and no hair that you have to check the bike to make sure that all the parts fit with the team to be sure whether or not they are actually part of it.

Iljo Keisse at the front right in genuine Omega Pharma Quick Step

Incidentally I saw recently what Quick Step actually is when I was taking out floorboards and putting in new parquet at my friend's cousin's place:

Floorboards - though apparently bottom of the line!

Back in Gent in one piece I was able to relax a bit and watch some of the Vuelta a España before heading to the train station once more. I wasn't as lucky with the return trip to Brussels, because seeing it was a weekend day and very sunny everyone had decided to go to the beach. The train was packed when I tried to get on with my bike, so after initially starting at the back, I passed each door only to see the entranceway full of people staring back at me. As the whistle went to indicate departure, I was running along almost at the front of the platform hoping to find a space. I looked to the conductor, who just looked back cocking his head and shrugging as if to say bad luck mate. So I just grabbed my bike and jumped up onto the train via the closest door. The entranceway had a bunch of people in it, but we shuffled around and made space for everyone.

I hadn't had time to get my ticket before jumping on the train, so was just planning on paying the collector when he came around. The train was so full though, and the trip only about half an hour, that I never saw anyone and got off in Brussels unattended to. I then got on the connecting train to Enghien, which was surprisingly (for 8pm on a Sunday night) a double decker. There was hardly anyone else around, so I had plenty of room for the Yeti and myself to stretch out. Again noone came to collect the ticket I hadn't yet purchased, so I happily strolled from the train out through the station and back home, glad I'd taken the opportunity to jump aboard in Gent rather than waiting an hour for the next train, and saving myself about €15 in the process.

I have to thank Darryn for his generosity, it was great staying with him and his family. I have a much better picture of the scale of the cross scene around Flanders now, and I will be much more prepared for the inherent dangers of riding in and around Gent.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Ronde van Vlaanderen

The other day when I was taking a stab in the dark and riding off in a new direction I came across a sign on the side of the road that piqued my interest:

So I followed it for a while and before long found myself riding along some beautiful country lanes away from the busy roads, with my friends the ubiquitous wheat and corn fields.

At each sign I noticed it still said 114km, so either I was on a giant treadmill not moving anywhere, or this was a loop. Of course it was a loop - a tour of Flanders. I didn't have time to investigate the whole thing that day but decided it would be a good one to come back to and check out in its entirety some time soon. That day ended up being Wednesday this week, with clear skies and everybody off work for the national holiday of l'assomption. I expected it to take maybe 4 - 5 hours, including getting to and from the loop from where I'm staying in Enghien, some 15km away. People go on about how flat the land is in Flanders, so I thought this seemed reasonable. What I missed from what people go on about is that this loop in primarily just in the Flemish Ardennes, which is riddled with hills and bumps of all shapes and sizes. So, 114 very up and down kilometres as I was to find out.

I joined the tour route at Geraardsbergen, most famous in cycling for its cobbled climb up the Muur van Geraardsbergen, or "Kapelmuur" because it leads to a chapel at the top. It's the scene of many famous attacks, such as Cancellara in 2010. Listen to the crowd!

There are a few cafés/bars on the way up, all of which were packed to the gunnels with people enjoying a crisp Belgian in the sun. I chose instead to carry on towards the next feature of the parcours, another pavé climb called the Bosberg.

This one isn't as steep, but the surface is a bit rougher because the stones have loosened over time and become more spaced apart. Getting towards Kinderkoppen status ("children's heads" as the cobbles are known colloquially) but worse was to come. It's quite a nice ride through the trees at a moderate pace, but I can imagine it being quite another thing after already 250-odd kms at a hectic pro race pace.

Not long after this I caught up with an older gentleman cruising along on quite a flash road bike, in nothing but Sidi's and bib shorts with the straps off his shoulders dangling around his waist. His skin was like leather, tanned so as to be I imagined tougher than that of his saddle. He spoke a little French so we chatted briefly, and it turned out he'd already been for a ride that morning out to Bruges. I asked him about the route I was following, and he said that it ended about 3 or 4km up the road. I was a bit confused by this, as I didn't think a loop could really end, as such. How long is a piece of string? How about if you lay it out on asphalt? Well it turns out that the route just turns in on itself briefly, before heading back in a generally Westerly direction that goes north of Geraardsbergen.

The day was heating up and I had with me one bottle of water and three muesli bars. Just to be on the safe side I had some money too, but I probably overestimated the power of my budget as €5 doesn't go all that far. I stopped off at a Frituur for a can of Coke, and realised once I'd stepped in the door that I still hardly know any Dutch. The two guys working there looked to be training buddies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but both greeted me cheerily. I suddenly felt embarrassed and, not wanting to greet them immediately in French, nor presuming to just speak English straight away, I hesitated tongue-tied until the gears started turning in my brain and I remembered hello. Suitably delayed so as to be quite awkward and almost out of context. I quickly got my can out of the fridge and paid the man, slinking back out the door with a sheepish nod of thanks and a mumbled "dank u".

My communication problems couldn't possibly get any worse than this I decided, and so rather than shy away from these occasions I promised to make more of an effort and approach people more readily, with less concern for the accuracy of my utterances. Any greeting is better than silence. I really don't like the feeling of not being able to express myself (I don't imagine anyone does) but especially when I'm generally able to in French, and just down the road it's back to square one again for me in Dutch.

So after a nice cruise down a tree-lined boulevarde I was trying to decipher which direction to interpret the sign as indicating, when a couple came to align their map with the same sign. They were from Gent but as I found out after somehow explaining my lack of Dutch in my non-existant Dutch, they spoke some French. It seems most Flemish people do at least speak a little, but whether they're happy to use it is another question. At least that's what all the French speakers I have met have to say about the Flemish, but so far I've found them to be quite happy to speak French with me. I suppose it's that or nothing though. I keep my English a secret until it's absolutely necessary, then pull out the trump card - I'm a New Zealander. They love it.

As the green route leads me deeper and deeper into the Flemish countryside, I start to notice a few things. The roads seem generally to be in better condition in this part of the country (I read that Hainaut, where I'm staying and the province just south of East-Flanders, is the lowest socio-economically) as is the state of the properties bordering the road. The gardens are so pristinely kept, the brick façades of houses immaculate. Finally the consideration given to cyclists by way of cycle paths and lanes at all times is quite significant.

I'm fairly well disorientated by this point, and hoping that as long as I follow the hexagonal signs placed at every intersection I'll make it out alive, before dark. But sometimes there's an intersection without a sign, or an arrow pointing straight ahead towards a road that splits, veering off in multiple directions. This became quite a common theme for the ride, and at one point caused me to have to double back after a kilometre or more of some pretty juicy "koppen"

As time passes, so washes away the mortar or whatever is used to secure the stones, until all that is left is sand and debris between them. This has a tendancy to make it quite a "rock 'n' roll" ride sensation. With eyes rattling around in your skull desperately seeking the smoothest line to take, trying to avoid the ruts and holes caused by cars and erosion, and every ounce of flesh on your body quivering like you're riding a compactor, it's quite an experience. Quite an unpleasant experience, it turns out, especially after a few hundred metres. I really gained an appreciation for the guys who race Paris-Roubaix and the like, doing it over and over for six or more hours.

Eventually I broke out onto some of the smoothest tarmac I've ever encountered, and a view of the countryside just out of Oudenaarde.

Semi-effective panorama
This is a beautiful town, once again immaculate and unified in its elegant aesthetic. I made my way into the centre, partly by accident, but the signs had stopped and so I wanted to see if I could find some information about where to go. I needn't have worried, as low and behold I stumbled upon the Museum of the Tour of Flanders, of course.

I wasn't really expecting this, so of course I briefly ventured inside to have a peek and hoping to find a vending machine to get another drink. I would have loved to visit the museum but I wasn't really in the best state of attire or comfort for that kind of thing. I got a coke and a fanta, and refilled my water bottle in the toilets. Where I spotted this humorous wee number, so to speak.

Out the front they have a nice display set up:

I found a map of the green route I had been following, along with a red and a blue route, which both take in different parts of the area. The red being more hilly, the blue being more cobbly.
I'd been riding for about 4 or 5 hours by now, and was looking forward to heading back in the general direction of home, as that is where the green route should logically take me. But of course it wends its way up and down and around much more than I was expecting, and so took significantly longer than it appeared it would.

At one point on the way back I stopped at a small tavern to ask for directions and for some water for my bidon. There were two cool old guys sitting out the front smoking and drinking, and both were keen to help. We had a hilarious conversation with bits of French, English and Dutch all mixed together trying to understand each other, with the net result being that they knew the route of the race and that it passed right by and up the hill in front of me.

I went up the hill and sure enough, there was the green hexagonal sign I had been hoping for. Dank u gentlemen.

Due to the combination of my fatigue and therefore inattention, the occasional moss covered or otherwise misplaced sign leading me back and forth it wasn't for another 3 hours that I finally made it back home, exhausted but satisfied that I had got through it. That is to say, I had got through half of it. I realised, sitting down having a cool drink at home, the red and blue routes are still waiting for me to explore them - I had only covered half of the race, a small amount of the cobbles, and not the steepest of the climbs. As they say over here, chapeau to the riders.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Kermesse Success

Today I had my baptism into the world of Belgian cycling, by racing my first kermesse. If you don't know what this means, it's basically a road race that is a bit like a larger-scale criterium. Typically run around a course with multiple laps, today's was 20 x 4.5km laps to make 90km.

This morning I woke up a bit late, having found a way to put the curtain up successfully in the room I'm staying in. This was initially a good thing because it meant I could sleep without a room full of light, and in the morning sleep in past about 6.30 when the light returned. However I didn't count on it being so hot last night, and the mosquitoes buzzing in my ears so it took a while to actually get to sleep. Anyway, as interesting as all that is it just meant I had to hurry a bit to get to my surrogate family's holiday house for lunch, a 45 minute bike ride away.

Summertime in Quenast
After a perfect but all too brief summer lunch, I jumped back onto the bike to head another half hour to Hennuyères, where my friend Michel lives, nestled in the trees with some of the area's best trails just up the road. He was ready to go when I arrived, so we headed along to Seneffe for the race.

The day before I had decided to invest in some road tyres, partly to save my really expensive cyclocross tyres, and also partly to be able to keep up. I'm not a very experienced road racer by any means, I can probably count all the races I've done on my hands. So it was with some trepidation that I paid my €10 and got my number for the day.

Michel had told me that this race was organised by a sort of pirate league, who aren't so rigorous with checking licenses and observing other rules such as previous convictions for doping. So you'll understand doubly so why I was unsure quite what to expect. I needn't have worried though, what with the Yeti in road-mode.

Almost fitted in with the competition's machines
When we were on the start line, Michel exclaimed that it was a shame that the field was small, as it wouldn't be so good for him. I turned around and couldn't see anything but greased-up shaved legs and carbon fibre for a hundred or so metres behind me. What was he talking about? The only race I've been to with more people than that might be the Taupo cycle challenge. He'd also said it would probably be "à bloc" from the gun, so I was prepared to put my cyclocross start into action and give it heaps.

However this didn't really happen, and the first lap was somewhat tame. A few people shouted and grunted and nuzzled their bums into my handlebars, but in all it was not as raw and aggressive as I had been expecting. I wasn't especially disappointed about it, as the prospect of big meaty embrocated Belgians salivating at my nervousness and just waiting to torment me hadn't exactly filled me with confidence. But I did feel like a little bit of a cheapskate, getting a somewhat easy run. Saying that though, the racing was still tough and there were plenty of moments where I was forced into the gutter or gravel.

It was unseasonably hot, possibly 25-30º (even thought it's the middle of summer, it surprised everyone) and I only had one drink bottle, a small muesli bar and a gel. I tried to ration all of the above, but after one bite the bar was gone and I had got through about 3/4 of the water by halfway. I did manage to hold out taking the gel until after an hour of riding, and helped by the caffeine it picked me up no insignificant amount.

They had mixed B and A grades together, with A doing 3 more laps after B finished. As we neared the end of the B grade countdown, we got their bell lap and the pace picked up. Everyone from both races was totally interspersed at this point, so I figured it best to just stay going with the majority of people. As we rounded the final bend and the sprint wound up I took it easy back behind. I was wondering what would happen when they finished, would they all go to the one side, would they carry on riding, would it be chaos with some people stopping on the left, some on the right, some just coasting down the middle of the road and others carrying on racing despite having finished their race and sporting a yellow number pertaining to the B grade race? Well, it was largely the chaos option. Some people pulled over to one side, others to the other, while most coasted and then stuck an indicator arm out just as they were being passed. I somehow managed to wend my way through them all unscathed but causing, I think, a few yelps and other typically French exclamations of alarm.

As our laps counted down I was waiting for the pace to heat up, but it never really did. It did seem to however, but this was mainly due to me reaching the end of my tether, the fog of hypoglycaemia taking me into its arms and stifling me against its abundant and exhaustive bosom. It was a slightly sad way to end what had otherwise been a race I was quite proud of - I'd given it a few goes on the front, off the front into a break briefly, and now just as we started the last lap found myself again off the front, only this time in the less desirable direction.

I rolled my way around, and crossed the line no less proud to be dead last. The way I saw it, the competition was probably equal to some of the big races in NZ, in which I haven't always been able to finish. I also figured some people probably pulled out, so I bet them and therefore wasn't really last at all. Whatever the case, after 90km in just over 2 hours, thus an average of almost 45km per hour, I was suitably wrecked.

That's not supposed to look like a smile
Nobody else there had a sculpted moustache, or italian design sunglasses that I could tell. Or a cross bike either for that matter. So there were definitely a few positives to take from this first competitive outing. The most positive thing was the awesome Michel giving me a lift back home afterwards, saving me what should have been an hour or two ride, but which would have probably turned into a lifetime of vagabondism in the Belgian forest struggling to recall who I was and how I got wherever it was that I found myself.

I've got a weekend in Gent planned for next week, visiting fellow Kiwi Darryn Medhurst in his Flandrian home town. He's been doing a bit of cyclocross in these parts for a while now, so is going to fill me in on the business, and we'll go for a few rides together in that part of the country. After that it'll be only a couple more weeks until the 'cross races begin, and I can't wait.