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


  1. Great story Alex! Wishing you all the best, from an airport lounge in Sydney. Soon, I'll have a Colorado tale to exchange you for more brilliant Belgium.

  2. Nice one, Achmel! I'm enthused to one day retrace your pedal strokes on these Roads of Champions. Chapeau, breau.

  3. You are lucky that wasn't Larry beside the road - your meusli bar would definitely been consumed ! Notman-Millers say Hi . x