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!
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".
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"
Eventually I broke out onto some of the smoothest tarmac I've ever encountered, and a view of the countryside just out of Oudenaarde.
Out the front they have a nice display set up:
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.
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.