Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Ronde van Vlaanderen: How to Ride Cobbles

This will be the final post in my trilogy of Ronde van Vlaanderen novels, featuring suspicious characters and shady exchanges of all varieties: be it pecuniary, alimentary or linguistic-ary. Sometimes even all three together. Most of the time, in fact.

Last week I made my familiar migration over the hills (I have since found out it's actually about 40km each way, taking about an hour and a half) to the town of Oudenaarde to complete the final leg of the coloured triumvirate that I began a few weeks ago. All that remained for me to discover was the blue route, which covers 80km and in particular some of the longer and rougher sections of pavé, or cobblestones.

This loop heads North out of town, generally in the direction of Gent, before veering East to Zottegem, and back around to the South through a series of twists and turns until it arrives slack-jawed and trembling once again on the doorstep of Oudenaarde. It is pretty flat, at least on paper, but as these things always feel like in reality, it's up and down most of the time. Not only that, but there seemed to be a fairly brisk headwind at all times, just to make sure it wasn't any easier than its hillier brothers, the orange and green routes.

The first section of cobbles goes past one of the first of the Molen (windmills) that I have seen here, and I can tell you they're as quaint in real life as are the stereotypically bucolic countrysides you see them in, on TV documentaries and in National Geographic photospreads with the be-clogged people of Holland and Flanders. I was concurrently trying to make it through the constant bumping and clanging of this stretch of cobbles as I took the photo, so my hands were anything but still. Somehow it seemed to come out alright!

I'd heard it said, probably by Phil Liggett or some other mollusk of the cycling world, that the best way to ride pavé is to chuck it into a big gear and pedal at a moderate yet comfortable cadence, maintaining a decent clip. This is definitely good advice, as the bigger gear keeps tension on the chain which stops it from slapping the frame so much, and potentially falling off. But there's a limit to how much comfort one can expect to enjoy across terrain such as this. Some of these sections were two to three kilometres long, so even cranking along it's still a few minutes as least. Plenty of time to rattle loose those fillings, expose your root canals have you grinding what's left of your teeth down into blackened stumps. And that's not to mention the other parts of your body that will suffer: hands, eyeballs, internal organs. In the interest of keeping your bum comfy, it's necessary to stand slightly out of the saddle, taking the weight with your arms and thighs. Combine the large gear, trying to ride fast so as to even out the bumps, then standing up, and it adds up to be an absolute killer for your thighs. Interestingly however, of all things I found the itchy bites on my arms and hands were the most affected by riding cobbles. I suppose it's because they are quite firm when swollen (mine tend to get very large, I don't know if it's an allergy or what) so they shake around and feel like they're coming loose. If only they did!

You're in for some chop, riding the waves of cobbles
Steady as she goes, captain.

I was making pretty good progress through Doorn, but I could hear a car approaching from behind. It's a funny sensation, the more you ride on the road the better you get at judging the stealthy approach of vehicles. But riding on pavé turns all this upside down. You hear noises, plenty of them, but they're all coming from your bike. Bits of your bike that don't even move make noise. You hear cars approaching all the time, sometimes very convincingly, only to look back over your shoulder and find a deserted stretch of road between the cornfields behind you. Your bike is capable of making all kinds of new and interesting noises in such a setting, but almost every time you hear an unusual one that could be a vehicle, it's just your rear wheel messing with you. When you do actually witness a car drive over cobbles, you wonder how you could ever have thought that the noise from before was a car. They are so much louder, and you can feel the ground resonating beneath their wheels. That is, if you can feel anything at all. This time I was correct, and there was in fact a Police car on my tail. I was riding more or less in the centre of the road, trying to find the smoothest line over (although most of the time it was between) the ramshackle cobbles. I was worried my bike was going to disintegrate beneath me, such was the roughness of the ride, so I wasn't really in a mood for moving aside into the even more marginal state of roading on the right. Whether they were being patient or just not in a hurry I don't know, but they didn't catch up to me.

I was then able to enjoy a very pleasant hour or so until the next setion of pavé. You really appreciate how buttery-smooth a normal road surface is for the next 5 minutes or so after cobbles, it's like ice cream on a really hot day. The next step was Paddestraat, 2.4km long. At least the first section of it, that is.

Then just when I thought I'd made it through alive, I crossed a main road and was hit with this, an old Roman road. Cobbled too, of course.

So I don't know how long it was in total, but by the end of it I was worried my arms were going to give way beneath me. It's really hard to change gear when you're cobbling along as the bike, and therefore the chain, is jumping around all over the place. Your hands are also sort of floating somewhere around the handlebars, which isn't a very secure feeling either. You've basically got to pick your gear early and stick with it. I learned this fairly early on, and likewise how to put on a Belgian hard-man grimace. It's easy enough to peel off again when you're through the worst of it.

I stumbled upon what I think is probably the nicest looking goat I have ever seen while on this ride. I've never seen so many goats as in the backyards and hobby farms that are scattered all over these lands. I can only assume people tend to them for the milk and thus cheese products they can produce, because they certainly aren't kind to your front lawn. They'll eat anything - thorns, grass, steel wool - but they normally won't leave it looking pretty. Here is my new friend, who was obviously proud of his patch of pasture:

I think it helped not getting lost or going the wrong way at all on this particular occasion, as the 80km loop took me about three hours, roughly (but) as I had hoped. As I made my way back home to Enghien I stopped off at a Frituur for a drink and a snack. The owner was a slightly washed-out looking character, but very friendly and happy, enthusiastic even, to point out in detail all the different sizes and vessel materials that he had of Coke for sale. I spotted a chocolate milk for €0,80 and so, reminiscing the week I spent practically living off that stuff during the Kiwi Brevet in February, snapped it up along with a can of coke and a small Milky Way.

That was an unnecessary description of the Milky Way. An unusually principled stalwart of tradition, the Milky Way has always been small, curiously yet nobly remaining steadfast against the tide of ever-increasing chocolate bar size. I don't recall seeing them around much lately, perhaps they stamped out millions of them in the 80's and 90's then closed the factory, and those that remain as yet unconsumed are really historic artefacts of a bygone era. Even if that were the case this one was still particularly delicious, and with no discernible discoloration despite potentially being as old as me.

I took a seat and attempted to read the newspaper I found in front of me. I was able to make out a bit of it, mainly because I was familiar with the story already. It was just after the big drama involving Lance Armstrong had begun to escalate:

As I was seated doing my best impression of comprehension, the owner came over to me with several pastries on a napkin. He was clear to point that they were yesterday's, but that I could have them if I wanted. I had one pain au chocolat, but after the Coke, chocolate milk and Milky Way, didn't think I could handle any more. He put them in a bag for me and bid me farewell. He was a cool guy, and whether it was because he didn't know too much English or if he was just patient, he let me try out my somewhat increasing ability to butcher the Dutch language with him. I made a point to remember where I was, so that I could stop by another time.

Each time I pass through Geraardsbergen I take special pains to go up the Muur-Kappelmuur. Partly because it's on the way and avoids busy roads up the hill, but mainly because it's just such a cool place and you can't help but feel like a legend of cycling history when you crest the final rickety rise. This time I was climbing to a big crowd of spectators, lining the street on both sides cheering. Well, maybe they were just talking, but either way they were buzzing in anticipation for what I soon found coming up where I had just been:

It was the Stadsprijs Geraardsbergen voor dames, I assume, a kermis race that (at least for the men) has been going on for nearly 100 years in this town. I saw the Australian girls that I nearly got to talk to the other day, still slogging it out in the race on the last lap when it goes up over the Muur. I watched as they all made they way past, most looking pretty whacked by this stage, then continued back home for some pasta and a salad.

The previous week when I was climbing the Muur I saw a sign advertising the Stadsprijs race on Wednesday 29th of September. I could see that it was for professionals, but when I went to the website I saw that there were wildcard entries available for riders without a contract. I spent a few days wondering about this, and with some encouragement from Darryn I was going to try and enter. When it got closer to the time and I still hadn't entered I thought it was probably not going to happen. But after being there for the women's race it made me really want to just go in it, regardless of the fact that I'd be racing professionals and the moment they put on the gas I would be spat out the ass, so to speak (I realise an ass is actually an animal). So the next morning I took it upon myself to phone the organisers and see about getting myself amongst it. I'll let you know in another post how it all panned out.


  1. Nice one mate, love reading your accounts... bring back some awesome, painful memories of the cobbled bergs. Can't wait to get back there next year!

  2. I'm loving this stuff, Alex! Keep up the great work and the lyrical and evocative writing that talks so well.

  3. great read alex! keep enjoying yourself

  4. Oh, itchy bites - poor you! Try out your Flemish in a chemist shop and ask for calomine lotion.

  5. Alex dude, the itchy bites will last only a month, the swelling is an immune response apparently. So once you're immune system starts to recognize the venom youll swell up like a golf ball, only takes about 2 years!!. My initial reaction to Nz sand flys was reminiscent of the elephant man, nowadays a visit to the west coast doesn't Strike fear like it did back in 97..
    Loving your work by the way... Great writing, I promise to make a pledge next month..
    Go the mo
    Rob k

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