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Photos: Jeff Clark
The cobblestone climbs of Flanders. They have become shorthand for suffering and epic deeds, for passion and endurance. There is a romance to the stones, a spell they weave that most cyclists fall under. While we will watch our heros race during Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, and 100 million viewers around the world will, the opportunity exists to ride the course on Saturday, complete with barriers, course markers, timing chips and police controlled intersections. It’s a bit like getting your buddies together for a quick game of flag football at the Superbowl stadium the day before the big game, except in Flanders the riders on Saturday even get a few drunk fans heckling them as they try their luck on the Koppenberg or Paterberg.
The Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo offers three ride options, 75 km with less than 1000 meters of climbing, 134 km with 1600 meters and the full pull all the way from the official race start in Brugge, 245 km with 2100 meters of climbing. While the first two start and finish in Oudennarde, the finish of the actual race, the shorter 75 km route misses some early climbs and cobbles but all routes finish over the same course once the diabolical Koppenberg is reached, including the deadly one-two knockout punch of the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
With over 16000 riders on the course you can forget about Strava. This is an event to help you better understand just what the pro riders have experienced here for over 100 years, not add to your digital palmares. The Koppenberg is so clogged you will most likely be stopped dead half way up by riders resorting to their feet for lack of fitness on its 20% cobbled slopes. You will see a crash or two, usually from riders pushing a pace unsafe on the packed, narrow streets. You will be forced to dodge water bottles and saddle packs jarred loose due to the severity of the cobblestones. None of this matters.
The Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo is a very special day. You will gain an incredible appreciation for just how hard this race is, even in the warm, dry weather experienced this year. There are the legendary climbs that break the race apart in the finale that we know so well, but there is so much more. There are cobblestone descents that seem very unwise at 15 mph and suicidal at any speed approaching 30 mph, which of course the entire World Tour peloton will exceed. There are less storied paved climbs that will hurt your lungs every bit as much as the famed cobbles. There are cross winds and tight, windy roads. All of these things come in rapid succession once the final 110 km are reached. How the pros manage to maintain position in the bunch, communicate with each other, stay fed and hydrated and, heaven forbid, do a wheel change is mind boggling once you have completed the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo. Then there is the ride home after the Paterberg. In 2013 Cancellara made it seem as though the race was over with a six second gap on top of the Paterberg. There are still 16km to ride from there, flat kilometers along the canal to Oudenaarde with cross winds hurtling across the farm land. Glory may await Cancellara, Boonen or Sagan, but the cool beer and hot frites in the sunny city center after the ride are reward enough for mortals.
The Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo is about gaining an appreciation for the race, the route, the climbs, the cobbles and, above all, the men that can do more than survive over the viscous kilometers. Every rider with that little nagging voice in their head when they watch the race on Sunday, ‘Just how hard is it?’, should make the pilgrimage to Flanders and find out for themselves on the Saturday before the big dance. You will never watch the race the same way again.