Landscape, politics and sport: the Ronde van Vlaanderen

Regular readers will know that I like both professional and recreational cycling. Many professional races (such as the Tour de France) hold events called sportives which allow recreational cyclists the chance to ride the same route as the pros. One of the longest-established of these is the sportive attached to my favourite bike race, the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). I’ve ridden it twice and been back to Flanders for a further, different sportive. The first time was in 2010 and I wrote much of what follows shortly afterward. With all professional sport on hiatus at the moment, it seemed a good moment to revisit, and to revise, this piece having considered the role that landscape plays in the race’s history – and its present.

I own numerous books on “De Ronde” – most of them in Dutch because for a very long time there wasn’t much English-language literature on the race. Britain is a latecomer to pro cycling and, understandably, the vast majority of cycling books in the U.K. are about the Tour de France. But when – having been a fan of that race since the mid-80s – I discovered the joys of the Spring Classics around the turn of the millenium, in order to find out more about them I had to teach myself Dutch so I could read the Flemish sports press online.

The Spring Classics are one-day races and, as such, are racing at its purest. There’s no need for coloured jerseys to show who’s the leader: whoever gets to point B from point A in the quickest time, wins, and then that’s that particular event finished for another year. And as these events have been going on for over a century – they are the bedrock of cycling, and the original purpose behind the Tour de France (other than to sell newspapers) was to create an event that was like stringing several classics together – they are among the most prestigious races in existence.

Although stage races vary their routes significantly every year, they have their sacred roads: particular climbs that have attained legendary status within the sport. The Spring Classics necessarily cover far less ground, but that means many of the same stretches of road are used year after year. The most prestigious Classic is Paris-Roubaix, raced in mid-April each year, and which is known as “The Hell of the North” partly because of the infernal cobblestones the route traverses, but also because when it was raced again after the First World War, it literally travelled through a region that looked like Hell.

The Classic which has the strongest link to the terrain that it covers, though, is the one that takes place the weekend before Paris-Roubaix: the Ronde.

***

3rd April, 2010. Under grim skies the dual carriageway into Ninove is stacked with cars, hundreds of them. The hard shoulder in both directions is a car park miles long. Nobody seems to mind. In those cars most recently arrived, a bike or bikes. Beside them, cyclists in long sleeves and leggings prepare in the early April gloom. As we gaze in anticipation from the temporary comfort of the coach, the Astana pro cycling team car passes us, on a mission ahead of tomorrow’s race.

The Ronde van Vlaanderen is the biggest cycle race (and arguably the biggest cultural or sporting event) in Belgium and this, the sportive version, takes place the day before. This small pocket of East Flanders is characterised by a ridge of granite – The ‘Flemish Ardennes’ – some 20 miles in length and never more than 150 metres or so in height. It forms part of the taal grens, the language border between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. The roads, tracks and cobbled back streets that clamber over these little hills make the Ronde what it is.

Short but brutally steep climbs, many of them paved with the impermeable Flemish kasseien (cobbles) punctuate the later stages of this great race. The professionals – and the more masochistic amateurs – begin in Brugge (Bruges)¹ and, depending on that year’s route, will either loop out to the North Sea coast, or wind through West Flanders heading slowly, inexorably, for Oudenaarde, at which point the fun begins.

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I’m registered for the 150km ride which begins in, and loops back to, Ninove. The first, west-bound, 60km or so will be a mere leg-stretcher until it meets the course of the pro race at Oudenaarde. Thereafter the route winds like a pile of spaghetti across the hellingen (hills) back to the start.

As we disembark and start to assemble our bikes, the sky is charcoal-grey and sure enough, it begins to drizzle: this will make the cobbled stretches (about 10% of the total distance) treacherously slippy. Many Belgian roads are made of huge slabs of concrete laid next to each other; called betonweg (literally, “concrete way”) they have an expansion strip between them. In the summer, apparently, the slabs are more or less joined together. On a cold spring morning like today, there is a gutter down the middle of the road just wide enough to gleefully accept a skinny bicycle tyre. I hear this gap later called “The Valley of Death”. My rear wheel slips into it and almost catapults me off. My reaction is to oversteer and I almost lose the bike entirely. But I stay upright, and share a nervous joke with some fellow Brits. It’s our first lesson – and sole welcome – to Belgian cycling. We’re only 5km in.

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The sportive route(s)

I’d wanted to do this ride for years. The Tour de France was my first cycling love, as it is for most cycling fans. But these Flemish climbs, mere pimples though they be next to the mighty Cols of the Tourmalet or Galibier, speak just as strongly and as eloquently of the beauty and rawness of cycling. I love Alpine vistas or Pyrennean panoramas, but a shiny wet stretch of cobbles under a brooding spring sky stirs my blood like nothing else.

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The 2010 full-length professional route

The roads, to my surprise, aren’t closed, which means traffic fore and aft. But more so even than France or Spain, in Belgium drivers understand cyclists. Motorists are patient: weirdly so to us British riders. Everyone has a bike here. Cars amble behind us for a mile or more, waiting, waiting, until they can safely pass. No revving, no abuse.

15km in and the heavens properly open. I stop to pull my rain jacket on, remembering to stop on the right-hand side of the road, to signal the correct way, to look before I rejoin. I’m not used to riding in a group, far less one of 20,000 and in a foreign country. Time to start eating. Got to eat; got to drink. In cold weather you never feel like drinking. I’m going to be riding for at least 7 hours. Got to drink; got to eat.

Then, cobbles. “Kasseien!” the cry goes up from the locals, and we thunder onto the infernal little blocks. We’re on the Lippenhovestraat, followed immediately by the equally-cobbled Paddestraat. It hurts. It’s never-ending. It feels like 3 miles but is barely half that. Nothing I’ve ridden in training has prepared me for this. Over each stone the bike leaps and jolts. Something has jagged into my palm – has something worked loose inside my glove? It feels like I’m being stabbed by a piece of plastic. No, it’s a double blister, grown, swollen and burst within 5 minutes. The bike rattles along, and I have to fight to keep up any momentum. Bidons (water bottles) litter the verge where they’ve popped out of holders.

But! The scene couldn’t be more typically Flemish. Low, dark ploughed fields on either side and distant windbreak poplars; lonely little red-brick bungalows and a huge, heavy sky. Apart from the hell beneath my tyres, this is heaven. This is what cycling is about.

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Flanders in the spring

Oudenaarde²! I cheer feebly, already cooked after 60km and less than 4 hours. The sun briefly appears. We pass the Liefmans brewery – I believe they make beer in this part of the world – and then roll down streets familiar from years of watching Belgian races on TV. The route runs alongside, but doesn’t cross, the river Schelde and we only skirt the fringes of Oudenaarde. In a freezing industrial unit is the first feed station. The energy drink is welcome, as are the bananas, and especially the waffles and the peperkuik, a moist, spicy sponge like drunken gingerbread.

On. We turn onto a cycle path, straight as an arrow, disappearing into the disance. The hills of the Vlaamse Ardennen (Flemish Ardennes) are to my left as we head south west. I look up and see a line of cyclists freewheeling down a slope. This is the start of the spaghetti trail: these riders, only half a kilometre away, are an hour or more’s riding ahead of us.

This cycle path is draining. There’s a headwind, and I drop out the back of group after group, lacking the power to keep pace with other riders. I’ll get through this – barring a mechanical, I never doubt that – but I don’t have the physique of a gutsy Classics rider. I struggle to keep up with an old guy – it’ll turn out later he’s on my coach party, and has done this 3 times before – in his 70s, spinning away in a rhythm I can’t lock onto. I’ll see him again by and by but for now, he’s gone. Bye-bye. Near the huge power plant at Ruien, familiar from the TV pictures, we turn left and onto the Kruisberg.

This first Flemish climb is tarmacced and though steep, I slip into my smallest gear and spin my way up, passing bigger riders who’re grunting and girning. But my advantage over them isn’t physical: I have a triple chainset, which means more gears to reach for when the gradient gets tough. These guys, and the pros, have a double chainset, which will mean a bigger top gear and so better sprinting power. But right now, sprinting isn’t a big concern. The road snakes up the climb.

Then it’s over; at the café on the summit there is a small cheering crowd. A sign, glanced at with passing interest, tells me in both languages of Belgium how far it is to the next climb, the Knokteberg. After a few more hills, I’ll devour the info on these signs, and translate it into a formula roughly thus: pain still to be endured equals distance between hills multiplied by number of hills remaining.

The road dips, sudden and fast, and the crowd is gone. I look up and all the road signs are in French. We’re not in Flanders any more; this is Wallonia.

***

The Ronde is, for the Flemish, the greatest sporting manifestation of their nation, in much the same way that, pre-devolution, the Scots knew that their football and rugby teams were their only presence on the world stage. Consequently, it rarely ventures further into Wallonia than is necessary for it to turn around and climb another hill. A century ago, Flanders was the poor half of the Belgian marriage; Walloon heavy industry powered the nation. In addition, French was the official language, and Flemish/Dutch looked down upon. But the factories and mines have mostly gone, and today’s much wealthier Flemish feel aggrieved at what they believe to be their subsidising of the other half of the country. There is very little in Belgium that is truly shared: both communities have their own parliaments and their own media. As with any expression of national pride, there is a dark side not so far from view. Over the weekend we’ll see posters for the extreme right-wing (and worryingly popular) Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang. And one rider in the queue for the next feed-stop I initally thought merely eccentric had, on closer inspection not just ‘VL’ car stickers on his bike (for Vlaanderen, rather than a ‘B’ for Belgium: fair enough)  but Islamophobic ones, too.

***

Its quieter here: the event is an over-the-border affair. No crowds, but just as much road furniture to avoid. The towns here are a little less well-kept than in Flanders, a little more run down.

The Knokteberg is wooded and claustrophobic at the top, more what I imagine the “real” (Walloon) Ardennes to be like. Then we’re back down hill again, on a street named for the race itself: Rondevanvlaanderenstraat, on which stands a memorial to Karel van Wijnendaele, the race’s founder. Flemish flags surround it: more about them later.

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Monument to Karel Van Wijnendaele, with politically dubious flags

The Ronde was first run in 1913 and was a collosal 324km. The longest of today’s classics, Milan-San Remo, is 298km. The Ronde was intended, as with so many other cycle races (Tour de France & l’Auto/l’Equipe; Giro d’Italia and the Gazzetta dello Sport; Omloop Het Volk and, er, Het Volk) to sell newspapers. Sportwereld, for which van Wijnendaele wrote flowery, purple prose in common with cycling journalists of the time, organised it until recently under the aegis of the owning Het Nieuwsblad paper³.

Today the Ronde, and 5 of the other biggest Flemish one-day spring races, are run by an organisation called Flanders Classics. It’s come in for continued criticism over the last decade and is seen by many – keen to stick to the race’s traditions – as being motivated by charging as many VIPs for priority views of the race as possible. There’s some truth in that charge, but bike racing has to evolve if it is to survive: its sponsor-led financial model is unsustainable in today’s climate.

In packaging these races together, Flanders Classics understandably plays up the history and heritage of the events: Gent-Wevelgem, which passes numerous Western Front cemeteries (and passes through the Menin Gate in Ieper/Ypres) is now subtitled “In Flanders Fields”. The attendant cyclotourism (of which I am a willing participant) also mythologises the role of the Vlaamse Ardennen; increasing numbers of races also use these cobbles and climbs to add a touch of the Ronde’s class to their parcours.

It’s hard to overstate how important this bicycle race has been in creating a Flemish sense of nationhood. Karel van Wijnendaele was instrumental in this, and the landscape through which we ride – the Flemish Ardennes – is, and since it was conceptualised as such, always has been, a politicised one.

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That’s right: “Tour of Flanders Street”

The very name is a challenge to their southern Francophone neighbours, for a start. We have to go back to the early 20th century, when bike racing became properly codified and seriously popular, to see how these twin poles of nation and race have grown together. Bike racing was free to watch for the spectators, and for the participants it offered a way out from a life of (for instance) agricultural drudgery. When Flemish rider Cyrille van Hauwaert won Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, he became the first great Flemish cycling hero, and the sport’s popularity rocketed. Cycling’s emphasis on suffering, and the penance gained through hardship, historically made it attractive to Catholic countries, and it’s no coincidence that cycle racing has been most popular in France, Belgium, Spain and Italy.

Van Wijnendaele himself had very definite notions of what constituted “Flanders”. Today’s Flemish region (see map above) has 5 provinces which equate to the Dutch-speaking area of modern Belgium. But historically “Flanders” referred to a very specific territory, part of which is now in the Nord Department of France (French Flanders), and the Belgian part was, properly, what are now the provinces of East and West Flanders. That’s why the “Tour of Flanders” rarely strays beyond those boundaries (even though it now starts in Antwerp). For Van Wijnendaele “Flanders”, and the “Flandrien” tough-guy riders, referred to East & West Flanders (and the further west, the more echt Flemish, to the extent that he fetishised the Belgian coast. The country’s thin strip of sandy shore is entirely within Flanders: Wallonia has no coastline).

The terrain of the Flemish Ardennes offered a further opportunity to maximise the riders’ suffering – and therefore glory – and so over the years an increasing number of climbs were added to the race. The area seemed a natural fit for Van Wijnendaele’s conception of what constituted Flemish virtues.

Today, the last 150 kilometres of racing (around 4 hours) take place entirely within an area you could cycle end-to-end in well under an hour. The race corkscrews deep into the Flemish Ardennes, as if burying itself in the landscape.

***

A few kilometres after the Knokteberg, the Oude Kwaremont [tr. “Old Square Hill”] is the first cobbled climb of the day, and I fail miserably. It isn’t particularly steep, and the cobbles are even drying in the sudden sunshine. But there’s a technique to riding the kasseien, one I’ve heard over and over: put it in a big gear and power along. The harder you can go, the easier they are to traverse. This may well be true, but you have to be able to get the power up in the first place. I’m looking for someone, anyone, else, to have stopped so I can make the excuse to do the same. I unclip from the pedals and push, frustrated and perplexed. Later I can reflect that if I’d known that I’d still have some gas in the tank at the end of the day, I’d have given the Oude Kwaremont – and the Paterberg, and the Molenberg – more grinta. But those failures are still to come.

I get back on and trundle to the top – got to at least reach the top in the saddle. There’s a long plateau after the actual village of Kwaremont (now the name of a particulary good cycling-themed beer). The road that the cobbles give onto is strewn with riders checking themselves and their bikes. Weirdly, we’re only a few metres from the foot of  Rondevanvlaanderenstraat again – we’ve done 4 or 5 kilometres but covered no ground at all. This is the ultimate route-as-spaghetti moment. Onwards.

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The surface of the Oude Kwaremont

The next hill – de volgende helling – is the Paterberg. I’ve seen the pictures, and though cobbled – and those cobbles in good, tidy condition – I’d always imagined it to be the most sedate and enjoyable of the climbs. Wrong. So, so wrong

Like Paris-Roubaix, the other great cobbled classic race, a crisis point came in the 1960s when road after road was asphalted. Organisers and fans feared for the character of the race; a course must be selective in order to ensure only the worthy become champions. In order to find as many cobbled roads as possible, the route began to focus on the Vlaamse Ardennen (accordingly, it covers less of “Flanders” than in van Wijnendaele’s day). One farmer even cobbled a road on his land on the condition the organisers used it in the race. Thanks to him we have the Paterberg, as fine a looking climb as there is.

It’s certainly picturesque – wide vista across open, gently sloping country and fine views across the landscape – but you hit it after a 90 degree turn and it’s steep. My preconceptions are shattered; it feels like someone has slapped me about the legs.  My own fault. Halfway up the gradient becomes impossible. Unclip and push. I’ve returned to the Paterberg twice, and successfully ridden up it both times, having learned my lesson the hard way.

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The view from the top of the Paterberg, on a quieter day in 2015

The Paterberg’s final present is at the top, when it announces the next hill will be the Koppenberg.

Ah.

The greatest cyclist in history, Eddy Merckx, said this was the only hill he ever had to walk up. The Koppenberg, along with the Muur, is the iconic, legendary, Flemish hill. Danish rider Jesper Skibby’s bike was run over by an official’s car in the 1987 race – it came within inches of going over his leg too – so the hill wasn’t used for 15 years: too dangerous. Too narrow, too steep, too damn scary. It’s 10 minutes riding away; enough time for it to sink in.

And that’s a thing: the climbs come so rapidly, and are over in a few minutes – unlike an Alp, where you could take a couple of hours – that it’s easy to simply not be aware, really aware, of where you are. We’re really here; I’m really about to climb the Koppenberg.

The thought has occurred to others, too: this is the only climb of the day where people gather at the foot in anticipation, as well as at the summit in relief. A sign diverts tomorrow’s race support cars to a detour, avoiding the Koppenberg. That’s how narrow it’s going to be.

Huge billboard murals line the foot of the climb, which shoots a vertiginous path up a wooded gully. These murals are common in Belgium: an artistic expression of the local passion for wielersport. Huge caricature faces astride tiny bikes: Merckx, Flandrien hero Briek Schotte, Lion of Flanders Johan Museeuw, current favourite Tom Boonen, the (then) recently-deceased Frank Vandenbroucke ‘(RIP)’, even Lance Armstrong, who we briefly see in action in the following day’s race. It’s a cliché of long standing that while you can’t play a kickabout on the turf of Hampden or Wembley, you can ride the same roads as your heroes. There is a real sense of ownership, too, and pride: our race, our roads. The locals I speak to the following day are welcoming, and indeed pleased that people would come from abroad to partake in their greatest sporting festival.

And what’s a festival without a flag? The yellow flags with the black Flemish lion are everywhere: in people’s hands, pockets, rucksacks, and stuck into the grass along the route. They’re handed out in huge numbers, and the following day we all claim at least one and happily wave them as the riders pass. But no flag exists outwith politics, and the Flemish one is particularly intriguing. Properly, the Lion of Flanders is black, with red tongue and claws, thus:

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But none of the flags we wave contain that particular detail. Instead, our flags depict lions which are entirely black:

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And what we don’t necessarily realise at the time is that this is a politically-charged emblem, because it’s the symbol of the Flemish independence movement. Now this isn’t the place to get lost in the pros and cons of independence movements. I, like the overwhelming majority of those who support Scottish independence, do so from a left-wing stance. But I would never call myself a nationalist, nor do I consider myself one. There is a left-wing movement for Flemish independence, but it is far outweighed in terms of visibility and popular support by the right and far-right. It’s this which makes problematic cycling’s fixation – fetishisation, if you like – with landscape.

Mike Phillips writes in the April 2020 issue of Procycling magazine:

“We cannot gush about the obscurities of Flemish culture thrown back at us by the great mirror of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, only to recoil when it shows us something we may not wish to see.”

Race organisers Flanders Classics remain politically neutral (or at least silent) but at the same time the marketing of their races necessarily evokes the terrain they cover, and the (problematic word) “legends” that the race histories have generated. In part to offset the fact that there’s no spring classics to watch this year due to COVID-19, I’ve recently bought Flanders Classics’s huge new book about the six races they organise4, and the book’s title is the slightly too-couthy Onze Vlaamse Koersen: Our Flemish Races.

***

The sun is really beating down, now, but there’s no point stopping to take the raincoat off; it’ll be on again soon enough. The Koppenberg is the busiest climb off the route, too: groups of spectators stand on the high verges all the way up the slope. The road is crammed, and many cyclists are walking. Very few will get up here unhindered. I’m not one of them. I give it a go – it’s the Koppenberg, dammit – but the gradient and my slow speed undo me. I wobble, and there are too many behind me to risk upsetting by falling over. Unclip.

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The Koppenberg. It just goes up and up.

I’m lucky. Someone wobbles more than me, goes down, and a volley of Flemish swearwords are fired at him. Despite the sun, it’s a slippery climb – the sun doesn’t reach into the depths of this tunnel-like ascent. I feel less disappointment, knowing that for almot everyone this is what the Koppenberg will be like. Onwards, and downwards. Somewhere outside Oudenaarde a flagging rider will see us whizz down this slope and wonder how long it’ll take them to reach where we are now.

A banner across the road: ‘Aankomst: 75km’. Jesus: we’re only halfway there.

The climbs in the pro race change annually. Most years there are between 13 and 18, of which maybe ten are used every year without fail. The Ronde website (www.rvv.be) lists some 60 or more that have been used in the race’s history. The Molenberg has often been first, but this year is 10th of 15. Next up for me is Steenbeekdries, of which I know nothing. It’s cobbled, and describes a slow, wide ‘S’ up the shoulder of a hill on which a beer tent is being erected for tomorrow. Steenbeekdries marks a turning point, of sorts: it’s the first cobbled climb I haven’t stopped on.

Kids beside the road – I’ll see the same ones several times throughout the rest of the afternoon; a friend or relative must be somewhere near me – wave a sign with the distance to go and shout, in locally-accented English “come on!” That I keep seeing the same riders suggests I’m not going backwards, and even if my bike computer’s sensor was rattled from its perch well before Oudenaarde, it seems I am actually moving through space.

But not quickly. The Haaghoek stretch of kasseien‘s length and gradient threaten to overwhelm me. Grassy bankings rear up to either side and Flemish and Dutch riders power by, pushing huge gears I don’t have the momentum to equal. A slight descent, though, and if you grip the freshly-taped handlebars lightly, but still firmly enough to attempt some sort of steerage, the cobbles are almost pleasant.

Kerkgate stops all that. It’s the kind of false flat I hate more than the steepest gradient, because it gives you nothing to get your teeth into. I can’t get a rthythm. 10, 9, 8 km/h and each kinderkopf, as the Germans call the cobbles – babies’ heads – is an enemy. It goes on forever. Death by a thousand pedal turns. It is the nadir of the day, the most dispiriting minutes on a bike I have ever known. When I returned in 2013 – in what turned out to be the best day I’ve ever spent on a bike – I laid many of 2010’s demons to rest, and even managed to enjoy the pain of the kasseien. But today is purgatory.

***

One factor in this bike race becoming such an emblematic event in Flemish public life is Belgium’s – and particularly Flanders’s – high population density. You’re rarely out of sight of habitation in this race, unlike the Tour de France, which may be in mountains (spectators notwithstanding) or passing through flat, otherwise deserted farmland in la France profonde. Here, there’s always a farm, a house, or a village. Flemish villages, although they cluster around a central church, tend to be elongated in form: look at the satellite images on Google Maps and you’ll see. There’s sometimes barely a stretch of betonweg between the end of one municipality and the start of another.

In race terms, this means the action is always close to people’s homes: consequently it fosters a feeling of ownership. The Tour de France may be a corporate behemoth, but (despite the last decade’s heavy marketing) the Ronde still feels local, like it belongs to the people whose houses it passes. The fact that significant numbers of riders also come from the terrain (or, in the case of foreign riders ike Andreas Klier or Robbie McEwan, have made the area their home) serves only to strengthen these bonds. As a spectator you’re never far away from the supporters’ club of one rider or another. You may be standing next to a family member of one of the participants.

***

The Molenberg [tr. “Mill Hill”], where top favourites Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen will spring clear in the next day’s pro race, is carnage. The gaps between stones are huge, it’s crowded, my gearing’s all over the place and behind me 3 riders go down like dominoes. A clatter of carbon fibre and the snapping-free of cleats. More Flemish swearing. Unclip.

Just past the top, though, everything changes: someone calls my name.

It’s Jaime, from the coach party. A familiar face is welcome right now, and with two riding together, the pace picks up. Now I can find how far I’ve gone, and what time it is. Information is useful; I feel less adrift now.

Jaime’s bike folds. Not like a little commuter Brompton, this is a proper road bike, but with a hinge just above the bottom bracket on the down-tube. The bolts keep working loose on the kasseien, so he has to stop every few kilometres to fix it. I have visions of the front and rear ends splitting beneath him, like something from The Pink Panther.

Soon after comes Berendries. Berendries is steep enough, but is at least tarmacced although very narrow. It’s also unusual in that it’s a suburban street. There are others in the race (the Valkenberg, not used in 2010, is another and of course, still to come, the Muur) but the majority of the hellingen are rurual: or as rural as Flanders ever gets.

Someone on my right is on their mobile. Their mobile! Hands-free, I should add, but even so. Amid the Dutch I make out the word “Berendries”. “Hi, I’m halfway up Berendries. And I have no more gears left.”

Tenbosse next, in the town of Brakel. In the parallelogram of the Flemish Ardennes, Brakel – home to Flemish cycling legend (and two-time Ronde winner) Peter van Petegem – is the heart.

Tenbosse, though, is a mere bump in the road by contrast to what’s gone before. We coast up. No crowd, no fuss or fanfare, but the sign at the top gets the heart a-fluttering. Volgende helling na: Muur-Kapelmuur 10km.

Holy Christ. 6 miles to the Muur in Geraardsbergen. Google “Tour of Flanders” and you’ll either see the Koppenberg, or this curious, and extremely steep, hill. Topped by a smooth green dome with a little church (hence Kapelmuur: see photo at the top), it’s the penultimate climb, and the one where, ideally, the winning move should be made. Indeed the next day Cancellara strides away from Boonen near the top, and by the time the Flemish idol reaches the summit, his Swiss nemesis is a full 300 metres clear. The Muur [tr. “wall”] is the icon of this race.

A rush of adrenaline beating anything I’ve felt all day gives me fresh legs. The Muur! Next!

You can see Geraardsbergen from a distance as we approach. The wooded hilltop draws our attention as the road from Brakel snakes east. Jaime and I are practically giggling with excitement. Unlike the pros, who power into the town in a direct route over the railway bridge and up through the market square, we are diverted in order to keep the town functioning. We warily circle the town centre before bursting onto the climb from a side road. But no matter. There is an expectant silence, punctured only by the grinding of muddy transmission and our heavy breathing. The gradient rears up – 22% in places – but nothing, nothing is going to make me unclip. I’ll ride over writhing bodies on the ground if I have to. My failures on the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, the Koppenberg and the Molenberg are hovering over my shoulder. Got to put those demons to rest.

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On the slopes of the Muur, after the pro race has passed

It just goes up and up and round and up. Then, suddenly, there’s the dome, the final corner where all the photos are taken, and the chapel on top. I’m weaving to avoid slower riders, grateful for the triple chainset. I take the inside line, the steepest. If it’s good enough for Johan Museeuw or Boonen or Cancellara, it’s good enough for me. I allow myself a blatant fist pump as I crest.

It’s busy at the top, too busy to wait long. Jaime and I photograph each other and for a moment, like everyone else, just experience it. “I’m here; I’ve done it.” That there are still 15km to go is irrelevant. Then off down to the Bosberg.

A fast road, and you can see the climb ahead. The cobbles here are harder than I expected but I’m demob happy now and think “fuck it, I’m going to attack”. Attack who, I’m not sure, but I move up a few gears and get out of the saddle. For 50 metres I’m Eddy Merckx, passing people at will. Then my legs realise what’s going on and put a stop to it. At the top it starts to rain, to really piss down in torrents. But the last 10km to the Ninove suburb of Meerbeke is downhill and really fast and I turn a bigger gear than I have all day. Then there are grandstands and a yellow arch at the end of the finishing straight. Jaime and I don’t sprint for the line. We’ve covered 101 miles in 7 hours 56 minutes. I tell myself I never want to see another cobble, but that particular resolution lasts until the next morning as we head out to watch grown men who are actually paid to do what we’ve just paid to do.

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The finish line in Ninove

An increasing number of races now venture into the Flemish Ardennes and use the climbs originally associated with the Ronde. Partly this is to ensure the challenge is tough enough to ensure a worthy winner (and hopefully some star names on the start list), but also in the hope of basking in the reflected glow of the Ronde.

Over the century of its existence the Ronde has had several finishing lines: originally in Gent, and from 1973-2011 Ninove. When the contract with Ninove expired, although the town bid for an extension, it’s telling that the other two competitors for the aankmostlijn were Ronse and the ultimately victorious Oudenaarde.

In tandem with this, since 2012, alongside the full internationalising of the cyclotourism that the Ronde’s popularity has inspired, the race’s trajectory – and that of several others – seems no longer able to escape the gyre of the Flemish Ardennes.

 

¹ Since 2017 the race has begun in Antwerp.

² Since 2012 the race has ended in Oudenaarde. This pretty market town has capitalised on cyclo-tourism, and it’s where I stayed the last time I was in Flanders. It’s also the home of the Tour of Flanders museum (one of at least 3 cycling museums in Belgium).

³ In a lovely little touch, on Sunday we discover that copies of the race-day Het Nieuwsblad paper come with a free tin of Primus beer, with the Ronde route printed on the side. Ten years on I still have the tin, unopened.

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4 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, the Ronde, Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl

 

Header image: Tom Boonen on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen (C) Cor Vos

All other photos: me and Jaime Tolentino

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