It’s on the approach to the Molenberg that I start to think today may be more than a gentle race day spin along the course of De Ronde. We lucky few journalists, competition winners, sponsors, friends of friends and hangers on have been gifted the opportunity to ride 100km on closed roads to celebrate the 100th edition of the race.
Now, I see Johan Museeuw moving up on my right, putting it in the big ring and warning of the imperative to hold your speed through the ninety degree left hand corner onto the first cobbled climb of the day. This is quite a thing… A guy who I had a poster of as a teenager, who I watched destroy Paris-Roubaix in the mud at the age of 36 is my wheel to hold up the 300m of off-camber stones. Not for the first or last time today, I’ve got goosebumps.
Lets take a step back... The day began with a buffet breakfast served by a man from Drongen as eager to talk cycling as he was to sling pastries. It turns out he used to coach Tiesj Benoot at soccer.
"He was a goalkeeper, but I dropped him because he wasn’t good enough. His father went crazy at me! I saw him again after De Ronde last year and I said ‘Good thing I cut your son!’ and we had a laugh about it". His other revelation is that Tiesj’s brother is a talented ballet dancer.
Eddy Merckx, the company not the man, have kindly provided me with a bike for the day. A top-of-the-range prototype from the 2017 range. The bike is super stiff and over the first section of cobbles, Ruiterstraat, was also impressive at soaking up the vibrations. No excuses today.
The small world of Flemish cycling is evident all day. In Oudenaarde’s pretty main square Museeuw keeps running into old acquaintances as we wait to depart. The guides from the local cycling school who keep the ride together get countless shouts from fans lining the roadside as we roll through ahead of the real races.
Once we turn onto the Molenberg, I concentrate on trying to hold Museeuw’s wheel and copy his line as much as possible but as he takes the steepest line on the right-hand corner, there is no way I can match his power. Still pedalling as smoothly as he ever did and with no movement of his upper body at all he rolls away from me as I start to fight the gradient, yanking on the bars with all the grace of Santiago Botero in his pomp.
One of the great things about today, apart from indulging ourselves in the fantasy of being pro riders, is the insight you get into how the race works from the inside. At the top of the climbs, our leading car slows right down to enforce a regrouping. As I look back, however, I can see that the 100 riders in our group are completely strung out and that, if those on the front kept riding, there is no way they would get back. This must happen on every single climb and cobbled sector in the pro-race.
The approach to Paddestraat a few kilometres later again illustrates the importance of positioning in the leadup to the climbs and cobbles. We fly down the short descent out of Roborst and the sharp right onto the cobbles, where Phillippe Gaumont, fresh from a night on the razz, broke his wrist in 1999, ending Frank Vandenbroucke’s attempt at a crushing victory, is taken full gas by the front riders and the pace is high from the start. Here we start seeing families who live along the route starting to take up position at their front gates, children shout encouragement and the traditional man clutching a beer in each hand is already present and correct.
A striking feature of riding these sections hard in a big group is just how packed the course is, one difficulty follows another and you feel in a race you’d either be hanging on or chasing back until you just couldn’t any more. As we turn off the main road and begin the climb up towards Horebeke and the Haaghoek cobbles, Daniel Lloyd explains to a GCN colleague that junctions like this are the most dangerous part of the race. A period of respite allows the peloton to bunch back up and chancers start to try and find a place near the front just as 180 riders make a sharp turn at speed onto a road half the size of the one they left. Sure enough, later in the day, Greg Van Avermaet ends his day on this exact spot as his team attempt to position him and Manuel Quinziato hooks his bars around another rider’s.
Haaghoek is excellent fun at any time, but following a former pro round the outside of a group at 55kph on the initial cobbled downhill is just incredible. Straight after the cobbles we sprint up the Leberg. There is a timed section on the next climb, Berendries, and a fight for position ensues on the fast descent into Brakel. I’m not sure who starts it, but suddenly we all get a taste of what it must be to be in the race at full gas. We’re sprinting downhill, well above 50kph and using the whole road. Corners are taken with the lines you’ve always wanted to but never could and from my 20th or so position, I see the bunch ahead briefly split in two to navigate a traffic island. Just like on TV! The GCN guys seem to have the timed segment sewn up. At least that’s what I thought I saw through my blurred vision. I can, however, definitely recall the smell of barbeque and the man running alongside me yelling "Hup! Hup!"
There's no regrouping at the top, instead we enjoy a fast run down into Brakel for a quick break and something to eat. I spend the time talking to Keith, a competition winner from Las Vegas, in Europe for the first time. His prize, from Visit Flanders, has included dinner with the mayor of Brugge, a 90km ride with Johan Museeuw, a trip the Merckx factory and a seat at a Q&A with the man himself. "It’s just been crazy." He beams "The whole week just kept getting better!" He’s also been able to winkle some stories about his favourite riders out of the American journalists present. Sadly, none of our colonial contingent appreciate my jokes about Taylor Phinney’s art or injury-inspired personality change.
The most memorable portion of the middle of the ride is the rollercoaster ride from the top of the Kaperij down to Ronse, where we hang a right and climb the Kanarieberg. I’ve never got on well with this hill. It’s just too steep in all the wrong places. Once your momentum from the descent has gone, it really kicks up. Twice. We can hear the music from a roadside party in the adjoining field already, and as the fans spot us, the first riders of the day, they come charging across from their barbeque to cheer us over the top. To cheer us on! A bunch of otherwise unremarkable riders out for what, in reality, amounts to a well organised club run.
I’ve always been sceptical of athlete’s comments about the crowd giving them energy. It always just seemed a hokey, clichéd appeal to the emotion of the fans to keep the money coming in. As the Kanarieberg bites for the second time and my legs start protesting about the 400km of punishment I’ve poured into them in the previous three days, the noise surrounding me seems to spur me into keeping the pressure on the pedals long after I would normally back off. I don’t know if it’s just the fear of looking like an idiot in front of a lot of people, but it’s exhilarating. Even if I’m just playing at racing De Ronde, for a moment it feels real.
The run between the Kanarieberg and the second "timed" climb of the day the cobbled Kruisberg, only reinforces the delusion. Once again, its GCN motivating a frankly terrifying descent into Ronse capped by me pulling the, if I do say so myself, fully pro move of bunny hopping a kerb to use the pavement to move up the bunch at 55kph. The Kruisberg and I don’t get on so well. The stones always seem just a little too far apart and too rounded on the top to ever flow over. The top-secret and super stiff Merckx is up to the task, however, and my progress is stately, if not up to the crazy tempo being set up front.
After cresting the Hotondberg, our ride entered its finale. A 60kph descent of the Nieuw Kwaremont (the scene of Cancellara’s bidon-inspired downfall in 2012), the smoothly surfaced main road that leads down to Berchem at the foot of it’s more famous sister, gives a frightening look into the lives of the real Flandriens as we swerve around parked cars, see spectators lean into, and in some cases run across, road as we approach. Two sharp right handers take us onto the asphalted bottom section of the Oude Kwaremont and suddenly all hell breaks loose.
We’re no longer the first riders of the day to pass this point and the crowds lining the road three deep have already seen the men pass once and the women twice. They’ve also been stood in the sun, in a field for five hours with nothing to do but eat, drink and sporadically watch bike race through. They would cheer almost literally anything at this point and the noise is deafening. As we hit the cobbles people are screaming in my ear.
I know this hill, and I know it’s easy to waste your effort on the steeper and rougher bottom half. So I shift down into the little ring and pick my normal line. At this point, I want to soak up as much of the atmosphere as I can. I’ll never be here again, in the middle of the biggest day of sport that Flanders has to offer, standing on the stage. I let my eyes wander up and down the lines of spectators. The Flemish lions waving furiously, flags from Britain, Australia and Italy. Somebody even shouts my name as I emerge from the shade of the houses into the open square of the little village of Kwaremont.
As the cacophony around us gets even louder, I see that Dan Lloyd has stopped to fill up his bidon with beer and steal somebody’s hot dog at the exact point that I know I need to shift up. My stealth-bike has been equipped with electronic shifting which moves the chain really well on the rough cobbles into the big ring as I set off in pursuit of the riders I let go on the first half of the climb.
Another shout of my name (I identified these mystery super-fans later!) and I’m emptying out everything my tired legs have left. Again, the crowd’s enthusiasm gives me a lift and I’m passing riders as I go along. Later on Fabian Cancellara’s efforts to catch Sep Vanmarcke and Peter Sagan will make my speed look positively pedestrian, but for now I’m feeling like a god.
It’s a pity the Kwaremont has to end, but the descent to the Paterberg, the day’s last difficulty soon makes me forget it. Stijn Devolder slid off into a field here last year and you can see how easily it was done as we slalom through S-Bends at 60kph before hitting the right turn onto the 600m pitch that tops out at 20%.
The Paterberg lacks the historical cache of some of the Flemish Ardennes other climbs. It was built in 1983 by a farmer jealous of his friend who lived on the Koppenberg. The climb passes in much the same daze of noise and colour as the Kwaremont and I’m barely able to keep the pedals turning after four consecutive days of more than 100km.
We take the 11km flat ride back to Oudenaarde at a steady pace to ensure the group finishes together. The bleachers and roadside are eerily empty as we cross the line, the fans in the VIP areas are still enjoying watching the race on the big screen inside but that can’t dent my spirits as I look around at the beaming faces of my companions. The day has been a truly amazing experience and one I’ll never forget. I thought living in East Flanders had given me an insight into the way De Ronde was raced, won and lost but today has taken my appreciation of the race and especially its fans to a whole new level.
NB: This experience was provided by Visit Flanders and the bike by Merckx Cycles.