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The Magic of Flanders By Bike

Looming Koppenberg
Chris Fontecchio

[Departing thoughts from the plane. That’s a warning, mind you. Also I’m going to use Belgium and Flanders a bit interchangeably, but mostly I mean East and West Flanders, and border areas in Wallonia and France.]

When I say Flanders is a magical place to be on a bicycle, I think I’m talking about something other than the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But I’m not sure.

Such judgments... I mean, where exactly have I been by bike? Just now we flew from Brussels to Frankfurt. Belgium and Germany have a few things in common. They certainly make up a few upper steps on the Beer Pyramid, along with the UK and, I dunno, the Netherlands? Scandinavia? The US in the era of microbreweries? Something like that. So when I celebrate Belgian beer it’d be naïve to act like they have some sort of monopoly.

Abdij St. Sixtus
Chris Fontecchio

Then there is the landscape. Around the Rhine (I think?) there were lots of hills, higher than the Vlaamse Ardennen, probably sporting some lovely country lanes and maybe even the odd stretch of cobblestones. Maybe this is similar terrain to the achingly lovely Limburg province of the Netherlands, or some of the Wallonian Ardennes, the larger ones, housing gems like Namur and the roads of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The oldness of the country lanes and the simple beauty of them has to be something you can find all over western Europe, no? Maybe even eastern Europe and who knows where else. The point of this ramble is to assure you, I am doing my best to avoid being blinded by the narrowness of my personal experience. It might be just as satisfying to relax with a beer in a hot tub after a day of riding around the Rhine.

So Flanders, Hainault, and by extension the Nord-Pas de Calais Départment of France don’t have some sort of global monopoly on great places to ride, or even the particular characteristics that make riding in Flanders so special. But there has to be a difference, at least of degree, amirite? Athletes from all over Europe and the New World swear by the unique joy of riding in Flanders. They list off the same things I could cite: small roads, climbs, pastoral loveliness. Maybe they have their own version of lovely riding spaces back home, but in the end, they all agree that there’s something about Flanders.

Chris Fontecchio

That something is the Ronde. History drips from every corner of Europe, and you can ride a bike anywhere, but the merger of cycling and history into the Ronde van Vlaanderen is the extra ingredient you can’t find anywhere else. The cobblestones don’t merely look beautiful and speak to a past where all roads led to Rome or somebody’s quiet farm; they speak to the giants of the sport waging war for glory once a year, invading the almost impossibly quiet spaces of the Flemish countryside with its brooding churches and tiny villages, tidy farmhouses and bleating lambs, interrupting all of this for a day so that the people of Flanders can become fully visible to the world as they scream encouragement to their heroes, to all the cyclists, to cycling.

Village center, West Flanders
Chris Fontecchio

Yes, it’s the endless network of small, quiet roads, in Flanders and Wallonia, where you can ride away from cars, up and down, even on the flats, sometimes that is tremendously fun too. Riding the roads of Paris-Roubaix, over the political if not cultural border, I couldn’t help but imagine I was in the race, alternating between grinding it out on the cobbles and gliding across the pavement, cruising through the endless corners, like a true cyclist. Our friend Broerie guided us around Hainaut, in the Francophone corners of the Flemish Ardennes, where things were even quieter and more anonymous than the famous race courses, but not one iota less rideable or lovely. Past all manner of livestock, even the inexplicable miniature horses, with a thick air of manure all around us.

It’s the small villages, where you can always find a pub and a glass of beer, probably next to the church. The church where if you can poke your head inside you can determine just how esteemed this village was during the height of the cloth trade, when churches were monuments to the area’s success. The Sint Hermes Church in Ronse is a regional one, on a grand scale with soaring ceilings and beautiful works of art painted onto canvasses ten feet high.

Satan and Jesus
Chris Fontecchio

It’s the cobbles, the flat ones and the hellingen, that challenge you to do something you could only do by putting in some work to be better than who you’d have been if you’d just chosen the easy way in life. It may seem silly to think of myself as an athlete, a man my age and shape, and I don’t. But I’m doing what I can, because I love it but also maybe I’ll live a little longer or better, or just be a bit harder to break. If I can get up the Paterberg or the Oude Kwaremont, or if I can get across the Carrefour de l’Arbe without regret, then I’ve accomplished something of a long term plan for my physical self. If I can get up the Koppenberg without stopping… well, then at the very least a little more sure about that last sentence.

There are still several hellingen by which I haven’t checked my name, so I can’t claim to be an authority on all such things, but so far that’s the hardest of the Flemish climbs. We trekked out to Mont St. Laurent south of Ronse, which is probably longer than the Koppenberg, but wide and consistently 10 or so percent, no deadly kicks to 15 or 20 and no narrow edges closing in on you as the lumpy granite under your wheels knocks you from side to side. I’ve made it up the Paterberg just about every time I’ve tried, gulping air at the top like I just crawled out of a burning barn, but as terrible as the gradient is, you can always see the top and it isn’t far enough away to justify stopping. I’ve made it over the cobbles of Roubaix, because no matter how terrible you are at it, you can keep going if you and your bike can keep your respective composures. I’ve made it up the Muur, carried by a magic fervor and the oxygen that comes back to your legs every time the gradient pauses between city blocks.

Chris Fontecchio

All of those are physical accomplishments and I’m proud of them, but our crew talked about why the Koppenberg is different and we all agreed (I think) that it’s just intimidating. From below you can see most of the climb, including where it bends twice, gently, in the middle section, the worst of the worst. From below it looks absurdly narrow, and that alone smells like trouble. But you can’t see the top, not from the start and not from the middle section, when you hit the 20% grade and your legs are screaming, not til you emerge from the trees and the road leves, and then it’s still pretty far away. It’s unnerving before you even start and the stones begin to mock your puny human form.

I tried it twice, and confidence was the determining factor each time. The first time I was excited and unprepared, came out too fast, and the dread flooded my legs and my brain at the same time, just after the worst part. Jens came by me (I’d passed him) and kept his composure all the way. We had a nice handshake at the top, he’d done something good… and he also showed me the error in my ways. Three days later I was back, a little more broken in and a lot more confident I’d get over the Koppenberg, and at no point in the climb was it in doubt. It hurt like hell, but I’d gone slow enough to just be in the red, not the purple or the black or whatever comes next if you’re foolish enough to find out. [At my age, I don’t want to know.] I knew I could turn the legs a bit longer, and I did.

Chris Fontecchio

This is a bit of a philosophical question: what are you even calling success? All day long in the Paris-Roubaix sportive guys passed me on mountainbikes in the gutters of the pavé secteurs, feeling none of the shock to their wrists and hands, grinding it out but with something less than the maximum helping of misery. Seven years ago I rode the Trouée d’Arenberg on 23mm tires and a steel road bike, with the gaps between the stones grabbing my back wheel with their malevolent hands. The answer is, success is whatever you want to call it. If you just want to be there, then fat tires and shock absorption is maybe enough (and rolling a mountain bike is its own challenge compared to a crotch rocket). Using old school skinny tires would constitute one’s own forest of trials, probably ending in the trial that comes with changing a tire in the middle of your magic moment.

For me, when I ride here I don’t want to get too far away from the road racing experience that brought me to Flanders and France in the first place. I rolled 28mm Gatorskin (semi-slick) tires on a ‘Cross bike with the usual technology augmented in places by carbon fiber. I’d have brought a rode bike if money were no object, but my two road bike choices are a bike I cherish too much for such pounding, and another I don’t cherish enough to spend my vacation on it. My Ridley was a sensible choice and didn’t take me too far from how the pros gear themselves up.

Chris Fontecchio

With the help of our FSA friends, I decided to take advantage of 2017 technology, without veering off-course either in terms of experience or extravagance. My frame is an aging Ridley Crossbow and my components are mostly Campy Chorus, also aging but OK, so the objective in prepping a cobbles bike was to work around the basic setup with some shock absorption and the right wheels. For the latter, I rode a pair of FSA Trimax 35s, bomb-proofed for this kind of riding but still reasonably light and untroubled by crosswinds (35 being a reference to the 35mm rim depth). My bars and seatpost were K Force carbon by FSA, and while nothing short of full suspension was going to take the pain away, I could definitely tell the difference in my hands when I got in the drops and let the full length of the bars do their thing. Do I sound like I’m doing a bit of product repping? Sure, but that’s the beauty of working with sponsors who know what they’re doing. So, much love to our friends at FSA for helping me design a tough, no-nonsense cobbles machine.

My point is, I don’t begrudge anyone whatever version of the ride they choose to have in Flanders or France, even when they are passing me looking something less than shell-shocked. I can’t stop thinking about the races and chose my path accordingly, but with one climbing gear at least as a concession and a bike that was right for the job. So I don’t want to sound all hard-core, when I’m really not. Bikes nowadays are made a million ways so that everyone can try to find what suits them best. You know it when you ride it, like I did.

Cloth Mill, Ieper
Chris Fontecchio

Back to the scale of the plan, I don’t know what the right amount of time is to fully cover the Vlaamse Ardennen, and I don’t know that anyone apart from the locals or Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix could speak to the whole list of places to ride in that part of France. I don’t know how much of West Flanders is enough, either. We did a route called the Vredesroute (Peace Route) that took in a selection of Great War graveyards — huge, notorious ones for the dead on both sides, as well as a couple small sites tucked behind some trees — and the experience is one that shrinks your sense of what you knew about the dark side of humanity, once you add up what you’ve seen to what else you could have seen to the endless ocean of tears encircling the northern half of France. Yes, you can ride in this area for the joy of it, or for the pain. Probably a few other inner journeys are possible too.

I do know that our home base in Ronse was utterly ideal for riding in Flanders. I’d say the same about Oudenaarde, and maybe a few smaller villages where you might find the odd BnB or rental home; this is a vacation destination after all, at least according to a few signs. As we rode past farm houses lovingly formed around rectangular courtyards, I dreamt of a chance to stay in one with just a bike and Mrs. PdC, riding and relaxing in rural Flemish tranquility. And she would love it for maybe three days (which is three more than my city-oriented kids would, if you’re wondering why there is no place for them in this daydream), but only a dedicated cyclist would opt for “Spring Break: Etikhove!” and that’s not her thing. But I don’t like being away from family for too long, so maybe I’ll never quite get my fill of this experience.

Chris Fontecchio

How much is enough anyway? Where are some of the hidden climbs that I haven’t gotten to yet? I’m guessing there are a lot; we kept passing by one beastly cobbled ascent to the left of the race course as it plunges off the shoulder of the Hotond toward the Paterberg, one that doesn’t appear to have any access besides an unthinkable ride down it. That’s just one, and after wandering in all four directions I’m sure there are others. Then there’s the wandering itself. One of the highlights was a waffle at a bakery in Ellezelles that was the single best morsel of food I ate on the entire trip. Another was a beer in Zulzeke next to the church, where we saw more bikes pass by than cars. [How does one make any money in this region?] Those were two short stops, out of dozens or hundreds of places. Maybe nothing short of riding from Oostende to St. Petersburg to Trapani to the Scottish Highlands would even scratch the surface of this world of possibilities. But even restricting oneself to the small group of geologic features that make up the Vlaamse Ardennen would keep your average cycling nut engaged for more weeks than I can muster.

The missing piece that ties together these impressions and makes riding in Flanders as special as it is is the people. Having spent less than a month total in Belgium doesn’t make me an expert, but if there are two impressions I’m sure of it’s that they are unusually friendly and seriously into cycling. I don’t know what more to say about people being nice without lapsing into tedious generalizations, but I do know how to talk about their relationship to cycling.

Pub in Poperinge
Chris Fontecchio

Basically, everyone seems to have one. The doctor at the hospital who helped one of our ailing members was a bit stiff from riding the full 250km Flanders sportive. The hotel clerk at the airport last night snuck in watching the last 40km before going to work. Loads of people just look bike-fit, and the ones who don’t often have bikes anyway. Everyone seems to know why the foreigners are here in spring, and pleased with that fact.

The drivers on the roads also maybe don’t warrant too many generalizations, but I find them neither too aggressive nor too timid. Back home, it seems like a choice between people who you absolutely don’t feel you can trust and people who seem ready to cause a different kind of accident while trying to give you far more space than you and your bike need. Most of the cars in Flanders seem to be driven by people who know how to pass bikes, and even when they cut it a bit close it feels like a sign of respect for your own comfort and handling ability.

La Houppe
Chris Fontecchio

And they love de Ronde, which is the tie that binds it all. When your little farm roads are the home to the highest levels of pro cycling on one or two days a year, for a century or so, your connections to the race become hard to deny even if for some crazy reason you wanted to. The race glorifies the people, challenging the strongest men and (now) women to show the outside world how to ride these roads best. I’m sure the race occupies the thoughts of most or all of the casual riders who find themselves on the Oude Kruisberg in Ronse or Abdijstraat in Geraardsbergen as part of their daily routine, and gives them a moment of warmth from sharing the experience with their heroes. The people, in turn, glorify de Ronde, coming out to watch in the hundreds of thousands, from the obvious action points to the quiet places on the route where the locals can just walk out their door and wave to the race. Here I don’t think I’m risking any generalization at all.

This is what brings the experience of riding in Flanders and northern France home. Knowing you are in a human scenery, not a soulless postcard view but in real villages skating past working farms, and knowing that the humans you see can likely appreciate your being there on a bike. Riding there is a celebration of both landscape and sport. It’s all the classic cycling experiences you can design, from tranquility to challenge to hero worship, with the immense bonus of knowing that you’re welcomed there by the people, almost universally. Flanders isn’t alone even in this regard, but it’s got it all packaged together, uniquely and authentically and timelessly Flanders.

A watcher, Bruges
Chris Fontecchio