Barry Von Vlaanderen – 2016
And so after a successful trip to Belgium in 2015, the Cobbled Classics Team headed to Flanders once again to test their mettle against the kassei, and ride the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Cyclo back in early March.
Preparation for the next trip to the fatherland was done in true LVIS style. Almost no effort went into on-bike pre-trip training – other than a handful of rides around the flattest bits of South Glos and Wiltshire, and the assembly of a fine collection of excuses (its cold, I have a cold, it might get cold).
However, off the bike the Team prepared meticulously. We had a long list of Trappist Ales to get through; full kit co-ordination; online registration with some fancy mid-event Facebook photo-posting tech thing that we didn’t understand; and most importantly the Team Car graphics.
With more than a small bit of inspiration from our friends at Sky Pro Cycling (see 2015), the company’s VW Passat received its makeover. A liberal splash of purple and gold, some window graphics, and a couple of Belgian Tricolores and we were ready to go. Only problem was, it was done over a week before we went. The bland rep-mobile became a thing of beauty, and invited many approaches from random roadies all over Bristol in the following days – most of whom were looking forward to the LVIS Audax. Maybe something for the future…
So, with the prep completed we headed via the Channel Tunnel to Gent. We were hosted by the new LVIS Belgium Chapter, Team Gent. Filipe, Fieke, Johan and Boris had become good friends since our first chance meeting during the toughest weather ever on Gent-Wevelgem in 2015, and now they were to become our hosts for the weekend.
We settled into our (very) bike friendly hotel around 4pm, and headed straight into the adjoining Irish Pub (an obvious choice). A quick assessment of the draft ales along the bar – Waterloo @ 11%; Westmalle @ 9%; Rochefort @10%. Now we are talking…
Rus (to the Irish barman): “We’ve been on the road all day, skipped breakfast, and haven’t had much in the way of lunch. Have you got a session beer?”
Irish Barman: “We’ve got Stella you f**king p**fter”.
And at that point Friday started to unravel! Team Gent took us out for a very nice dinner in an old brewery and we took in the beauty of the old city of Gent. Dave also took in a bottle of Ambassador as a digestif. The waiter certainly raised an eyebrow when Dave ordered his weapon of choice… A fine Trappist ale, where one can almost taste the history. But a 75cl bottle, at 11%, to yourself, after dinner? An interesting choice. Dave went very quiet after that…
Saturday was the official pro Omloop Het Niuewsblad, or if you are a local “Gent-Gent”. We blew away the early hangovers, and feeling decidedly below par, headed to the pro sign on. In a car park in Central Gent we walked amongst the team busses and bikes of a good number of the World Tour teams, and some of the Pro Contis making the step up. It was a truly Flandrian affair, with rider introductions and interviews all conducted in Dutch, beer on tap, and frites for breakfast. We watched them leave the start line, swung legs over crossbars and headed out to find a vantage point.
About 2kms into our ride we passed a couple of guys in pro kit on the side of the road. Nothing unusual about that, there are lots of fans in these parts in full pro kit. Only these guys were pros… We headed onto a tow-path which was about 5m wide strip of tarmac, and devoid of any traffic. From the rear arrived the three guys we had just passed.
At this point we joined the fastest peloton any of us had ever had the joy of pedalling in. One Pro Cycling had joined LVIS and the 10 of us were now chunking along at a steady 43-45km/h, into a block headwind. The LVIS side of the conversation was distinctly curt, with three or four word questions coming forth, whilst steam (and last night’s beer) seeped out of us. The new riders amongst us were charming blokes. All finding their way in the new world of racing at World Tour level, and openly nervous too. (Good luck boys).
Our new found status as part of the pro training peloton saw us overtake numerous riders in a flash, covering huge amounts of ground in short order, and individually realising how easy it is for these guys. Pete Williams announced he was “off for a pee”, swung off, and then paced himself back on a couple of minutes later. Throughout his comfort break we were still at LVIS maximum effort… Staggering differential.
Eventually the elastic snapped and we were gone, but not before a Trek-Segafredo rider motorpaced past us in the other direction proving that the tailwind plus the lead out from a moped leads to warp speed!
We made our way to our first vantage point about 5 minutes before the peloton arrived. Our first taste of racing for the day was in the middle of a quiet little somewhere/nowhere village on the parcours. We were well underprepared to dive into the nearest hedge as several of the riders decided to mount the pavement some 50m before reaching us!
We then relocated to the end of the Haaghoek – a 2km “flat” section of cobbles and just below the Leberg. It gave us a taste of what was to come the following day – and it was certainly an eye opener. Luckily, we were sated with more beer (coke), and frites and mayo. From here we were lucky enough to hear the world famous “Rodania” a couple of times as the race looped through. We then headed back towards Gent and settled into a bar halfway home to watch the final few kms. A slightly changed finish for 2016 saw Greg Van Avermaet bunch kick past Peter Sagan for a very popular win. All of Belgium cheered their perennial second-place-podium-step-warmer. A winner at last!
Saturday night was a little more measured than Friday. We had a 105km route to ride on Sunday, and we had seen how tough it was already.
Clear headed, and ready to climb bergs we headed to sign on at 8am. That in itself was an event. We were to sign on in track racing’s Mecca… Welcome to ‘t Kuipke. Home of The 6 Days of Gent, and only used for that one event each year. This velodrome was something to behold. At 166m it felt like a cauldron. What must it be like on race night? We vowed we would find out one day.
In true LVIS style, Johnny made friends with the locals at sign on. So just in case she forgets, a big HELLO to Rochelle Gilmour (DS of Wiggle High5). It was great to see her wearing more clothes than a typical Google search! She was delighted to be associated with the mighty LVIS, and immediately started to follow Johnny on twitter. She knows talent when she sees it.
After sign on we headed off, 4 from Team Gent, 3 from Bristol – and all from LVIS! It was 2 degrees, the wind was blowing about 25mph from the NE, but at least the sun was shining.
Today we had four climbs, and four “flat” cobbled sections to conquer. Our early pace was good, but as the Eikenberg and the Taaenberg started to bite, we started to split up. Each of us was having our own little battle. Double digit percentage climbs, freezing cold wind, jumping all over the road, and in our own little worlds of hell – this was bliss. Everything we had come for!
Over the Haaghoek, and up the Leberg (tarmac for a change!), and then we headed through a series of flat cobbled sections. In these meandering hills, it is not unusual to find yourself on downhill cobbles, and they present a whole new set of issues. “Add power, and get through is as quickly as possible (a la Paris-Roubaix)?; Don’t brake and gather speed?; Grip hard enough to control the bars, but not too hard?; Hold your line!” We all found a way.
Finally we found a bit of tailwind, and the group really started to pull. Before we knew it we were towing a group of 40-50 riders. The stronger of the group (Dave and Filipe) did monster turns on the front as we dragged through 90 degree bends (headwind, then side wind, then tailwind, then headwind etc etc), and up and over many bridges. No one else really wanted to help, but we didn’t mind. LVIS was all over this and we were having the times of our lives!
As Gent re-appeared in the distance we knew it wasn’t far to go, and next thing we were dragging up the finish straight towards the velodrome. A last minute clash of wheels at a set of traffic lights nearly put pay to a fine day, but we survived. More than a few pintjers later, and it was time to pack up and head for the tunnel.
We waved goodbye to Team Gent and offered to host them when the Tour of Britain visits us in September. Lets hope that happens.
To Belgium, to Gent, to Team Gent and to the beauty of riding in Flanders – we salute you. We will be back.
Johnny, Dave & Rus
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