After years of being left to trail the pack over the longer climbs of the West Country Johnatan and Russell decided to try something a little more Flemmish.
Perfect combination – beer and Vegas
“My immediate thought that “Belgium was flat” was a long way from the truth, but it would take some riding to realise how wrong I was!
We headed to Belgium through the tunnel, having booked a hotel in Kortrijk. There was no particular reason to stay in this town, other than it seemed to be Central to what we were trying to do. It later turned out this was a master stroke.
In the car Johnny mentioned that we were only a few miles from the end of Dwaars Dor Vlanderen and that we should go and watch it. So off we headed to Waregem. Whilst we were driving down the High Street we figured we had accidentally entered a ghost town – everything was shut. Then we drove under the Flamme Rouge… we were on the right track. We hastily dumped our car, and made friends with the locals in a bar. They invited us to the finishing straight grandstand at the appropriate time (where we blagged our way into the VIP area), and we saw a home win for a Flandrian. Cue – very happy locals, frites and mayo, and general all round bon homie.
Whilst walking back to the car we found ourselves in amongst the team buses, and the returning riders. “How was that Cav?” Johnny asked, “As hard as f*ck!”. He had come in 56th after a day in the rain and wind.
So we headed off to the hotel, past the Renson factory with video of Ettixx Quickstep scrolling across its outside. It felt like we were totally immersed in cycling culture.
When we pulled into the hotel car park, we knew Johnny had chosen well – it looked fabulous. In we went and headed for our room – to find a double bed. Hmm, not what we had ordered. So off to the reception to ask for a twin room. “I am sorry sir, the rest of the hotel is booked by Team Sky”. Oh, that would probably be ok… By the time we had got back out to the car, Team Sky were landing and we agreed to move the car to accommodate the Mobile Service Course.
We settled into a few Belgian beers, and concentrated on our route planning for the next day.
We had gone to ride a couple of Flandrian race routes, and to see just how we could experience what the pros were putting themselves through. So, as we clip-clopped through reception we had only the wind and the rain to look at as we prepared ourselves for 145km of E3 Harelbeke, and its 19 climbs.
What we didn’t expect was that one of the Team Sky tech guys was only too happy to put Johnny’s bike together. It wasn’t the first time we would look at each other over the weekend and mouth “what the F…?” with a smile.
Harelbeke is a something and nothing town, but it was the start of something tough. We had about 50km of flat windiness, before the bergs started. The first few were steady enough – tarmac; 6-7%; 1km. It was a little unnerving though when a man said “Bonjour” into my ear as he passed, only to be followed by the rest of the FDJ squad in full team kit. It felt like we were playing in the big boys playground!
As the hellingen (“hills” in flemmish) got ticked off, they got bigger and nastier. Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Mollenberg – all cobbled, all wet, all hurt. But then the real tests started. The Valkenberg marked the change in our ride from “this is fun, but tough” to “this is starting to break me”. It had been raining hard for about 4 hours by now, and we were starting to need somewhere to stop. Then out of nowhere came the Patterberg, with its 22% iconic cobbled hellishness. I stopped and walked. It simply mentally overpowered me. For those few seconds as I approached it, I could see no way that my tired legs were going to get me up it. As I stood there feeling a little sorry for myself, a brief flash of purple passed me and Johnny smashed his way to the top.
When I caught up with him, he was an emotional wreck. It was 3 years since he had last attempted the Patterberg, and it had haunted him. It wasn’t going to beat him again – and it didn’t that day.
Only another 55km to go.
So onward through the crappy weather, with our general well-being slowly getting worse and worse. We passed pub after pub with no lights on, with no life inside, and no prospect of respite. And before we knew it we were on the Oude de Kwaremont. Less steep than the Patterberg, but bigger cobbles, and much longer. Belgium was slowly chewing us up. It was about to spit us out, when we found a lone bar with a single light on. Like something out of the movies.
In we went to find Joelle, a lady in her late 60’s who had just opened the café in time for the Cobbled Classics season. She was a legend. “I will get you coffee, coke and all the cakes I have, now get in front of the fire”. We stayed there for well over an hour – enough time to have been through all the emotions, and reset the brain for another 2hrs of riding. As a passing shot, we asked Joelle how we could thank her, and she said she would need some help whilst the race was on the following day. What would Barry do? We would be back.
We headed off with renewed cadence, and tackled the remaining 5 bergs. None were easy, but none were as hard as had gone before.
We pulled into the hotel car park with relief and joy that we had cracked E3 Harelbeke (before it cracked us).
However, the day held one final twist… the tech guys from Team Sky were still working in the car park and offered to wash down our bikes whilst they were doing the rest of the team’s after the day’s recce ride. What a treat to have them spotless, degreased, regreased and ready to go again. All for the promise of a thank you beer.
Team Sky / LVIS mechanics
As we headed to breakfast we were now getting a little more comfortable chatting to the Sky guys, but we knew that it was race day for them and we needed to give them some space. It turned out that they were staying in this hotel for a month, and that long after we had gone they would still be there doing 3 Days of De Panne, Ronde van Vlanderen, Brabantse Pijl, and Paris-Roubaix amongst others.
We talked to Ian Stannard as he shovelled about a kilo of naked pasta in, and had a run down of who was in reasonable shape from their physio.
As I got into the lift to go back to our room, I was joined by Luke Rowe and Andy Fenn. Just as the doors were closing Elia Viviani ran over and jumped in. Immediately the “over weight” alarm sounded. “Well”, I said, “it must be one of you guys!”. A brief collection of embarrassed looks, and then we all had a good chuckle. Shortly after the banter started about kicking out the overweight Italian. Good memories!
We headed off to watch the sign-on in Harelbeke, and the customary chats with all the teams. We couldn’t understand much (all in Flemmish), but we did get to see Miss Belgium pop herself on Petr Sagan’s lap as he was awarded his weight in beer for winning in 2014. Not a bad life for him.
So after the pros headed off, we returned to the bar at the top of the Kwaremont to fulfil our promise.
Nothing on TV, best have a beer
In a couple of hours that would make Barry proud, we bumped into and posed with Miss Belgium, erected the LVIS flag, Johnny served beer behind the bar, and I collected the empty glasses. We had a very warm welcome from the locals, and were pleased to be able to properly say thank you to Joelle for looking after two wrecks that had turned up the day before.
Flying the flag
We weren’t at the finish, but we were the only two blokes in the bar shouting at the telly when Geraint Thomas soloed to victory. Needless to say, there were some very smiley faces when we got back to the hotel.
So whilst Team Sky partied, we stayed off the booze and our attention turned to our task for the next day – 160km of Gent-Wevelgem, and the weather forecast was horrendous.
We awoke with the sound of the wind howling round the outside of the hotel and headed for breakfast. Our New Best Friends joined us at the coffee machine, and after explaining to Christian Knees that we were doing a recce for them(!), we headed out to our bikes with an ominous “have a good ride fellas, and very good luck” from Bernie Eisel.
We had entered the Proximus Challenge Gent-Wevelgem sportive. In the cold light of day we realised we had overstretched our ambition by booking onto the 210km route, and whilst tagged onto the back of a local club’s peloton on the way to the start, we agreed to downgrade to the 160km. It was a 10km ride to the start along a canal, and it was a sign of things to come. Driving rain into a block headwind. And we hadn’t even started…
We signed-on in a 1960’s gym on the edge of Wevelgem, as the spanner-men were busy erecting the finishing line for the pros to come home under the following day. It was at this point we encountered our first minor set-back of the weekend – The English. There were at least 30 blokes from Luton signing-on. A brief exchange started us down a familiar route; “yeah we did this last year, you wont be up to it”; “oh just the 160km, we’re gonna smash the 210km” etc etc. We vowed to avoid riding with The English.
And so, with no formal starting gun, we headed off. We initially tacked onto the back of about 20 Belgian club riders who were going at a fair lick through the town. They attached themselves to various other groups, and as we left the built up area Johnny and I found ourselves dragging along the Lantern Rouge with about 120 people in the peloton.
Nothing of any great significance happened for the next 3.5hrs, except the constant concertina action of 90 degree bends every few minutes was piling on the pressure. Hard breaking, followed by full on sprint just to stay in touch at the back. The roads were too narrow to move up without some distinctly non-LVIS behaviour. The wind was coming in from every angle at 50kmh+ and the thought of losing the group loomed large. Eventually the elastic snapped, and we were on our own. We bobbed between lone riders, and the odd group but we couldn’t seem to find anyone who suited our pace and effort.
After about 100km of flat, wet, and head-wind, this soul crushing event was starting to wear us down. We hadn’t been anywhere near anything that looked like an incline, but we had had to use every trick in the book just to keep rolling. And then we met Team Gent. We had stopped at the top of a small rise (think Long Ashton) to see if the bergs were ever going to start, when a group of Belgians stopped to check a bike. We quickly established that unspoken bond of being in this together. They talked us through what was to come, and suggested we pace ourselves – the bergs were only 5km away.
There are only four climbs in Gent-Wevelgem, but to imply that the ride is easy is to miss the previous four hours of gently grinding us down. The Baneberg and Zwatreberg were easy enough, as was the Monteberg (think rolling around Bristol airport for size of climbs). However, the Kemmelberg was a brute. Cobbled, wet, and running with mud as the organisers were battling the conditions to set up for the following day. There were many walking, but not us. We battled our way to the French War Memorial at the top, and made a note to recall how it felt when we watched the pros do it – three times…
And then the ride gave back nearly everything it had taken. We now had 45km of screaming tail wind. We had a group of strong riders, who were all as happy to take their turn as much as they were looking after each other through those “dark times”. It was still tough, but we were flying along.
The route was sign-posted to skirt around the town of Ypres, sticking mainly to the ring-road. Team Gent had other ideas, and turned into our tour guides for a few kms. We rode into Ypres, past the Flanders Fields Museum, along the canal, and then straight through the Mennen Gate. Very special.
The rest of the ride was uneventful and we even managed a half-arsed sprint finish back into Wevelgem. We headed back to the gym, to hand in our chips and settled into some strong Belgian beers.
Isotonic recovery drinks all round
About four beers in we remembered we still had 10km to ride to get back to Kortrijk. We had a great big group hug, and headed back onto the road.
As we pulled into the car park of the hotel there were two young boys and their Dad looking at the Team Sky bikes and chatting with a soigneur. We had been given some goodies for finishing a few hours earlier and we gave them to the boys (water bottles, gels etc). Next thing we know we have been invited into their house to meet the whole family. Great Grandma purred over the grand children, Grandma and Grandad prepared salami and nibbles, whilst Mum and Dad broke out the beers. We had a lovely hour or so getting to know another set of New Best Friends and agreeing that we would come and see them again when we come back in 2016. Johnny even discussed marrying Great Grandma in order to get a Belgian passport. The beers were kicking in!
We had survived the head wind/cross wind/tail wind craziness of the day, and we needed to keep adding beer – so we went out.
Memories of the evening are a little sparse, but the photos evidence our chance infiltration of a Belgian stag do. There were all doing just fine, until Johnny called in the triple whisky, and then things went downhill from there!
It was race day again for the pros, and the weather was even worse than the days before. There was a constant 80kmh westerly coming straight in off the sea. We were pleased we had gone through the wringer the day before. They were faced with a biblical onslaught.
We breakfasted as usual, but then things went in an unexpected direction when Ian Stannard decided to pick our brains on “how the Kemmelberg was riding?”. WTF? Were Sky now taking tactical advice from LVIS? #stillmakingbarryproud!
We opted to watch the race from the village of Kemmel (about an hour west of Kortrijk). There was a good bar we had spotted, and it was at the bottom of the Kemmelberg. From where we stood the race was eventful, but it is well documented on-line just how bad it was. 200 started, 39 finished. Riders were blown off the road, off their bikes and into canals. It was savage. We watched the lead group ride past us for the first time, and whilst we waited for the peloton we realised they had all just gone home. There was no peloton.
We settled into a few more tripels, and watched as Paolini took the win. Not popular with the locals!
So as our weekend drew to a close, we skirted around the Team Sky mechanics in the car park who were very grumpy that Geraint Thomas had been out-raced and out-witted into third. We quietly packed up, and we agreed that Belgium had truly provided the most wonderful few days.
If Carling Did Cycling Weekends, we had just been on it.”