Redefining hard

25 10 2010

There’s a fine line between epic rides and insanity. Saturday, we may have stepped across that divide.

If you do a Google image search for crazy, you may soon find a photo of Katie and I riding a 42 kilometer portion of the Tour of Flanders, dressed in too many layers of clothing to count to protect us against the cold, biting wind and driving rain. It was, as our hosts for this taste of Belgium’s great spring bike race, Katie’s third cousin Filip and his brother-in-law, Kristof, a typical day in Flanders. By the time we were done, a little earlier than expected, we had all become “hard men,” and one woman, of Flanders.

When we started planning this European adventure, including a week in Belgium, I was excited at the prospect of seeing some of the historical cobbled climbs of the country’s classic bike races. In our email communications with Filip, he suggested if the weather was good, he’d organize an opportunity to actually experience those cobbles.

Filip is an event organizer, and little did we know the zealous enthusiasm he put towards organizing our cobbles sampler; a little thing like bad weather would not deter us.

As the hardest of Belgium's "hard men" of cycling, Eddy Merckx has a place of honor at the Tour of Flanders museum.

We warmed up for our Saturday adventure on Friday with a visit to the museum of the Tour of Flanders in Oudenaarde. Yes, an entire museum dedicated to one bike race; we can barely see a bike race on North American television.

We learned about the hardships of the race, which is held in April, when the weather in Northern Belgium can often be unforgiving. We saw how much and what kind of food the riders have consumed through the years to prepare for their grueling test. We saw bikes old and new, a wall of champions, and I even pedaled a stationary bike to test myself in a virtual duel up one of the cobbled climbs against former Belgian champion Peter Van Petagem. At the end of our visit, we met another great Belgian cyclist, Freddy Martens, much to the delight of our guide for the day, Katie’s other cousin, Martin, who is a very dedicated fan of Belgian cycling.

Then we went to the Muur, one of the most grueling of cobbled climbs, not just because of its steep pitch and bumpy pavée, but also because it comes at the end of a long, arduous climb up through the streets of Oudenaarde. Maybe they should change the name of the city to Ouchenaarde.

Our visit to the Muur was on foot. The weather was cold, but sunny.

The forecast for Saturday was not optimistic. But Filip assured us we would ride; if we start early, we may finish before the real rain was supposed to start, he said.

If only we had been so lucky.


The start of the Muur.

Filip and Kristof had everything arranged as only event planners could, with fine attention to every detail. They had gathered bikes in our sizes, shoes close to our sizes, and a whole cornucopia of gear from bib tights to jerseys galore, to gillets to gloves to overbooties. Good thing. We needed them all.

Saturday dawned with a beautiful pink and fuscia sky. The plan was to meet Kristof at the Tour of Flanders museum, where they have changing facilities for cyclists. Then we would head out for a 72 km loop, including some of the famous climbs like the Kwaremont, the Kruisberg and the Koppenberg.

The raindrops pinging off the windshield of Filip’s Mercedes were a little discouraging. But Filip kept smiling; we are in Flanders after all, nothing will keep us from the bikes. Nothing indeed.

Even five layers of cycling gear isn't enough.

By the time we suited up, the wind was howling, the rain driving intermittently, the temperature with the wind chill likely barely above freezing. And to complicate matters, this was Katie’s first time riding with clip-in pedals; so as Filip and Kristof moved their cars to a lot, I gave her a quick lesson and we were off through Oudenaarde then out into the countryside.

Katie mastered the pedals like a trooper, clicking in and out of them with aplomb. For the first 10 or 15 kms we couldn’t stop smiling as we rolled along quiet country lanes, past green and brown pastures, giant white cows standing resolutely against the wind and rain, yards populated with plump grey geese and the occasional little village. Even the first two climbs, on the smooth pavement of Kluisberg and Knokteberg (steepest gradient at 13 per cent), didn’t cause Katie to flinch, although reaching the top exposed us even more to the fierce, freezing gale.

The Kwaremont was our first taste of the cobbles, rising nearly 150 meters through the village of Kwaremont. To say it was bumpy would be an understatement. The rain rendered the pavée especially slippery. I dropped down to the granny gear, relaxed my arms and fought to keep the front wheel from sliding away. By 100 meters I had gained a whole new appreciation for the Belgian classics, where the professionals attack these hills in packed pelotons at speed.

Katie bends on the pavé, but she's not yet broken.

But the weather was exacting a toll. My gloves and toes were soaked. Water was starting to squish in my socks. My eye sockets were frozen. Katie’s cheeks were reddened from the cold, the smile replaced by a scowl of grim determination. Up ahead, our Flanderian friends looked back and grinned; onward to the next climb they called.

On the next climb, the Paterberg, I followed Kristof’s lead when he veered his Ridley cyclocross bike towards the smooth rain gutter alongside the cobbles; after all, this is the same strategy used by many of the pros to save their legs and stay upright. But the rain-slicked brown fallen leaves that washed along it, and the smooth metal grates of the storm drains made it almost more slippery than the pavé as my rear wheel kept skidding out on forward pedal strokes.

That's not a smile, just my frozen face. Kristof is just warming up.

At the top, we told our guides like every good Italian cyclist, we were ready to abandon for the warmth of a hot drink at a brasserie; my booties had peeled back, soaking my shoes through, Katie’s face was so frozen she couldn’t speak properly.

The 10 km ride back to Oudenaard was a test of survival. We stopped at the base of the Koppenberg to pay homage and take a few photos; it would have to wait for another visit… in warmer weather. Another group of hardened cyclists arrived, also looking very cold, very wet, and very indecisive whether they should tackle the cobbled monument.

Filip and I celebrate survival. The Koppenberg will have to await for another day.

Back in Oudenaard, we squooshed into the brasserie attached to the museum, still dressed in our wet, muddy cycling gear; none of us had thought to bring a dry change of underclothes. And as we sat on the bike seat bar stools, surrounded by photos and trinkets of cycling’s great champions, we nursed our chocolate chaud and Flanderian beers and began weaving the legend of our day as hard men (and woman) of Flanders.

Warming up in the brasserie, where even the bar stools are stationary trainers.

Afterwards, we think Kristof may have gone out for another ride; the morning’s jaunt hadn’t been enough to test his mettle.