Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Ronde, 4.7.12

Saturday was the big day.  Huge.  Actually, more like gargantuan! No, let me try and word this correctly.  It's simple, Saturday was to bring us an epic day - one of the most anticipated and dreamt about in all our lives.  Today was the day that we were going to get to enjoy a 130 km taste of the most popular event in Belgium, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen! 

With the weather finally coming together in typical, Belgian fashion with colder, rainy conditions, we ate a big breakfast and suited up accordingly.  As we enjoyed our croissants, eggs, and granola, it dumped some big rain.  By the time we finally loaded up and headed out, the rain had subsided for a moment, sparing us from getting soaked before we clicked in.  We drove to Oudenaarde, about 77 km's east of Westouter.  I had shot-gun with Alex as he followed William in the big, yellow bus - kept thinking, please no rain until we start!  Starting a ride in rain versus it dumping later can pretty much finish you off before you even get going.  

Sure enough, we were spared any moisture in the beginning and rolled out of a very damp Oudenaarde towards our challenge, awaiting us across the Belgian countryside.   We rolled out of a dirt parking lot right behind the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Museum - our destination, post-ride, which should be about 4-5 hours later.  

Almost as soon as we headed out of town, it began to rain.  Thankfully it wasn't too heavy, but still enough to give us a shower.  This rain would come and go - even bringing a little hail at one point.  This was Belgium at it's finest.  We headed out and rode the older, original route - one that is still preferred by both the professionals and fans.  I mean, seriously, the new owners of the race left out the Muur, one of the most popular and iconic places of the race's history!  However, this gang was not going to miss it - no way!  We started hitting the big climbs almost as soon as we passed the power plant just outside of town - there was the Kruisberg at 9%, Oude Kuaremont at 12%, the Paterberg at 20%, and the great Koppenberg at 22%!  

We were there!  We were finally there, climbing the greats - the same greats that turned many professionals into heros.  The rain eventually gave up and didn't return until a bit later, bringing small-sized hail pellets with it.  Mind you, this same race that sends cyclists across the Beglian countyside, up and down the most difficult cobbled climbs, also likes to throw in some rain to wet the cobbled climbs and make it difficult to keep traction.  William gave us fair warning before each climb, telling us when to shift down and when to stay seated, giving us better grip.  The Kruisberg and Kwaremont was where parked and stood cheering the RVV just the weekend before.  The Kwaremont was dry and faster than I had originally thought - we kept a pretty good pace, all sticking together for the most part, until...the Paterberg!   This cobbled monster is steep, yes, but pretty short.  I found most of the riding in Belgium to be very similar to that of Austin - a lot of undulating climbs that keep you on your toes.   The Koppenberg was the biggest scare for me - this notorious climb has meant the end of the race for many greats, including Fabian Cancellara's broken chain back in 2009.  To make it up without slipping or losing grip and having to start mid-climb is essential.  I managed to make it ok and took some time to go back and have Johnny and Alex shoot some shots of me making the climb.  The cobbles were a bit smoother than the French pave of Roubaix; however, with the 22% in the mix, you had to concentrate on keeping your tire from slipping.  Plus, because it had rained earlier, there was still quite a bit of moisture in between the cobbles and this moisture made the steep grade and the rough cobbles even more difficult.  You had to stay planted in the saddle - sit heavy - and keep powering up the climb.  A couple of the guys lost traction or momentum and had to stop and start - almost impossible without a little push from behind.  The Koppenberg was everything I had imagined - although, being there gave me a more normal, everyday feel - just a cobbled road in the country.  Ha, right!  Like the Arenberg Forest, this place has many, many stories to tell.

After a brief pit-stop at the top for food, water, and some photos, we pushed forward, making our way to the Muur.  We ended up stopping a few more times than preferred and this start/stopping eventually took a bit of a toll on me mentally - began to kinda wear me out a bit.  It wasn't easy for William to keep the group together and keep everyone's bikes rolling (we had two flats I think).  Plus, we had to get back in time to shower and visit the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Museum back in Oudenaarde.  Physically, I was still doing alright, it's just hard to have to stop and start up again after getting into a groove.  By the time we hit the Muur, we were all starting to really feel the effect of all the climbing, cobbled km's.  In fact, I didn't even know where we were until we made that right turn around the cross and up towards the church.  When I finally snapped out of it and realized our location, I was once again, ecstatic!  We took time to ride up to the church multiple times - shooting photos of each other each time.  I went all the way down to the bottom of the stairs and rode up again - I wanted to take another go at it while having Alex shoot a photo or two.   This was sadly skipped - how could they move the race from this spot?!? We were all dumb-founded.  The community posted an enormous sign across the churches lawn announcing that this was the true home of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen!  Awesome.  

After a quick lunch, we set off for Oudenaarde - we were running out of time and the wind had begun to pick up even more.  Unfortunately, this meant that we wouldn't finish the ride with the famous Bosberg climb.  No worries, I was totally satisfied and at this point, shedding a few km's in order to catch the museum before it closed was not a problem. We did get to catch a bit of the U-19's Tour of Flanders, which was cool - they buzzed past us and we chased after them into Oudenaarde.  Got to briefly greet Erik Zabel (retired German great) as we buzzed by - he was there to support his son in the race.  Cool. 

The ride was truly epic - the weather, the climbs, the countryside, the history, the group - all truly inspiring ingredients that made the experience perfect!  William and Alex were great - they patiently led the group across Flanders and made sure that we safely made it back in time to shower up to hopefully meet Freddy Maertens at the museum.  As it turned out, he was not around, but we did get to enjoy the movie and all the artifacts.  The museum really belongs to the city and is essentially a tribute to cycling in Belgium, including the legendary Freddy Maertens.  The museum is still rather young - very simple and actually a bit smaller than I had originally anticipated.  It didn't  have quite the same depth as the bicycle museum earlier in the week, but this was mainly celebrating the greatness of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.   I was so impressed that the town chose to financially back the museum - it's really more than just a place of artifacts. There's a conference center, a restaurant/bar, as well as a gift shop with a couple showers for guests to use free of charge.  Very, very cool.  

What a day!  What an absolutely epic day.  Koppenberg, done!

Thanks for reading...tomorrow, we chase Paris-Roubaix!