No year in the saddle is complete without a trip to Belgium to chase around after a big race. After last year’s successful mission to see E3 Harelbeke, I had to return and this year I took my mate Chris with me to immerse him in the best the country has to offer. He’d been to Belgium a couple of times but never to follow a race so he was in for a treat as the plan was to catch the action at least five times and also take in a few more of the famous Hellingen on our way round.
We had a bite to eat in the Tour of Flanders museum café then set off to our first berg, the Wolvenberg. Far from the longest or steepest, and coming after just 45 minutes of racing it wouldn’t shape the race but it gave us our initial view of the riders, many of them showboating up the 15% climb by taking jackets off whilst riding it (easy? you try it). Once they passed through, and from then on the day was total mania. Our itinerary was tight and packed, I was keen to give Chris the ‘platinum package’ and squeeze as much action as I could into the afternoon, and up next was he dreaded Holleweg, 1500m of bone crushing cobbles. I LOVE climbing the cobbled bergs, but HATE riding across the flat, they just seem to shake the very flesh from my bones, and I also don’t like the noises my bike makes as it impacts on each and every stone. As we reached the end, our bodies still vibrating, Chris turned and smiled, that was brilliant! There was a bit of a traffic jam at the end though, as yes, we weren’t the only ones following this race today, in fact half of Belgium were out doing the same as us, some on bikes, some in cars and many in packed beer filled coaches.
Between The Wolvenberg and our next target La Houppe we took the long route to bag The Eikenberg, The Leberg and another torturous stretch of pavé the Haaghoek, which is worse than the Holleweg as half of it is downhill. Descending on a cobbled road is just about the most unpleasant thing you can do on two wheels, even at our moderate pace, to do it at race speed, that does not bare thinking about. Shortly after cresting the summit of The Leberg we saw a couple of small groups of riders ahead so got our heads down to catch them up. Once on their wheels we saw they were sharing the pace so we joined in, many legs make light work and they were clearly heading to La Houppe like us so we’d be there in excellent time at this pace. As we arrived the atmosphere on the climb was already buzzing. A number of the coaches full of lubricated fans had already arrived and the large bar at the summit was spilling out on to the streets. We got a position, held it and waited for the riders. The race situation hadn’t changed since the last time we saw them, there were about eight up front with a sizable lead, with the following pack still resisting the need to give chase.
As soon as they passed we were back on our bikes and heading to the Taaienberg which is always a key point in the race so we wanted to get there as quick as we could to get a good position. We were making excellent headway to begin with but then ran into a traffic jam, we picked our way to the front only to be stopped by the police because the race was blocking our progress. Although it would take valuable time form us it was in no way an inconvenience because we got to see some more action, and this time they were flying! There had clearly been an incident as there were a multitude of riders racing back though the cars, sitting in their slipstream in a desperate attempt to rejoin the pack. Although it seems natural to head to the famous climbs to watch the action it’s often glimpses like this that offer more insight into the true drama of racing. The panic in the faces, the risks being taken by riders hugging the bumpers of team cars, riding at breakneck speed in do or die efforts to save their race.
We got the Taaienberg and Chris was all ready to give it full gas only to be told by the police that the road was closed to spectators and we had to walk up the verge. This year they had put barriers up, something I’d never seen this on this climb and it did rob it of some atmosphere as the legions of traveling fans struggled to make it up past them before the peloton arrived. Three climbs down, four sightings in the bag and it was on to the Paterberg. There were no police at the bottom of this one so here was Chris’ chance to give it full gas and he disappeared off up the ferocious cobbles. I did my best follow but Chris climbs like a bolt of lighting, also I was carrying a full backpack, which was really really heavy, honest. We got road side at the top and were within inches of the riders as they flashed past us climbing one of the most vicious hills in Belgium at an astonishing pace.
The Belgian roads, especially on a windy day like today suck the strength from your legs like no other, switching from pavé, to concrete then back to asphalt no matter the topping they all drag you backwards. Riding at a decent pace between race sightings stung our legs, to ride the same roads at the speed the pro’s were doing, well that’s just mind boggling. Once you’ve battled across the surfaces for yourself and once you’ve fought against the punishing headwind it’s then and only then you get a true appreciation of just how tough the riders are who win. You stand at the roadside in awe, how can they be that strong, (let’s not talk about doping, let’s just believe for the sake of argument) how can they pummel the cobbles, plough through the headwind, impressive doesn’t even come close.
Up to this point there had been a little breathing space in our schedule but if were to catch the action the remaining times though there would be NO room for error. As soon as the leaders crested the Paterberg we grabbed our bikes and headed for the N36 to see them after they had climbed the Oude Kwaremont. We got there JUST in time, then quickly remounted to follow the river of people flowing towards the top of Karnemelkbeekstraat, the last climb of the day.
By now our legs were hurting and presumably the rider’s would be, the race situation was now that two riders were up the road with three in close pursuit. As we stood, our necks craned the two Quickstep riders, Niki Terpstra and Yves Lampaert came into view then next was a rapidly accelerating Philip Gilbert, he’d jumped his companions Greg Van Averment and the new hero Tiesj Benoot and was making a move to bridge across. Exuding power he surged up the gradient past us, again leaving us in awe, we looked at each other, bike racing IS the best sport in the world.
This was seven sightings under our belts, could we make one more! It was going to be tight, we raced back to the main road to see them descend towards Berchem, and although we missed the main protagonists we caught the tail enders, that made it eight sightings in total, a new personal best!
High on adrenaline and endorphins we left Berchem and riding the imperious bike path that links it with Melden we headed to our final target of the day, in infamous Koppenberg. I tried to talk Chris out of it because my legs were shot but he was hearing non of it, we had to ride it and it was, as ever, beautifully brutal, a perfect end to a simply stupendous day on two wheels.
I plead with you all to make, find, time to do this one day, if you love riding, love racing and love a bit of good old fashioned adventure then head to Belgium, the home of cycling and chase round after a Flanders Classic.
Next up this Wednesday is Dwars Door Vlaanderen, then the following Sunday the big one, The Tour of Flanders, preceded on Saturday by the Sportive. But of course you don’t have to go when the races are on, the Hellingen are always there just waiting to be ridden.
To help with your planning you can download the Hellingen App to your phone. It has all the details, stats and locations of the famous bergs and this week in the run up to Flanders it’s £1 off on the Apple store!!!
Download for Apple here
Download for Android here