The return to Flanders

Last weekend I returned to Belgium for my second ride of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (for non-cyclists and English-speaking non-Continentals, that’s the Tour of Flanders). I do love visiting to Belgium. I mean, who wouldn’t, what with those thousands of Trappist beers  to try and, of course, the frites. And even chocolate, if that’s what takes your fancy. And, of course, endless cycle paths (none of which says “Cyclists dismount”).
But there’s one thing I just don’t get about the Belgians (perhaps it’s just the Flemish), and that is their penchant for weird and not so wonderful garden decorations: think garden gnomes, let them grown and remove all colour, then place them in tableau about your garden. Think of giant red rabbits, blue elephants. Think Smurfs … oh, perhaps that explains it. Maybe there’s something about the mushrooms that they eat. Anyhow, during the ride I saw one elderly couple that sitting on a bench outside their house, watching the cyclists passing by. Alongside them was an almost identical couple, half life-sized and cast in concrete, like some kind of mini-me memorial. And I don’t think they were dead yet. Spooky.
The Flemish hills are a bit like their garden ornaments – undersized, but with some dreadful element added. The Flemish call them “berge”, which I thought translated to mountains. But they certainly aren’t the Alps or Pyrenees. Perhaps the North Downs, but shorter. What makes them challenging are the gradient and, in many cases, the cobbles. If you want to loosen every tooth in your head and every bolt on your bike, just ride down one of these “berge” at speed.
Four years ago, when I first rode the RVV, as it is commonly known, it finished in a nonentity town called Ninove, but since then the ride has centred on Oudenaarde, the Flemish capital of cycling. Once again I opted to ride the medium distance: 135km starting and finishing in Oudenaarde (plus a 20km warm-up from our campsite in Munkzwalm). Last time it was cold and wet, making the cobbled climbs particularly slippery and treacherous. This time the weather was perfect: slightly cool and overcast, with almost no wind. I started out easy, planning to take my time and enjoy the day  – if it took all day. And if I had to push on the hills, then so be it. So what had previously been quite a tough ride turned out to be no more than a pleasant jaunt. What is more, I didn’t need to push up the hills – well, not until someone fell off in front of me halfway up the Koppenberg, which forced everyone around me to a halt. On the rest of the hills and the cobbles I just took  my own sweet, but slightly laboured time, and it was only on the final climb, the short but brutal Paterberg, that I finally capitulated and pushed over the summit. So, apart from one puncture at the 100km mark, it was a great ride.
cancelleraA big part of the fun of being at the Tour of Flanders is to watch the professionals toil over the same hills the following day. My son Matt and I went into Oudenaarde on Sunday where we saw the peloton fly though on their way to the berge. For the next few hours we became ensconced in the town square, sampling the local brew and watching the race on big screens. A few hours later, back in a bar in Munkzwalm, we cheered as we watched Fabian Cancellera outwit and outsprint three Belgians to take the honours. And we cheered even louder when Cancellera confirmed that I’m not the only one who believes that beer is the perfect post-ride potion. Moments after dismounting, and live on television, Cancellera was handed a bottle of beer, unopened. Like the old pro that he is, he popped the cap off by smacking it on the chair next to him, and downed the beer in one go. Cheers Fabian, I’ll drink to that!

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