It was dark out when I wheeled the bike out of the foyer and onto the Noorderlaan, a dead grid style road on the outskirts of Antwerp. I saw a bike light in the corner of my eye and quickly mounted and followed a group that cycled into the city centre and the start place.

We reached the start where a massive peloton were waiting at the start line. I found the registration and then made my way to the baggage drop off. By the time I got through that it must have been 7:15 and my Belgian mate Nico, who was doing RRV with some of his club mates, had texted to say that they were in the queue to start at 7:06 so I headed off and tried to imagine what his club jersey looked like.

Nico and his club mates

We had only done about 2 kilometers when we came across a major tail back of cyclists waiting to enter the tunnel. We were at a standstill for at least five minutes until finally being able to drop down the smooth surface until we climbed out of it. The tunnel made me think of all the winter training I did on Zwift. There was no wind resistance and we just seemed to descend into the tunnel for ages before the road pointed upwards and I saw the massive line of riders ahead.

We emerged from the tunnel after going under the Schelde river, a river that frequently features on my cycles in Belgium, and we went alongside it for a while, which made me think of the Scheldecross, a cyclocross race which is probably the first race of the hectic Christmas period. There was some blocks of flats, green spaces and wide roads so it was fairly comfortable. A civilian cyclist by the side of the road had his bike parked on its stand and shouted encouragement to us frantically.

I settled into the massive group. We went on through the hinterland of Antwerp and touched into a town called Kruilbeke. A little later we rode into a town called Hamme, which is famous from a cyclocross race called Hamme-Zogge. On the outskirts there was a sign saying it was Greg Van Avermaet’s supporters town for the Ronde so there was plenty of indication about the upcoming race.

At this stage, I was wearing a rain jacket just for warmth so I pulled in and took it off. Instantly I felt cold and pulled in and put it back on. So I was that bit unsteady.

Around the 50km mark there was a food stop. I pulled in and was about to move on when I bumped into Nico. Of all the thousands of people there, it was great that we managed to hook up. I joined his group which was him and two of his friends, Patrick and Bart, and we hit the road.

The roads were fairly clogged with riders. There was a narrow stretch of road, a massive group and a sudden stop. Nico hit the wheel of the guy in front of him and it looked like a mechanical for the guy. We got moving again but then a guy in front suddenly lost control and went into the mud of the field. Somehow he managed to stay upright in the field!

We were stuck in a long stream of riders which frequently clogged up. In the lead up to the next feedstop, there was a long section of slow moving massive peloton. We hit the first cobbled section, the Lippenhovestraat, with almost four riders abreast. As it moved, it was three abreast, it was intense but thankfully manageable.

The Paddestraat next was about three abreast for the majority of the section. There was no major movement to make on the final uphill section as there was so many riders in the way. It was a case of just holding position or maybe finding a way through.

In the lead up to the Muur van Gerardsbergen, we took on Ten Bosse, which is a climb in a town. I had noticed at that point that Nico and his crew were sharp and in Ten Bosse I was left behind. After Ten Bosse, we were diverted onto a narrow cycle lane. I could see Nico and the gang not too far ahead but I just couldn’t make it because of the riders in front. I managed to get off the cycle lane and onto the road and I felt within touching distance of Nico's group, when there was another uphill, only a little bump, and the gap widened. I looked up and the three of them were on the crest of it and out of sight on the bend.

However, on the outskirts of Gerardsbergen, a red light brought it all back. It became a massive group together. We went on the ring road in a massive group and we hit the Muur a good four abreast. I stayed on the far left on the cobbles. Overtaken on the inside by one or two riders who subsequently came to a standstill due to the sheer number of bodies ahead of them.

Over the kapelmuur, there was the third food stop and we stopped there for a good 30 minutes.

The next climb was Valkenburg which we climbed in a big group. Nico was ahead of me on the left. There was a big crowd standing at the side of the road watching the sportive go by. The people clapped and shouted the names of the participants which were displayed underneath our numbers. One guy had a mic and a loudspeaker and commentated as we went by. I heard him mention Bart and then say “Nico is erbij.” It was a great atmosphere.

Eugene tackles the cobbled climbs

The climbs kept on coming. We had another stop and then onto the Koppenberg. The crowd was massive and a few guys put their feet down ahead of me, so for the first time I had to walk some of the Koppenberg. I got back on after the steep bit and finished off the climb. Having done the climb twice two days before, I really noticed how I hadn’t exerted myself as I finished it off having walked a section! Over the top I saw Alessandro Ballan, ex-winner of the Ronde in 2007.

Next was Mariaborrestraat which becomes the Steenbeekdries. This stops in a small village and then we go from there to the Taaienberg, which is steep at the start then levels off. I really enjoyed all these sections and chipping away on the cobbles. At this stage though the three lads had to wait for me after the sections.

However just after the Taaienberg as we were on the narrow roads Nico pointed to his back wheel and it was really buckled. We were at 180km with most of the work done, but on closer inspection two spokes were broken off the hub. It was game over and he was understandably disappointed. He rang the number for mechanical help and within a minute a van was there, which just happened to be in the area. He hopped in. We continued on and the van passed us out over the top of the Kaperij with Nico shouting encouragement out the window.

Next we turned onto the Kanarieberg and just as I started this I realised I was starving. I hadn’t brought my usual wraps and I was left to consume only the food provided, which was just sugar stuff in different forms. Due to the pure misery of that stuff, I hadn’t eaten enough and I got the mother of all hunger knocks on the climb. It was a case of just managing it on the climb and I knew I had plenty of sugar stuff in my pockets. About half way up, a crowd at the side shouted “Allez Eugène” and clapped. I really enjoyed the encouragement.

Cresting the top all I could do was concentrate on the road ahead when Nico stepped out of the crowd and said “you don’t have to wait for me anymore..” I think I might have mumbled back “sure ye were the ones waiting for me!” as I saw Patrick and Bart up ahead, they saw me and got moving. I fumbled into my back pockets for whatever I had and stuffed my mouth full of sugar stuff on the descent. We came into Ronse where there was a foodstop anyway. I got even more sugars and we set off again for the Karnelmelkbeekstraat, which starts on the outskirts of Ronse and climbs out of it onto cobbles. It climbs further still to a high point where the cyclocross race the GP Mario de Clerq Ronse is held and then descends back then it makes its way toward what seems to be a town (Berchem) before you turn towards the Oude Kwaremont.

Great encouragement from the crowds

At this point I had organised with the lads that they didn’t have to wait for me until the Paterberg. I had wanted to throw in the towel and tell them I could meet them in Oudenaarde but they were very nice! So Bart pulls away and with all the sugar in my system after Ronse I thought I’d give him a follow. I was in his wheel just to Oude Kwaremont plain, the cluster of buildings. We were overtaking a few riders when I got distanced. The gap stretched and as the Belgians say “de vogel was gaan vliegen.” I ploughed on until my second bottle jumped out of the bottle cage and I pulled in and got it back. Patrick passed by.

I finished off the Oude Kwaremont section and made my way to the Paterberg. The cobbled road intimidated with its gradients but I clutched on the lower bars and focused my eyes on chipping away at the incline with my heart rate fairly elevated. It was the last major test. We descended, got over the Schelde and went back to Oudenaarde. Bart and Patrick led a group all the way to the finish and I clung on expertly to their wheels.

At the finish, Nico was waiting and still disappointed. I got a lift with him to just outside Ghent and we had a beer and a great banter. After that I cycled the 12km back to the BnB and cooked up some pasta!