Everything was going grand ‘til we got to Kilbeggan.

What were we doing in Kilbeggan? In March? We left Joe Daly’s bike shop in Dundrum at 7am in cool spring weather and arrived back 9 hours later in a winter blizzard. Hypothermic but idiotically happy that our training spins had given us the legs to absorb the punishment of a long cold difficult day in the saddle. Doing an Audax event as a warm-up for an even longer spin takes a special kind of madness.

Not the most likely route to the start of a classic - but that’s probably where this tale begins. If you want to endure a Spring Classic cycling event, you need to train through the winter. Come what may, you need to get out in the elements and do the miles. It’s hard. The Orwell Wheelers 200 Audax event should have been a gentle 200km gallop from Dublin to Kilbeggan and back in warm spring sunshine. The elements conspired on the day to make it ‘proper hard’ but I suppose we were all the better for the experience.

Another Monument

The Tour of Flanders hovers into view every spring. Ronde van Vlaanderen, to give it is proper Flemish title - or De Ronde - is a true European spring cobbled classic and one of the five Monuments (along with Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Giro di Lombardia). If you want to get a sense of one of European cycling’s finest races, of the real challenges that made cycling great, of what separates it from other sports, of what it truly means to ensure pain and suffering in the name of sport, you should watch the professionals do battle through the highways and byways of the Flandrian countryside. At over 250km in length and incorporating many cobbled climbs over the Ardennes hills, it is truly a monument to the individual greats of cycling in times past & present - Mercx, Museeuw, Boonen, Cancellara, Sagan, Gilbert, Kelly (though Kelly never won it). It’s not an homage to the principals or principles of overbearing commercial teams. It’s a test of individual racing skills, of courage, of strength, of absolute heroism, of blind optimism, of faith, hope and doggedness.

My journey to the start of the Ronde van Vlaanderen probably started more than ten years ago although I didn’t recognise it at the time until I became aware of the Monuments. In my time in Orwell Wheelers, I’ve enjoyed the company of a kaleidoscope of characters who enjoy the simplicity of cycling. Everyone has their own motivation to ride and I enjoy hearing the stories of people whose bikes have taken them on amazing adventures – from gentle spins around the Wicklow Hills to winning Grand Tours. There’s a great community of cyclists on the road who share tales of trips they’ve made, bucket-list events and places to avoid. And so began my interest in tilting at the quixotic windmills of the five monuments. I’ve survived Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Milan-San Remo so I’ve only two left to do.

I’ve tried in vain to recruit the usual suspects to #4 - Ronde  van Vlaanderen and only Nialler is kind enough/mad enough/durable enough (i.e. has requisite body parts that are unlikely to fail in the quest) to give it a lash. Con was moderately interested but an uncooperative ankle injury has forced him to be selective about the punishment he signs up to on a bike. Flanders was going to be just too early in the year.

And so, back to doggedness. That’s where I come into this story. Doggedness is a personal quality which is either a strength that you leverage or a challenge that you embrace. Long days on the bike at events like De Ronde require doggedness in spades. Dogged days.

And I know Nialler and I have plenty of that. We may not be the fastest climbers (we’re definitely not the fastest climbers!) and we may not be the best sprinters but we get there in the end. In cycling parlance, we would be classified as Rouleurs. Our hearts long for the mountains but our physique is better suited to the flat and downhill!

Belgians love cycling. They understand the bike. They commute and they race. They feel the sport. They respect the capacity to suffer on a bike and the ability to race on the rivet. And they love their De Ronde.  It’s like the Grand National, the Cup Final and the All-Ireland all rolled into one. The public mobilises to celebrate the event. They gather at many vantage points along the route to support and cheer and encourage the gladiators of the road. They indulge in all manner of excellent Belgian food & refreshments. Beer especially. Belgian doubels and tripels. The more beer, the more cheer. Some of the most famous vantage points surround the most famous climbs, creating a cauldron-like stadium effect for those toiling up the cobbled hills. And one of the wonderful features of the De Ronde weekend is the enthusiastic and encouraging Belgian crowd warming up for Sunday’s Pro race by coming out in their droves on Saturday to encourage the amateurs. For us, this is Saturday 6th April 2019. There are around 16,000 hopefuls participating today. There are four distances on offer. The first three routes (74KM, 139KM and 174KM) are effectively circular routes, starting and finishing in Oudenaarde. The fourth route is officially 229KM and starts in Antwerp. It’s actually more like 239KM if you take into account the ride from the square in Antwerp to the official start line and the ride at the end from the official finish line back to the tented village. The longest route incorporates all of the famous hellish climbs that the pros will ride on Sunday. One of the key differences is that there will only be around 200 riders in the professional race while there will be around 3,000 of the 16,000 amateurs doing the long route. Another key difference is that the Pro’s will be averaging over 40kmh for their spin. We’ll be aiming to average around 25kmh moving time.

This is no ordinary spin. It’s a big party. The food stops are many and well-stocked. They are designed into the route – so it’s difficult to skip them even if you don’t want any supplies. There is mechanical support, food & drink to replenish the weary rouleur, music and plenty of craic. It really isn’t a race. Everyone is out to have a good time. For those doing the longest distance, the route merges with the circular course after about 90km.

Inevitably we entered the long route. We’re here to ride in the shadows of the greats. I can’t imagine Mercx or Kelly rocking up to the start of Flanders and saying to their soigneur ‘D’you know what gaffer, I don’t really fancy it today, I think I’ll just do the short version.’ Don’t think so. So, it’s the 229km plus extras for Nialler and me.

Training to Compete

Winter training generally went well with a staple diet of cycling down and up the coast road to or past Arklow, supplemented with a few raids into the hills when the weather permitted. Conditions were generally good enough to ride all winter (not much ice on the roads) but there was significant wind hereabouts…and almost always a headwind, regardless of which direction I was travelling in. The road surface in winter is generally poor, pitted and scarred from winter weather – but I suppose its good training for anyone planning to cycle on cobbles and gravel! I tried to go to Andy Kenny’s King of the Mountains Spin Class on Thursday evenings. I know there’s Zwift and there’s Trainer Road and there’s Sufferfest but mostly they are solitary spinning workouts in a virtual world. If you want a seriously good class spinning workout, Andy’s the man. It’s loud, its sweaty and its as hard as you want to make it. Fabulous. I clocked up around 2,500km’s distance between January and March, over 100 hours of cycling and almost 20,000M climbed so I felt reasonably well prepared. I did 95% of those spins on my own so I was really looking forward to a bit of company trundling around the Flandrian highways and byways.

As has happened to me in prior years, the requirements of the day job resulted in some long-haul travel in the weeks leading up Flanders which inevitably interfered with tapering, nutrition and training plans. There was some last-minute bike servicing and parts needed (thanks to Joe Daly’s, Dave & Lou for looking after me) – though I did spend some time questioning my own decision to change from a 50-34 to a 52-36 chain-set when I was grinding up the Muur.

The long road to Ghent

Hoping to bring one of these beauties home!!

At last, after months of planning, Nialler and I were on our way on Friday afternoon from Dublin to Brussels with Aer Lingus. Our plan was fairly straightforward. Fly to Brussels, hire a car, drive to the town of Oudenaarde to register for the race (doh! It’s not a race), then drive to Ghent where we are staying, get dinner, assemble our bikes, go to bed. Pretty good plan. But not without flaws.

Our flight from Dublin to Brussels landed behind schedule. By the time we gathered up our luggage and bikes (no drama on this trip thankfully) and collected our rental car, we knew we were under time pressure. Our mission was straightforward. Gallop 70 km from Brussels airport to Oudenaarde and be there before cut-off time of 7pm to register and collect our race packs. Then, onward to Ghent - a short 40km - and find a convenient supermarket en-route to buy essential supplies for breakfast. At least that was the plan.

I’d like to say a gallop but more of a plod. Despite Nialler’s fine driving (he’s better behind the wheel than with a golf club) and my diligent navigation with the best help from Waze and Google maps, we were stymied by Friday evening rush-hour. We knew we were cutting it fine. We inched our way through the Friday evening traffic treacle. Very slow going but our spirits were high, buoyed by some rocking tunes chosen specially for the occasion. We made it to Oudenaarde with 15 minutes to spare, signed on at registration and collected our race packs. There was inevitably an opportunity to buy some quality merchandise. Very hard to ignore and we didn’t.

7:15pm and the short trip to Ghent. Only 40kms to go so, with Nialler again behind the wheel and me in charge of tunes, we were looking for a supermarket. We knew that because of our ridiculously early start time in the morning, we would not be availing of the fine hotel buffet so we’d have to buy the essentials and self-cater. How hard could it be to find a supermarket in or around Ghent? What Tripadvisor doesn’t draw to your attention is that most supermarkets in the Ghent area close at 8pm in Friday nights. We made an unsuccessful stop at a warehouse club just off the motorway. We couldn’t actually get through the turnstile into the store without a warehouse club membership pass. Boy was that embarrassing. Luckily neither of us could understand the Flemish comments by amused shoppers who were entertained by our failure. Anyway, we screeched into Ghent at five to eight, found parking and went in the ‘out’ door of a supermarket literally as it was closing. It was like a game show – one minute to do a supermarket shop, trying to find all of the essential items (bread, ham, cheese, bananas, yoghurt, beer – while being herded towards the checkout by a security guard who wanted to lock the shop and go home.

We got to our hotel at around 9pm, checked in, and smuggled our bike boxes into our bedrooms to assemble the bikes before going out to dinner.

Thankfully, bike assembly was seamless and we wandered on foot into Ghent to find a restaurant for dinner. We arrived back to the hotel around 11pm, assembled our race gear, made breakfast and planned logistics for the next morning.

Getting Under Way


As we had entered the 229km distance event, we had to get ourselves to the start line in Antwerp for 7am the following morning. The organisers had arranged a marvellously efficient fleet of coaches and special bike trailers to collect cyclists at the finishing town of Oudenaarde at 5am and transport them to the start line at Antwerp. So, we had to plan to be in Oudenaarde at 5am. Which meant we needed to be up at 03:45 in the am to get breakfast, drive to Oudenaarde, park, cycle to the coach pick-up point and get loaded onto the right bus.

Again, everything went to plan – although it was a shockingly early start to a very long day. Nialler and I boarded the bus with a stuff sack full of food and ate our breakfast on the coach as we wended our way pre-dawn to Antwerp. It’s really hard to force feed carbs at that hour of the morning but we both knew that we would be grateful for the energy later in the day. There’s no joy in consuming food like that but it’s necessary.

Our coach arrived in Antwerp around 6:45am, into a large cobbled square amidst a fleet of coaches, all disgorging sleepy cyclists into the cool Belgian morning. We retrieved our bikes from the trailer, scoffed the last of our food, used the loo and set off for the start line. Leaving the square, we kind of assumed that we had started but we were to discover later that it’s about 5km to the start proper. Everyone uses that first few kilometres to check their gears & brakes, make sure their Garmin is connected to their bike and not someone else’s, make sure the contents of their pockets are sitting comfortably, check their lights.

Eventually, the cycling crowd slows and there is a narrowing point before the peloton passes by a what turns out to be a clever inspection point – a bit like a cattle crush – where they are checking for race numbers and helmets. We are directed through a tunnel/underpass and then suddenly, we’re off.

The day is fine but cool and overcast. In the lead-up to any big event, one of the big debates is always about the weather forecast and the appropriate gear to wear. We elected for shorts with leg-warmers and several top layers. Lots of folks were wearing full winter gear and they would have been ok with that in the chilly dawn. But as the day warmed up, at least we were able to shed a few layers.

It’s early morning in Belgium as we ride out of Antwerp. We’re in a strong group – maybe 100 riders - with our own moto outrider. The pace is good and the terrain is pretty flat for the first 50kms. It’s a quite unremarkable landscape. In some places we are riding on roads of concrete - like riding through a Dublin housing estate built in the 70’s. Gaps between slabs where the tar is missing. Reminds me of scorching summers when we were kids, pressing our toes into the tar and arriving home with sticky feet. We ride through suburbs. We ride through industrial areas. Villages and towns whizz by at speed. Suddenly we hear a sickening Psssstttt and Nialler shouts that some poor sucker in the peloton must have got a flat…….. Uh oh…… its Nialler!

We pull into the side of the road and the peloton rides on. Cruel sport. See ya later. It doesn’t take long to change the tube but we’ve lost huge momentum. While we were stopped for around 10 minutes, several more huge groups went barrelling past us. We get going again and start picking up stragglers. We’re not a really organised train, it’s more like Nialler and I pulling at the front and a load of passengers behind us who are tucking in and drafting. Occasionally someone else does a turn.

The morning warms up. The kilometres slip by. The pace is furious. Our group swells in numbers. There is a really good mix of nationalities. Most of them are good fun and most of them are competent at group riding. Most but not all. Without generalising, we noticed particularly shockingly bad behaviour from groups of cyclists who spoke Italian. Don’t know what country they were from but definitely spoke Italian most of the time. Cutting people up at roundabouts. Passing where there’s no space, half-wheeling, not doing a turn. There were more than a few close shaves and harsh words exchanged. But we calmed down. We vented and we calmed down. And we rode on.

And then, at last the cobbles!

It was a great joy to get off the smooth tarmac and on to some quality Flandrian cobbles. This was, after all, why we were here. It’s what makes this event unique. And not just flat cobble sections – of which there were a few. It’s the cobbled climbs that make it so brutally beautiful. While the cobbles are nowhere near as difficult as the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, what they lack in individual angular severity they more than make up for in their collective incline. In case you’ve never tried it, cycling uphill is hard. The steeper it is, the harder it is (gravity, I’m afraid). The heavier you are, the harder it is (again, that whole gravity business). And the worse the surface you’re riding on, the harder it is. Cyclists refer to that feature of the road as rolling resistance which in layman’s terms is how easy or hard it is for your nice tyres to roll along freely on the surface on which you are pedalling. On a spectrum of easy to hard , smooth tarmac is your friend and cobbles are not. This becomes even more pronounced when going uphill. When you combine steep uphill gradient with lumpy bumpy cobbles, your wheels simply do not roll around unless you are applying maximum force all the time. There is a certain advantage to being a ‘strong’ (code for heavy) rider when riding across flat sections cobbles. You ride in the big ring and smash it. It’s a lot of fun. The ‘strong’ riders (again, fat blokes) can generate a lot of absolute power and cruise along when the whippets and waifs are battling to control their mounts. It’s a different game however going uphill on the cobbles. The advantage is reversed. The game changes from absolute power to a power/weight ratio. The waifs & whippets are back in the game. As the Rouleurs are struggling to keep upright on the steeper gradients (15%-20%) the little lads & lassies are gliding uphill. Some of them are talking. Talking and cycling. Down with that sort of thing.

So, we’re just under 90km into De Ronde and we hit our first cobbled section (the Lippenhovestraat). It’s around 1.3KM which isn’t long if you are gliding over tarmac but it feels endless over cobbles. It’s flat and fast and it’s Nialler’s debut over the lumps (I experienced the Roubaix pave on another trip). There’s a certain giddy excitement for the first 500 metres. It’s such a unique experience that it’s almost funny. Everything is jiggling and bouncing. Because it’s flat, it’s fast - but the carnage is only starting. There are bidons spontaneously ejecting from bottle cages. There are saddle bags breaking their moorings and hopping off the road into the gutter. There are pumps, gels, rain capes, forming into a high watermark of flotsam and jetsam along the cobbles. And this is only the first secteur. I notice that some of the peloton have chosen to ride in the smooth gutter. Why do they do that? We are here to ride the cobbles, not the tarmac gutter. Nialler and I exchange a look. We know why we’re here. Rule #5. Ride the Cobbles.

Up until now, Nialler and I have been within conversation distance of each other. There is a short climb and then a cobbled descent, exiting onto a tarmac road with a foodstop just up the road. Riding just ahead of Nialler on the descent, I negotiated the end of the cobbles and began to ride towards the foodstop when I thought I heard someone yelling behind me. I carried on downhill to the foodstop, but with no sign of Nialler after around five minutes, I cycled back uphill to the end of the cobbled section. Now the yelling made sense. Nialler hit a random cobble as he exited onto the tarmac and Psssttttt….. second puncture of the day – a pinch flat. But we were in good spirits – only 90kms into De Ronde, no serious hills yet and a foodstop just up the road. After another efficient tube change, we made our way down to the foodstop.

This foodstop is also the point at which the 229km route joins the 174km and 139km routes so the number of cyclists suddenly swells. Every food stop was a party. We began to realise that, unlike a lot of other sportives we’ve participated in (e.g. L’Etape du Tour) this event is definitely not treated like a race. We begin to recognise groups of riders who save themselves to attack the hill sections and then spend ages at the food stops in between.  The mechanical support at all the food stops was also excellent. I think we dropped in to say hi at all of them. Generally, the marshalling was also first class. So, we replenished water bottles, visited the mechanical support to get tyres pumped up to the right pressure and away we went again, girding our loins for the climbing which was about to start. It was sometime around then that we encountered a guy on what could be best described as a cross between a scooter and an elliptical trainer. He was a paid-up participant in De Ronde and he was moving along at a fair pace. It was a pretty unusual looking form of transport and I’ve no idea how he made it up the very steep hills. Perhaps he walked. Perhaps he avoided them. But we would see him on the road several more times during the day.

The morning wore on. We pedalled on. We traversed the next cobbled section (the Haaghoek) without incident. It was around 1.6km long so a bit more than the first one and now with more people fighting to hold their line because a few of the routes have merged. This will be a feature of the remainder of the spin with large numbers of cyclists on very narrow roads and lanes. Soon the climbing starts with a series of short sharp hills (Leberg, Berendries, Ten Bosse). They vary in length between 500metres and 1,000 metres. None of them is particularly hard on their own but when they come in quick succession, they take their toll. But at least the road surface is tarmac. And then, finally after 130km, we get to the famous and fabulous and torturously beautiful Muur van Geraardsbergen. This is a Flandrian icon. It’s symbolic of the race. The road sweeps into Geraardsbergen, rising up across a square and around a big church. The road narrows and begins to rise. It’s cobbled and its steep. This baby averages almost 10% gradient for 700m and it rises to a leg-breaking 20% gradient in parts. And it’s savagely beautiful.

It takes all I’ve got to keep pedalling. The hills start to take their toll on the peloton and riders are starting to walk uphill. Some get lucky and clip off in time before the hill bites them. Others get caught unawares by the level of difficulty, are in too big a gear and don’t clip out in time to avoid ending up in a heap in the road. At best it’s just a bit embarrassing. At worst, the impact can do a bit of damage to rider & bike. There’s no shame in it. Happens the Pro’s. But fallen riders pose a major hazard to those struggling to ride uphill. It can happen quite randomly and take you out without warning. The rider protocol on these hills is for fast cyclists (skinny dudes) to stick to the left and slow cyclists (plodders like me) to stick to the right. The charming iconography on all the posters shows a hare on the left and a tortoise on the right. But this is where riders walking up hill are a significant hazard. They are supposed to walk on the right and allow riders up on the left. But the plodders are also fighting for that space on the right. I did have to roar at a couple of walkers a few times to keep out of the way. At moments like that, multi-tasking is a huge challenge – trying to cycle up hill on cobbles and breathe and shout at someone who you are about to collide with at 5kmh – it’s not easy. Anyway, I made it up all the hills without getting off.

Avoiding the walkers!

There is a sting in the tail at the top of the Muur. Just when you finish the leg-sapping ascent, the road levels for a few short meters and then rears up sharply again around a chapel at the very top. Thankfully I made it all the up without stopping and freewheeled down to the foodstop which is half way down the hill. The nice thing about this break is the thought that we are now over half way through De Ronde.

Nialler and I regroup, replenish supplies and set off again. It’s around 20km to the next hill (Valkenberg) so we’ve got a bit of time to get some food and drink on board and have a chat. There wasn’t too much chat going up the Muur. We roll on. We survive the Valkenberg (1.1km, avg 8.2%, max 13%). It’s early afternoon now and the Belgian spectators are getting nicely rowdy and supportive. Saturday is their warmup for the Pro-race on Sunday and they are getting tucked into their favourite tipples. All I can think as we’re grinding along is I’d love a beer. Later would be better but I want one now. On On!

The hills come thick and fast. The next challenge is Eikenberg (1.2km, avg 6%, max 10%). No bother to us. We’ve found a bit of rhythm and are cruising along in a decent group when Psssst…..puncture number three, again for Nialler. Off go our peloton again. This time the puncture is a bit more serious. It was most likely caused by a small stone and it has punctured a hole in the tyre. Fortunately, we’ve both experienced this before and are able to batch the hole by biting a piece off the punctured tube and putting it inside the tyre to cover the hole. After a bit of careful manipulation of tube and tyre, we get Nialler back on the road. We take stock. We’ve used three out of the four spare tubes we’re carrying between us and three of the four gas cannisters. We’ve got a burst tyre. We’ve got 70kms left and 10 very tough hills ahead of us. Quick team talk, a few gels and fig rolls and we’re spinning again. We’ll need to find the mechanic at the next food stop which fortunately is at the next town.

Loop of Pain

The second-last foodstop of the day is at Oudenaarde which is also where the Ronde will finish after another 62kms of a loop ride over a few more humps and ramps. We roll into Oudenaarde and there is a full-on party underway. We’re beginning to better understand the spirit of the Ronde. You need to be serious about the cycling bits and then be serious about having ze fun. There’s a DJ somewhere in the square belting out europop tunes. There’s more food and drink than you could shake a stick at. And of course, inevitably, there is a really well-resourced mechanical support area – which is where we go first, to reload on tubes, gas and a new tyre for Nialler. Then it’s off to the trough replenish our reserves. Knowing that we probably have another 3 hours ahead of us, we don’t loiter for too long. Perhaps just another waffle or two, a half a banana, a gel – and then we’re off again.

The next lump in the road is the iconic Koppenberg, a short sharp hill that is only 500m in length but with an average gradient of 9.4% and maxing out at 22%. Ah, the Koppenberg. A lovely combination of Koppen (cobblestones) and Berg (hill). Apparently "Koppen" is an abbreviation for cobblestones which in Dutch slang language are called kinderkoppen, or "children's heads". This is a brutal, savagely hard effort. There are more riders on the parcours now than on some of the earlier hills because all the routes have joined up. More riders means more people dismounting. Carnage. It makes it harder to get up the slow lane, executing tricky overtaking manoeuvres – on a cobbled hill, at 22% gradient, at 5kmh, breathing, pedalling and shouting at the same time. We made it up without dismounting. Yeah! There is a huge crowd all around the environs of the Koppenberg. The afternoon beers are seeping through and there’s loads of encouragement being shouted from the ditches.

We ride on and recover, knowing that there is still a bit of suffering to go.

We dance across the last cobbled sectuer of the day, a tasty 1,000 meters of discomfort called the Mariaborrestraat. As we are now tiring and core strength is fading, we find ourselves sitting down more heavily on the saddle and the impact of the cobbles is felt more everywhere…. enough said!

With little time to recover, we’re into the next hill. They come thick and fast now. Next up is Steenbeekdries which is cobbled. It’s ‘relatively’ easy. It’s the same length (500m) as the Koppenberg but the gradient is more benign with an average of only 5.3% and a max of 6.7%. There are two more hills in quick succession, the Taaienberg which is cobbled (700m, avg 6.1%, max 16%) and then the Kaperij which starts off cobbled and then turns into concrete (1,000m, avg 5.5%, max 9%).

We’re cruising in fabulous afternoon sunshine, enjoying the easier hills and generally having the craic. We conquer the next hill called the Kanarieberg (Canary Hill, 1.1km, avg 7.7%, max 14%) and then roll into the final foodstop at Ronse. We’ve only got 29km to go now so we’re buzzing with adrenaline, thinking about the finish and what awaits (beer, frites and Belgian gel shots). All that remains between us and the finish are five hills. How hard can that be, right? Proper hard is the answer – because the second-last one is Oude Kwaremont and the last is the Paterberg.

We leave Ronse behind, refreshed and recharged, ready for the final efforts. Boom. Straight into the Kruisberg (1.8km, avg 4.2%, max 9.1%). In isolation it’s not that hard but its relatively long with the upper, steepest part cobbled and having been off the bike for a few minutes at the foodstop, it’s a rude awakening.

There’s a short cruise into the next hill Hotond (900m, avg 4%, max 8.5%) which we take in our stride and then we spin at a good pace to the bottom of the Karnemelkbeekstraat. This hill is tarmac for a change. It feels longer and more difficult than its vital statistics suggest (900m, avg 4.9%, max 10%).

Anyway, we summit and we cruise.

There are only two hills left now and they are two beauties. The party crowd is gathering at every vantage point.

Next up is Oude Kwaremont - which in fact is the name of one of the cobbled roads leading up the Kluisberg hill. At 2km in length, it’s the longest hill of the day. It’s not that steep with an average gradient of 4% and a max of 11.6%. But at this stage of the ride, with the attritional climbing we’ve done, every rise in the road feels difficult. And the professionals will do this twice tomorrow!! They have their very own beer here, called…. Kwaremont. And there are plenty of people sitting in the sunshine, quaffing lovely long glasses of the golden nectar.

We ride on.

The lower part (maybe a third) of the climb is tarmac but the upper part is cobbled, and it starts with a vengeance with the first 500M particularly difficult. It’s the steepest and narrowest part of the climb. Cobbles are bumpy at the best of times when they are laid evenly but this surface is uneven and rough. We are straining sinew and muscle to stay upright and keep forward momentum. The crowd is rowdy, hootin’ and hollerin’ and generally very supportive. We battle on. Halfway up the climb, near the church of Kwaremont village, the gradient gradually levels out from 11% to just 2%, but still with one final kilometre to go to the top.

We summit and ride on.

We have about 4km to gather our thoughts, gird our loins and prepare for what’s next. The last hill. And what a hill. The infamous Paterberg. It’s only 400m long but it’s a wall. There’s a really fast downhill approach on tarmac. You can see on your right, in the distance, a funny looking vertical stripe in a field. And as you get closer you realise that the stripe is a road. Well, a wall really. Alive with flailing cyclists trying to make their way up. You get to the end of the tarmac with a lot of pace and - wallop. Into the climb. From downhill to uphill. From tarmac to cobbles. No transition. The path of the righteous cyclist is beset on all sides by the inequities of steep rough cobbles and raucous onlookers awash and aglow with Belgian beer. We suffer and we ride on. This is as hard a finish to your spin as you could wish for. It’s only 400m long but the average gradient is 12.9% with a max of 20.3%. The support is amazing. The hill is strewn with broken cyclists. I see a guy standing on the roadside, draped over his bike, being quite ill. I see a girl lying on the grass verge beside her bike, helmet off, her hair a matted thatch, gasping for air that can’t come fast enough.

I’m measuring my effort. I know I’ll probably have to get up out of the saddle and thrash up the hill at some point. I stay seated for as long as I can but I’m getting slower and slower. I get to that dreaded point on any climb where I’m out of gears and I’m barely moving. Time to stand on the pedals and thrash. My speed picks up to 6kmh, 7kmh, 8kmh. I’m maxxed out at 8kmh, heart rate at 177. I block out everything. I have one thought. G-E-T U-P T-H-A-T H-I-L-L. In my head I’m going for the KOM points. I make it to the top.

We regroup. We ride on.

Homeward Bound

There’s about 9km to the finish but we’re not cruising anymore. For some mad reason, everyone who has made it up and down the Paterberg feels that the only way home is to race. So race we do! Such is the nature of the event that we keep meeting the same groups of riders all day. People who generally ride at similar pace might take rest stops at different times but invariably come back together. So, we fall in again with the Italian-speaking crowd. A couple of strong lads at the front doing turns and the rest of them wheel-sucking. We catch up again with a guy who is wearing what looks like a Leitrim GAA jersey. He didn’t do a turn all day and he isn’t doing one now.

Nialler and I are giving a good account of ourselves. We’re doing turns. We’re on the rivet. We are going at it hammer and tongs. Soon we’re on the very long finishing straight. You can see the finish line in the distance. It must be a least one kilometre away. We find ourselves now in a group of three. Nialler, me and Leitrim lad. Nialler and I are pulling hard, doing turns, under the kite, honest pro’s, bringing it home. Leitrim lad has other ideas. Suddenly we’re his lead out train. With about 250m to go, he decides to ride. Off he goes for the line, leaving us for dust. For a nanosecond, we thought about chasing him and then thought better of it. We roll over the line together, hands aloft, winning our own monument. The finish line is an emotional place. It’s a fantastic achievement for everyone who completes this, regardless of which distance they have ridden. It’s hard. It’s a monument.

We don’t hang around at the finish line because we need to get back to the start village where we’ve parked the car. We want to get our party started and what better way than with the customary beer, frites & Belgian gel shots (mayo).

We need to drive back to our Ghent, change and go out for dinner.

Tripel time.


Post Script

We completed the course at an average speed 25.4kmh for 9 hrs 16 mins for 236KM. The next day, Alberto Bettiol won Ronde van Vlaanderen with an average speed 42.4kmh for 6 hrs 19 mins for 267KM!