Several Wheelers make an annual pilgrimage to Belgium for the Spring Classics. The Tour of Flanders is always a staple, but for the last few years many have been riding the smaller one day classic Gent-Wevelgem that like the other classics has a sportive the day before the pro race. Classics veteran Phil Barella reports back from the weekend away...
The ride is a new one to a few members of the club, and last year a few of the folk that do long distances fast did the longer version of this, whereas myself, Hans Andrew and Vince did the middle distance. A total of around 20 of us were going to tackle the middle distance this year, and a few of them had done this the year before, me included. The route basically breaks down into three parts, the first is rolling roads and crosswinds, the second is the hilly part, and the third and unsurprisingly my favourite, is the fast flat bit.
The race is linked to the anniversary of the Great War (1914-1918) and the lives that were lost and there are many memorials during the ride, including the Menin gate and the Anzac site on which there is also the last food stop. These places are stunning, in terms of scale and magnitude around what happened, and definitely resonate with me every time I see them.
As for getting there, Hans had his car to take me, Andrew and his son, Max over. Other folk were travelling over separately, and in Keith and Pete Christmas’s case riding over from Calais. I got to Hans for 5:30am on the Friday and we closed out loading up ahead of time then went to pick Andrew up. We used the Eurotunnel to get over, and Andrew had picked a wonderful Airbnb place 2.5km from the start finish area of the ride. The plan was to get to site, go to the local supermarket, get some grub/beers and then have some lunch and pop over and see the E3 Harelbeke race which takes in the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs.
So after getting the food and setting the bikes up, we got moving over to the hills, and parked up near (in my case too near) the Koppenberg to try to wake up the legs, and we got trundling. Anyway once we got past this, we then headed towards part of the route, but my Garmin had a hissy fit so we just went towards a viewing point, and watched the break and peloton go, and then trundled back to the car and back to the Airbnb. The last 30k was watched on a giant TV, with Zdenek Stybar winning from a small group. After that we got ready, went into town (the town we stayed in was Lauwe, and I’d highly recommend it), and found a couple of restaurants one of which did a 15 euro steak with frites. We were sold. The steak was decent and the beer was cheap, so had a couple, and then went back to our Airbnb again.
Before this, whilst prepping our bikes for the ride, I noticed my rear brake was a bit squidgy then tried it a few more times and the cable snapped! I removed it from the outers and the brake and wondered what I should do. We didn’t have a spare or a magnet, so hopefully the mechanics might have a cable in the morning….
Anyway a decent sleep, and up early in the morning ready to ride. I went off early hoping to beat the queues, and it was pretty clear there were more people there than last year. I was queued up with a single mechanic with a few people with minor mechanical foibles. Long story short we got a cable and routed it externally, with a selection of cable ties, and then set off. Works out that a few from the group in Kortrijk set off early, so we had wheelers ahead of us, and behind.
Once you depart, you can set off and often find groups to work with, or sit in, whilst some folk beaver away on the front with loads of folk following in the wheels. Our group moved up and past a fair few groups and individuals and then we got to the area where the rolling roads hit crosswinds and head winds. This, as always causes a few separations, and we all got to the first food stop within a couple of minutes of each other. This included passing through the Menin gate (memorial to the missing) and through Ypres, near the Cloth Hall. We caught up to Geraint and Dave at the food stop but they were departing at slightly different speeds, so we chilled for a bit, had a waffle and some isotonic energy drink and then set off. The next bit meant we went over the border into France to take in the Catsberg (Mont des Cats) and then on to Mont Noir, the Bannerberg (with one section at 23-25%) and finally for the hilly section, the Kemmelberg. We caught up to G, ahead of the first of the climbs and at this point Max was suffering a little, so we took this climb easy and he had a breather at the top.
We then got over the Katsberg (steep) and the Bannerberg (had a couple of steep hairpins), and finally to the Kemmelberg. This is not anywhere nearly as hard as the Koppenberg but has its moments including a finale that goes to around 23% for a short while. It’s a fun climb, watching people misjudge their efforts and come to a grinding halt as they over egg the first part of it. The cobbles are not particularly rough, so whilst not a smooth ride, it is a challenging climb.
Once done you descend the other side and drop down to the flat section after a couple of other climbs, that aren’t too challenging. This coincided with going over the poppy fields and last Ploegsteert (Plugstraat) and onto the Anzac memorial (a few hundred metres of war graves, a huge building with a small museum nearby). This was the last food stop where we met a few other British cyclists including one guy that helped Andrew with his cramp, as well as chatting to the Belgians about Brexit!
After this we dropped down to the fast flat bit, and we headed up a group of around 30 riders for a fair part of this (Wervik to Menen to Wevelgem). Good to see that after that (at an average of 38km/h for that part) we arrived at the finish, tired, but had had such a good day. We then trundled back to our Airbnb via a couple of supermarkets where we grabbed a few beers and some food for a post ride binge! After a shower and a chill out for a bit, we then got ready for more steak and went down to the same place and got some rib eyes and frites again, and had a good old chinwag about the day.
The evening wore on and we had to get going early in the morning back to Eurotunnel, so we got back at a sensible time and departed early, there was next to no traffic on the road, across Northern France and Belgium. Eurotunnel went seamlessly and we arrived back home around 10am, so that allowed us to get sorted and watch the race at home. I wouldn’t have minded watching it live but circumstances meant this was what worked. It looks like the folks who stayed in Kortrijk had a great time, and a few of them watched the race from the Kemmelberg.
Pretty much to a man, we all said, this is the most fun day out you can have in Belgium. The course is not too hard, the roads are great (as in they vary), and the riding standards aren’t too bad. The mix of cross winds, bergs and fast flats suits me down to a tee, so I’ll be back.
Hope to see some of you there next year.