Tour of Flanders 2002 – by Rod MacFadyen
Another year, another visit to the Tour of Flanders. The programme: travel on Friday, ride the popular event on Saturday, watch the race and come home on Sunday. The party: me, Mark and Arthur (in my car), Mark P and Della, Alex and Craig. Arthur and Craig had history – in amateur Paris-Roubaix two years ago Arthur had been in the vicinity of a crash Craig had suffered.
Arthur created more history by revealing late on Thursday that his passport was still in his office. Thus early on Friday our drive to Dover included a stop in Wokingham to collect it. We made him pay for this with abuse. No further incidents on our trip to the coast and in the queue for the ferry, on the docks, our entire party met up and the holiday was definitely on. Off the boat on continental europe we made good speed in convoy, in bright sunshine that would continue all weekend, by early afternoon finding ourselves in Oudenaarde and by early evening making a group foray into the hinterland.
It was warm and bright and we rattled up the first section of cobbles on the edge of Oudenaarde. Dropping down a short descent we took a winding road used by most editions of the Tour of Flanders and so named after it. Arthur declared he had a headset issue, since headset adjustment is vital over the cobbles (if it starts loose it might trash the frame) we sent him packing to the bikeshop. Alex and Craig, in the interests of conserving energy, went with him but the rest of us wanted to experience more of this heartland of european cycle racing.
We continued on the rolling road past low hills covered by fields and tractors and neat houses and short Flandrian climbs. Turning back a strong headwind blocked us, despite this we guessed at which lanes to take and came across a sudden surprise: the base of the Koppenberg. This steep and narrow climb was being re-used in the race this year after a long gap and to this end its cobbles had been relaid. This transforms the climb by lowering the risk of disaster over gap-toothed cobbles however the gradient remains fearsome. We all made it up, straining through the steepest pitch of 22%. I had reassured myself that a lowest gear of 39×25 was feasible. That evening we ate well in the hotel. A fair in the square outside made early sleep unlikely.
An early start the next day but a lot of car loading, driving, navigating and parking before we could reach a mobbed technical institute of Ninove and start the event. We set out as part of a stream of cyclists but definitely towards the tail of the event. Whereas last year the 145km route had been straightforward until it met the professional race route, this year the organisers sent the transitional phase down every narrow lane they could think of including some long early sections of cobbles. What a shock cobbles are to the uninitiated. You think you will never complain about a tarmac road surface again. Soon you are eyeing grass verges with interest, anything to escape the constant terrible jarring. Mark, as a cobbles virgin, did not seem to enjoy these sections. I felt happier than I had done last year, perhaps the slightly wider tyres helped. Arthur and Mark Pettitt disappeared up the road.
The technical route and verying levels of early enthusiasm broke up our party sooner than I had expected and Mark and I found ourselves together but alone as the route swung suddenly right up hill 2, the Molenberg. Motos and cars irritatingly joined us up the rough cobbled surface, but no other cyclists as we turned right at a little T junction. Unsure of the route we pressed on only to find ourselves rejoining the race route after a few km. Mark was annoyed, our chance to catch up with the others had been comprehensively blown. The Molenberg, so good we did it twice. The second time we turned left at the T. Our loop had added 10km to our ride distance.
Past Oudenaarde we motored down a bike path with a strong tailwind, pressing past slower cyclists, and in Kluisberg stopped for the first control in a multicoloured queue of cyclists. Isostar was the drink, there were bananas and oranges to eat. Leaving the control, the Fasso Bortolo squad passed us going the other way, grinning at all the amateurs paying for everything themselves. We stayed together up the steep tarmac pitch of the Kluisberg before plunging down the other side and beginning to tackle a multitude of climbs in a small area: the Oude Kwaremont, long and low and cobbled, the vicious cobbled pitch of the Paterberg, its gutter barriered off (a blow, I rode up that gutter last year) cyclists comically coming to an undignified halt in front of me, me weaving between them trying to keep my front wheel on the ground. Not too bad though, and soon at the Koppenberg again.
It was a war zone. We’d been cycling a couple of hours, had been working our way up the stream of cyclists, and now on the Koppenberg it was really busy. Many people walking here and tending to dismount abruptly in the middle of the road. Furthermore the gradient was definitely much steeper than the previous evening and I had a real struggle to turn the pedals. At the top one encountered annoying behaviour in which many riders would suddenly dismount and stand in the road and congratulate themselves; found myself cursing at some idiot stopping right in front of me, continued though.
My progress was halted on the Taaienberg by the sight of two cars stopped motionless facing each other, one going up, one going down. I walked through the narrow gap at the side and continued (Mark rode it), never to discover how they resolved their difficulty. The route now headed with more determination towards the finish in Ninove. The small matter of the Muur de Gerardsbergen was on my mind. Through Brakel, on Mark’s wheel a lot, getting our cards stamped at the second control, not enough food there (no calories in wafers) deciding I could not complete this ride without taking on supplies. We plunged into Geraardsbergen, busy with Saturday afternoon traffic, and found a little shop. Reluctantly I bought and ate yet more bananas. Mark could not face them. The following day the leading break would not be split by this climb and indeed I found it less difficult than the Koppenberg; just a moment of worry at a steep left cobbled turn. In any case one can not bale out on this climb, there are so many spectators the loss of face would be intense. On the other side the Red Bull girls brought a flash of glamour to our sweaty existence, Mark and I shared a can. Soon we were on the last climb, the Bosberg, nothing special but tough on tired legs.
Over the top I finally realised a small ambition I’d had all day; to be dragged along by a big Belgian. He was big, he wore a Belgian top, he was putting the hammer down, we latched on. A block headwind made my gratitude all the more intense. With about 4km to go the big guy was dragging us along at 45kph and we were suffering but hanging in there, however we all had to haul on the anchors abruptly at 1.5km to go when we hit the traffic tailback into Ninove. Thus a slightly anticlimactic finale as we threaded our way onto the finish straight in close company with many riders. Mark and I crossed the line after 6hr30 of riding time for our 155km. Arthur, sitting in the stand on his own, cheered us. We were last of our group back. Strange to be finished; I had been looking forward to this for months. On the drive back to Oudenaarde an hour or two later, stragglers doing the 270km full version were still drifting in. I did not envy them.
The next day we pottered around on the bikes all morning, found some more little cobbled climbs including a steep pitch on the ‘Eddy Merckx Route’ and then a cross country excursion on a rutted farm track to get back the Paterberg without touching the race route, being worried that that would be closed to bicycles with the race getting closer. The Paterberg was busy, eventually very busy. In sunny but chilly conditions we waited a long time for the race. Mark slid under the fence and stretched out on the grass in a field. Race vehicles came through more and more frequently, and eventually a long string of about 100 cars and motorbikes; what were they all there for. There was a traffic jam on our steep cobbled section, crowd pressed up against the cars, much burning of clutches as they moved off. Eventually helicopters were seen, then the first cyclists approaching the base of the climb at high speed, the remains of the early break, 4 guys one at a time. In the distance the bunch could be seen starting on the Oude Kwaremont. Many minutes later the first group came through, a glimpse of Armstrong looking serious, Cipollini in an all-white World Cup leaders strip. More bunches came through, looking increasingly desperate, some guys running. I would have given any of them a push if I hadn’t been worried about falling over myself in my cleats.
When the race was past we scooted off back to the hotel, caught the last 30km of the race live on tv, seeing Tafi’s much-deserved win, and were out of the hotel before the second group were even seen crossing the line. The race had run late and now we had to hammer up the motorway to catch the ferry. With only minutes to spare and severe petrol worries we did make it. A really superb weekend full of incident and lacking disaster (apart from me discovering on Monday that the cobbles had cracked my rear Open Pro rim). Next year though I will more seriously fancy a Liege-Bastogne-Liege weekend.