Tour of Flanders
April 1, 2012 – When I heard that I was likely doing the Tour of Flanders a couple of weeks ago, I got goose bumps. I’ve done many ‘Rondes,’ but not The Ronde. This is one of the races that first fascinated me when I was new to the sport of cycling. Many professionals list the Ronde as their favorite racing day of the year, and now I’m in the same boat. There is something special about this race – the atmosphere at sign in, the intensity of the fans’ cheers, the history.
I got a sense of what being a Belgian superstar is like on the way to sign in. I rode there behind Tom Boonen. The sign-in presentation was about a kilometer from where the team bus was parked. On a small cobbled road, fans stood three deep on each side all the way there. They weren’t just cheering for Tom; they were screaming, yelling and clapping – like their football team had just won the Super Bowl.
The small road led to one of the beautiful squares of Brugge. An enormous stage stood at the far end, and a path led through the packed crowd. “Gibberish gibberish, Tom Boonen!” announced the presenter. The crowd roared. The King of Belgium had arrived.
The first 100 kilometers of the race before we got to Oudenaarde were flat and indecisive. The breakaway of 15 riders went relatively quickly, and Tyler Farrar was in it. The rest of us could relax. People lined the course almost all the way to Oudenaarde. The towns we passed through frequently had throngs of people held back by barriers, like one would see in the final kilometer of a typical race. Even between towns there was a consistent scattering of people.
From Oudenaarde we did a big circuit, a medium circuit and a small circuit. We did a total of 16 climbs in addition to six cobble stone sectors. The most decisive of the many notable climbs were the Kwaremont and the Paterberg, which were at the end of each lap for a total of three times.
The climbs of Flanders are something you need to experience for yourself to truly understand. The steepest ones, such as the Koppenburg, have pitches of 25 percent. To ride the climb fresh is difficult, but 200 kilometers into a race you see the dauntingly steep wall and you question whether you will be able to pedal up at all.
Positioning yourself well before the climbs is key. Even from thirtieth position, you will be blocked and won’t be able to follow the winning moves. Hit the early climbs in the second half and you won’t be out of the race, but you’ll waste precious energy chasing back on. Because of the importance of positioning, there is a sprint for every climb and sector.
Early in the race, I was one of the riders who was supposed to either be in the breakaway or making sure a big one didn’t go. Since Tyler was in it, I could relax until reaching the climbs that I helped my teammates hit in good position. To do this, the team must be organized near the front; I would lead them out for the 500-700 meters before the climb.
This was my first experience in a race of this length. My goal was to see as much of the race as possible, hopefully past the 200k mark. The first time we went over the Kwaremont and Paterberg was about 185 km into the race, and not long after was the Koppenburg. The peloton fell apart after this section, as you would expect. I was in one of the groups trailing over the top, but it didn’t take too long to chase back on.
I made it until the next time up the Kwaremont, 230 km in. Usually when I get dropped on a climb there is a period where I yo-yo off on the back of the field. After this distance the rubber band breaks immediately.
From there I rode with a small group to the finish, which included a small lap and another climb up both the Kwaremont and Paterberg. I came in 96th place in the last group of finishers, 15 minutes down. I completed The Rhonde – 265 kilometers, or nearly 165 miles – spending more than six and a half hours in the saddle. There was a huge applause when we crossed the finish line. Tom Boonen had just been called to the podium.