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Been there, got the T-shirt - Flanders

Another guide to cycling in our heroes footsteps.

Ah Flanders, Flanders, Flanders so good I wrote it 3 times - more than any place we know this is as close to cycling Nirvana as it is possible to get outside of the Black Sheep brain!! There may well be large flat areas that are only good for cross and/or headwinds(a must to sample anyway) but the ridges adjacent to Oudenaarde are riddled by some legendary, bloomin steep and generally cobbled climbs. In fact I'm reasonably convinced you could ride for hours and not find any flat if you try hard enough. Or if you have a sadistic ride leader like we did(more later on that).The towns and villages are generally pretty with no end of accommodation and refreshment options(more on that later too!!) - and whilst the cycling history is all around you you don't have to go too far most days to be reminded of the massive human sacrifices made in this area by both sides in the Great War. It'll put your sore legs into context on even the bleakest of spring Flandrian days believe me.

When to go

If you're a cycling fan of any sort then this is a mecca throughout much of March and into April - E3 Harelbeke, Dwars Door, Gent-Wevelgem, Three days de Panne and possibly the greatest one day race from a fans viewpont - De Ronde, all use the hills we used, although other races such as Scheldprijs are also pretty close. Be warned though if you are coming for De Ronde that it gets rammed and you'll need to book well in advance for accommodation. We've not done the Tour of Flanders sportve either but can imagine that 16,000 riders should make some cobbled climbs interesting on a wet day. Our trip was planned around watching E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and taking part in the Ghent-Wevelgem sportive.

Worth noting is how visible the pro teams are on recon rides. With the Harelbeke route being so compact they are never too far away and driving into the area we saw the whole Europcar team, Eddie Boss practicing sprint finishing, a quartet of MTN Qhubeka lads on several occasions and some motor pacing for Topsport Vlaanderen. We may also have seen some OPQS lads but there are so many fans in full replica kit and bikes that it's hard to be certain!

With its proximity to the channel though this is a great place to come for a weekend at any time if you just want to chance your arm on some historic roads.

Booking ahead for the sportive

 Ghent-Wevelgem is organised by this mob who do many others - www.proximuscyclingchallenge.be

 

Overview of our weekend

Fast Sheep won't thank me for saying this but if you could only do one cycling weekend ever then this would be a pretty good template. It really is that good. We took a 9 am chunnel and got to Kluisbergen for lunchtime - even though we took a detour over the Baneberg just so we could get closer to the Kemmelberg. Yep - we really were being proper cycling geeks! We had a self guided leg  loosener of 60km on Thursday afternoon, with 95km round the E3 route on Friday before watching the race itself. Saturday saw us tackling the 140km sportive option. Sunday was only 15km of riding with lunch on the Kemmelberg taking in both the ladies and mens races. Being so close to the French border, once we were done we got back to the Chunnel in just over an hour.

Where to stay

Oudenaarde will give you plenty of options if you want a decent size town or to be close to the Tour of Flanders museum, but outside of peak cycling season you will not struggle to get close to the climbs. You will however struggle to find anything better B and B wise then Maison Kerkhove. Anne-Mie and Luke are excellent and welcoming hosts, knowledgeable about the area and  helpful in making suggestions about where to go. The accommodation is of the highest standard and food exemplary. Not making this up folks - it's perfect. Unfortunately for you lot it's usually got repeat bookings for the E3 and Flanders weekends. Top tip for cyclists with non-cycling partners though - if they've got any interest in history, walking or brewing then there's loads to do after you've got back from your 2 hour pre-breakfast ride(the hills are that close!)so come anytime of the year.

http://www.maisonkerkhove.be/en

Our rides

Thursday's entree. Arriving at lunchtime we decided to fuel up first. As the man in the cafe said - ''The French have got their wine and cheese but it's a disgrace that the world call frites 'french fries'. We make the best ones and these are the best Belgian frites going.Our stew's pretty good too'' That'll be 3 stew and frite then please. As you'll see below this is clearly the food of champions and probably what all the pros have when they are in this part of the world. Given we had such small portions it only sat on the stomach for about 6 hours too.

Once lunch was done we checked in, assembled the bikes and set off in search of cobbles. We hadn't even properly warmed up before hitting Oude Kwaremont. This was my first time cycling here so when I attacked the other sheep just before the steepest section it was purely down to excitement and naievity. Being in completely the wrong gear and having selected the worst path possible I soon learned the folly of my ways as I nearly came a cropper in what was more boulder field than road - and these are decent cobbles they told me. From there we moved onto the Paterberg where luckily we were taking pictures when a ladies pro team came flying past (at the speed they were going they'd have absolutely mullered us!), before hitting the queen of these climbs the Koppenberg. It's places like this that ram home how good the pro's really are - how anyone can get up here in the big ring is beyond me and heaven only knows how anyone manages it  in the wet. Luckily for me it was bone dry and so I ground my way up chanting my new mantra under my breath - 'souplesse, souplesse, souplesse'. Souplesse my arse - I was about as ragged as a scarecrow on a windy day, and the pictures of me grimacing suggest it  was torture, but internally at least I was grinning from ear to ear. Cobbles - I love 'em.

Towards the end of the ride we took in a flat section of cobbles just because they were there and again it provides a real lesson in how good the pros are. The Varenstaat section is pan flat but it is absolutely knackering trying to maintain strength and rhythm even on well maintained sections. Warming down on the short run back to the accommodation we marveled at the strength it must take to do Paris-Roubaix's 50km plus of pave. Hell indeed.

Friday - The hills of E3. Thursday was just a taster and although we would repeat a couple of the climbs this was planned by Fast as the ultimate guide to the Hellingen. Bit of background on Fast first. He's a cycling nut having been coming out to Belgium for over 30 years to watch, he absolutely loves the history and being able to ride the famous roads. He's also mustard on a bike and a bit of a racing snake who can go forever, so when he's excited he can get carried away - 'if you want we could just do this little loop and get such and such a climb in''. Whatever Fast! You lead we'll follow. Just make sure you wait for me at the top though because I really have no idea where we are!

Anyway, Fast's enthusiasm is infectious and whilst good weather always helps this ride went straight into my top 3 rides of all time. It was amazing from start to finish. The hills come thick and fast, the roads are generally empty of traffic and well maintained(there's a couple of sections on main roads linking loops but they have really good cycle paths and you are well away from the cars). The scenery is beautiful and I only got dropped about 15 times - which is exactly the number of climbs we did so you can draw your own conclusions. Most of the time I had no idea where we where as the route twists and turns no end(keep your Garmin close), but after a fairly gentle 5 miles to start we were soon into the first climb of the day at Kortekeer. A fast descent towards Oudennarde and another flat section to the 13 mile point was about the last of the easy stuff though as we were then onto the Boigneberg after which the climbs just came with amazing regularity. Eikenberg, Taaienberg, Kanerieberg, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Kapelberg, Knokteberg - what a list and every one of them was a joy to climb. All told it comes in at just over 1300m of climbing in 57 miles which doesn't in itself sound that challenging, but the gradient on climbs, the regularity of them to break any rhythm and the added factor of the cobbles all add up to make this a classic half day ride. Get your timings right and you can be back in Kluisbergen to see the pros go past for the first time.

Thoughts on the Sportive

Logistically brilliant. Sign on was quick, the route was well sign posted and major junctions had marshalls that held up the traffic and gave us right of way. 3 food stops on the 140km option, all well stocked - I've never eaten as many Belgian waffles in one day! 2 timed climbs with video footage to boot - although if the Sheep are anything to go by you may struggle to look at your best cresting the Kemmelberg. Being in Belgium there's a huge beer tent at the end as well !

The route is a pretty good catch all for the key elements of riding in Belgium, although it is generally flat with only 3 decent climbs(not necessarily a bad thing after all Fridays Hellingens). Given that one is the Kemmelberg though, and Fast Sheep insisted we add an extra 5km loop onto the ride so we could double back and do it twice, it does have a bit of cycling glamour. Other than the 20/30km around the Kemmelberg  the rest of the route is flat, meanders incessantly through fields and you'll no doubt get plenty of that other Belgian standard - wind. For us we had a tailwind out meaning the schlep back became a bit of a sufferfest, broken only by the cobbles of central Ypres and the Menin Gate. Make sure you save a bit of energy for a sprint finish though as the ride ends on the actual finish line in Wevelgem so you'll want to be looking good for the photos!

As with most rides you'll probably end up getting in one or two different groups and I have to say that the Belgians are a friendly lot - plenty of chat and banter throughout the day so we were rarely on our own and get plenty of cover along the way.

One final point  - at only 10 euros this is an absolute bargain, and makes you question the soaring prices we have in the UK on sportives. Must be down to sponsorship I suppose but chapeau to whoever is supporting this series of events, especially as we got some natty mits and hat thrown in.

Watching the Races

E3 Harelbeke - we just missed seeing the race as it came through Kluisbergen for the first time as one of us was a bit slow on our last hill (Bendy!) and therefore opted for a leisurly lunch rather than rushing off to some of the first hills. We parked up on the New Kwaremont road, grabbed a couple of cheeky ones in the Kwaremont pub before an easy stroll across to the top of Kapelberg to catch the pros for the first time. The we nipped over to the Oude Kwaremont again and were thrilled to see G battering up there and splitting the field - what a rider he was this classics season.

After that, another short stroll back over to New Kwaremont to see them absolutely flying down the hill. Once the peloton had passed it was just a matter of cramming ourselves back into the Kwaremont pub to watch it on the screen. Even though half the time we were on tip toes trying to see the TV the atmosphere was great. I particulalrly loved it when Spartacus hit the front of the chase group and injected some pace - the noise in the pub went up about 20 decibels as the clientel started baying for 'CANCELLARA'. These punters know a class act and a great move when they see one.

Special mention here for the Dutch lads who'd piled into 2 minibuses and popped over for the day just to watch the race. They allowed us a few bites from their picnic(more waffles!), taught us some jokes and tried to drag us into Harelbeke for a night out. Looked like it was going to be a messy one though so we swerved it.

Ghent-Wevelgem.  The set up on the Kemmelberg was awesome so it's a bit of a no brainer. Park up down in the town and it's a short stroll up to the main climb. The lads and lasses both do the climb twice and then loop back round to the bottom of the climb so you've chances to see them both 4 times. With plenty of beer/chip stalls and a massive screen you are well catered for and have no problems seeing the all the live coverage of the race. If the weather's good it's a belter!

Beer of the weekend

Spolit for choice as we were, it was impossible to get a consensus and we had one vote each for Kwaremont, Ename Blonde and Triple Karemliet. Given that it came recommended by the landlord Geert lets go for the Triple thingy. It was most definitely not St Barnabus - Mental went for one as we'd ridden past the brewery but it's near 12% ABV was a bit rich for him

Venue of the weekend though is easy - 't Eenvoudig Bestaan in Kerkhove. To be honest we'd never have found it if Luke hadn't tipped us off and went there for a night cap before calling it a day. It's more gothic chapel than pub but Geert, his good lady and the other staff were spot on. We tried a fair few beers that we'd never have chanced upon without Geert's advice and he told us a couple of belly laugh funny tales about people ending up in ditches after a night overdoing it at this place.Address here http://www.teenvoudigbestaan.be/

What you waiting for - get booking!!!