Tommy Vansteenkiste’s Race Report: We Ride Flanders
Friday afternoon March 30, 2018, Balegem, Belgium at the gate of the Flemish Ardennes, the beautiful scenery of one of the world’s most famous spring classics in cycling: De Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Numerous articles, interviews, analysis, weather forecasts and predictions have dominated the newspapers and broadcasts over the past few weeks, all adding to the climax that will take place on almost the holy day. The professionals will be shredding the vicious cobblestones and short, but steep, hills, surrounded by thousands of crazy cycling enthusiasts.
While I’m preparing for my ride, some thousand cyclists, most likely all who were not able to register for the sold-out official Tour de Flanders Cyclo are already battering the course, soaking the roads in the first drips of sweat of the weekend. Each of them, in their own beliefs and goals, earning their virtual medal in chasing the status of Flandrien.
It’s already dark when I’m driving to the Service Course to get a last check up on my bike. There is an annoying sound coming from the steering, and for a ride like this the bike needs to spin instead of crack. When checking the bike, the diagnosis is rather difficult. Instead of adding some grease to solve the problem, the headtube is cut half way through. No way this will hold when crossing the mariaborrestraat. This rough and fast cobblestone section would probably leave me battered and broken, holding my steering wheel separated from my bike.
Luckily the bike mechanic is not called Service Course by accident. Some phone calls later another cycling enthusiast is heading over to provide me a top notch Factor bike to ride the next day. It is 9 p.m. by now, and Dieter from Pedaleur de Flandres left a cozy night at home to come and save the day. Bike arrives, parts are switched, position is matched to the millimeters and off we go home with a different bike, but still in the race to finish the Tour de Flanders Cyclo. Huge thanks to the Lieven & Dieter!
After the final check of clothes, food, and tire pressure, I head to bed hoping to wake up with a much needed fresh set of legs. As I am training for an ultra-cycling event, Race across Italy, I decided to increase the level of crazy by riding to the start in Antwerpen, a good 70km from my home, by bike and return the same way from Oudenaarde, adding another 20km to the already 230km of the course.
Saturday morning at 4 a.m., after a short night, I’m still able to act like this is a good idea. I’m heading out a bit later, putting me under some pressure to get to the start in time. The sun is already up when I’m taking the elevator out of the Sint Anna Tunnel, which drops me right at the start of the cyclo. There is no trace of the 16,000 participants anymore at this hour, most of them left 45 minutes earlier. Only a few lost cyclist souls are to be found in Antwerpen.
I’m already having my second energy gel of the day and taking off my first layer of clothes. It took me a good two hours to get here, still eight to go if I keep this pace. It is somewhat a special feeling, riding through Antwerp with all roads blocked by police for the cyclo event, more so because I seem to be one of the only ones left at the start. I never thought I would cycle through the Waasland Tunnel, a busy tunnel crossing the Schelde, all alone. The wind is pushing me forward while I’m catching up on some groups of riders, by the time I reach the first food station I’m already caught in a crowd. Refuel, fill the bottles, a quick heads up to my sister Wendy, a PH patient, who is following my progress at home, and continue the ride. I’m four hours on the bike by now, but the hardest parts are still ahead.
There’s one disadvantage of riding the hills and cobblestones of the flemish ardennes during this cyclo: the crowds. I was soon to find out the hard way. While passing other riders I am suddenly forced to dodge onto a sidewalk. A quick jump, I made it, but a small ridge on top caught my front wheel, resulting in me leaving some skin on the tarmac. I’m hit on the knee, shoulder and hip, leaving some holes and blood on my clothes. As it was more of a sliding fall I seemed to get away quite well. After measuring the damage on body and bike I decide to continue and hide myself in the middle of a larger group, allowing my legs to rotate without losing too much energy.
Velzeke, food station 2, I’m actually only 5km from my home again now. We also crossed the first cobblestone section which left me with a good feeling. The adrenaline from the crash made me hungry throughout the cobbles and hills. “I could eat the next cobblestone I see,” I thought. I stayed with the energy bar in the end though.
From here on we are again at the gates of the flemish ardennes, it all starts here. The distance covered before this was just to take away energy. If you have not trained to cover this distance you will face some demons from here on. If you were smart you saved energy, if you were to eager you spilled it and you will be facing the consequences rather soon. The bike seems to be a good companion while I’m crossing the cobbles of the Haaghoek, it’s a stiff frame but not to hard on the body. The crowds force us to walk up the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the fourth hill of the day, leading us to the third food station of the day. I’m a 100km out on the course now, 170km from my home and still 130km to go. A 130km which will lead us through the big final of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
From here on the hills and cobblestones are following one after the other, there’s only short periods of time to recover from each blow they give. Energy bar consumption is at its peak. If you find yourself running out of energy in the middle of these hills you will suffer, as there is no easy way out of this place when you’re riding a bike. Each obstacle drains the energy from your body, and little by little you start feeling pain instead of joy when hitting the next hill. The silence grows with each hill the cyclists cross, and you see the thought, “What did I get myself into,” written in most people’s eyes by now.
The final food station, only five hills and some 40km left between your perseverance and reaching the goal of completing the small Flandrien. The last two hills leave me with leg cramps. I’m not able to get on my smaller gears on the last hill, which means I need to push big on the 20% assent. People are walking up, spectators are cheering out names they see on the bib tags, understanding the suffering of having to climb up this hill after 200km on this course.
This is more a pilgrim’s way then a cyclo event by now. No way I’m walking up here, I did not train to run, I trained to cycle. This isn’t nearly as hard as facing stairs when suffering from pulmonary hypertension. Pushing yourself over the last cobblestones on top of this hill is like entering a walhalla, you know it’s all flat with a tailwind from here on out. Most riders stop to take in the view on this mythical place. It is like looking back at a minefield of hills you just conquered. A feeling of relief and satisfaction takes over knowing now it’s just the open sea toward the finish line and indulgences of a good Belgian Beer on the historical market of Oudernaarde left to close another beautiful day.