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Cyclosport.org REVIEW: Tour of Flanders Sportive

by Adam Tranter

Words: Teresa Houghton
Photos: GS Gazzetta

The Tour of Flanders (De Ronde van Vlaanderen ) is renowned as being one of the 'to-do' spring sportives over in the continent.  Running a day before the pro-race which in 2011 sees its 96th anniversary, the opportunity to ride the cobbles the day before the pro's, the cobbles with their undoubted cycling history, was an opportunity too good to miss.  This year, it attracted around 25,000 cyclists.

The RvV sportive is offered in 6 different formats all starting in Ninove:
Road cycling course: 71km, 140km and 260km (which starts in Brugge - which is the exact full length route the pros will take the next day).
Mountain bike course: 55km, 75km and 100km

A group of 11 of us had entered online weeks before the event and a week before travelling we were sent and e-mail with our 'participant' numbers (it isn't a timed sportive).  At around €18, compared to some British sportives, the entry was a bargain, with optional extras where you could pay for a finishers medal, t-shirts and the like.  Email in hand, we rolled up to the nominated place to pick up our race numbers. Given that there are around 25K cyclists taking part, walking up, handing over a copy of the e-mail, envelope fetched, we were ready with our participant number in only a few minutes.   This could not have been an easier experience.

It isn't a timed sportive.  You can start between 7am and have until 8pm to finish, with the last feed station closing at 7pm. 

In terms of the road cycling route, what ever you do, there is no avoiding having to ascend, one way or the other, some of the iconic cobbled Flanders climbs.   The 140km route includes 15 of the 17 published climbs.  Ranging from 360-2200 metres in length, and a range of 4-22% gradients, many of them cobbled they're not for the faint hearted.

The cobbles are not what you would find in average block paved driveway:  they are sharp, uneven, often with huge gaps between them, nowhere near it's closest neighbour in height due to tractors running over them all winter and they are very, very slimy on the hills.  Preparation was required and we'd all fitted 25mm tyres of some sort, one person even decided to do the sportive on a cx-bike, all tyre pressures set under 100psi so that they could cope with sharp edges of  cobbles. There was doubled up bar tape or gel inserts to absorb some of the vibration from riding over the cobbles - nothing was left to chance. 

Having set off, the first set of cobbles were a reality check.  Need to make sure that we don't hold on to the handlebars for dear life or we'll end up with dead hands.  Need to realise that every fixing, every bolt on your bike will rattle, make a hideous noise.  At that moment in time I thought that if my bike survived the full 140km it would be a minor miracle. 

The course was well marshalled, with every turning manned by a hi-viz Flandrien waving you in the right direction.  The route is also permanently marked by road signs, should you miss a turning (quite hard to do). 

Every climb is sign posted a couple of hundred metres before it starts, stating the length of the climb and what percentage gradient to expect.  This is helpful, you know exactly what you were letting yourself in for, what gear choices you had to make and it gives you time to have a conversation with yourself about whether you are going to have a go, or decide that suffering isn't worth it and get your cleat covers out and walk the climb.

There were 3 official feed stations, really well manned, if a little hectic, with a good 'funnel' system with cyclists entering and leaving the area like an efficient formula one pit stop.  On offer were waffles, caramel wafers, honey cake, muesli bars, bananas, water and energy drink, all there for the taking - so we ate, stuffed our pockets with supplies and carried on.  This was true for all 3 feed stations - so well manned and with plenty of food!  Nevertheless, there were also plenty of cafes, pubs and restaurants enroute should you want anything more substantial to eat, a coffee or even a beer!

At three points along the route, the Shimano vans and mechanics were out to help.  About two thirds of the way round my gears decided to take on a life of their own, so was glad that there was no queue at the next Shimano station.  All fixed and sorted extremely quickly.  Another rider in our group had suffered an ever loosening spoke on the cobbles - no problem for the Shimano guys - wheel trued there and then and we were sent on our way.  All for free.

We were extremely lucky with the weather, temperatures in the low twenties and dry.  Great for cobble riding.  This also meant that along the route and along and at the top of each climb there were crowds of locals cheering you on.  Their appreciation for cycling, cyclists and the history of the RvV was incredible. 

Every climb had its charm, but the stand out climbs were the Koppenburg and the Muur.  Been spurred on by the locals is a never forget experience.  After completing all 15 climbs we are rewarded with the sweetest flat and downhill sections back to Ninove.

The only downfall of running a sportive on local country roads, is that bottle necks do occur, particularly just before some of the cobbled climbs.  We were waiting around 10 minutes to get to the bottom of the Koppenberg and so give it a go.   However it isn't a race, and in the RvV there are no prizes for achieving a gold time.

On finishing the course, you are funnelled again to a finishing area.  On returning your participant number you were returned €5 of your €18 entry fee and given a cap!  You were then sent to another area to pick up your medal or t-shirt.  Easy peasy!

The RvV is really a fabulous experience - and we've already booked the hotel for next year!  The notes to remember:

The universal piece of verbal communication for 'get out of the way' is "up, up, up, uuuuup"
You will be overtaken, and undertaken.  Be vigilant or wheels will be clipped.
Tyre psi should be 90-100, for good reason
Go as fast as you can over cobbles in as big a ring as possible.  It is a) more fun and b) less painful
Do not stand up on cobbles.  You wobble.  Badly.
Keep going.
Look forward to an ice cold beer at the end!





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3 Comments

Admin
2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

Excellent piece Teresa and I would imagine very helpful to anyone thinking they may ride RvV. Maybe next year I won't only be spectating! :)

Admin
2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

Loved this event. I managed the 260km but nearly blew it in the heat after I didn't fill my second bottle. A great day out which for me began with a ride from Aalst to Ninove to catch the Brugge bus. This had given me some anxiety I. The run up but this was as slick as possible with plenty of space, busses and bike trailers. Just turned up with my ticket handed over the bike and got on on. No queue and away on time. Spot on and great value. If you go for the long option be prepared to do much of the first leg south to the cobbles on cycle paths. Other than that and regular halts for police traffic controls this is a must do event!

Admin
2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

Loved this event. I managed the 260km but nearly blew it in the heat after I didn't fill my second bottle. A great day out which for me began with a ride from Aalst to Ninove to catch the Brugge bus. This had given me some anxiety I. The run up but this was as slick as possible with plenty of space, busses and bike trailers. Just turned up with my ticket handed over the bike and got on on. No queue and away on time. Spot on and great value. If you go for the long option be prepared to do much of the first leg south to the cobbles on cycle paths. Other than that and regular halts for police traffic controls this is a must do event!