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Event Review

REVIEW: Tour of Flanders Sportive 2014

by Sean Lacey

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Tour of Flanders Sportive 2014

Essentials
Date: Saturday 5th April 
Distances: 75km, 135km, 245km 
Entry fee: €25.00, €30.00, €35.00 
Participants: 16,000 
Start: De Qubus, Oudenaarde. Parking readily available in the surrounding area. Event village with trade stands, food and drink and major facilities (showers, massage etc.) inside the events complex 
Feed stops: 2 on the short route, 3 on the medium route, 5 on the long route 
Catering: Hot/cold drinks and food available before and after the ride (at own cost) 
Timed: Handlebar number board timing chip 
Signs: Way-marked route with highly visible signage (black arrows on pink background) along with marshals and Police to control major junctions and crossings 
Roads:  Fantastic routes on quiet lanes for the most part, a few sections on almost deserted main roads, lots of cobbled sections and tough climbs. Motorcycle outriders, Shimano service, medical and broom wagon on route to provide assistance if needed 
Images: professional photographers from Sportograf out around the route / video cameras on the climbs 
Good Bag: Finisher's medal and T-shirt available to order before the event 

I've been trying to get to the Tour of Flanders for three years now, but for one reason or another something would crop up and put the stoppers on it. This year however, I was determined, and when places for the sportive went live at the back end of 2013 I entered. I figured I could worry about the logistics later, but having actually entered meant I really needed to sort it out this time. 

Fast forward to early April 2014 and it was game on. I had convinced fellow club member Alex Capstick that the Ronde was worth it, and that his motorhome would be an ideal travel and accommodation solution. Fortunately he agreed, and on the Thursday evening we headed for Dover, stayed over on the Esplanade and took an early ferry to Dunkirk on Friday morning.

A fairly short and easy drive on the other side of the Channel took us to our base for the next couple of days - adventure pursuits complex, The Outsider, situated right on the lake at the sportive start in Oudenaarde (which was also the finish of the professional race). At only €10 a night for the motorhome it was a steal, with a restaurant / bar and shower facilities, and only a 15 minute walk from the town centre. 

Once settled in we took the opportunity on Friday afternoon to make our way to the Qubus events centre - HQ for the ride, to pre-register and save the hassle the next morning. With 16,000 entrants it seemed prudent, and was a fuss free experience. The event village was in full swing with many trade marquees along with beer tents and food vans to keep you occupied. 

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Qubus registration 

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Ready for the big day 

With the afternoon wearing on we headed out of town to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen museum, curated by ex-professional Belgian rider, Freddy Maertens and along the shipping canal out towards the hills for a bit of a warm up ride to set the mood. 

After a few miles of pan flat canal paths (following one of three permanently way-marked routes) we found ourselves at the base of one of the many famous climbs, the Oude Kwaremont. Sadly though, the road was closed to finalise the infrastructure for the weekend, so we headed off down the road to the Paterberg, which was still accessible. 

Now, I've ridden British cobbles before, but nothing prepared me for this (and they are in good condition too apparently) - they are rough and irregular, and at its peak the Paterberg hits 20%. I pushed up at a decent pace having been warm from the flat 10 miles previously, but it didn't pass easily, and I was cracked by the top. Lesson learned - we had 15 climbs tomorrow, all similar to this along with the cobbled tracks in between so a little less exuberance would be required if I was going to get round the 135km course. 

RVV3
On the Paterberg 

An early start had been recommended by others that had been before, as getting 16,000 riders around a pretty compact course means it can get congested. The roads for a good part are narrow, the climbs more so. At 5am it was pitch black still, and while Alex prepared breakfast I popped out to see if I could find Matt Blythe, another club member who had been due to travel with us but had a last minute change of plans. Talking whilst we ate, it turned out he had driven through the night and had arrived at 04:30, meaning he had slept for around 45 minutes! 

Rolling out into the darkness there was little movement from the other motorhomes or on the roads into the Qubus, suggesting that the early start might have been a little too early... I'm sure Matt thought this at any rate. We got to the start at 07:10 and it was still pretty quiet, with riders heading out under the start gantry in small numbers, so we got going. 

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Early start in the half light 

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Typical Belgian lane 

The weather had been forecast to be dry and bright, with better than average temperatures and next to no wind - perfect riding conditions. The medium 135km route was the same hilly part of the full 245km pro route, and as with our Friday recce, the first 10km were flat along the canal once more, before swinging off to the first of the climbs, the Wolvenberg. It was certainly one way to warm up - at 17% it certainly wasn't shallow, but at least it was tarmacked to ease you in.

Passing over a large plastic strip on the road reminded me that at various points and on each climb there were timing mats over the road, which your handlebar number chip would trigger, allowing folk back home to track your progress on the Ronde website. 

RVV6
Taking on the cobbles 

Next up were two flat cobbled sectors: Ruiterstraat, and, at 2.6km, the longest on the route - Kerkgate. These too were a real eye opener. The climbs were hard as you were generally - well I was - moving at a pretty sedate pace. The flat sections however were even more demanding in a way, as you were carrying some speed and amplifying the jackhammer effect of the surface. 

Having made no concession to the ride in terms of additional bar tape or gel layers (I had however, decided to run my events this year on 25c tyres and lowered the pressure a little) my hands suffered somewhat, becoming almost numb and definitely painful by the end of the day. Another lesson learned! 

From here we climbed what I ranked as one of my favourites, the Molenberg. One of the shortest, and peaking at 14%, it wasn't overly tough, but it was properly rough, almost an inverted 'V' it was so worn, with a huge raised crown. It certainly had character. The first of three feeds on the medium route came after another cobbled sector, the 2.3km Paddestraat.

The feed was something of a surprise to someone used to the average UK feed as it was huge, covering a large area with food marquees spaced out and numerous large energy drink and water bowsers dotted around. The same with the toilets - plentiful in number meaning no queues. Marquees were split between fruit and juice stalls with bananas, fresh oranges and juices, and 'cake' stalls with waffles, cake slices, cereal bars and sachets of pure honey and lemon, which were fantastic. Suitably topped up, we hit the cobbles and climbs once more.

RVV8
Matt and Sean take a break

Next up were the ascents of Leberg, Valkenberg, Boigneberg and Eikenberg, all of which were slightly easier than those before. Just prior to the next feed the short route joined the long & medium route, and the increased rider volume became noticeable. The second feedstation was as impressively sized and stocked as the first, and although busier, still avoided queues.

Discussions here were all about what was coming next - the fearsome Koppenberg, which although recently re-cobbled as it became unrideable some years ago, is still savage, narrow and peaking at 22% - the steepest of the ride. As we hit the climb with a large number of riders, the inevitable happened; on the narrowest section halfway up a rider stalled, and fell into the rider opposite. This caused a chain reaction that brought half a dozen down on the steep slope and brought us to a halt.

There was no option here but to walk a distance, which was made bearable by remembering seeing footage of the pro's having walked here in the past. Even Matt, our star climber (who made the rest of us look like we were climbing in slow motion) got caught out in the melee.

With a bit of effort though most re-mounted once it had flattened out ever so slightly, thanks in no small part to the locals who were watching the action and were only too keen to give you a push. I should also mention at this point the descents which were, for the most part, superb. Only a couple were cobbled - which was an experience - so most could be taken at speed and felt like just rewards for the hard work on the way up.

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Timing / Video mats

RVV9
Alex happy to be on smooth tarmac

More famous names followed, with Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Kaperij and another personal favourite, the Kanarieberg. Climbing up into the forest, it was definitely one of the most scenic, with a section through the woodland at the top. Following this was the Kruisberg and Karnemelkbeek before the final feed. Initially this one looked disappointingly small, and suspiciously quiet - until I worked out that the actual feed itself was housed within an enormous empty old factory, lit with coloured lights it was certainly memorable. And outside, amongst the 16,000 other riders I bumped into someone I knew, Alan Thew - who was part of the 2011 Cycling Plus reader team with me. Small world!

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Timing / Video mats

rVV12
Not just about the climbs

Hitting the road for the last time brought us to the section of the route that usually defines the professional's race - the climbs of Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. The pro's get to do a finishing loop which takes in these climbs three times; fortunately we only have to tackle them the once!

Oude Kwaremont is the longest climb of the day at 2200m, but with an average grade of just 4% it's not the steepness, but rather the relentless push against the cobbles that wears you down. Famous for being a Launchpad for race winning attacks, I can assure you I wasn't going to be trying that today, as I was really feeling it now, particularly in my hands.  The run off the back is nice and fast down to the final climb, the Paterberg, but all momentum was lost at the 90 degree turn onto the climb.

Having climbed it the previous day I knew it was a tough one, and to make matters worse, there were lots of riders struggling up. I had half resigned to having to walk this one, not through fatigue, but rather due to an almost certain repeat of the Koppenberg. Luckily for me though, a local Belgian rider just ahead - who I will say was a little more bullish at shifting other riders than me - made steady progress with shouts of "Hup, hup, hup!" Sticking to his wheel ensured I made it up for a second time. From here the legs (and hands) could relax a little, as the last 17km were pan flat in to the finish.

With smaller groups coming together as we pressed on, a larger peloton was formed, the speed increased accordingly, and the kilometres started to fly by. Following the same route the race would take into the finish, we passed under the gantries counting down the last 5km and it really did feel as if we were elevated far above the amateur cyclists we were.

Flying down the last kilometre most broke into a sprint to the official finish line, ending a pretty epic days riding, even if we did then end up in a queue just the other side as people stopped for photos. We spotted Sean Kelly who must have ridden too, with a few of his An Post team which also leant a little credence to our own Tour of Flanders experience.

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The finish gantry

RVV15
Stars will stand here

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De Ronde Van Vlaanderen done!

The casual ride back to the HQ at the Qubus, just north of town, was a relaxed affair. Passing through Oudenaarde town square heaving with cyclists provided a moment to reflect and trade stories of our rides. Back at the HQ there was plenty going on, but first things first: Beer and frites. Relaxing in the sunshine with a selection of Belgium's finest brews topped the day off perfectly.

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We looked forward to these

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Party at the finish

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Packed town square

The weekend as a whole however was topped off by the main event: staying to watch the race on Sunday. Alex chose to stay in the town square and then see the finish, while Matt and I cycled out to Oude Kwaremont to watch on a big screen/ the climb itself. With an incredible atmosphere and a stunner of a race eventually being taken by the seemingly adopted Belgian, Fabian Cancellara, it was just possibly the best cycling weekend I've experienced.

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Top of Oude Kwaremont

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The world's best in action

It is hard to find any fault with the sportive itself. The website is available in English, with plenty of information on where to stay and how to get there, and Oudenaarde is a lovely town and an inexpensive place to visit, unlike the more tourist-oriented Bruges.

The entry process was simple, offered excellent value for money and UK entrants could pick up their rider packs on the Friday or the morning of the event itself. Facilities were plentiful, both at the HQ and on the road, with exceptional feed stations that also had full Shimano technical support, along with motorcycle marshals on the route. The Police were also in high attendance, but to our advantage as they were on every major junction to stop the traffic and let us through as priority. That said, the roads were so quiet over the whole weekend it would have been a pleasure to ride regardless.

The signage was the only thing I could possible pick on, because despite being bright pink and highly visable, there was only ever one sign at each turn; nevertheless, as mentioned, there was usually marshal or Police presence there anyway, and certainly no one I talked to had gone wrong. With the weather playing ball it really was a fantastic days riding, and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone. This is one I guarantee I will return to on occasion for years to come.

Route: http://app.strava.com/activities/127761518


Official Review

1. Feed Stops (correct foodstuffs and energy drinks, the right many, well spaced) 10 out of 10
2. Timing (correct and easy to use) 9 out of 10
3. Signage (Clear, concise, maps, profiles, route card) 8 out of 10
4. Facilities (HQ, Parking, Toilets) 10 out of 10
5. Support (Sag Wagon, Outriders) 9 out of 10
6. Friendliness / Professionalism (Sign-in, marshals, support) 9 out of 10
7. Website - ease of use (Online and postal entry, clear concise) 9 out of 10
8. The Course (Area of outstanding beauty/scenic, quiet roads, cleverly designed?) 9 out of 10
9. Would you recommend it. (Would you ride again?) 10 out of 10
Overall Rating 92.2%




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