Travels with Romney, Part II, is recorded here:
The Battle of Belgium
When I heard my friends Bruce and Alisa were spending a year in southern France and had a house with plenty of room for visitors, the only choice became which bike race to visit during. Like me, they’re both climbers turned cyclists, and there was no question that our holiday had to be during a race. Having been to Le Tour, the next choices were the spring classics or the Giro. Given Bruce was a cobble crazy as I was, we set our dates to include Paris-Roubaix, better known as the Hell of the North.
The trip had originally been set up to include loads of training as my final prep for the National Championships at the end of April. Post injury, the schedule changed to include loads of eating and a recreational climbing & riding schedule to build up our appetite. But back injury or no, if I was in Belgium, I was going to have a go at some cobbles.
Riding in Belgium, well, specifically Flanders, is amazing. Everything is set up around bikes. There are cafes, museums, bike shops (that are a lot like museums), and bike routes everywhere you go. All of them include stretches of famous bike races that take place on tiny rural roads. And almost all of them include cobbles. We had our choice of a stack of different classic routes, each marked by an artistic colored plaque. We began on the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) but once we’d had a taste of cobbles, we amended it to include the steepest and most famous sectors we could get to the quickest.
On the longest sector of the day, we were passed by a guy hammering in his big ring. Bruce and I were quickly on him, my own curiosity being how it would feel to ride these things at race pace (the girls were having none of such nonsense). I was worried about my back, but after a kilometer of rattling along my vision was blurred, my head numb, and my hands, arms, and shoulders felt like I’d been going full bore with a jackhammer, so much so that I couldn’t be bothered to think about the back at all. Paris-Roubaix includes over 100k of cobbles. We’d just raced one. The horror of that race is so acute that I absolutely must come back and try the amateur version of it sometime.
The Koppenberg was, by far, the hardest climb we did. It’s not even 500 meters but the cobbles are uneven, wet (I’m sure they never dry in Belgium), and hit an angle of 20%. I quickly realized why there were so many pics of pro racers walking up these inclines. It wasn’t that they couldn’t ride them. It’s just that they’re so steep and rutted that anything causing you to lose you line or change cadence might force you off your bike. And in a pack these things are constant. And once off your bike you can’t remount, so you’re best off to just run to the top and get back on. You’re not riding that fast anyway.
Well, at least not on the Koppenberg. For our next ride we scanning the distances and grades of the cobbled climbs and choose the Muur de Geraldsberg as one that looked the fiercest. Cobbles for 1.3K that hit 19% promised to be horrible, so we tooled around at a pedestrian pace for most of our ride so we wouldn’t burn out all those fast twitch fibers we’d need to ride all the way to the Muur’s famous summit church.
Turns out that cobbles aren’t created equal. Those on the Muur are smaller and closer together. Not only could we ride it but we could hard. On a subsequent ascent, in my big ring, I could hardly imagine how fast Divolder must have been going on these narrow roads to drop everyone, as he had done a week prior en route to winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Food and beer are at least as important in Belgium as riding. And, of course, there’s a pub at the top of the Muur. We recovered with Frittes and “the world’s best beer” (according to our waiter), and contemplated if Heaven was just a bit like Belgium.