So Sunday was the small matter of my 30th birthday, I’m not going to get down about being 30, i’m still young… Or at least thats what i’m going to keep telling myself! Plans had been finalised, the excitement had been simmering in the week leading up to it – on Friday we would be loading the bikes in the car making the small trip over the channel and the 1hr 30 drive on the other side to meet friends in a hotel in the city centre of Ghent, Belgium and we would be in the European home of cobbles, cross winds, frites, waffles and bloody good beer – Heaven!
The Flanders classics opening weekend in Belgium is a big deal to the locals, they live and breath bike racing. On the Saturday the plan was to ride out to see some of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the classics season curtain raiser and then on Sunday jump in the cars and try and see Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in a few places all whilst ensuring we sample the local beverages in the evenings in between (and “sample” some people did!)
Ghent itself is one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever visited it is a crazy mix of old, grand buildings, Castles, Cathedrals with modern buildings mixed in between and cobbled pedestrianised streets full of restaurants, bars and cafes with the River Leie running right through the city centre. Everywhere you look people are on bikes and the city is so clean. The first night we met friends and had dinner in a restaurant beside the river and then headed out for a few drinks. We ended the night in a bar we nicknamed the “shoe bar” however its real name is “Dulle Griet” on the edge of the market square and they pride themselves on the 350 different beers that they serve. Anyway back to why we nicknamed it shoe bar – they serve a 1.2l beer in a beautiful glass that resembled something out of a science experiment however as a deposit to not steal the glass you had to forfeit one of your shoes and it was put in a basket behind the bar… quite funny everyone sat round the table with one shoe on and one shoe off! The beer went down particularly well and considering the strength I was happy to not be stumbling my way back to the hotel!
On the Saturday we got up and rode out to see the Omloop race, we were just out of town when we went past the football stadium (KAA Gent who played Spurs the 2 weeks prior) which is a magnificent glass structure with bike racks for 1000’s of bikes outside – this blew my mind! The thought of everyone going to football on bikes! We continued on and see the convoy of motorbikes and cars that preceded the race going over a bridge, a quick detour up a cycle path onto the bridge and we caught our first glimpse of the peloton. The race was “neutralised” at this point however they were already going a fair lick and riders were sprinting up the outside on the wide road to be in position for Kilometre Zero when the comisairs flag would drop and racing would be under way.
We arrived at our first location to see the race, the Haaghoek Hellingen a cobbled descent that went back up a short sharp cobbled climb, we had just missed them come through the first time so had about an hour to wait, and it was cold, really cold! Eventually the race came through, a small break with the chasing bunch a few minutes behind. The speed the pros ride on the cobbles is downright scary, we completed two “secteurs de pave” on the ride out and its brutal, you are battered around and it feels like your bike is going to implode underneath you, the faster you ride the harder it gets – one of the girls even referred to the cobbles as “fanny shredders” which made everyone chuckle.
Riding in Belgium is like nothing I have experienced before, we learnt in a bar on the last evening that the “weakest” on the road has right of way. Therefore cars stop for bikes and pedestrians, and bikes stop for pedestrians. Riding up to a roundabout on a busy road is a surreal experience when all the cars stop and just let you ride through the roundabout, you feel like you’re riding a grand tour! The cycle network there is phenomenal, on the way home from the race we rode 16 miles back into the city on one cycle path (it was like a single track road) alongside the River Leie without a care in the world as it was just cyclists.
We arrived with around 20km of the race to go, the race starts and finishes at the famous Kuipke Velodrome in the Citadel park – home of the famous Ghent Six Day where Brad and Cav rode to their heroic victory a few months back and we found a spot right on the barriers at the last corner with 200m to go, there was a giant screen behind showing the race live and so we watched the finale unfold before eyes and the roar when Olympic Champion and Belgian hero Greg Van Avermaet out sprinted World Champion Peter Sagan for the win really did make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Sunday we hopped in the cars and headed out to catch some of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the first point we saw the race was the Kruisberg, a 1.8km Cobbled climb that averaged 4.6% but went up to 9% in places that rose up out of the town of Ronse, it was drizzling and the cobbles were slippery. At this point the race was playing out as the day before a small break of 9 riders with a couple of minutes on the bunch closing down from behind.
We then drove onto the final climb of the day the Nokereberg a 350m cobbled ramp straight through the middle of the small village of Nokere, by the time the race turned up the crowds had really grown with at least a few hundred people there to see the riders on what could potentially be a pivotal part of the race. As expected riders hugged the gutters of the road, looking for smooth tarmac and as such passed us within inches, if you weren’t careful you quite easily could get clobbered by a rider. I think that is what adds to the buzz of going to bike races – no barriers, no rules you get within inches of your heroes, you can scream and shout at them and they hear every word!
After Nokere our friends had to peel off in their cars to make the drive back to the tunnel so we bid them farewell and then headed for the finish at Kuurne. The race finishes with two laps of a large finishing circuit so we knew if we could get on the circuit quick enough we would get to see the race twice more. We ended up at the 2km to go banner and if you look on TV you can see us shouting from the kerb! By this point Luke Rowe had got himself in a small break with Peter Sagan and we were shouting for him for the win, the picture I took below I uploaded to instagram with a short message congratulating him on his 6th and 3rd places over the weekend, a lovely touch that he liked the photograph and a great way to round out my weekend, Cycling is such an accessible sport, the fact there are no barriers, you can talk to the riders before and after races and the fact they don’t live like millionaire rockstars further adds to the appeal. Its safe to say we loved Belgium and are planning to head back soon!