Nobody riding with the BMC Granfondo Experience team got more than four hours of shuteye before taking on the Tour Of Flanders — a 245-kilometer cyclo through Brugge, Kortrijk, Oudenaarde, and all the other villages and scenic Flemish countryside in between. Unfamiliar climbs such as Valkenberg, Paterberg, and the soul-crushing Koppenberg would soon become maniacal tortures that I would argue ought to be subject to something in the Geneva Convention.
And let’s not forget the cobbles. Ball-busting, ass-annihilating cobblestones aptly laid out throughout northern Belgium during a period of time with equally dismal connotations, the Middle Ages.
Oh, how I loathe thee.
We met in Steven Jonckheere’s room at the Park Hotel in Kortrijk around 10 p.m. to go over our plan the night before the ride. Steven’s the Sports Marketing Manager at BMC and a Belgian himself. Of course he had also completed the ride in some form 14 times. Needless to say, he’s quite familiar with the “Ronde.”
Our plan was simple. Pack your food, clothes, and prepare your bike the night before. There would be at least three stops along the way with the BMC sag wagon. Get up early, eat plenty, and enjoy the ride.
I woke up promptly at 5 a.m., dressing into my suave BMC Granfondo kit exclusive to the cyclo before heading down for breakfast. Like clockwork, we were out the door by 6 a.m. heading for the start in Brugge.
In Brugge we hastily prepared our bikes, pumping tires, and taking group pictures. I’m still dumbfounded I didn’t forget anything.
The sun was starting to rise when we gathered in what seemed to be a central square of Brugge. Focused on the fact that I was about to embark on a 9-hour ride over completely foreign roads and cobbles, I didn’t have time to take in my surroundings. Brugge is a blur in my memory of typically historic European buildings.
When we set off, I was overly concentrated on not falling over or doing something equally embarrassing early on in the ride. I could very easily picture myself tumbling into the pack of thousands of riders around me traversing through the narrow cobblestone streets of Brugge.
Finally we escaped the city, leading to beautifully paved roads for nearly 100 kilometers. I had never cycled on roads so smooth. I could feel the wheels on my granfondo gripping the pavement, pulling me faster with each pedal stroke. I was told this was the warmup to the climbs (some of which had cobbles) and was more than willing to soak in every moment of “the easy part.”
We all stayed together for the first 100 kilometers. “We” being the other five in the “granfondo experience” crew and a handful of BMC employees. After refueling, we’d start hitting the climbs and the more inexperienced would inevitably be dropped.
Unfortunately for me, there’s no way to prepare for cobbles in Northeast Ohio. What brick streets remain in the area last for no more than a few blocks. And as I learned during my first training ride in Belgium, the only thing bricks and cobbles have in common is that they were once commonly used to produce streets. Other than that, cobbles are the satanic cousin of bricks.
In other words, I feel very little shame in my molasses climbs. For the most part I was able to hang with Beate, a Brit who cycles an impressive commute a couple times a week and had been training with the editor of Singletrack Magazine. I wasn’t at all surprised to see Steven, the aforementioned conqueror of the Ronde; Alexandre, a Brazilian who himself had been training with BMC Brazil; Davy, a Belgian who practically lives off the route and knows the cobbles like his own children; and Christophe, a former professional cyclist, all pass me by like a jet leaving the tarmac.
Oh, and also Fiola, an Irish woman who reportedly powered through the climbs like a pro. I say “reportedly,” because I was nowhere in sight to give a firsthand account.
Vaarwel, you American clown.
Gone and Kaput
The cobbles and I really did not get along. I said it before in regards to my training ride, but it bears repeating. Everything in my body vibrated. Things I didn’t know could vibrate, vibrated. To put it graphically, I fear I will not be able to have children.
That said, it’s an experience worth having. A masochistic experience, but an experience nonetheless.
My biggest disappointed was having to dismount for the Koppenberg. I watched video on this cobbled-climb and knew it was the steepest at 22 percent maximum grade. But I just didn’t have the legs. They shut down on me like a toy on its last battery.
Fading. Fading. Gone and kaput.
Worst of all about this experience, you have to continue walking up the climb as volunteers with the Ronde take pictures, spectators watch on like you’re on death row, and all the while video captures the entire, morbid experience.
But of course, the video is great to see when you are actually able to climb the damn thing. I surprised even myself when I finished the Paterberg at 20.3 percent maximum grade. Coincidentally, this was also the final climb in the ride. After that final effort, I knew I was home free and would finish the Tour Of Flanders.
Finishing and Beer
To be fair, I never doubted that I would finish. But it’s infinitely more reassuring that you’ll finish after all the climbs than before the climbs, naturally, especially when you spend a considerable amount of time staring at the map as if it’s your last will and testament.
With nothing but pavement ahead of me, I coasted across the finish into the heart of Oudenaarde and past the Tour Of Flanders museum. Cyclists had taken over the square, drinking, and eating on the surrounding patios.
Unfortunately, I missed the signs that pointed to the cyclo finish. Apparently what I thought was the finish was actually just the finish for the professional race coming up the next day. So after circling for about 20 or so minutes, I ran into Kathrin and her boyfriend finishing the race. Together we finished the last mile just outside of town where a little celebration had been setup for the cyclo riders.
Beer was most definitely consumed.
If you’re a cyclist, you can’t skip this sportive. Beautiful country, great people, and beer that couldn’t taste any better — especially after 245 kilometers with cobblestones that will make you question your sanity and your capability of committing murder.
However, I’m lucky I got to do it all on a BMC GF01 with BMC themselves, and a group of incredible BMC ambassadors from all over the world. Hopefully, we can all do it again sometime.
Except for next time, I’m voting we head to Brazil or California. Come adjust to this side of the Atlantic and allow my manhood to recover in peace.
Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of BMC Switzerland. As always, all opinions are my own.
Brian BegleyApril 8, 2014 at 11:50 pm
Great story! I really enjoyed reading about your experiences in Belgium. Congratulations on finishing a “tough” ride there! Thanks for sharing!!!
JoeApril 9, 2014 at 9:45 am
Thanks for reading!
Beate KubitzApril 9, 2014 at 2:53 am
Nice one Joe! Good ride, good read 🙂
JoeApril 9, 2014 at 9:45 am
Thanks, Beate. ‘Twas a blast riding with you all!
DavyApril 11, 2014 at 10:50 am
You write better than you ride cobbles!
JoeApril 15, 2014 at 9:40 am
Tim FureyApril 14, 2014 at 7:19 pm
All I can say is wow, great achievement.
JoeApril 15, 2014 at 9:41 am
Just glad I was able to achieve it!
Chuck KneremApril 15, 2014 at 8:55 am
Hey Joe, amazing ride and story. Congratulations on a job well done!
JoeApril 15, 2014 at 9:40 am
Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed.