With the Spring Classics just a few months away Renee Engelhardt of CityMD Women's Racing takes a look back at her weekend at the 100th Tour of Flanders, also known in Dutch as the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Renee spent the week prior to the race in Europe for work before meeting up with Jason Cardillo of Velo Veneto, a cycling tour company that Renee had used twice in Italy. She arrived on Thursday night into Lille Airport in France and made the 1 hour drive to Gent, Belgium, home base for the weekend.
Here's Renee's recap of her adventure:
On Friday morning, I joined the Cylance Women's Pro team for a course recon ride including some infamous cobble climbs. The guests of the Clyance team had canceled their travel plans, which left the Clyance women, their race director Jason, James Spragg - a road and cyclocross pro living in Belgium for the past 5 years - and me on the ride. We cruised along parts of the course and I had my first taste of the cobbled climbs.
I chatted with the amazingly friendly Ali Tetrick, asking questions about the dynamics of a European pro peloton, what languages they usually speak (Italian is the most popular), getting into the sport, women's cycling and her team.
Just past the halfway point, my bottom bracket froze up preventing me from pedaling. James was able to fix it, but it left us dropped from the group. Making the best of the situation, we headed to ride two of the most famous, steepest and narrowest climbs on the course, the Paterburg and the Koppenberg, and boy, they were steep.
I learned quickly to keep my weight in the saddle and stay seated so that my back wheel wouldn't slip and to keep as much momentum as possible, easier said than done. Alas, I wasn't able to make it to the top but felt no shame when some of the pro men walked past me with their bikes on their shoulder (flashback to cyclocross?).
That afternoon we toured the Gruut Brewery in Gent, a local brewery that does not include hops in their recipe. The history lesson was really interesting and the beer delicious. I definitely recommend a visit and a taste!
Saturday was the day of the Sportive, where 16,000 people register to ride the course. James, Jason and I opted to avoid the crowds and criss-crossed the course to the town of Geraardsbergen for the famous climb Muur van Geraardsbergen, which was removed from the race in 2012 when the finish town moved from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde. Fabian Cancellara famously attacked Tom Boonen on this climb to go on to win the race in 2010:
After getting to the top and admiring the view, we stopped for coffee and Belgian treats near the base of Muur and then headed back through the rolling fields and roads back to Gent for a 67 mile ride round trip.
Race day! We threw the bikes in the car and drove to Oudenaarde to watch the women's start. Huge crowds and excitement filled the air!
Once the women rolled out, we jumped on our bikes and eventually made it to a cobbled climb to see the women pass through. James knew all of the local streets, so once the last team car in the caravan went by, we sped along the cobbles, took a turn through a tiny dirt path and joined back up with the course just in time to catch the lead women as they whizzed by.
We made it to the Eikenberg climb to watch the men, nabbing a great viewing spot on the side of the road just before the crowds thickened. I could start to hear the helicopter overhead, followed by the moto caravan started to pass through. Then it was the break of 6, followed by a lone rider, and then the peloton.
At first they started to ride up the center of the road but as the pack thickened and riders moved towards the sides of the cobbles, the spectators quickly learned to adjust their positioning further back as the men whirred past. The Eikenberg is not one of the steeper climbs so the speed was high and the peleton moved by in what looked like a blur.
By then it was time to head back to Oudenaarde to shower at the Tour of Flanders Museum and onwards to the finish line where we had VIP tickets. We watched from just past the finish line as Lizzie Armistead, the current world champion, won a gripping sprint finish, then helped ourselves to the buffet and drinks in the VIP tent. With about 40KM left in the men's race, I noticed that there was no one standing near the finish line along the barriers. It was a gloriously sunny and warm day, so I decided to plant myself at the barrier for the final hour of the men's race and held that spot, even as the crowds descended and the finish chute felt like a NYC subway car during rush hour.
It was thrilling to see Peter Sagan, the current world champion, coming down the finishing straight and cross the line right in front of me. The roar of the crowd was surreal. A few minutes after the finish, the spectator mob shifted left to watch the podium ceremony, which was pretty significant considering both current world champions had won their races, and it was one of Cancellara's final podiums before his retirement at the end of this year. Totally spent from a great day of riding and spectating, we headed back to Gent for a delicious dinner.
The weekend was an amazing experience that will be hard to beat. Cycling is an elegant yet brutal sport, rich with so much history. This weekend gave me a new perspective and respect to the professional men and women racers. Thank you to Jason Cardillo of Velo Veneto and James Spragg for providing a truly VIP and authentic experience of Belgium riding and the Tour of Flanders!