Riding Flanders!

Well it has been quite a while since the Tour of Flanders happened, but finally life has settle down for me to write about my experience in Belgium. For those of you that didn’t hear I had an incredible opportunity to travel to Antwerp, Belgium to Lazer Helmets headquarters and to participate in the Sportif ride the day before the race, not to mention also watching the race in person.
I arrived in Antwerp jet lagged and weary on Friday morning April 1st and headed to my hotel. I was greeted by Rebecca from Quality Bicycle Products and joined a group of bike shop employees and owners on a walk to Lazer Headquarters. We arrived and were greeted by the staff of Lazer Helmets. We were given last years Katusha Team Ridleys to set up for our ride on Saturday. After we felt comfortable with our bike fits, Sean one of the owners of Lazer, took us out on a shake down ride through Antwerp. The ride was amazing, bike lanes everywhere and even bicycle specific crossing lights. We probably were a menace zooming in and out of traffic with Sean leading the way, but nobody honked or yelled at us. The ride was around twenty miles and felt great after spending ten plus hours traveling. We returned to the hotel and went out for an awesome dinner at a restaurant/bar complete with Frites and mayonaise!
Saturday we awoke at 5 a.m. for breakfast and loading up our bikes to head to Ninove for the start of the De Ronde, the tourist ride on the Tour of Flanders course. Twenty thousand people participate in the ride and we had to park three miles from the start, it was amazing to head over to the beginning of the ride with a thousand people. The route I chose was 140km and it included most of the famous cobbled climbs as well as several flat cobble sections. The first 25km (I was in Europe so I turned my GPS to Metric) we road surround by legions of cyclist, it was crazy, to make it even more challenging the roads are only about as wide as two golf cart paths. The first section of cobbles came up on us out of the blue. The novelty of riding cobblestones wore off fast, it is painful and I have even more respect for pro riders who can hold ridiculous speeds on them. Me personally I dropped my speed by 5mph each time I came upon a section. It wasn’t until the final time I was on the cobbles that I finally said, forget you, and let it fly it still hurt really bad! Our first climb was the Patenberg which is a 20.3% grade. The real challenge of the climbs were the droves of people on them. I was able to make it half way up until a group of four fell over like dominoes across the climb. I had to walk up the rest of the climb and that confirmed that walking up a cobbled climb with road cycling shoes and cleats is harder than riding up it. Bummed, but not discouraged, I ventured on the next climb the Koppenberg. The max grade was 22% and believe me I felt every bit if it. By the second big climb of the ride we organized groups at the base of the hill so we could try and ride the it in waves. I headed up towards the front of a group and we began our ascent. The climb was brutal and you needed to stay seated to keep weight on the rear wheel to keep from spinning your tires on the polish cobbles. The pace started to slow and the rider in front of me fell over, I avoided him and looked ahead and the Koppenberg was mine. Not one person was in front of me and I road to the top and savored riding such a historic hill of the Classics. The scenery for the ride was beautiful and I enjoyed riding and just taking in the beautiful countryside. We road a total of 11 climbs incudling the Kapelmuur and Vosenberg.  To ride to the top of the Muur with the chapel was divine, the sacred ground of the Flanders race.  The final 12km of the ride into the finish is rolling and fast it is no wonder that riders that have a gap on the peloton make it to the finish if they are ahead at the climbs. If you get a chance it is a must to participate in the Sportif ride.
Race day was the second most exciting part of my trip. Another early morning gave us a Russian breakfast on the bus, we were all scared of what it was going to be, but it actually was fine pretty standard.  However a vodka toast at 9 a.m. and some interesting appetizers made up for it. The Katusha team took care of us shuttling us around in a luxury bus for the day. We were able to see the paddock where all of the team buses parked before the race, talk about cool product overload. The bikes were fantastic, electronic shifting everywhere. We missed the start, but we did see the race pass by three times, and the best part was seeing the peloton chase down Cancellara and Chavanel on the Muur, the Belgians went crazy when Boonen charged by us. We were spoiled in our tent with televisions all around us, not to mention the beer and food. That is the way to watch a Classics race! I am in the process of posting pictures on our Flickr site. Feel free to stop by, I would love to tell you all about the trip. A big thank you to Todd and Anne for allowing me the time to get away.