28 March 2011

Becoming a Hard Man of Flanders

A guest article courtesy of avid cyclist, photojournalist and Blogger Mario Bartel

As countries go, Belgium doesn't exactly inflame passions.

Oh sure, Belgians brew more than 700 varieties of beer. And their chocolate will forever have you sneering at KitKat bars. But Belgium has been without a proper government for 10 months and nobody is calling an emergency session of the United Nations to resolve the crisis. Instead, Belgians are growing beards and withholding sex.

Photo left: kitting up in the rain in Oudenaarde's town square.

Come late March and early April though, the heart of every Belgian beats a little faster. It's Classics season, when the country's cycling heroes like Tom Boonen, Phillipe Gilbert and Stijn Devolder prove their mettle against the rest of the pro peloton on Belgium's narrow country roads and sharp cobbled climbs. The crowds lining the routes of the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege can be 10 deep, their cheering deafening. The weather can be unpredictable, sunny and warm one race, cold, windy and rainy the next. The cobbles can be punishing, jostling and chattering the riders, slippery when wet, dusty when dry.

The heart of Belgians' cycling passion is Flanders. Ground Zero is Oudenaarde, a cozy little burg with a magnificent ornate town hall at one end of its central square. It's also home to the Tour of Flanders Museum. Imagine, an entire museum dedicated to one bike race!

Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx - or at least a giant poster of him - stands sentry at the museum's entrance, glowering from behind an old orange team car. With multi-media and interactive displays, the museum celebrates the race's champions, and its place in Belgian culture. Some of them are a little tired and worn, some don't work, but the passion is evident, especially during the rousing 13-minute film that precedes your entry into the displays. If you're lucky, you might also get a chance to meet Freddy Maertens, another Belgian cycling legend who's a kind of ambassador for the museum.

One of the most famous view in all of Flanders, from the summit of the Paterberg

The museum also serves as a rendezvous for cyclists heading out to test their own resolve against some of the nearby cobbled climbs like the Muur, the Koppenberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg; there are showers, change rooms and storage lockers. Our taste of the Classics didn't come in the spring; but the fall day we rode was typical Classics weather, cold, windy, raining, unforgiving. Our hosts supplied us with full and proper kit, racing bikes that fit more or less, rain gear, gloves, shoes, even booties. Physically, neither my wife, princessofpavement.com, nor I were intimidated by the 72 km route that had been plotted out for us, including a half dozen cobbled climbs. I still had my fitness from completing the Whistler Gran Fondo a month earlier, and my wife was two weeks past running the Portland Marathon. She even proved a quick study for her first experience with clipless pedals, snapping in and out of them like a champ after only a few minutes of practice in the town square.

Photo above: A mural honoring cycling legends

The Flanders' tourist bureau knows its customers; it's created an extensive collection of cycling route maps, and the roads and bike paths that comprise those routes are well marked by signs. As with any rainy ride, once we started to warm up, the cold and misery of the day seemed to subside. The riding was sublime, barely any traffic on mostly smooth pavement, through tidy villages, past muddy farm fields where giant white cows stood resolutely against the wind. We also weren't the only cyclists crazy enough to be out in this weather; this is Flanders, after all.

Photo, left: The cobbles of the Muur.
Our first two climbs were on smooth pavement, the Kluisberg and Knokteberg. Neither was overly strenuous, but the gale at the top was icy. The Oude Kwaremont was our first encounter with cobbles. To say it was bumpy would be an understatement. The rain had rendered the pavé particularly slippery. I dropped down to a granny gear, relaxed my arms and fought to keep the front wheel from sliding away. By 100 meters I had gained a new appreciation for the Belgian Classics where the pros attack these hills in packed pelotons at speed. When we reached our next climb, the Paterberg, I rode it like a pro, heading for the smooth rain gutter alongside the cobbles. But the rain-slicked brown fallen leaves in the narrow ditch, and the smooth metal grates of the storm drains made it almost more slippery than the pavé. At the summit, peering into the misty Flanderian countryside rolling below us, our gloves and booties soaked through, our fingers, toes and cheeks raw from the cold wind, we told our guides that, like every good Italian cyclist, we were ready to abandon for the warmth of a hot drink.

Which is just what awaited us at the brasserie attached to the Tour of Flanders Museum. Still dressed in our drenched, muddy cycling gear because none of us had thought to bring a dry change of underclothes, we sat on the bike seat bar stools, surrounded by photos and trinkets of cycling's great champions. We nursed our chocolate chaud and Flanderian beers and began weaving the legend of our day as Hard Men (and Woman) of Flanders.

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