The Tour of Flanders is a famous cycling race held in Belgium each spring. One of the five monuments of cycling, it's a century-old one day race known for bad weather and steep cobbled climbs, the most famous of which is the Koppenberg. When Bex and I went to visit my sister in the Netherlands last month, we decided to take the bikes for a stop over in Oudenaarde en route to check out this mythical beast of a climb.
It was cold but dry when we arrived in Oudenaarde mid-afternoon, so with a few hours of light left we got the bikes straight out and headed for the small village of Melden a few kilometres away. Nice and smooth tarmac roads so far - only about 25km of the 265km race course is on the cobbles.
It's in Melden where our target lies - signposts point the way to the most famous hill in the region.
And there it is. It doesn't look like much, and in reality it's just a short, narrow, steep farmers' track slicing between two fields. But the savage gradient, the cobbles and a long history of epic races make this a world-famous landmark in the cycling world.
The road winds up through the trees for 600 metres, maxing out at 22% for a short section.
It's a full-on bone crushing ride. These aren't your standard town centre cobbles, nicely laid and worn smooth by the traffic. These Flanders stones are big fat blocks with huge gaps in between, large enough to get your tyre stuck in!
That's enough close ups of bits of road...it's time to attempt to get up the thing in one piece. Naturally I sent Bex up first while I stood ready with the camera.
Here she comes... The gradient is gentle at first as the road rises up from Melden, but the cobbles take your momentum away instantly.
The bumpy ride makes it a real battle to keep the bike straight and moving forwards. Bex is riding in the gutter to try and find a slightly smoother surface.
As it gets steeper you can feel your legs slowing down. Plenty of power needs to be laid down to keep moving, but it's super easy to lose traction and spin the back wheel, which basically means you stop. Difficult in the dry, but next to impossible in the wet when the cobbles are slick with rain and mud. Even the pros have been known to walk up. Despite the short length, it's a complete lung-buster and it was a relief to reach the top!
Once over the top of the climb, the race continues along the small winding farming roads. Some are cobbled, some not, but all were instantly muddy and treacherous after a rain storm. Having a professional race on roads like these is madness really - as I was tiptoeing round at a snail's pace on my own (and regularly filling my pants as I slipped and slithered around), I couldn't imagine racing flat out on a surface like this, whilst jostling for position in a large pack of riders.
Back in Oudenaarde and after a well deserved shower, we finished off our visit with a look round the Flanders museum. It's rammed full of lots of classic bikes and video clips of various editions of the race, usually featuring pros battling their way up the same climbs we'd seen earlier. Bex usually sprints through museums without reading a single placard, but actually complained to me that most of it was in Belgian - she must be well on her way to becoming a proper cycling geek now!
The museum was a bit of a shrine to current Belgian hero, and reigning Flanders champion, Tom Boonen (on the right). Looks like Bex has beaten him here though...
Before heading off to my sister's house, we still had just enough time left to sample one last bit of Belgian culture - some super strong bottles of blond beer. Excellent stuff!