Return to Flanders: Part 1

Earlier this year, Anita chronicled our adventure on the cobbled hills of Flanders. Spoiler alert: It didn’t go quite as she intended.

I was happy to spend a few years building fitness and suppressing memories before returning to the scene of the crime. Anita was not so easily discouraged, and she leapt at the very next opportunity to face the challenge again. With January weather and overly competitive hammerheads out of the picture, I was much more willing to go along.

After all, I had seen the Ronde van Vlaanderen in its glory the year before, when pro-cyclist Fabian Cancellara had accelerated past his rivals on the Oude Kwaremont, the climb that tells the difference between good and great, year after year. I was there with old and new friends, beer and sausage and frites, and it was twice the fun of any Tour de France stage I’d attended.

One great aspect of the Ronde van Vlaanderen is that the women’s race is on the same day, along the same course. Both the men and women ride a long circuit and pass each famous climb more than once, so it’s an ideal experience for fans.

The Ronde is defined by its cobbles. In 2013, they fascinated me as a fan, at a distance. In January 2014, they defeated me as a cyclist, utterly and completely.

For me, our 2014 return to Flanders promised another chance to ride a course that I’d as seen as one of tens of thousands of fans. I’d pretty effectively blocked my more recent memories of severe oxygen-debt, wind-driven drizzle, and wondering where the heck my wife was. This time, I would have the time to stop and look around once in a while, take in the scenery, and think back to what it looked like when the pros were there.

For Anita, it was another chance to test herself against the Oude Kwaremont, one of two climbs she’d tackled in January — before her Ronde fell to pieces. We could approach the challenge at a reasonable pace and arrive at the bottom refreshed. We would bring along moral support and motivation in our friend Rachel. Most importantly, we would have our mobile phones and pumps with us!

Our ride in January departed from Oudenaarde. The town was lovely in January, so we reckoned it would be spectacular in May. We left time to visit the museum dedicated to the Ronde van Vlaanderen and to see a bit of the town itself.

The Town Hall dominates the central square. (Another UNESCO Heritage Site, check.)

Just off the square, the Church of Saint Walburga was finished about the same time as the Town Hall, in the first half of the 16th Century. That was the end of Oudenaarde’s golden age, as it became a victim of almost every war in the region, culminating in wholesale destruction in World War One and more than its share of tragedy in World War Two.

The Scheldt River is one of the key waterways of European history and Oudenaarde’s bridge across it has determined its fate. Today, the central bridge is a “table bridge” that opens frequently to allow massive barges to pass. Despite spending so much time in the Netherlands, Anita and I had never seen this style of bridge. We couldn’t believe our eyes when the whole bridge simply lifted ten feet, straight up.

The museum devoted to the Ronde is just off the main square. We knew it as the starting point of our January ride. This visit would generate far less anxiety.

Our equipment was much more sophisticated than the competitors of old, but it’s strength, endurance, and will that get you up the hills.

The quiz was 84 questions long and too random to keep my interest, but I appreciated the subtle potshot here.

The museum paid a good amount of attention to women’s cycling, given how often the sport’s authorities seem to ignore or even hinder pro women. The audio guide had a bizarre segment devoted to explaining the “physical disadvantages” that would keep Emma Johansson from ever challenging Tom Boonen — including her “less aerodynamic” hips and butt. I’m going to hope for the best and assume that this was sly Flemish humor that didn’t translate well.

Fabian Cancellara had an entire room dedicated to his life and accomplishments.

Anita loved the mural above the café entrance.

Finally, I couldn’t let this post pass without mentioning that it is election season for the European Parliament. I have an excuse to bring that up — here are some current posters for Flemish political parties and candidates.

After imposing that upon you, I feel duty-bound to include at least one photo of our actual ride.

Wait, that wasn’t us.
This is a better portrayal of my experience: me off the bike, Anita struggling ever upwards, and Rachel pulling away.

I’ll bring you much more suffering in Part Two!

2 Comments to “Return to Flanders: Part 1”

  1. Rachel said...
    25 May 2014

    Don’t worry, I was struggling too! It was a fun weekend, and I’m so glad the weather turned out nice for our ride. Can’t wait to read Part 2.

  2. Dave said...
    12 June 2014

    Fabulous. I love European election posters.

    I do think the Belgian posters have to be some sort of posters. Look at Boonen’s pose.