What had been a few months in half measured preparation and planning had now come up to meet us. We were not as fit as we would have liked, nor did we necessarily have the most experience at cycling some of the roads, but this was an adventure.
Mitch did most of the marketing and reconnaissance for the expedition, while Tam covered the minor details he might have missed along the way. We originally had a contingent of six riders, but after a freak beer related cycle & stairs incident we were reduced to five, then to four after a mix up in dates.
The two joining us were Tim (Lance) Armstrong and Ant (Crash) Froome, both relative newcomers to road cycling and the various issues that go with cleats and riding in groups. We managed a practice run of about 90km down to Box Hill one sunny weekend day with all passing with flying colours. Tim, had a small run in with a car that failed to see him coming onto the roundabout on his short ride home – a hard introduction, but he bounced back strongly.
The first leg of the journey was a 100km afternoon cycle from Greenwich, London to Canterbury, Kent. As we found, there wasn’t a dedicated paved cycle path leading through the Kent Downs, but rather a myriad of highways and bike parks and muddy paths. We negotiated a route with the help of Tim’s Google Maps plugged into a charger and in his bento box. Nightfall was to be our worst enemy coming into Faversham and we had to train the last leg in to avoid riding country roads in the dark. Tam meanwhile cheated the first leg a little bit, taking the train after work and meeting us at the backpackers.
After a disturbed sleep in bunks, we awoke early at 5.30am (our room-mate was probably not impressed). The short jaunt to the Dover ferry involved more of the same on a crisp clear morning. We were chased by an border terrier for a good distance along the way. The final stretch we became really pushed for time and ended up going down the motorway – here we got good speeds up to 60km/h, with ample time to lock our bikes up on the ferry. First on and best dressed. There were two other cyclists with the same idea as well. A full English breakfast (Mitch opted for extra helpings of baked beans instead of sausages and bacon) stoked the fires for the next section.
Departing Dunkirk we me up with David, an Irish cyclist who was on his way to meet friends in Belgium. He didn’t know that the big classics were on and thought it sounded like a great idea to join in. He was staying near Ghent, but was keen to join for most of the ride till Ypres. After a small section heading in the wrong direction, we did a full turn and started on the path.
What surprised us most was how well the roads here catered for cyclists. Wide berms, in places segregated and smooth paths, brushed and completely removed from the road. A touring cyclists boon!
Stopping off in Poperinge for a short section we got into a few Belgian beers (high percentage) and frites. Enough rocket fuel for the last 30km to Langemark.
Langemark is a town on the Western front. Host to the large Canadian War memorial. Our host was an attentive chap. He was waiting patiently as we put our bikes in and relaxed. He accidentally walked in on Tam in the shower when getting our towels and went as red as a poppy. We had lost track of time with daylight savings, so he offered to take us to a local frites restaurant – as it turned out there were 30 different types of sauce.
Our final day of cycling proved a little easier now the legs had finally worn into the road. We saw the preperations for the 250km Tour of Flanders already taking place. Stopping in at a supermarket and racking the bikes we talked to a few locals about the race. The place was buzzing.
Pushing on to Oudenaarde, we managed to find a place selling a few beers (on a Sunday) and walk up Koppenberg Hill to find a good patch of grass with a view of the race. Security was high following the Brussels bombings, so we managed to smuggle a few cans in our cycle shoes. It was sunny and about 25 degrees – perfect conditions.
Koppenberg Hill is a bastard of a climb. Short, but up to 22% incline. A hill which seemingly rises up out of the Belgian flats. Because it is cobbled it is technically one of the hardest to climb as you spend as much energy going up and down as forwards. At our point the group bottlenecked and riders were forced to dismount and run up the hill with their bikes on their shoulders – we had never seen anything quite like it.
Peter Sagan ended up winning the race back in Oudenaarde, while we made a mad dash to take the trains before the after race rush to Brussels.
Brussels itself was a city currently on edge, but people were out nonetheless, enjoying beers in the afternoon sun. We managed an hour at the Delerium bar sampling beers before boarding the Eurostar home. In all a great weekend, notching up over 300km in cycling.