To describe the Flanders Cobbles I give you three words: Oh. My. God.
I am not ashamed to admit that I was whimpering by the end of my Belgium torture cycle tour. All you’ve got to do is Google Tour of Flanders and you’ll know why.
Now granted, I didn’t do this ride in the spring when the race is held, and I didn’t cycle the entire 200 kilometres of the race, or climb the Koppenberg (although that was on the initial itinerary). But I DID ride in typical Tour of Flanders weather, which was Siberian cold with my fingers and face numb to the point I couldn’t clench my hands into fists or talk properly, and my shoes filled with deep puddles of rain and my clothes sopping wet. And I DID ride The Cobbles. And I DID ride them in clip-in pedals – for the first time! To call this ride epic – as Mario would say – is an understatement.
- 10 a.m. BG before: 10.1
- Temp basal: -50 per cent
- Distance 43 km (but felt a heck of a lot longer!)
- @ 14 km: BG 5.3 (Zbar, no bolus)
- BG after: 10.4
When Mario mentioned to me, before leaving on this vacation, that my cousin Filip, who’s an event planner, was organizing a cycle tour around The Cobbles for us, I didn’t really think much about it. I’m not hardcore like Mario, I don’t get up at the crack of dawn and search out the various cycle races on the Internet, and I had never watched the Tour of Flanders, so I really had no idea what The Cobbles were all about beyond Mario’s stories … and even then, I only half listened given that he was usually telling me them at like 6 a.m. when my brain had not yet woken up. So yeah, I figured this ride would just be a casual tour. It seems, though, that I seriously underestimated Filip’s talents as an event planner.
With help from his brother-in-law Kristof, who is a avid cyclist, the two of them organized a 72 km trek through a portion of the Tour of Flanders that starts out deceptively flat but turns into a hellishly hilly ride consisting of 21 hills with ascents going up nearly 1,200 metres and difficulty ratings of 8 out of 10! Keep in mind the last time I was actually on my bike was back in July AND that I was not even two weeks past running my first marathon AND that I had never cycled in clip-in pedals before.
Last Christmas Mario bought me pedals for clip-in shoes (the last accessory I needed to achieve that oh-so-coveted wave from the snobby cyclists) and over the spring and early summer months I spent some time shopping for shoes, but I never made the full commitment. I always had some kind of excuse: They didn’t feel right, they weren’t the right price, they weren’t pretty enough. But truth be told, I was just damn scared to be clipped into a pedal, to be attached to a bike, which could fall into traffic if I didn’t clip out in time, making me a pizza smattering on someone’s windshield … didn’t really seem all that appealing if you know what I mean. But in Belgium, I had no choice. The bikes, the cycling attire, the helmets and the shoes were all supplied. And when I saw the clip-ins that cold rainy morning, the only thing going through my head was Oh crap!
Mario tried to calm me down by telling me they were just like skies, you clip in, you clip out. But as some of my friends can attest to, I never really got the hang of skiing, especially the clipping out part … I once got stuck at the top of a mountain and had to be taken down by ski patrol – much to the amusement of my girlfriend waiting for me at the bottom of the hill.
But the pedals weren’t actually that hard. Once I realized I could still pedal the bike even if I wasn’t clipped in, there was no need for me to panic, I was good to go. And I only had one close call, right in the beginning when I was about to go through a roundabout at the same time an ambulance put its sirens on, which freaked the crap out of me and nearly had me falling over before I was able to clip out. Mind you, if I was to be taken out by any vehicle at all, an ambulance is probably the best way to go, hey 😀
The first 10 or so kilometres of the ride started out great. It was fairly flat, just a few mole hills to climb, which gave us ample opportunity to check out the scenery around us, which consisted of wide open spaces of farm land, super fat cows, winding roads, a field of yellow elder blossoms, and road graffiti dedicated to one of Belgium’s great cyclist’s Tom Poonen, er I mean Boonen.
And I was layered like you wouldn’t believe, I think I had like three of my shirts plus two more shirts plus a windbreaker and a jacket, as well as my compression tights and a pair of bibbed cycling tights and two pairs of socks (I was starting to look a bit like the Marshmallow Man ;)) And despite the cold temperatures and the drizzling rain coming down, I even commented to Mario, early on in the ride, that I might even be too hot. That feeling, however, didn’t last.
We approached our first hill at about 16 km in; it was a bitch. The guys surged forward like nothing, and then there was me, struggling to beat all hell. My speed dropped down from like 22 km to 6 km and it felt like I was getting nowhere fast. I tried to tell myself it was just like climbing up the hill from Jericho Beach in Vancouver, slow and steady, I just had to make it to the tree and then the light post, and then the road up ahead, but my gawd, I was heaving like a serious asthmatic, and the momentum in my legs was quickly waning. With just about a quarter of the hill left to go, Kristof and Filip rode down to see if I was okay. It was then that Kristof informed me my bike had a triple chain ring (not like my bike at home that just has two chain rings) and that I still had lower speeds I could have employed – are you kidding me?
Thankfully the next hill was easier due to those blessed lower gears, but I can’t say the same for the third hill; my first experience riding up The Cobbles. The hill started out properly paved, but shortly after turned into The Cobbles. And while I’d already ridden over a few flat areas that were cobbled, the hill freaked the crap out of me. It was slick from all the rain, and my wheels started bumping up and down from the grooves, and with Mario’s voice ringing in my head telling me not to be ashamed to get off the bike and walk, I stubbornly climbed off, cursing myself the second I did.
When I reached a side street about three quarters into that hill, and with just about 400 more metres to go before reaching the summit, I was determined to get back on that bike and give The Cobbles another go. I kept telling myself over and over, I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. And with the bike slip sliding across the street, over the lumps and the humps, past the grooves, nearly into the gutters, I did it. Woohoo! But there was not time for celebrating, I had a fourth hill and my second of The Cobbles still to conquer. And I was determined to get up that hill – on the bike. I started out great. I had past my first quarter and thought for sure I was going to make it. Those thoughts, however, were quickly foiled when I saw a car at the top of the hill, coming down. Are you kidding, these roads were so narrow I thought for sure there wouldn’t be any cars traveling on them – I was wrong. And because there was no sharing that road with that car, I headed for the gutters. By the time the car had past my momentum had also passed. I tried to mount my bike again, but given my lack of balance issues + the fact that I was on hill = there was no way I was getting up that hill on the bike. Dammit! Back to walking up The Cobbles I went.
By the time I reached the top, the guys informed me that we would be cutting the ride short and they promised me it wasn’t because of me (I chose to believe them; it made me feel better :)) but it was because we were all soaked and cold to the bone, and because the roads weren’t getting any dryer … I kid you not, the roads were so wet it didn’t matter how hard I squeezed the brakes coming down those massive, winding hills, my bike wouldn’t slow down. I was squeezing so hard, my arms actually hurt!
For the whole ride I kept thinking in my head, how could I possibly repay my dear cousins Filip and Kristof? Well boys, this is my promise to you: When you come to Canada, there will be a Princess of Pavement style act of torture adventure waiting for you, a little thing I like to call a 42.2 km marathon! The thing is, though, I think Kristof would actually embrace such a thing with great amounts of enthusiasm, rain or shine – there’s no torturing this guy. Maybe Filip wasn’t kidding, maybe Kristof really is a viking!