Flanders: cyclists grit your teeth for one hell of a ride
Bikes are the heartbeat of northern Belgium – from leisurely tours to the toughest of tests
Flanders may not the first place that springs to mind when one is thinking of a healthy holiday.
It has been lumbered with the image of being a dour, muddy, weatherbeaten place where people medicate themselves against the elements with waffles and beer.
But if you are a cyclist, you know different. It may lack the sunshine and glamour of more famous destinations, but to us, it is a paradise.
If you want to immerse yourself in Belgian cycling culture, Ghent is the place to go. For Flandriens, cycling is more than a sport, it is a social identity. The bike is king in this Cork-sized city, which has a beautifully preserved medieval car-free centre where locals, students and tourists alike whiz about merrily on two wheels. It’s just like Dublin could be, if we had the guts.
The best time to visit is during March and April, when the cycling world’s focus is on the Spring Classics, the one-day races during which only the toughest of the tough prevail. Some argue the Tour de France is the biggest event in cycling. But in northern Belgium, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen – the Tour of Flanders – is king.
It’s their version of St Patrick’s Day, except instead of Texan cheerleaders and Macnas floats, they send 200 of the planet’s toughest athletes out to ride 240km on glorified farm tracks around the town of Oudenaarde, gurning up dozens of the famed local cobbled hills, known in Flemish as bergs or ‘hellingen’. One look at them and you know why.
They are - as Thomas Hobbes said of life – nasty, brutish and short. Viciously steep, but mercifully brief, they loom out of the pan-flat landscape, tempting and tormenting in equal measure.
Nothing can prepare you for riding at speed on Flandrien cobbles, short of a stint jackhammering rocks. Inside a giant washing machine. While a hose sprays mud at you. You get the picture.
Perhaps the most infamous is the Koppenberg, so-called because Flemish slang for cobblestones is kinderkoppen, or “children’s heads”. Coming round a tight corner, it rises up in front of you like a 600m long set of stairs. It is so steep – hitting a gradient of 22 per cent in the middle section – that it’s a huge struggle to get up it at a crawl, never mind at race pace. And when the cobbles are wet, muddy or covered in wet leaves, forget about it.
There are dozens of other bergs in the region, all used in the Ronde and sporting evocative names like the Paterberg, Taaienberg and Kapelmuur.
Probably the best way to explore the labyrinthine farm tracks is with an experienced guide, who can show you the roads and talk you through the history on the way. Like Ireland, Flanders is full of the stuff, from battle sites to ancient breweries. And cycling is everywhere, monuments to giants of the sport vying for space with little religious grottos adorned with pedalling icons. Indeed, one road close to Oudenaarde has been painted with the name of a Ronde winner every hundred metres, meaning you are literally cycling over history as you go.
If you decide to go self-guided, Visit Flanders has devised a wonderful series of routes through the Flemish Ardennes, catering for all abilities, from leisurely touring cyclists to wannabe pros.
The toughest is named the Spartacus, the nickname of Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, a three-time winner of the Ronde who was so successful at the Spring Classics and so indomitable that he, like Ireland’s Sean Kelly, was afforded the rare status of Flandrien by the locals. To those cycling fans who respect the ability to suffer above all else, this is high praise indeed. The 180km route hits every key climb in the area and is only for the bravest and the fittest.
Fear not, though. There are lots of different options, all clearly signposted and designed in such a way that one can opt out at any point and cruise home the easy way. But that would be defeating the purpose, wouldn’t it?
Taking a brake
You can use your own bike, but, given the punishment cobbles dole out, you might be best advised to rent. Beware if you do, though. The rented bike will probably have the brakes set up opposite to your bike at home with the rear brake on the right, as opposed to the left. This caused me many a hairy moment skiting around mucky corners and almost ploughing into pig sheds. That’s my excuse, anyway.
There are plenty of hotels to suit all budgets in Ghent, from whence Oudenaarde is a flat 30km cycle. If you want to stay closer to the action, the cyclist-friendly Hotel Leopold is within a few pedal strokes of Oudenaarde’s magnificent centre and even closer to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen museum.
After a spin on the bergs, where better to rest your weary bones than in the museum’s restaurant, where you can soak up the atmosphere while tucking into huge bowls of pasta, hearty stews, mayonnaise-doused frites and vats of beer with hordes of other lycra-clad enthusiasts?
Speaking of beer, it and cycling culture are entirely enmeshed in Flanders, a fact perhaps best illustrated by an ale called Oude Kwaremont, named after one of the Ronde’s most infamous hellingen. It’s served in a glass with a base designed to look like tiny cobbles, and has an alcohol content of 6.6 per cent, which just happens to be the gradient of the climb. They’re very proud of their beer tradition, with one Flandrien pointing out to me that their monks had this micro-brewing lark cracked a thousand years ago.
Of course, there’s plenty of cycling action in Ghent too. I was fortunate enough to be there in November for the Six Days of Ghent, a race run on a rickety little indoor wooden track called ‘t Kuipke – literally “little pot”, so called because it resembles one. The race – won by the British duo of Tour de France victor Bradley Wiggins and multiple stage winner Mark Cavendish – sees riders zoom around the track at up to 70km/h on carbon bikes with fixed wheels and no brakes, often mere millimetres from the rider in front. Did I mention the 50 degree banking?
Kuipke itself is like a big nightclub in a vast warehouse that happens to have some of the world’s finest track cyclists racing around the middle of it. The centre of the track is a free-for-all, where fans form impromptu conga lines under a fug of beer and sweat fumes. It’s a writhing mass of joy. There’s a Flemish announcer and an American translator, whose voice is so deep it rattles the ceiling. He makes Tom Waits sound like a castrato.
You can’t ride on the track at Kuipke – no more than you can rock up to Croke Park for an impromptu kickabout or practise your serves on Wimbledon’s centre court - but you can visit the nearby Eddy Merckx Velodrome, where you can ride the boards if you dare.
For yet more two-wheeled adventure, have a crack at cyclocross, a tough sport wherein wiry little folks gouge their way through mud and sand and up near-vertical ramps on specially adapted bikes with fat tyres and disc brakes. Cyclocross races, held all over Belgium in the autumn and winter months, attract thousands of rabid fans.
To them, double world cyclocross champion Sven Nys is a god. Intense but chilled, he won everything there was to win, often many times.
He may be small, but he looks like he’s made of high-grade steel and is probably capable of snapping Conor McGregor in half with little more than a stern look. Now that he’s retired, he’s working to grow the sport from outside its Benelux heartland. He’s also set up a cycling centre in his hometown of Baal, east of Brussels, where you can learn the basics on rented bikes.
I tried. It was even harder than it looks. Just staying upright, something I utterly failed to do, is a victory in itself.
“How was it?” Nys asked me after I’d fallen, filthier than a badger’s bathroom and covered in sludge, through the door following an hour on the course. Collapsed in a heap on the floor as I was, my reply is unprintable.
“Ah, that’s cyclocross,” he beamed.
What I should have said, had I been able to, was that it left me shattered, but I loved every single second of it.
I could say much the same for Flanders.
All the routes, plus a huge range of information on where to eat, stay and rent bikes, are contained in an indispensible guidebook produced by VisitFlanders.com, Bergs and Cobbles: Essential Bike Routes in the Flemish Ardennes. It really is a mine of information and highly recommended.
Hotel Leopold in Oudenaarde leopoldhoteloudenaarde.com
Tour of Flanders Centre: crvv.be
Belgium not to your taste? Try these other options:
France: Where to start? Do you go to the Alps, to pit yourself against iconic climbs such as Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Glandon. Or do you do to the Pyrenees, with its wild, rugged beauty and savagely steep ascents? Or how about taking on Mont Ventoux, perhaps the most fearsome of all the Tour de France climbs? Or just cruising along the side of the Canal du Midi? Options, options. discoverfrance.com
Italy: The Stelvio Pass is the second highest Alpine pass in Europe, rising to 2,758m above sea level. The Stelvio and other climbs in the area such as the Gavia and Motorilo have been a regular feature of the Giro d’Italia for decades. Base yourself in Bormio and these glorious mountains are, as they say, your oyster. stelvioexperience.it
Spain: Girona is a hotbed of cycling, and a base for many professional riders including, many years ago, Lance Armstrong. Don’t let that put you off though. The roads are quiet, the scenery is stunning and the city is buzzing with culture and life. For everything you could need, including bespoke trips, visit eatsleepcycle.com
Lanzarote: Boasting year-round sunshine. Lanzarote is an increasingly popular destination for cyclists. The island itself isn’t huge, but its volcanic landscape offers a variety of terrain and there are excellent, reasonably quiet roads. Plus, you can go to the beach when your’e pedalled out. lanzarote-cycling.com
Yorkshire: Cycling is huge in the UK, nowhere more so than in the Yorkshire Dales, site of some ferocious action when it hosted a stage of the Tour de France in 2014. Many top riders already train in the area with its quiet roads and fantastic variety of scenery. It also has the advantage of being easy to get to by car from Ireland. Yorkshire Velo Tours cater for all abilities. yorkshirevelotours.com