Here at Grity HQ, we've been reminiscing about our trips to Flanders to see the some of the Monuments in Cycling races. It was a week every bit as cold and as changeable as this one when we went to ride the Tour of Flanders Sportive for the first time, way back in 2013, when the kids were really young. In fact, only 2 our boys were old enough to ride it and I did the mum-in-a-van-fan-thing driving from segment to segment to cheer them on with the 2 younger girls in tow. Looking back on it now, it all seems a little mad but at the time it was such an adventure for all of us.
We began a couple of days earlier with a reccee of some of the iconic climbs in the area: Koppenberg, Oude de Kwaremont, Paterberg. Our youngest was too small to ride up the Koppenberg so we took turns to set a PB, and then went to ride the Oude de Kwaremont and the Paterberg which are close together (for a 7 year old) and where the main race is likely to be decided. My lasting memory of that trip was just how steep and ‘wall-like’ the Paterberg is and just how difficult it is to ride. It was such an education to see the reality of it: the size of the cobbles, the narrowness, the lure of the gutter on the side, the extent of the seating areas set up specially for the fans, the final push to get over the top with screaming legs. Much of this goes unnoticed in the TV images, so it’s well worth remembering that many, many ordinary cyclists don’t actually make it up the Paterberg, even on a reccee ride and have to do the walk of shame. On this occasion, one of the pro riders was doing his own pre-race ride and came charging up the Paterberg as we happened to be standing on the top corner. He took to the grass to cut the final corner and powered away as if nothing had happened, leaving us to marvel in awe. The other thing to note is that there is a shortish piece of road to ride at the end of the Kwaremont leading to the Paterberg. It's a really wide, smooth welcome relief after the clatter of the cobbles on the Kwaremont; it sweeps downhill, leading into a country lane made up from slabs of concrete (I seem to remember?). There are some quite wide grooves which have caught out some of the leading riders in the past, sending them over the bars, but it’s beautiful, fast and exciting as riders fight for position before the tight corner at the bottom of what will probably be the most significant berg of the race; for from then on in, it’s a flat, cheerless, interminable race to the finish that always seems to be head wind.
Having learnt the iconic climbs, the boys in the family rode the sportive and the girls had lessons from me in cheering and waving flags. Meanwhile, I gave myself driving lessons in the van driving up the cobbled climbs in advance of the sportive and to this day I have no idea how I was allowed to do that! But I manoeuvred the girls into top cheering positions and we had a huge amount of fun. The boys, both U14 at the time, had the most amazing ride – full of stories about how they made it up the climbs whilst others walked, how rough the cobbles were, how pleased they were that they had the stamina to make it to the end, what an absolute achievement it was at their age (or any age really come to that!).
It does have to be said though, that there’s nothing quite like seeing the reality of the main race up close and personal - and that’s from every perspective because even the Belgian fans are an education! We chose a spot on the Kwaremont at the top of the climb. It seemed the whole world wanted to be there too, but we got there good and early, picked a spot and saved our space. The Tour of Flanders benefits from having a women’s race earlier in the day as well as being a race that has several laps of some sections – so it’s possible to see the same race several times and to get a sense of what is happening in the race as it progresses. There are also big TV screens strategically positioned in the main fan areas so you truly have the best of every vantage point. There is loads to do while you wait – there are beer tents, gazebos with giveaways, food stalls, bands and all sorts of things. But, wrap up warm or apply sun-cream (depending on the weather you happen to get) and go prepared. Take your flags, pin them to the barriers and label them with whoever you are supporting – if you’re really lucky your friends opposite will take your photo for you with your favourite rider! You may even make some new friends with some drunk Belgians! Above all, make yourself some memories that will last forever.