Ronde Van Vlaanderen Off Road

How do you test yourself on a bike ride? Is it all about timing and speed? Or is finishing sometimes enough?
Buoyed up by Cipo van Morrissey’s unstoppable enthusiasm, I joined four of the HWCC  off road group, and went to Flanders to try out the Ronde van Vlaanderen, an off road sportive which offered either a 30 or 50 mile route.  For a lot of us, or maybe just me, CX riding is more about you against the course. rather than than the clock.  I’d picked up a few aches and strains crashing on the central league circuits and needed somewhere to build confidence.  Wout van Porteous told me that the Ronde wouldn’t be like a cx race, ‘more like one of our off road Sunday rides with John’ he said.  ‘Some people use mountain bikes, but cx bikes are fine.’
We met in Oudenaarde on the Friday for a few beers, and then it was early nights and up to meet at the museum by Eddy Merckx’ team car on Saturday morning.   The whole place is steeped in the finest cycling culture. We rode the ten miles to the start along the side of the canal, Jean van der Chad leading the way. A beautiful morning, the sun rising up over the flat land.  We were very lucky on the weather front. At registration we were the only people I could see on CX bikes.  Mountain bikes were the locals weapon of choice.  A team photo.  And then we were off.
Within a kilometre, MTB and gravel bikes were being signed off into the shady woods together.  Narrow rooty tracks, slippy mud, lots of cyclists and everywhere people are on mountain bikes.  I had a bad feeling about this.  Surely there’d be a sign pointing gravel bikes off onto firmer ground.  Nope. Then the narrow track dropped away, a mixture of sand and broken muddy earth.  But as Jon rouge van Atwood pointed out: ‘imagine having to fight in it’.  It was a fair point, no one was shooting at us.  That’s another thing about being in Flanders, you can’t help but be touched by the history of the place.
The first five miles were particularly technical.  It’s almost comical when your comfort zone is swept away that quickly.  But somehow you just keep going, pedal stroke by pedal stroke.  In bad weather it would have been something else. Rain on the cobbles would have added to the challenge. The mood on the ride was great.  Very friendly people, several of whom asked (a) where are you from ? And (b) what’s it like on a CX bike?  The answers being High Wycombe, near London, and great?!  The route incorporated the off-road variant of a number of Ronde van Vlaanderen classics such as the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.  I was so knackered I didn’t even notice Bradley Wiggins’ face at the top of the Paterberg.
So how long is a fifty mile ride?  When the parcours is sand, mud, cobblestone, half buried brick and hardly any of it is flat (just under 2000 meters of ascent in all), it feels very long.  And not satisfied with having us ride on this undulating slippy stuff, often the tracks were between electrified fences.  You had to laugh, and keep pedalling.  Like I say, the mood was great.
Naturally on a ride this tough you don’t end up riding together.  But we met up at the bar at the end and felt pleased with ourselves.  Then it was back along the canal to our hotels, a quick shower and change followed by another 50 miles of the finest beer, cider and nonsense.
I would definitely do it again, I’ve done the recce now, though I’m coming back on a mountain bike.  One tough ride, a proper test.
Tobias van der Mayonaise
by Toby Ingham