Kilbride’s six beat the ‘Bergs in Belgium
A TRAIN of St. Tiernan’s finest classicists took on the challenge of Ronde Van Vlaanderen – the Tour of Flanders, but none with a tale as telling as this to be told.
Former club chairman, recent Vet’s League winner, and all-round hardened Classics aficionado, Brian Kilbride was riding the cobbled streets of Flanders for an incredible 12th time.
IT get’s difficult to keep putting a different spin on the single greatest cycling weekend in the world every year, but I’ll try, writes Brian Kilbride.
A trip to Ronde Van Vlaanderen, or the Tour of Flanders, provides the tourer with a tough, beautiful sportive, and four days in the epicentre of world cycling, within touching distance of the baddest of bad asses to sling their legs over a top tube.
Seven Tiernan’s riders travelled to Bruges to raise jihad on the cobbled farm lanes of Flanders, elected to represent the club in the Northern Classics of 2016.
The riders were Dave, Derm, James, Alan, Cormac and I, and we were joined by men from our neighbours Bray and Orwell Wheeler’s, who had also been putting in the required training since Christmas.
Our first challenge came when travel plans were disrupted by the recent terrorist events in Brussels. Pilgrims like us, bound for Bruges, were diverted to as far afield as Amsterdam and Charleroi, with the disruption at the bombed Zaventem Airport continuing.
Belgium was in shock after the events and people who we spoke with were finding it much harder to get their heads around than the events in Paris a few months previously – which had their origins in Molenbeek as well.
Tourism was markedly down in Bruges. Restaurants which were normally packed and ‘reservation only’ were empty or shutting their doors by 10pm.
Scandinavian Cruise ships, which would normally dock in Zeebrugge and let 10s of 1,000s of day-trippers loose on the city, were passing on down the English Channel, without stopping.
Nevertheless, we were there and our fellow cyclists were too. We would not be deterred.
We gathered for an evening of pasta and malted beverages in Estaminet, our traditional pre-Ronde meeting point, to make plans for the following day.
The forecast was for anywhere between 14-17C in the afternoon, and we were all enthused by the possibility of a leisurely trip.
Top tip: Keep the percentage of your beer lower than the smallest ring on your rear sprocket and you’ll be fine.
Saturday, 05.00hrs, overcast, 3C
We assembled at day break in the main square for pictures and atmosphere absorbing.
Several of our riders were feeling cheated by the meagre 230km course on offer this year and decided to tack on an extra 16km looking for the registration centre, out at the stadium on the edge of town.
No doubt it served to fray a few nerves, but these were strong men and they would claw back the kilometres by the time we reached the business of things at 100km.
Nico, who was staying in Oudenaard, was the first to taste tarmac 300m from the start. Someone switched him and he figured there was no damage, until he had to go for the granny gear half way up the second climb, the Molenberg; his rear derailleur rotated 180 degrees and his day was done almost before it had begun.
12.00hrs, colder, cobblier
The much anticipated warm weather lasted only till the late morning, weather forecasts in Belgium being as changeable as those in Ireland.
Nico had a cold hour to gather his thoughts waiting for his lift back, passing his time discussing the merits of New Holland tractors with the locals.
While commiserating with Nico, the rest of the stragglers regrouped. The remainder of the day contained all the hits: Paddestraat, Koppenberg, Mariaborrestraat, Steenbeekdries, the treacherous, bottle laden cobbled descent of the Stationberg, and straight on to the gutter run, up the side of the Taienberg, straying onto the cobbles only to avoid the photographer.
If it’s good enough for Tom Boonen, it’s good enough for us.
The second half of the spin – 17 hills and six cobbled flat sectors worthy of categorisation – are like a demonic six-hour interval session. By the final feed stop at 200km, we were cooked.
We gorged ourselves on oranges, toffee waffles, raisins, salted bread sticks and Tuc crackers, anticipating the final run in up the Kruisberg and over a loop through the forest, before dropping down to the bottom of the Kwaremont.
The final shot at redemption for those who had done the walk of shame on the Koppenberg was the Paterberg. Not all were redeemed, but we regrouped at the top, elated at our days work.
16.00hrs, hotter, hungrier
To maintain our interest, we decided to have a finishing sprint at the 500m mark. The net effect was not a jocose final run-in discussing tales from the previous 11 hours, but an eyeballs out race-paced run-in, curb jumping and bollard dodging, from bike lane to road, catching wheels where you could get them and generally placing yourself for the final judgement.
It was an anti-social end to a very social day and one that we will all remember.
The finish zone is well-served with refreshment vendors so there was Europop and burgers, and a generally convivial atmosphere to reflect on the magnitude of our manliness.
We lingered for an hour or so rehydrating, before finally making our way in buses and rental cars home
We got back to Bruges, but were not up to too much in the way of food or drink that night and most were early to bed.
The following morning is an early start to see the team buses, then settle on the Main Square for the rider introductions in the Grot Markt.
Peter Sagan was hot favourite and had acquired his own fan club to honour him – and get themselves on telly.
We caught glimpses of all the main protagonists; Tony Martin and Popovych were close by, looking lean.
The race went off at 10.15hrs, then we darted to the station for a big day out at the Kwaremont.
The men’s race passes this over this climb three times and the women’s race passes twice, making it then number one spot, and crucial too.
Sagan was sitting easy as he came by looking the winner from 17k out. Cancellara was pushing it, and Tom was off the pace. Kwiatkowski’s race was run.
The Kwaremont, as we thought it would, told the story, Sagam in the end winning it like a champion he had looked as he passed us by.
That evening, we retired to a restaurant in Bruges for reflection and renewal, before heading off to sort out the final matters that needed sorting. A memorable three days, which some may repeat, I included.