St. Tiernan’s at the Ronde van Vlaanderen – 2019
Grainne Reidy reports from Flanders
As I sit down to write this, I begin to wonder how it came about that I signed up for Tour de Flanders and I recall that back in early November, Brian sent out a message seeking interest in Tour de Flanders sportive describing it as a “playful jaunt”. After seeing a few familiar names from the Sunday crew put their name down I decided to throw my name in too! Two days later I had flights and accommodation booked without much consideration or thought of what was involved. In what seemed like no time at all, there were seven STCC members at the airport, just after 5am on a miserable Friday morning ready to embark on the epic challenge of Tour de Flanders: Brian, Cormac, Mike, Ken, Jason, Robbie, and myself. Craig, a friend of Brian’s joined the STCC crew for the weekend. Brian and Cormac had a combined 20 years experience of this weekend whilst the rest of the STCC crew were newbies! Witnessing Brian’s excitement at the airport on Friday morning for the weekend that lay ahead, was akin to a child’s on Christmas morning. I on the other hand, had been wishing all week to be struck by a flu and not be able to travel!
Friday was a chilled enough day between putting our bikes together and going out for a nice easy spin to make sure all was in working order. After dinner and a few civilised drinks, the plans were made for the following morning, and an early night was had by all.
Everyone was up bright and early on Saturday morning. Mike, Ken & Jason opted to do the 173km route and arranged transport from Antwerp at 6am to start from Oudenaarde at 7am. With even more cobbles and climbs than the 230km route, taking in Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Ruuiterstraat, Kerkgate and Paddestraat as additional sections, it didn’t seem like the easier option to me, so I stuck to my initial plan of the 230km route. The remainder of the bunch, Brian, Cormac, Robbie, Craig and myself met at 6:20am ready to get started. Following registration we set off just after 7am. The weather could only have been described as fantastic cycling weather, dry, no wind and neither too hot nor too cold. I could not imagine doing this in bad weather.
The first 85km was actually grand, uneventful really. Not a cobble to be seen. Just before the second food stop at the 87km mark, I encountered my first taste of the cobbles. I did not like it. They shook my entire body and weirdly, I felt like my teeth might fall out. I looked at my sticker, that I had put on my bike earlier that morning, detailing all the major climbs and cobbles, expecting to be able to at least tick the first one off. Much to my disappointment, that cobbled section which I had just endured was not even listed. It was at this point that I realised I was in a bad place and probably had not done enough training. I had been cycling for almost three hours, still had 140km left to go and ALL of the cobbles and climbs and the fear of not knowing what was ahead unnerved me.
With no other option but to keep cycling, I continued on, breaking the journey down into 20km chunks and following Cormac’s advice to keep eating and drinking. I would be lying if I said the next couple of hours were enjoyable, I was in a pretty dark place. My body hurt, the brutal climbs were coming thick and fast and I began to doubt if I would be able to finish it before darkness arrived. The Muur van Geraardsbergen was the first of the famous climbs at 128km, which was probably my favourite, if I had to pick one! At the top is a beautiful church and great views. I feel like I have little memory of a lot of the other climbs, they have all just merged into each other in my brain, with memories of cobbles and pain as I focussed on just surviving each one. Having forgotten my bike lights, thoughts crossed my mind of getting lost in the Belgian countryside, unable to find my way back or communicate with the locals. The fear was real and wasn’t helped by getting a puncture just before the 167km food stop. And then it was time for the Koppenberg… When I reached the 200km food stop, I realised time was not on my side and if I wanted to make it back to Oudenaarde before dark, I needed to keep going. At this point I was already full of waffles and sugary drinks, all I really wanted was a cup of tea and a ham sandwich and for the cycle to be over. More climbs remained, notably the Kruisberg, the Kwaremont and the Paterberg but before long I was cycling the last 10km to the finish. I met the guys, who greeted me with a beer, which tasted like the best beer I have ever had. I felt nothing but pure relief that it was over.
Beers made the bus journey home short and took away the pain of the day whilst hearing of everyone’s tales of the day. Brian was on Cloud nine, describing it as the best day ever. After food and drinks all tired bodies retired early to their beds in preparation for Sunday.
Despite the hardship I endured over the course, it is one of the best organised and enjoyable sportives than I have taken part in, although the hardest. The locals were out all day and really supported the event, there were supporters on every climb shouting words of encouragement. There were food stops every 40km, marshals at every junction, and it was incredibly well signposted. I don’t think you could take a wrong turn if you tried… I’m sure Jason will disagree with me, as he accidently took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up knocking 30km off the route.
We arranged to meet early on Sunday morning for coffee and croissants before getting the train to Ronse. There were more beers drank on this train journey than I care to remember. The original plan was to watch the race at the Kwaremont but with our connecting bus not showing up, Plan B was quickly formulated and we walked to the top of theKruisberg and set up there for the day. Walking up this hill brought back some unwelcomed memories of the previous day and the sharp steep climbs which we had embarked on, and I was glad that it was the turn of the professionals rather than the amateurs that day.
Sunday was a great day, with the sun shining all day it was perfect weather for drinking beers and eating hotdogs! Seeing the road race was remarkable and so inspiring and the ease at which they climbed the cobbled hill, compared to the struggles we had endured 24 hours earlier. With Mike drawing the lucky ticket in the sweepstakes with Bettiol, he was kind enough to reinvest the money back into the kitty (to be fair I think he had little choice!) Eating and drinking was very much the theme for the rest of the evening and it was pizzas all round when we got back to Antwerp. Brian had a top tip of where to go that night and pub Mombasa was where we were headed to after dinner. This pub is owned by an uncle of the time trial champion Victor Campenaerts. and as we approached the pub Brian issued us a warning to “act cool”. This was a great choice of venue for the evening that was in it, with a bike hanging from the ceiling and a large portrait of Stan Ockers and over 100 choices of beers, there was something for everyone (although Brian was hoping for a grungier bar I think!). Being typically Irish, we had a round of Mescan beer to start with, which is brewed in Westport. The night continued into the early hours of the morning with lots of story telling and some purchasing cycling memorabilia! Sunday was an equally long and challenging endurance event to Saturday, but one which was more enjoyable and one which I was probably better trained for!
All in all, a great weekend was had by everyone, a weekend which I would highly recommend and will favourably remember for a long time (just don’t follow my training or lack thereof for it!). With Brian describing it as the single greatest cycling event in the world, it is certainly one to put on your bucket list!