by Bob Kelly
Oisin – Hannibal
Laura – run CJ run
Sinead – Cagney
Tom – Murdoch
Brianne – Makepeace
Robert – Face
The six of us had entered this event preCovid so we had plenty of time to prepare. No excuses. We were going to smash this course. The research was extremely thorough and we had insider information as Hannibal and Murdoch had done this event before so there would be no surprises. ‘Flanders is completely flat’ (Murdoch 2021)
We had a mountain of training done without touching any hills and we felt Skerries and back was plenty of miles in the legs. There was even a chance that we might get a bit of colour in Flanders as the weather is always warm. ‘I guarantee that the lowest the temperature will be is 15 degrees. If we are lucky it might hit the early 20s’ (Hannibal 2022). In anticipation I went looking for an old razor to shave my legs and my got light summer bibs out.
The first hint that maybe our information was incorrect was about 10 days out from the event when we realised the distance was 257kms and not 217kms. At that point someone should have read the rest of the small print.
The weekend to travel arrived and we thought it best to get to airport early particularly with all the commotion about delays at security. Out of the bed at 3.15am and we arrived at 4.15am for a 7am flight. Aerlingus decided to cancel the flight. What would we do? Luckily none of us panicked as in our party we had the oracle of Organising and she was the perfect person to sort out the situation. Oisin, myself and Brianne breathed a sigh of relief and looked to Laura for a solution. ‘It’s preordained. We are not destined to do this thing. We should just head to the nearest pub.’
After a bit of negotiation we decided against the pub option, as tempting as it was, and managed to get another flight at 12. We got through security fairly quickly and spend the next couple of hours playing hide and seek in Terminal 2 and fuelling up with croissants. We got on the plane and had a rest. As we were approaching Brussels we noticed some white stuff on the ground which made me believe the temperature wouldn’t be close to 15 degrees as promised.
We landed and headed for our hired van which was going to take us and six bikes which we still had to pick up. When we got the van we realised it might be on the small size to fit everything. We looked around and all breathed a sigh of relief. We had an Engineer extraordinaire in our midst. A project manager of the highest order. We looked at Brianne for inspiration. ‘I’ll get the train’, she suggested.
With some negotiation we decided against this and thought the kicking the can down the road approach would be best. We headed on our merry way to collect our bikes. When we got to the bikes we realised how cold it was. Bloody Baltic. I mentioned that I might have forgotten my winter cycling shorts only to be reassured by Oisin that ‘they will supply EVERYTHING in the merchandise area. Nothing to worry about’. We managed to get the bikes on board and headed to buy some lovely merch. The place was dead. The only thing you could get was some water bottles. No winter gear to be had. Fingers crossed that I packed my warm bibs.
By the time we got to the apartment in Antwerp it was near 8pm and we still hadn’t eaten anything and we were fairly tired. We headed out for dinner and by the time we got to bed it was midnight. Not ideal preparation. Got to sleep and woke up a minute later at 6am for breakfast. I was rooming with Oisin and luckily we had stocked up with the finest breakfast you could imagine…
We got to the start line with no drama. Oisin had mentioned a number of times that it was important to get in behind a peloton and get shelter from the wind. We did this and then we didn’t. We did this for the first 500 yards but some of us couldn’t keep pace as the speed must have been approaching 40kph. We got dropped before we had gone any distance. We re-grouped and waited for the next peloton. We got in behind them and they were going slower, maybe 39kph. We got dropped again. Oisin shouted at us that it was important to get into the next group as once we are onboard we can basically freewheel the next 130kms. Sounds easy enough but again you need to read the small print. ‘The main thing, the absolute crucial thing was not to go near the front as you would be doing all the work’. It was carnage already. Never mind us avoiding the front. We couldn’t hold onto to the back of the peloton. And we hadn’t even left Antwerp yet.
Eventually we got into some sort of rhythm although all six of us were scattered up and down the road. I was with Laura and Brianne. The other three were up in the distance somewhere. The 3 of us did the best we could and tottered along, with me, leading the way. After about 10kms of this I noticed Oisin pulled up on the side of the road waiting for us. I gave him a wave, rode past him and he saddled up to join our small group of 3. After about 10 minutes he hadn’t joined me at the front and I assumed that he was just chatting to the two women. Eventually he joined me at the front, and a bit out of breath, asked me did I know what I was doing. I obviously looked confused and he told me to look behind as I was towing a pile of cyclists behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw about 200 cyclists, all probably stronger than me, sheltering from the wind with me at the front. I was like Moses leading his people through the red sea. Slowly.
The first 130kms or so was uneventful enough with no hills so Flanders was living up to its reputation of being very flat. Then the hills and the cobbles started. None of the hills in isolation were difficult but when you have multiple inclines coming at you in fairly quick succession and most of them are cobbly it gets difficult. We worked out there was hills which were official and on the map (about 20 of them) and then non-hills which were unofficial, not on the map, but still involved climbing.
The first official hill was ‘Muur’. This is an iconic climb and we were all looking forward to it with trepidation. We got to the top of this with little drama apart from a wayward car and some wayward cyclists and we were now in the race proper. From recollection this was the first real cobble section. Legs and lungs took a bit of a battering going over the uneven sections.
The next big climb was the Koppenberg which is 22% and very cobbly. Oisin did some commentary leading up to the climb and this only heightened the nerves and psyched some of us out. He mentioned that there would be a prize for first up the top. There was some jostling for position and then, Sinead eager to win, sped past the rest of us, like a speed boat on her way to victory. Well, she would have been on her way to victory except after recording the quickest approach to a hill ever recorded the Koppenberg turned into her iceberg and she blew up spectacularly. By the time she got to the actual climb she was whacked and ended up walking. I believe Tramore Cycling Club are now removing her photo from their hall of fame honours list. The rest of us, Terry Wogan style, slow and steady, gradually made our way to the top. Brianne won the prize at the top but the rest of us were just happy to survive it. We got back into our own group and kept going.
One thing we noticed is that 99.9999% of the participants were male. I counted about 10 women in total doing the event and 3 of them were with us. Also all the cyclists looked like proper club cyclists. No cyclists were carrying extra timber. Nobody was wearing sandals like you might get in the Ring of Kerry. There was no chat in the peloton, apart from us. My guess is that they were all wearing gumshields in anticipation of the cobbles. Possibly they were all there just to cycle, not to have the craic.
The rest of the day (total nearly 11 hours of cycling) was spent up and down Flanders, climbing hills and non-hills until we eventually got to the Pattenberg. We were told there was a special prize for anyone who got up this, never mind who got first up, and it was likely that none of us would be able for it. It was described in horror terms. We guessed that there would be snipers in the ditches, oil on the cobbles, barbed wire and worse. Basically we were told it was impossible to climb. It starts off reasonably handy and then ramps up like a wall to 20%, all cobbles. With varying degrees of success we avoided all the dangers and all of us managed it although some of us didn’t use their bikes in doing so (no names).
Now we only had the finish line 10km away to victory and the girls made a ‘strategic error’ (Tom 2022) in not stopping at the Red Bull stand. With his wings refreshed Tom kept the honour of T3 intact by hammering Sinead of Tramore Cycling Club by 4cm and finishing ahead of Brianne of Piranha who was burdened down with carrying me home at that stage. Oisin and Laura were just behind us.
At the finish line we all agreed that we would never attempt this again but the following day, while watching the Pro’s riding the same circuit, and after some Irish style rehydrating we decided we would aim to be back for 2023.
All in all, a fantastic weekend, primarily organised by Oisin, thank you. Very tough event, particularly with the cold weather and hassle with logistics but would highly recommend, particularly if you are a bloke and don’t like chatting.