Sunday, 29 April 2007

7th Giro Ciclistico della Penisola Sorrentina e Costiera Amalfitana - Part 2

Sunday morning I was up at the crack of dawn. It was reassuring to see that daylight had already broken at 6am, and even more heartening to see the sunshine.
This made me feel energized for the task ahead.

I got ready relatively quickly and was soon riding out of the apartment courtyard. I could still feel yesterday's pasta inside me so hadn't really felt ready for a big breakfast. Still, I'd loaded myself with gels and energy bars, and the emergency jelly babies (Haribo) so I wouldn't go hungry. I always find these sugary sweets to be a great help if you suddenly get the hunger knock.

The ride up to Sant'Agata sui due Golfi was not as difficult as I'd imagined it would be. There's no doubt that a couple of the switchbacks were quite steep - 15% gradient. However, with my 50-34 compact chain set and 12-27 cassette I could just steadily spin my way up.

It was really pleasant riding up on very quiet roads before everyone was up.
After around 45 minutes I arrive at the race HQ. In contrast to yesterday, where the main road was full of traffic, this time it was awash with cyclists in all brightly coloured kit and nicely polished bicycles. That is certainly a recurring theme in Italian cycling. The Italians are very stylish on the bike. Every detail has been attended to. Not a single mark or blemish on the bike. Everything is glistening new. Legs and arms are well moisturized, hands manicured, hair laquered, and that's just the men ! The women wear make-up and nail varnish ! My mascara wouldn't last 2 minutes if I put that on while cycling.

After the obligatory trip to the loo and passing over the timing mat, we were all set to start. There was no particular fan fare as such - just a bloke on the tannoy shouting to us that we would be starting shortly. But given that he'd been saying that for the last 15 minutes no one paid much attention. Some were still sitting in the cafe ! Other people were actually registering. And this, after the organiser had said no entry on the day. People are just so laid back in round here !

Finally, without any warning we were away. The beginning of the ride was quite jittery. The road out of Sant'Agata sui due Golfi descended quite rapidly, and it was very bumpy due to it's poor condition. A couple of people fell down, and almost brought others down with them. I managed to stay out of trouble, but my chances of doing well went went downhill as rapidly as my bike. I suddenly noticed that my handlebars had loosened and the bars had moved down - brought on as a result of the impact of the bumps and pot-holes in the road.
As I stopped to adjust the handlebars everyone went past me - the peloton, the motorbike outriders, the ambulance, the broomwagon - everyone. And given the road was going to be going rapidly downhill for the next five miles I was not likely to see them until the end of the event ! I realised that I was going to be in for a long lonely ride - bloody hell !!

7th Giro Ciclistico della Penisola Sorrentina e Costiera Amalfitana - Part 1

A grand sounding title. It wasn't a "giro" lasting 3 weeks like the Giro d'Italia. This was a one-day race. Well, the course wouldn't take all day to do - it was 117km. It was grand in local terms though, as there were 700 riders and it involved racing around the Amalfi and Sorrento coast.

I didn't really know what to expect. A couple of years ago when I was considering doing this race I emailed the organiser saying to him I thought it would take me about 5 hours to cover the distance, and asked if this would be within the cut-off time for the event. He replied by saying "I hope you can do it in 4hours !!" Reading that as I sign I would be out of my league I decided not to humiliate myself so didn't enter the race.

But this time around, on the Thursday that I got there I phoned the organiser, asking if I could still enter the Giro. He was ok with it. He actually sent a friend of his, Federico over to my apartment on Friday morning to register me for the race. When he arrived he took the time to explain the event to me, and all the procedures etc. Now that's what I call good service. He also said to me that the cut-off time was 6 and a half hours (though the fast guys would take around 4 hours). That made me feel alot happier about my ability to get through the race.
I'd even managed to get chatting to the local bike hire shop owner, an ex road racer. He told me that there wasn't really anything to worry about in the race. It's not the alps. "You don't need anything more than 39 x 18". When I showed him my compact gearing he laughed. "No, you don't need all that - anyway it's all about the legs, not the bike !" I laughed with him, even though I didn't take his word for it.

On Saturday I then went up to the event HQ to sign on for the race, collect my race number/timing chip and goodie bag. The event HQ was only 5 miles away in Sant'Agata sui due Golfi. However the journey was all uphill. I was going to ride there, but a combination of feeling under the weather and the weather being a bit wet, made me decide to take the bus. As the bus stuggled up the road I had a real feeling of dread at the prospect of having to ride up this road tomorrow morning to make the 8am start.

Once at the race HQ I found there was real chaos and disorganisation. The registration took place in a church hall in the village centre. The room was just a big crowd of men apparently "queueing" to get their bits and pieces for the race. Italian blokes signing up to do a bike race. They didn't look like the lean mean stylish types like Ivan Basso or Mario Cipollini. They were just short, mainly middle aged blokes, dressed in a way that didn't show off any sporty physique. The posters in the room were the only sign that that this was the event HQ for the cyclosportive. It could have been a working men's club !

The registration process was painfully slow. There was only one person manning each station, and as this event had alot of teams riding, it meant that alot of people were there to register their whole team - as many as 15 people. This meant the queue made very slow progress. I was there just to register myself, but had to wait my turn patiently.

There I was in a small village in southern Italy where there were no non-Italians around as far as I could see. I felt nervous about what to say. I could only speak touristic Italian, and hardly anyone spoke English. The men must have found it a bit strange that I was in amongst them, also hoping to do the race ! A man pointed out in broken English what I needed to do, so I just "queued" the best I could. People began to get a bit impatient with waiting, and there were a few arguments about queue-jumping. One guy had a go at me, but I stood my ground. Sometimes in these situations it's an advantage to not understand what people are saying !

Finally, after more than an hour I was given my race pack and goodie bag and literally managed to nab the bus back to Sorrento by the skin of my teeth.

I was keen to get home, do a carbo-load and get an early night so that I could make the 5.45am alarm. Here was hoping my muscles would be awake enough to start the climb up that hill at 6.45 !

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Cycling around the Amalfi Coast

Thankfully I left Gragnano quite quickly, and then was on a country road that began the steady climb up to Agerola.
As it was a Friday, people were still at work so the roads were relatively quiet once I was away from the coast. There were just a few villagers around here and there. They generally said "Ciao" to me and looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and awe at the fact that I was about embark on the 12km climb.

As I progressed further and further up, signs of human life became more sparse and the vegetation changed from something almost tropical to something akin to the hills, though not alpine. The citrussy smells from the coast gave way to the smell of pine, as I neared the summit.

This was a long climb but it wasn't of alpine proportions. The gradient was farely manageable. I could have done it faster, but I wanted to take the time to look
behind me and admire the view below. The coast was a long way down, and I was able to get a full appreciation of the profile of the countryside and the sea below. It looked really spectacular - the jagged rocks of the coastline against the smooth cool blue of the sea. It looked beautiful.

Suddenly I was sucked into a cold, dark damp tunnel which seemed to be never-ending. It was actually 1km long and was still going uphill. That was probably the most unpleasant section of the whole ride.
Immediately out of the tunnel the road plunged down-hill, and I was flying through quaint hillside villages as I made the rapid descent towards Agerola.
I managed to stop and take a few pictures of the different villages. They were literally jutting out, clinging onto the edge of the mountains and hanging over the sea.

I also took a photo of a plaque that was dedicated to the memory of Fausto Coppi, one of Italy's most famous professional cyclists.
Pushing onwards, the road just continued a steady descent with lots of switchbacks, some of which were quite tight. I could see a number of inlets ahead of me, underlining the irregularity of the Amalfi coastline.

Finally at the bottom of the hill, just outside Amalfi I turned left to head towards Praiano. I may have been at the bottom of the hill, and on the coast road, but this road was by no means flat. There were constant rises and dips - thankfully nothing too steep. The rises provided good points from where I could take photos - which I took advantage of.

I soon arrived in Positano - this was a very pretty village. Even prettier than is shown in the guide books. However there were 2 snags for me about this place. Firstly, the fact that it was so attractive, made it a massive tourist magnet. Therefore there were loads of cars and buses. And given the small size of Positano, it made the roads just heave with traffic - often gridlocked, as tourist buses, local buses, school buses, delivery vans and cars tried to pass each other on the narrow streets. That was a shame. the second snag for me, was that the main area of town meant that I had to plunge down 150m to go there and have a look - meaning that I would have to ride back up the steep narrow streets to re-join the main road to Sorrento. All good training I suppose.

The road back to Sorrento was pretty staightforward, more ups and downs, with a couple of steep sections at Colli San Pietro and Picco San Angelo. Both were around 10% - not really what I wanted at the end of day's cycling. However the run in to Sorrento was a dream. It was a fast 5 mile descent all the way from Sant'Agata sui due Golfi back to the hotel.

I was pleased with the day I had, and rewarded myself with a good glass of the local wine.

Monday, 23 April 2007

From Flanders to Amalfi

After the plains of Belgium came the peaks and troughs of the Amalfi coast. It would have been nice to go straight from Belgium to Italy, but I broke up these trips by doing a couple of days'work in London.

After a pretty straight forward journey to get there I settled into my apartment which was just off the main square (Piazza Tazzo) in Sorrento.
I was keen to get out and ride around the area. The last time I'd been in Sorrento, some 2 years previously, I ended up leaving early as I'd felt so miserable there during the grey rainy days. It really wasn't cycling weather, and I felt even worse knowing that the weather was sunnier and warmer in London than in Naples !

But the weather had changed in the 2 years since ! So here I was on a sunny terrace on Piazza San Antonino setting my bike up ready to ride around the coast, and recce the cyclosportive that I was there for - Giro della penisola sorrentina e costiera amalfitana.

Riding through Italian built up areas can be challenging, especially in the South, as I found. You need at least 2 pairs of eyes ! Drivers are not aggressive or cyclist unfriendly - they are just careless and absent-minded it seemed. Riding out of Sorrento, and the nearby town of San Agnello was not that easy. But at least I had time to admire the neopolitan architecture. This was to be a recurring theme when passing through other towns - Amalfi, Praiano, Positano.

Two other towns I passed through bucked the trend of being picturesque though. Castellammare di Stabia looked like it had been an in place once upon a time. However, today it seemed to have disused industries and dilapidated houses. The people seemed different as well. The folks in Sorrento, although a little scatty still had a certain style about them. The people in Castellmare seemed even more scatty, bordering on uncouth. People drove beat up cars, and those on motorbikes didn't bother with helmets. There was alot more washing hanging out of windows too, with people shouting, and music blaring out in the streets.

The neighbouring town of Gragnano seemed even less of a picture. That didn't even look like it had had a golden era. It had just been a depressed town from day 1. It was a tip - literally. There was no such thing as a rubbish bin there. People just threw their rubbish in the street. There were piles of household rubbish along the side of the road. And a real stench to it. I rode through pretty quickly for fear of catching the plague ! Maybe there was a dustmen's strike or something, but there was something pretty weird about all that rubbish. Shame, to see the place in such a bad light.

Wanna do the Tour of Flanders ?

1. You don't have to enter the race well in advance. In fact you can enter on the day, though you'll probably pay 25 euros instead of the early bird price of around 15 euros.

2. As this is not a timed cyclosportive it doesn't matter what time you start. Anytime between 7.30am and 10am is ok, though setting off early gives you a clearer run up the bergs.

3. Take clothing with you for all weathers. This year was good as it was fairly sunny, but the weather can turn quite quickly.

4. Most people ride the shorter 140km distance rather than the full 260km, so you can get to "sample" the bergs without it having to be an epic ride, or without you feeling that you were that much of a wimp !

5. The long ride starts in Bruges main square. The organisers lay on an early morning coach to take riders from Ninove to the start in Bruges. If you don't want to use that you can catch the train, though services will be better from Gent in the early morning.

6. Train services between the key towns of Gent, Bruges, Geraadsbergen, Aalst, Oudenaarde, Ninove etc are reasonably good. Belgium Railways take bikes, though they charge 4 euros to carry them.

7. Aside from the whole biking thing there are also the sights.

Bruges is pretty in a quaint, twee sort of way. It's awfully touristic and pretty expensive, though worth the trip so you can get the T-shirt.

Gent is less touristic, more lived in and down-to-earth. It's got 3 picturesque church squares, and a nice canal with Belgian beer gardens along the edge. We particularly liked the Patershol neighbourhood. An arty neighbourhood with character and good quality restaurants that have locals in rather than tourists.

OK - so rendez vous next year !

Thursday, 19 April 2007

My Ronde van Vlaanderen by Him Indoors

Just got back from a weekend in Flanders.
Tried to do the sportive but a cold blew up the day before so I had to pull out.
Surprisingly it was still a good trip.
For what it's worth here are my musings on the race.

What is it about the Tour of Flanders?
Even though the name makes it sound like a stage race, it's only a one day race.
People say it has cobbles but there’re nowhere near as many or as rough as Paris-Roubaix. People say it has the "bergs", 18 of them but in reality most of the climbs in the Surrey Hills are longer and higher.
Sure, it has the famous Muur but even that's a walk in the park compared to the likes of Tanhurst Lane at the back of Leith Hill.

What the Tour of Flanders has though is Belgians, Belgians everywhere, mad about the race, mad about their riders and this alone makes the race stand out from everything else at this time of year.

The day before the main race almost 20,000 of them took the course, most doing the 140km version which covered most of those "bergs".

There was a definite non-competitive spirit as the weather was good and the course is not seriously tough.
Some groups blasted up each hill, then waited and regrouped before spinning over to the next one.
Others trundled along at a steady pace happy to mentally tick that box at the top of each climb.
More than a few were on normal situpandbeg street bikes with a basket on the front and I even spotted two families carrying young children in child seats.

More of a festival than a sportive then.

Race day itself came with all the usual trappings, at least in Belgium. Crowds lining the streets, mobs lining the climbs, but what really brought home what the race meant was the Belgian television coverage after the race.

So picture this, a Belgian gets beaten by a half a wheel in a sprint for the line. Two minutes later the coverage shows a close-up of the same rider sitting on the ground up against a crash barrier trying to bury his head in his hands while half a dozen microphones and cameras were stuck in his face. Cut to the studio where his teammate had barely taken his helmet off but he had already been nabbed for a sit-down interview. Hunched over the desk and speaking through a bad case of helmet hair he was already giving his opinions on the race.

I didn’t understand a word he said but his pain was obvious especially when he was asked to review a replay of the sprint. Wincing continuously, he started shouting “turn, turn” and hitting his head off the desk as his teammate’s cadence slowed 20 yards from the line and the winner came past.

You couldn’t make it up, pure drama.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Happy Heart, Weary Bones

Saturday continued

I had survived the first berg - it didn't seem so bad. Would I be able to do the remaining 16 ? A group of French cyclists passed by.
"Attention tu as trois mille metres de pavé." A 3km long berg ?? How would I cope with that ? In fact it wasn't a berg. It was just a flat cobbled section known as Kerkgate. I almost wished it had been berg. It wouldn't have been anywhere as long. Also as all my bones were jolted along and every bit of loose flesh wobbled at speed, I realised that going uphill was easier on the body than riding along a flat or even downhill section. It was alot less jarring.
On the flat I'd been able to hold my own in the group. However, as soon as I hit the cobbled sections I was suddenly going backwards. My pace slowed as I rode gingerly along the bumpy road, in a hope that there would be less impact on my body. Of course because I was tense my limbs felt the shock that bit more, as I was unable to loosen my grip on the handlebars. Everyone around me seem to fly over the cobbles. Even some riders, who were on nothing more than shopping bikes just glided past me over the cobbles ! I really couldn't get the hang of it.

Once the bike hit smooth tarmac I heaved a sigh of relief. Even the 15% climb up the Wolvenberg seemed a much more appealing proposition - simply because it was on a smooth surface ! There then followed a couple of other short and unchallenging bergs, before we reached the first feed station - at Oudenaarde.

I was impressed by the whole organisation and the methodic way in which everything was done. There were 4 channels, each with their own queue. One person to stamp the control card, one person handing exactly 4 biscuits and some malt loaf, one person handing out half a banana, then a bottle of energy and someone else to say have a nice ride ! It was like being on a conveyor belt. At least this made a change to the usual bun fight you get at feed stations.

Once out of the feed station we then left in large groups to hit the road. On the busy roads we had to ride in pairs along the cycle path, though thankfully the police had sectioned off part of a lane of the main road in order to give us more cycling space.
The pace by now had slowed a little as people wanted to save themselves for the various bergs to come. I was glad of this, as I was beginning to get nervous about the next significant difficulty of the day, the Paterberg. My aim was to ride up as many of the bergs as possible - including the real 20% stinkers. Paterberg would certainly be one of them. I could see the Paterberg from a some distance away - actually it wasn't so much the road, as the snake of riders meandering their way up above me !

Very soon I was on this berg, and I saw straight away why it had an infamous reputation. Two riders had fallen down half way up the hill at the steepest 21% section. Unfortunately for them they were right in the middle of the road and were blocking everyone's way. So not only did they suffer the embarrassment of falling down, but also the wrath of other riders who had to struggle their way around them and put themselves at risk of falling over in the narrow carriageway. I got round them by the way I knew best - shouting "get out of the way"!! Fortunately they scrambled out of my way, and I just managed to crawl my way up. It wasn't pretty but the fact that I'd made it up gave me a confidence boost for the future challenges.

Berg after berg followed. A couple of them such as Leberg and Berendries were just on tarmac. But their gradients more than made up for the lack of cobbles.
Half way through I became fed up of being thrown around, notably on the 2,000m section known as Haaghoek, which even had the cheek to jolt me on the downhill !
I was worried that I might have given myself a head injury - a bit like what you'd get after headbanging all night.
Feeling a little weary, I stopped for a breather after this one. There was certainly no shame in doing so. In fact that was definitely the order of the day. Cyclists would attack the bergs at speed, and then at the top would stop and rest or wait for friends. Sometimes there were so many riders at the top of the bergs that it became difficult for anyone to continue riding straight through without having to negotiate the crowd. This was definitely a social ride for many !

When we reached Geraadsbergen we had to ride up a steep hill through the town, before arriving at the place where Him Indoors and I had arrived yesterday. This time the street was packed with spectators willing us on - and this was before even reaching the Muur !
Once out of the town we arrived at the start of this renowned climb, only to come to a grinding halt. There were too many people on the narrow stretch of road, and it was impossible to ride up the berg due to the sheer volume of "traffic".
By coincidence I bumped into a friend of mine from TriSportNews, who was spectating, so I stopped for a chat for a few minutes. By the time we'd finished talking the road had emptied, and this gave me a chance to make a dash for it up the hill before the next throng of cyclists arrived. I had a free run, so managed to ride up the Muur completely unimpeded. It was great. The crowds gave me a special cheer, especially being one of the few women riding the event. I felt really uplifted and gave it my all. I needed to, just so that my front wheel wouldn't lift up on the 20% section ! Surprisingly I felt quite strong even though I'd already ridden 115 km.

Hoorah - I had conquered all the bergs without having to get off and walk ! All that was left was the short Bosberg, and then a quick spin back to the PTI.
And quick it definitely was. The run in was great - I grabbed a wheel and just held onto it all the way back - speeding along at more than 40kph. We arrived back at Ninove alot sooner than I'd expected. The final strait up to the finish gantry was far from a competitive affair. There was none of this machismo to win the bunch sprint to the finish line. No one could be bothered. There was just a cheer from the group that we had made it round. This was definitely not a competitive event.
And with that in mind, I can't say how long it did take me to do the 140km - and even if I knew it would be academic as we were held up a number of times - whether at the feed stations, at busy junctions, to allow a train or boat to pass, or just due to sheer numbers.

Back at the PTI I met up with some fellow cyclists from London Phoenix Cycling club, and had a few beers while swapping tales of our cycling adventures. Him Indoors later joined us and then we returned to Aalst for a celebratory dinner. My bones were weary, but I was happy !

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Flandrien hors d'oeuvre !!


I woke up bright and fresh, ready to take on the main challenge of the day. However, my heart sank when Him Indoors announced that he wouldn't be riding. He felt too ill and his cold had gotten into his chest. Wise decision, but it was still disappointing, especially given that we had decided to do this back in January, and he had actually done the training for this. So I was going to ride for the both of us, and make sure I claimed all the goodies/memorabilia there for him so as not to lose out too much.

Breakfast was a fairly busy affair. Most of the guests at the hotel were cyclists - and not just amateurs. The newly formed Tinkoff Credit Systems team (featuring Tyler Hamilton) was there. Their riders were up at the crack of dawn just to do their training ride. Speaking to the team manager the previous day, he commented on how crazy it was for so many of us to turn out for the cyclosportive. "How can 15,000 people get to ride through those narrow bergs ?? Incredible !"

I'd originally planned to leave the hotel at 6.30am -ish, but ended up having to wait until after sun-rise as I didn't have any lights for the 12km ride down to Ninove. Once at the PTI, the event HQ, I was met with a lively atmosphere, including music and commentary. There were various exhibition stands selling anything from sportswear to bikes to sports fuel. Everyone had come out on show, it seemed. Lots of riders were actually signing up that morning to do the race. Because the weather forecast was looking good (in contrast to last year) many people had made a last minute decision to do the cyclosportive.
This swelled the number of participants to around 18,000. But nevertheless the organisation still seemed to roll on smoothly.

After alot of faffing around on my part, I finally made a move to the start line just before 9am. I'd been running around trying to get my control card stamped before leaving the event, until I discovered that this wasn't necessary. There is no designated start time. Some start as early as 7am - others as late as 10am. Unlike other events that I do, this is not a timed event. The challenge is to get through all the bergs.

The group I was with sped through the streets of Ninove, passers-by looking on, admiring our courage (or lunacy) at taking on the challenge. Police escorts stopped the traffic as they waved us through junctions and roundabouts. I was the only woman in my group, and was an object of curiosity to the other riders. They were effectively road racing along at around 40kph and I was still mixing it with them ! There were jerseys from various European countries - France, Spain, England, Holland, and of course Belgium.

Very quickly we were out of Ninove and into the Flanders countryside - the road twisted and dipped a few times, then climbed only very gently. Essentially it was a fast flat ride. I made the most of the tow I was getting from the group, as I needed to save my energy for more important matters later.

In fact important matters began earlier than I'd realised ! After 30km, the road narrowed and became very twisty. We then did a sharp right hand turn and suddenly we were on the Molenberg. Not having been able to anticipate this, many people were caught out in the wrong gear, and needed to dismount. Also I realised that being in a group right up to the start of the berg brings the inconvenience of being caught in very close to other riders, which was a bit unnerving as some of them wobbled alot while climbing the cobbles. One guy who had to dismount suddenly fell into me - luckily I managed to stay on my bike. Although Molenberg was not the most difficult berg, I still found it a challenge simply because it was the first cobbled section, and a bit of a shock after having spent the last hour speeding along smooth roads. And if I thought this was hard, there was more to come later.......

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

In the Land of Beer, Merckx and Cobbles !!

Thursday :

So the train pulled in at Brussels, and shortly afterwards we were on a local train to Haaltert, near Aalst. Once we were off the train we just needed a few minutes to remove our bikes from the bags, assemble them and start the short trundle over to the Ibis Hotel, Aalst. We couldn't have asked for a more seamless journey !

Friday :

Him Indoors wasn't feeling too good, and the original plan had been for him to get lots of rest ahead of the big day. However, the weather was so lovely under the bright sunshine, and it seemed a shame to spend all day in the hotel room. So we decided to do a "short" ride to Geraadsbergen, and recce the last 2 bergs - the Bosberg, and the infamous Muur.

Riding through the Flanders plains seemed so effortless. There were special cycle paths for us to ride in, and specific cycle lanes at junctions with traffic lights for cycles - not just a cursory affair with cars parked along it, like you get in London. Furthermore, the terrain was pan flat - which made it hard for me to believe that we really were going to be riding up 2 climbs, never mind 18 ! In fact it was too flat - at moments it was like staring into miles and miles of emptiness. This was the epitome of bland. Surely someone could have stuck just one hill in there to spice the view up a little !

Then we arrived in Geraadsbergen. Famous last words - the road gradually began to elevate, as the cobbles became more and more consistent. There was also a growing buzz in the air as we reached the main square. Lots of bicycle bunting, music, and cyclists hanging around in anticipation of something eventful. Some pro cyclists from the Liquigas Team even rode by, fitting in their last minute preparations.

Once in the main square we didn't need to look hard to find the Muur. Lots of signs showed which way to go, and many cyclists were going that way. I began to feel a sense of nervousness. I remembered the words of a local man we chatted to at the hotel about the Ronde van Vlaanderen. "You won't get up the Muur - or at least not the first time you try it. Maybe the second or third time." I could feel the ground getting steeper and bumpier as I prepared myself for a painful moment. I ground away in my lowest 32 x 27 gearing, as I rounded the corner and the gradient rose to 20%. Passers-by cheered me on as I heaved and panted, determined to give it my best shot. Thankfully the road levelled off, and I was able to take a breather before tackling the final 13% ramp. Being able to see the Chapel, which marked the end, and the encouragement from drinkers at the nearby pub, gave me the strength to go for it. I made it up the Muur on my first attempt. Wow !!

I was so pleased I'd done it. This had emboldened me and given me confidence. I even did it again. This time with a harder gear. Recce-ing the hardest part of the ride certainly made me feel excited about doing the cyclosportive and all the other bergs. I was actually looking forward to the next day !

After hanging back to chat with other cyclists, and taking photos etc we then headed homewards via Bosberg (piece of cake) and Ninove (the start town) where we stopped to carbo-load with a plate of spaghetti. Our "short" bike ride ended up being a long day. We did 60km and alot of meandering around, what with taking phots, riding the Muur a few times, and trying to find a cash machine that actually worked (!!).

When we returned to Aalst we wound things down in preparation for the big day to come. Him Indoors was beginning to feel that bit worse, and realised he might have overdone things. We had an early night.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Flanders here we come !

I now have all my stuff packed and ready for the trip. Clothing, including waterproofs for the famous liquid sunshine - check. Energy powders/gel - check. Basic tools - check. Glad rags for when I get out to celebrate on the Saturday night - check. Oh, and of course the bicycle. I wasn't sure which one to use, but I finally decided on my cyclo cross bike. I've put on 28mm Continental Gatorskins, provided to me care of Him Indoors. I've been told that gel bar tape is not necessary for this ride, as the cobbles are still tame compared to Paris-Roubaix. I've checked that the brakes are in order, the bottle cage doesn't rattle, and most importantly, that the granny ring works. There's no point in wearing racing shoes as it's guaranteed I'll have to walk at some point - at least on the Kapelmuur. So I'm using Shimano SPD's.

I can't say It's going to be a competitive ride for me. I haven't done any specific training for this. Just a few long rides - in fact it'll be the first time I'm riding 85 miles this year ! I've only been doing 60mile rides ! Hope my legs don't protest too much. I will be relying on the road racing training I've done and a winter of cyclo cross racing to get me through !

Anyway I'm sure it'll be a good craic. Mixing with cyclists from far and wide, having a beer. A number of people I know from London are going - some doing the mammoth 260km (160mile) epic. I'll spare them a thought as I wake up at 6am on Saturday morning, knowing that they've already been up more than 2 hours and are just starting their ride !

It is still possible to enter - they are taking entries right up to tomorrow. Check out

Of course there will also be various interesting sights in that part of the world. The bustling activity of Brussels, the quaintness of Ghent, and the beauty of Bruges.

The story continues on the 2.13 from Waterloo.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Summer was sooooo long ago !

A nice well earned break during the Giro delle Dolomiti, the Dolomites near Bolzano. (august 2006)

Countdown to Flanders

In just over 3 days I'll be tackling the first of the major European cyclosportives - the Tour of Flanders. It's not talked about quite as much as L'Etape du Tour, or La Marmotte, but it's definitely up there as far as amateur cycling events go. And with over 15,000 competitors it promises to be a real cycling jamboree ! Or at least that's what I imagine.

It'll be my first visit to this "classic" event, so don't know exactly what to expect. Previous cycling events of this type I've done took place during the height of summer in some really scenic alpine area - in France or Italy. The drab exposed plains of Northern Belgium in April doesn't quite have the same ring ! Also the use of the word "classic" in this sense means riding against a strong, cold, head-wind through driving rain, over steep cobbled roads (bergs) all day long, or until you reach a point of despair !

I may only be doing 140km, but I will still be covering the famous "bergs" - all 18 of them !

Anyway, my biggest task at the moment is getting to my hotel in Aalst. We are not going with any fancy tour companies or taking the car. It'll just be the Eurostar to Brussels, followed by another local train.

I've got my bike bag and panniers - hopefully everything will be compact enough to fit onto the luggage racks of the train, and officials won't be telling me to send the bike as a registered package. I will just need to get to Waterloo early to bag the best luggage spot ahead of the rest of the other Easter weekenders.

So why do this when I could be relaxing in London, or planning a getaway to much sunnier climes ? Well, it's the challenge I suppose. The chance to ride in a famous cycling event, while testing out my fitness. The ambiance is good, with riders from all over Europe (and beyond) taking part. The day after the cyclosportive, on the Sunday you get the chance to watch the pros show us how it's done (or not - as the case may be). And of course the excuse to sample good quality mussels and chips with one of their 57 varieties of quality beers !

On with packing ......