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 !