After all of the trials and tribulations of getting to the start line, the RVV Cyclo threw up some more last minute challenges before being conquered.
After arriving on Friday, the Wife and I headed to Oudenaarde to sign on. The temperature gauge on the car showed no signs of getting into double figures and then the rain started...
Bizarrely you get given your medal when you sign on, but for superstitious reasons I gave it to my wife and wouldn’t touch it until I had earned it.
We headed off the Bruges in high spirits and enjoyed an evening in the town square with a couple of relaxing drinks. Other participants in the event assured us the weather would be fine come Saturday.
They couldn’t have been more incorrect.
The rain was unrelenting as was the fog and extreme cold. I had packed limited contingency clothes based on the 10 degree forecast and ended up wearing everything I had taken along!
My good friend (also confusingly called James) and I rode the couple of miles from our position in the Johan Museeuw car park to the ceremonial start at the Qubus Centre. The rain was falling heavily now and we rumbled under the air bridge and towards the start proper with a good degree of trepidation.
The first few miles were along a cycle way before crossing a bridge and traversing the timing mat. We were in a group of about 400 at this time and were huddling together for warmth. We rolled out of town into the country side and all seemed serene and calm... for about 5 miles.
Nothing can prepare you for hitting your first set of Belgian pave. Nothing. Since the weekend people have been asking me how it felt and the only analogy I can give to cover it is this.
“It’s like riding a jackhammer up the steepest flight of stairs you can find whilst someone throws freezing cold water in your face.”
I had pins and needles in my fingers before the end of the first sector and made a mental note to grip the bars less tightly as we moved forward.
We had a chat (James and I ) about an hour and a half in and were amazed to have barely covered 20 miles. It was soul destroying.
The weather wasn’t improving and we were passing groups of riders huddled for warmth in bus shelters and had seen a couple of accidents.
After the feed we headed to the first of the big three. All was going so well on the Koppenberg until two people locked handlebars in front of us and fell. We had nowhere to go and whilst they stood arguing in the road we were on foot and getting round them.
The cobbles were rock hard, super steep and covered in thick sticky mud which I can still taste in my mouth.
It was nigh on impossible to remount so we took a cleat destroying run up the last part before leaping back on and flying down the other side.
We were going ok though. Not as fast as we had wanted, but we were passing swathes of riders and as we ticked off Molenberg, Berendries and so on we started to settle in.
My arms were tiring badly and my ribs starting to get sore from the pounding, but on we went past plenty of abandons and lots of riders who had long since given up on a quick time.
After a couple of stupidly steep road climbs we went through the last feed. My Wife was at her final vantage point on the course before driving back to the finish and we started to get over some mid ride doubts about finishing.
But then we hit the Oude Kwaremont. For the first time we were properly separated. And then someone in the gap fell and I was off again. “I am not giving up on this climb” was the thought I had and once the gradient eased slightly I jumped on and wheel span to get some grip and get going again.
The crowds were three or four deep, it was incredible. The noise, the atmosphere, the encouragement. The pain and gradient melted away and the pounding of the cobbles actually became tolerable.
I had one more scare before the top when a guy from the right side of the road just physically gave up and shot across me to the left before disappearing off the side of the road.
I got back to the main road and James and I got back together.
“One to go”, we said to each other.
The Paterberg was the hardest climb though, and we freewheeled down to it to try and preserve the small amount of strength we had left.
I wanted a strong finish. But in a bizarre mirror of the pro race the following day I got knocked off the road by an officials car.
To be fair there were hundreds of riders going up the single track but his attempts to overtake weren’t the best. He stalled and rolled back to the group we were in. James baled left and got round before falling. I managed to bail out and started to run.
It was frustrating and I was really angry. I was doing this event to inspire my Mum for her battle with Chemotherapy. What sort of an example was I setting her by walking? But my chimp got put away and the enormity of what had been achieved against the odds of her illness, the weather and terrain helped me overcome that.
James and I spent the last few km’s back into Oudenaarde discussing what we had done. It hadn’t sunk in then and is only just sinking in now.
We rode through the finish and I don’t mind admitting I was in floods of tears.
It was an incredible day and being in Bruges for the start the following morning and understanding what the riders were about to go through was a great way to enhance the experience.
There were times during the event on the slippy, wet cobbles that I didn’t think I would finish. We also said it was the sort of day we would only appreciate when it was over.
Having said all of that I can thoroughly recommend it. Easily the best sportive I have ridden.
Back to the medal I wouldn’t touch until I had earned it... I have barely taken it off since I got it !