When you hear how great the inaugural anything was, it’s usually a few years later and you are there with all the other newbs hearing how much better it was the first time…...
Gravel events are nothing new these days, they are usually a rebranded off road cyclosportive event with a distinct air of unconventionality about them and definitely no velominati type ‘rules’. Anything goes!
When it comes to riding the Flandrian cobbles, the Tour or Flanders is THE flagship cyclo sportive for roadies but there is something piquant about the thought of charging up the Flandrian cobbles, not on skinning, smooth, road tyres, but with decent grip, relative comfort, lower gearing and maybe even wearing a checked shirt!
So when I read GravelUnion’s February Newsletter and saw such an opportunity in the making it didn’t take long to round up a few pals and we had entered the first Flanders Gravel event due to take place in July. The event offered 3 route distances of 80, 120 or 160km and the option to camp in a festival village including food. We had figured we would either kip in the van or wild camp as July would be quite balmy so didn’t bother about the weekend pass and just went for the day entry as it was just short of 50 Euros which seemed really good value. We were even musing about the possibility of riding to and from the event itself and making it a week long rather than a single day adventure.
As July got closer and it became clearer that the Covid rules in Belgium would mean too many compromises on the social aspect of the event, the organisers took the decision to move it to the already identified ‘Plan B’ date in October. Apart from the obvious concern about the possibility of bad weather in Flanders in October, it seemed sensible to ensure we could have the full on festival vibe and share some post ride beers. That did somewhat curtail the idea of it being anything more than a weekend escape as I had already spent a week in Scotland in May riding the Badger Divide, 5 days in Cornwall in September doing the West Kernow Way and countless long weekends hedge dwelling that I was now short of annual leave and all out of passes.
Once I had worked out all the various forms that required completing and COVID tests scheduled, I had booked the Eurotunnel and an AirBnB and turned my thoughts to the very important and lengthy process of trying to decide what tyres to ride J
No matter what route or event you ride you can guarantee that somewhere on social media there is a huge post as to what are the best tyre set up and combinations for the trail and conditions. There is a lot online to say about ‘what to wear’ for riding road bikes in the cobbled monuments but it seems not so much interest in the off road rubberised siblings. I assumed it would be much like riding here on the south downs. If it’s wet, nothing is good on chalk, so I guessed cobbles would be much the same and just went with the WTB Resolutes that I ride most of the time. I only really had the one bike choice but it is pretty much purpose made for this kind of riding and that is my Reilly Gradient. Bags of comfort, enough flex to not rattle my teeth out, GRX groupset with clutch and an 11-42 on the back. I was sorted.
The terrain was quite varied and the 160km route fell into roughly two halves. The first section was mostly farm tracks, edges of fields and along canal paths with all but one of the monument bergs to come in the second loop after a break at base camp for lunch. We made great speed over the first sections and averaging up around 22/23kph for me was uber fast on gravel… the farm tracks were used by agricultural machinery so hard packed and fast. There were a couple of town paths only just wider than your bars which would have the locals shouting “bloody cyclists” at you if you rode them in the UK. Much of the rest was small back roads and cobbles. We were very lucky with the weather (I knew I should have gone with the Gravelkings) it didn’t rain and the cobbles were dry.
Quite a lot of farming activity, HUGE piles of sugar beat and potatoes and the usual accompanying farm muck spreading often meaning you had to hold your breath while you road through an unidentified cloud of pungent gas.
In the first 80km there was only one real climb and that was Chemin du Bois up Kluisberg and of the 2000 or so meters of climbing, two thirds of that was in the second half of the day.
It might not seem like much in terms of overall elevation gained for a ride of that length but bearing in mind the maximum elevation you get to is only 155m above sea level you can already see just how many of the little bleeders you are going to have to haul over. Attritional I think they called it.
Although I loved everything about the organisation of an event at this level I do have to say that they need to up their game on the vegetarian food front. One slice of pumpkin and a handful of goji berries did not hold me off the precipice of hangry for very long at all and the last 10 kms with the Koppenberg coming so close to the finish, I was hanging on my chinstraps. Not even Tony riding ahead of me holding out a stroopwaffel was going to ‘help’!
I was also glad that I was riding with a few of the smaller bikepacking bags on the bike as I had started off in shorts, looking around me at most of the ‘continentals’ in long tights I was glad that the day warmed up considerably and I could shed the long fingered gloves and gilet safely into a pack. It is also very useful for me to have my food all under my nose to remind me to eat it. I know it’s never that far away behind me in a back pocket but I always seem to under fuel when food isn’t sitting right in front of me shouting “eat me” !
We had set off with the intention to ride the 160km route and followed all of that route until we stopped for lunch. Partly due to my very unsatisfying lunch and partly due to the fact that we expected our average speed to take a dip somewhat in the later half of the route we agreed to follow the 120km route signage after just checking that we would still get to ride the monument classic climbs. By the time we rolled back into base camp, belching slightly at having downed the can of 0.5% Kwaermont beer given as ‘hand me ups’ at the top of the final climb, we had completed 150km with just over 1900 meters of elevation. It was quite a battering of the body, as anyone who has ridden cobbles on a road bike will confirm but I didn’t feel as rough as I thought I would. I think a more flexible bike with tubeless set up on 45mm tyres definitely went a long way to protecting my back and shoulders. The last time I was here riding the cobbles was in 2014 when I rode the Tour of Flanders, the road event by the same sponsors. So did I beat my times up the Koppenberg, Paterberg and the Kwaremont? There were certainly less riders out on the course and no walkers so I got a good clear run at them with my lowest gear being 42 as opposed to the 28 on my road bike I certainly felt like I was flying up. When I got home, I dug back through my Strava data to check my times only to discover that in 2014, when I had ridden the Tour of Flanders, I had in fact left my GPS at home and hadn’t recorded any segment times. Probably best I don’t ever find out how much faster I felt vs how much slower I actually was!
Total result of a weekend, escaping the country for the first time in 2 years, ride somewhere new but yet still familiar with a great vibe and super friendly atmosphere, highly recommend for next year if you missed out this time or didn’t fancy the faff of negotiating borders and COVD. Fair play, there’s always next year!
- Check shirt count – low
- Pro and ex pro rider count – high
- Stoke – high
- White flesh appearing through crash ripped lycra - high
- Belgian beers – too many