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Wheelers do Flanders ’23

The Tour of Flanders is a regular staple for the Wheelers and this year a big group of 15 headed out to take on the sportive and watch the pro race. Harry reports back from a weekend of beers and bergs.

Having signed up in 2020 and the trip being delayed for obvious reasons for two years (not sure what happened in 2022), we finally got the band back together and headed out on a pilgrimage to the cobbles of Flanders to take in Ronde van Vlaanderen – aka The Tour of Flanders. Exiled member TY Hsia even made a guest appearance, making the trip from the USA to take on the Flanders/Roubaix double.

We met very early in Surbiton on Friday morning and headed out in convoy to Dover for the channel tunnel. We got an early crossing so decided to head to Oudenaarde to collect rider packs to avoid the faff of collecting them in the morning in Bruges, where we would be starting the long route on the sportive. It was raining and the wind was whipping the hoardings at the finish village, increasing the trepidation ahead of the ride tomorrow.

Onwards to Bruges to our hotel for the evening and disaster struck for Will, Chris and Tim who got a flat tyre (may have been user error…). They were helped out by a couple of friendly Belgians to get back on the road again, arriving at the hotel several hours later. We headed out late for dinner (after a few beers at the hotel bar!) but managed to find a burger restaurant that would accommodate us all and there was plenty of carb loading for the day ahead. Some ended up back at the hotel bar, with the more sensible (pro) Wheelers opting for an early night.

Despite the forecast of light rain all day on the many weather apps we were checking, it was feeling pretty heavy as we left the hotel to roll to the start at 7am. We were riding along some slippery cobbles and TY clipped the pavement to hit the deck – fortunately no major harm done. Quick team photo after someone finally volunteered to get their phone out of their pocket (thanks Aidan) and we set off.

The first 90km were wet, cold and pretty miserable. Lots of bike paths and narrow lanes, which meant for slow going sat in the wheels and eating spray from the peloton of riders. After a few hours we were already split up into several groups, I got a puncture and a couple more crashes in the group – TY eventually abandoning with a broken derauilleur.

The first climbs came as a relief after the drudgery of the first part of the ride and a nice a chance to warm up. The iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen was the first major cobbled climb, which isn’t crazy hard but the wet cobbles were catching a few riders out. They are all located around the vicinity of Oudenaarde and come in quick succession over the next 140km.

At one of the feed stations they had a live feed from the Koppenberg and we could see plenty of riders pushing up the climb, with the wet cobbles it was going to be impossible to ride and they were encouraging riders on a diversion to cut out the climb. Being the hard Flandriens we are, we of course wanted to give it a crack. I made it about half way before a walking rider put his bike in my path and I had to unclip, I looked back to see Tim and Noel both hit the deck in quick succession. Bikes and bodies all ok!

I lost the others after the Mariaborrestraat and carried on solo across the final few climbs including the Taaienberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, after which it’s a 15km flat smash back to Oudenaarde. At the finish village Aidan, Dean and a few others had a setup a Wheelers table and well lubricated on Belgian ales. The bag drop of clothes and warm showers were much needed and over the next 30 mins or so everyone rolled back in. As we boarded the coaches back to Bruges we saw Mark rolling across the finish line looking pretty empty. Fortunately he got on the next coach back after us.

That evening we hit the town for food in a few separate groups but reformed at a bar called “The Pub” where we worked through a small chunk of the beer menu, except Whit and TY who hit the pina coladas and strawberry daquiras… when in Flanders.

For actual race day we moved location to Kortrijk and jumped on a train to Oudenaarde to watch the race in the fan zone next to the finish. No rain, but it was very, very cold but that was stopping the locals enjoying the national day of Flanders and there were people rolling around in the square after the race.

Some of us rounded out the weekend with a last minute ride to the Koppenberg on Monday morning to actually give it a proper go, then dashed back to the hotel for check out and the trip back home. 10/10 weekend and big thanks to Adam for all the hotel and logistics planning.

See you again soon Flanders!