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Picture of the flag of Flanders

My Tour of Flanders, April 2002
The first weekend of April is the Tour of Flanders weekend and we travelled from the UK to Belgium on Friday 5th to spend 3 nights in the city of Gent.

Saturday: A Close-Up View of the Course.
Most of Saturday was spent getting a first-hand look over the hilliest part of the race route during a 100km ride from Oudenaarde to the race finish at Ninove taking in most of the climbs of the race. We were sharing the roads with around 15000 other riders taking part in the "Ronde Van Vlaanderen voor Wielertoeristen en Mountainbikers", an annual randonee which is part of the UCI's Golden Bike series, a year-round touring program designed to promote cycling as a sport.

I was a little apprehensive at first as I'd never ridden on cobbles before. Exactly how rough are the cobbled roads? Would my bike stay in one piece? Would I still be in one piece by the end of the day?! I was about to find out that using a cut-off bidon to hold your spare tube, tools, tyre levers, etc may be OK for normal asphalt roads but on cobbles, things are a little different. It could have been worse I guess - only lost 1 tyre lever and my little allen key/screwdriver multi-tool.

The first 20 km of the ride out of Oudenaarde passed very easily on a smooth, flat road with a tailwind. At the town of Kluisbergen we turned back to the east and into the breeze. Just on the edge of town we hit our first climb of the day (the 3rd climb for the race tomorrow). The Kluisberg is a fairly steep but short asphalt climb with a nice smooth, wide surface. Down the other side and on toward our second climb, the Knokteberg and we were definitely riding into a headwind now. The Knokteberg was quite different to the Kluisberg. Still an asphalt surface and just as steep but very narrow especially near the top. The biggest problem is getting passed riders who were struggling (and there were plenty of them!) and even walking up the hill. The occasional car on the road didn't help matters much either although with so many cyclists on the road, I wouldn't have wanted to be driving a car anywhere that day. It would probably be almost as quick to walk! Or at least to ride a bike slowly.

A long, fast, straight downhill run bought us back to the bottom of the Oude-Kwaremont, my first taste of the cobbles today. While not a steep climb by any means, the Oude-Kwaremont is the longest climb of the race and the 2.2 km of cobbles are very rough - more rough than most other sections of cobbles. Many parts of the climb offer the opportunity to ride on the edge of the road on the relative smoothness of the dirt and the road (mostly) isn't too narrow.

I couldn't say that about our next climb though - the Paterberg! A very steep 20% plus, cobbled climb and very narrow. Many struggling riders to negotiate here as well as a car trying to get up the hill! The driver of the car making very slow progress - not able to overtake the cyclists on such a narrow road. I somehow managed to negotiate my way through all that without getting off (only just). And on a climb like the Paterberg, getting off means walking to the top. There's no way you'd get your feet back into the pedals to continue riding up the hill if you had to stop on this climb - it's just too steep and rough to get going again.

The next climb of the Koppenberg was much the same. A narrow, steep, cobbled climb. The Koppenberg has been reintroduced into the race this year after being absent since Jesper Skibby's bike was run over by an official car in the 1987 race (see the 2002 Race Description). One of the most difficult aspects of the Koppenberg is the slippery, 90 degree corner at the bottom which ensures that you don't carry any speed at all into the climb. The newly-resurfaced road had a lot of sand on it, especially near the edges of the road.

After that, the climbs came quite quickly one after the other. Some asphalt, some cobbled, some steep (most steep!), others not quite so steep. By now though, even the steeper asphalt climbs seem relatively easy compared to the cobbled climbs. See a list of all climbs here.

An easy downhill run brings us into the pretty town of Geraardsbergen. Quite a busy town with people out shopping and plenty of motorised traffic to get through. There are policemen at every intersection though and our passage through the town is made very easy as the police seem to give us right of way at every junction. I didn't realise at first but the uphill run on the other side of the main shopping area is the beginning of the famous Muur-Kapelmuur. The Muur is a climb of 3 sections, the first being a relatively easy, short asphalt section. The road then curves left and the cobbles begin with another short (a few hundred metres) straight section not too steep (or maybe I was just getting used to it by now!). A couple of right-hand bends later and the "real" Muur begins. The cobbles get much rougher here and there are numerous potholes especially at the tight, hairpin bends. It's not a climb where you can settle into any sort of rhythm either. The profile goes from moderate to near-vertical (well, 20% anyway!) and back again most of the way. I had quite a good run up the Muur with not too many struggling riders to negotiate my way around. On reaching the top of the Muur I had around 0.5 seconds to admire the view and I was on my way back down! Honestly, you get to the top, the last few metres being some of the steepest, then a few short metres later you're on your way back down a similar gradient!

A messy traffic jam part way down the descent was caused by a group of attractive young girls giving out cold cans of Red Bull. A welcome refreshment break and chance to regroup with others from our tour. After downing the Red Bull we set off toward the final climb of the day - the Bosberg. This is another cobbled climb with fairly new-looking cobbles, not yet smoothed by traffic and the weather. Also, being the final climb of the race and the top of it only 10 km from the finish, it's where many successful attacks are made. Belgian, Edwig Van Hooydonck, launched his final attack on the Bosberg on his way to both of his Tour of Flanders wins in 1989 and 1991, earning himself the nickname "Eddie Bosberg" in the process. After the previous climbs, the Bosberg didn't feel too difficult and I even felt a little disappointed that we'd come to the final climb of the day.

A short 10 km run into Ninove bought us to the race finish line, the road lined on either side of the finishing straight with empty grandstands that would no doubt be full tomorrow.

Highlights of the ride included the famous cobbled climbs of the Oude-Kwaremont (2.2km with maximum gradient of 11%), the Paterberg (350 metres with maximum gradient of 20%), the Kapelmuur (825 metres with maximum gradient of 20%), and the newly resurfaced Koppenberg (550 metres with maximum gradient of 22%).

We couldn't have asked for better weather. We didn't see a cloud all day and although a little chilly, the temperature wasn't unpleasant and the easterly breeze was not strong enough to do any real damage, especially with so many other riders to shelter behind.

Sunday: Race Day: See How the Professionals Do It.
On Sunday we made the short journey to the beautiful medieval city of Brugge in West Flanders for the start of the 86th edition of de Ronde Van Vlaanderen. The weather could not have been better; not a cloud to be seen anywhere. The temperature was still quite cool and an easterly breeze promised to give the riders something to contend with especially on the flat exposed sections of the first half of the race.

The town square in the centre of Brugge was jam-packed with spectators there to view the riders signing on prior to the race. We found a nice less crowded spot from where we were able to get a close-up view of many of the riders making their way from the riders compound to the sign-on area and return (see the photos page for pictures of some of the riders prior to the race). After watching the riders start out of town toward the race proper, we started off toward the first viewing point of the race near Johan Museeuw's home town of Gistel at km 37. The main breakaway of the race was already forming with Ronny Scholz of the Gerolsteiner team and Alexis Rodriguez from Kelme off the front and Jan Kuyckx (Vlaanderen) and Erwin Thijs (Palmans) chasing to get across to them.

Our second sighting was near the town of Hertsberg at km 66 where the four breakaway riders were now in a group and working well together. They'd extended their lead to around 15 minutes by this time and 3 other riders were trying to bridge the gap from the peleton who were still trundling along at a very leisurely pace.

The third sighting of the race came at around km 120 near Wannegem and a short section of cobbles. Despite the 4 leaders extending their lead to almost 20 minutes, the peleton was still in no hurry to close the gap on them and were rolling along at an easy pace.

Our next view of the race came at the top of the 4th climb of the day - the asphalt hill of the Knokteberg at km 188. The 4 leaders had now blown apart and Erwin Thijs of Palmans had left the others behind and decided to try to go it alone for the remaining 75 km. The bunch were clearly in chase mode now with the US Postal team lead by a grimacing Matt White charging over the top of the climb and on toward Oudenaarde.

A quick run down the narrow track trying not to bump into too many of the other spectators also running and we made it to the top of the Oude-Kwaremont, the 5th climb of the race at km 195. We weren't quite quick enough to see race leader Erwin Thijs but saw his former breakaway companions still not far behind him. The bunch had become quite strung-out by now and were making noticeable gains on the breakaway riders. The pace had definitely picked up and judging by the pained expressions on the faces of some of the riders, they were starting to go quite hard now. Finally, the race had begun...

Quickly back to the bus and we were off to one of the most famous climbs of the race; the Muur-Kapelmuur (also known by several other names). The Muur comes after 249 km of racing (14 km remaining) and as expected, the race was split into several small groups as well as the main peleton which was still surprisingly populous. Perhaps the dry, sunny weather contributed to that. A wet race would no doubt split the race up much more.

Belgian Peter Van Petegem (Lotto) lead the first group of 5 riders up the Muur. The other riders being George Hincapie (US Postal), Johan Museeuw (Domo), Daniele Nardello (Mapei), and Andrea Tafi (Mapei). Around 30 seconds later a group of 3 chasers lead by Danish rider, Rolf Sorensen are in pursuit of the 5 leaders. With Sorensen are Enrico Cassani (Domo), Gabriele Missaglia (Lampre). The main peleton follow some way back with no real chance of catching the 8 riders up the road. Super Mario (il Re del Leone) Cipollini is a few seconds behind the main peleton during the steepest section of the Muur but looks comfortable enough.

After the last riders battled their way through the crowds of onlookers, we made the short walk part-way down the hill back into Geraardsbergen to watch the remainder of the race on the big screen. The lead riders were at the last climb of the day now, the Bosberg, with only around 10 km left to the finish. The five riders were still in the clear and looked to have no chance of being caught now. After several attempts by Andrea Tafi to break clear of the other four riders, he eventually got the gap he wanted with around 3 km to go and managed to hold on to win by 21 seconds from Johan Museeuw, Peter Van Petegem, George Hincapie, and Italian National Champion Daniele Nardello. The 3 chasers, Sorensen, Cassani, and Missaglia crossed the line 1 minute 12 behind Tafi. And at 2 minutes 27 behind Tafi, the peleton, led by Mario Cipolini thundered across the finish line. Despite being 35 years old now, he can still beat the best without too much trouble.

Race Results:

  1. Andrea Tafi (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step 6.53.00 (38.354 km/h)
  2. Johan Museeuw (Bel) Domo-Farm Frites
  3. Peter Van Petegem (Bel) Lotto-Adecco
  4. George Hincapie (USA) US Postal Service
  5. Daniele Nardello (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step
  6. Rolf Sörensen (Den) Landbouwkrediet-Colnago
  7. Enrico Cassani (Ita) Domo-Farm Frites
  8. Gabriele Missaglia (Ita) Lampre-Daikin
  9. Mario Cipollini (Ita) Acqua e Sapone
  10. Erik Zabel (Ger) Team Telekom
  11. Jo Planckaert (Bel) Cofidis
  12. Robert Hunter (RSA) Mapei-Quick Step
  13. Lars Michaelsen (Den) Team Coast
  14. Andrej Hauptman (Slo) Tacconi Sport-Emmegi
  15. Stefano Zanini (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step
  16. Paolo Bettini (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step

The next day most of us travelled back the UK, although many of our group stayed for the week to see Ghent-Wevelgem on Wednesday and Paris-Roubaix this coming Sunday. I'd loved to have joined them too. Maybe next year...

Many thanks go to our tour organisers Graham and Jonathan of Graham Baxter Sporting Tours, and to our coach driver Eddie. Their expert knowledge of the area and of the race route meant that we were able to see an exciting race at several locations along the route. Also, the opportunity to bring our bikes and ride part of the race route the day before made all the difference and topped off a really enjoyable weekend in Flanders.

See Also:
History of The Tour of Flanders
The Tour of Flanders 2002 Race Description
The Tour of Flanders 2002 Race Photos
Photos from Flanders