It's hard not to be impressed by what the pro riders did in this past weekend's Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), racing hard for nearly six-and-a-half hours over relentlessly abusive cobbles and 15 stiff climbs, most of which are also covered in pavé.
Add in plenty of wind, wet roads and cold air, and it's time to crack out your "inner Belgie", as a friend recently said to me. It's hard to understand what it's like to ride in those conditions, but conveniently, the Tourist Ronde van Vlaanderen is run on the same course one day earlier and is open to the public.
Held annually, the event draws upwards of 10,000 participants, some of whom do the full 262km route while others opt for lesser distances. But all of them include some proper pavé to satisfy your curiosity plus as many of the classic climbs as you wish to throttle yourself on.
Cyclingnews colleague Richard Tyler and I wimped out and chose the 75km (47-mile) route this year but when taken in combination with the 150km (93-mile) version I did in 2009 (which skipped the flat opener but included all of the specified climbs such as the legendary Koppenberg and Muur-Kapelmuur), it was more than enough to gain an appreciation for what these guys have to go through.
On both occasions it was cold (4.5-7°C/40-45°F), annoyingly windy and wet, with precipitation that vacillated between spitting mist and intermittent showers. I found out my "inner Belgie" isn't all that tough, and I was shivering for the first few miles. Those aren't exactly ideal conditions for a pleasant ride and especially not for suffering your brains out all day.
Then there's all the road furniture. Everywhere you look there are manhole covers, changes in road width and texture, various obstacles in your way. Winning here requires not only strength, endurance and smarts, but proper handling skills and quick reflexes too, plus a healthy dose of good old fashioned tenacity and perhaps a little luck, too.
And ah, the cobbles. We've all seen the classic close-up images of the pavé but let me explain them to you this way: You know those beautiful looking mini-loaves of fluffy fresh bread with the nice golden, rounded crust on top? Okay, now imagine those loaves are made of stone, then polish them up with foot and vehicle traffic for a few hundred years, then make a 'road' out of them. Oh, and make sure there's a substantial crown so that water can drain off to the side and then cover it all in water, automobile oil and a bit of slick mud for good measure. Now go ride it.
The best way to tackle the flatter cobbled sections is also the most counter-intuitive: hit them as hard as you can. As your speed goes up, so does your tyres' tendency to skip across the top of each cobble instead of falling into each little dip. Correspondingly the amplitude of the vibration goes down as well. The frequency increases, however, and by the end of each section your hands are almost invariably numb.
If you've done a good job of staying loose on your bike and letting it run underneath you, you've at least made it out the other side intact so that the blood can eventually return to your fingers. If not, well, let's just say there's a reason why those cobbled road have lasted so long – they're not soft.
Cobbled climbs are another story altogether. Unless your nickname is 'Spartacus' (and not because of that little toga party incident in college), those steep ascents will take the wind out of anyone's sails. Still, it's good to come into each pitch with a head of steam but you've essentially got nothing but your legs to help you from that point. Maintain traction over the rear wheel, be careful about how you apply the power, and do your best to pick a reasonable line. Oh, and pray that the cobbles aren't muddy because if they are, good luck to you. Ditto if there's a lot of stalled traffic in front of you.
I'd like to take a minute here to recap the Koppenberg and Muur-Kapelmuur. Like Paris-Roubaix's Arenberg forest, Koppenberg has earned its place in cycling folklore because of its sheer brutality. It starts out steep and ends up steeper (max pitch is 22 percent!) and its cobbles are irregular with big gaps here and there. Tricky to say the least. The longer Muur-Kapelmuur is different. The first half is covered with asphalt or smooth pavers but still fairly steep before making a sharp turn on to the cobbled section, and if you're not expecting it (as I wasn't last year), it's painful.
Again roughly cobbled, the Kapelmuur also tosses in a few tight bends that mask the true length of the climb for the unfamiliar. You're not done until you pass that little chapel we've all seen in pictures and even if you're not religious, any cyclist is likely going to find sight of it to be a spiritual experience. It's your sign that you're almost back home and even a day before the proper Ronde van Vlaanderen, there's a crowd of people up there – albeit much, much smaller – waiting to cheer you on. Harden up and the glory is yours.
It's true that none of the climbs is that long, but consider that the total ascent for the 150km route was nearly 1,700m (5,500ft) and that each climb was barely 100m (350ft) of that and you get a good idea of the terrain – you're rarely on flat ground for long.
The reward for the winner of Ronde van Vlaanderen is a lifetime of fame and prestige plus a healthy sized heap of money, not to mention the sheer joy of conquering one of the toughest one-day races in the sport. The rewards for the Tourist Ronde are much more humble but no less satisfying – beer and frites from any number of concession stands set up on site.
For a few extra Euros you can even purchase a cheesy little medal (even if you take a shortcut – Ben!). Aside from that that it's just pleasant memories of a very hard – but very fun – ride and a quick dismissal of how much you were suffering all day. Pencil it in for next year. Trust me: you won't regret it.
Special thanks to Ridley and Lazer for the loaner bikes and companionship. Richard says he will pay for the damages.