Flanders 2011 - Deronde Van Vlaanderen

Prolog - Tuesday 29th March
After all the talking and preparation, today was D-day for the Wheelers bound for the cobbles and climbs of Flanders,
 as all roads led to “Kenny’s Koal Kabin” where the trusty Renault van awaited in all her sparkling glory and looking rather smart she was too, with the “Lakeside Wheelers” magnets adorning her flanks. Robbie had her washed and cleaned out in readiness for the all important cargo.....16 spotlessly clean carbon fibre and triple butted aluminium steeds all equally treasured by their respective and nervous owners.
1pm to 6pm was the time allotted for loading the bikes and by tea time all but
four were snugly packed between the protective sheets of cardboard, cut with surgeon-like precision by Robbie, Joe and Shay. There were lads arriving with everything from rucksacks to full blown suitcases that would make you wonder were some of them emigrating??  I texted Robbie late on Tuesday night to see if all the remaining bikes were on board and to make sure we had no last minute defaulters and his reply said it all, “....Loaded up and Mad for Road...and Cobbles”. Belgium here we come!!!

Wednesday 30th March
Robbie, Darragh, Mossie and Mickey (latter 3 in camper van) depart Mullingar at lunch time for Rosslare to catch evening ferry to Cherbourg. Little did they realise, that there was a major storm brewing which would delay their arrival in Geraardsbergen, Belgium by two hours the following day, Thursday, 31st March. However, they all made it to Hotel Grupello safe and sound at midnight and slept soundly.

Friday 1st April
An unusually early rise for half of the remaining group to travel (the other half took the evening flight) as we convened at Dublin airport at 5.30am, bleary eyed and sleepy but eagerly awaiting the departure of flight EI630 to Brussles. Lads were even tucking into Irish breakfasts at this ungodly hour in an effort to boost the Carbohydrate stores for the 140KM event that was the holy grail of this trip.

After a scary April fools story from Robbie, in which he sent myself and Charlie a text saying we had no rooms due to a double booking, we were all settled into Hotel Grupello, Geraardsbergen, by noon and nothing on our minds but the Muur!!! However, first things first....more carbo loading so it was off to the nearest Patisserie for sambos, coffee and cakes. With the formalities out of the way, we all met in full lycra about an hour later for the trip to Ninove to register for Flanders 2011.

“Hard” men as we are, nothing would do us but to cycle via two of the biggest climbs on the route for Flanders and so we headed straight over the Muur with its gradient tipping 19.8% and then on to the Bosberg where it is “only” 11%. As the teenagers (which none of us could claim to be) would say, Oh My God, what a wakeup call? The gradient was one thing but the cobbles were unreal and with 140KM of this facing us the next day, lads were second guessing their judgement. On reaching Ninove the queue to register wasn’t too bad so within the hour we were on the road back to base, but this time we took the easier route along canal pathway which was very pleasant. However, the sensible attitude did not prevail too long as on returning, we decided to once again attack the Muur. It didn’t get any easier, and after a quick photo shoot we decided we deserved a treat......Leffe (gorgeous Belgian beer) and chips!!!
Someone said we would go in for one.... almost fatal!!! One led to three, and then it was back down the 19.8% hillside which, with three Leffe in ya, is as hard as going up. Back at “Grupello” one of the Elder lemons in the party officially declared it a session so a founding member of the club decided to go for ONE more beer....absolutely and utterly fatal!!! Several hours later, the remaining members of the party , Joe “The Don” Duffy and co. arrived to be met by a number of slightly under the weather Wheelers, but sense prevailed, and everybody sat to eat dinner before hitting the sack. 

Saturday 2nd April
Rendevous was arranged for 8am and was almost strictly adhered to as we all gathered at the van to unload the precious cargo. With last minute adjustments made to the bikes, we were soon 18 strong on the canal path to Ninove for the start line. What an amazing sight it was to see 18 Wheelers all kitted out in full club gear (even John Kiernan, a friend of Damien O’Brien, and our guest from Wicklow for the weekend, wore our colours) cycling two by two on this bright sunny morning. On arrival we stopped for a group photo, then it was time to rumble.
Although the start line slightly confused all 18 of us, we were soon on the route and Flanders 2011 was underway. It didn’t take long for the group to become split up due to the thousands and thousands of cyclists taking part in this historic event. With roads open to traffic there were some hairy moments as the exceptionally large peloton struggled to keep one side of the road. The first 30 miles or so took us through several pretty villages and gave us a chance to take in this beautiful area of Belgium, but soon enough the hills arrived, cobbled and steep. As we made our way along the route we were rattled from head to toe, as the only way to cross the flat sections was to push as big a gear as possible, grip the handlebars loosely and hope for the best. The atmosphere in the bunch was fantastic with cyclists from all over Europe and even further afield. With the temperatures hitting 24 degrees and the big hills looming, the Wheelers were about to experience Flanders at her best.  The most famous climb on the route, “Koppenberg”, arrived after 40KM and due to the gradient of this climb the organisers are forced to stall the event and only let the cyclists up in batches of 100 or so.
Koppenberg is barely a car width across and snakes up between two fields in the middle of nowhere, lined on both sides with barriers and people shouting all sorts of encouragement. This creates a large back up and then causes mayhem as bunches of riders are let off and everybody races for the front, because if you are not lucky here you will most certainly have to walk up some of the 22% climb. As far as the Wheelers were concerned only three made it all the way to the top in the saddle, Robbie, Charlie and good old Mick “Mcqueen” Reynolds himself who showed he still has the cuteness to weave a path through a bunch.

After Koppenberg there is a series of several cobbled sections that requires all of your energy just to stay in the saddle. The next big climb is the “Muur-Kapelmuur” in Geraardsbergen where we were based.  The “Muur” is approached via the very steep main street of this lovely town which would test any rider on a Sunday spin but as we learned on our recce the previous day, this is NOT the climb!!! Onwards and upwards the peloton goes to the cobbled section where the climb starts and although not very long the “Muur” winds up like a stairway to heaven made all the more ironic by the church on top.
Past our watering hole of the previous day, and I’m sure many of the riders felt like stopping for a thirst quencher (as several did) and once over the top you are met by a short but extremely steep section of descent. The good news after Muur, is that there is only one more before the run into the finish. The last climb is the “Bosberg” which crawls up through a forest with a nasty 20% steep piece at the top and once over this, the finish back in Ninove is a nice fast 10KM run in.

With 140 very tough KM’S in the legs all Wheelers gathered back at the tented village where cold beer and “Bratwurst”, this time totally deserved and purely for protein replacement purposes, were the order of the day as we swapped stories of our respective journeys and took a well earned rest. However, before we got carried away, and after Mickey Hynes repaired his mysteriously exploding tyre, we realised we still had another 15KM to cycle back to our hotel.
Unusually, after such a hard cycle there was a great atmosphere in the bunch as we spun back along the canal, so we put it down to a combination of adrenaline and alcohol. Needless to say, dinner on Saturday night was devoured and with the “relaxed” attitude that the Belgians take to service, there was lots of time for more banter, slagging and no doubt lies!!!

Sunday 3rd April
Having slept well and not feeling too bad considering the hammering the body took the previous day, I was awoken at the crack of dawn by my two roommates (Robbie and Charlie) surfing the net on Charlie’s I-Phone trying to pick suitable riders from the starting line-up to make a sweep draw for the pro race that was taking place later today. Honestly, it was like Christmas Eve all over again!

Anyway, what a race it turned out to be, the atmosphere in Geraardsbergen was electric and could only be comparable to Landsdowne Road or Croke Park in Irish terms. The sun shone all day and there must have been 40 thousand people in town, all awaiting the arrival of the pro tour on the slopes of the Muur. After a few hours watching the big screen the accompanying carnival came into sight and then the helicopters appeared overhead. The crowd started to scream as the leading two in the breakaway, Fabien Cancellara and Sylvian Chavanel raced by on the cobbled hill with the peloton bearing down on them.
By the time they had reached the church on top the catch
was made and from there to the finish in Ninove it was cat and mouse stuff. As they approached the finish line the main square where we watched was now awash with frenzied Belgians who had streamed down from the top of the “Muur” to catch the finishing minutes. Their passion for this sport despite its well documented failings has to be seen to be believed. In the end they got a home win with Nic Nuyens of Saxo Bank taking the sprint from Chavanel and Cancellara, both of whom gave “man of the match” performances with their respective breaks and chases earlier in the day in what turned out to be one of the best “Flanders” in many years.
For the travelling Wheelers it was time to further replenish our protein and carbohydrate stores so we headed for more “Leffe and Bratwurst” and then some more, until we were all talked out and ready for the bed.

Monday 4th April
It was now time to prepare for the return journey, so after brekkie we gathered at the van and commenced the job of reloading the bikes. Between Marmotte and this trip we now have this task down to a fine art so it didn’t take too long. Time for one more coffee and pastry and you would think this trip couldn’t get better?? As we sat on the pavement eating gooey stuff and drinking latte, the bould Charlie spots a cyclist.... not unusual in the home of cycling you may say, but this was no ordinary cyclist. Upon interrogation from the Donegal man (who should have known better) this was none other than Radioshack’s Robbie McEwan out for a post Flanders leg loosener and who very kindly agreed to stand with the crew at the “Lakeside Wheelers” adorned van for photos. What a finish to a great weekend, and then just as McEwan rode off into the street, our taxi arrived to bring us back to Brussels airport... and reality.
What a weekend!!!!!!
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate and compliment each member of the travelling party on the exemplary way in which they represented themselves, their club and their country, at the Tour of Flanders, 2011.
The full Lakeside Wheelers team at the 2011 “Tour of Flanders” was:
Robbie Kenny, Charlie Sheridan, Shay O’Toole, Mark Monoghan, John Nugent, Dermot Hogan, Brian Collentine, Kevin Marshall, Mick Reynolds, Joe Duffy, Noel Kennedy, JP Kilmurray, Damien O’Brien, Karl Pentony, Darrgah Caffery, Mossie Keane Mickey Hynes and John Kiernan (Wicklow).