Defined by its steep cobbled climbs, the 2023 Tour of Flanders as usual will be largely played out in a small part of Belgium known as the Vlaamse Ardennen, or Flemish Ardennes, and over the years has developed a reputation as a favourite for both spectators and riders alike, such is the atmosphere that accompanies the race as it winds its way through the lanes of Flanders.
A major course change now sees the route centred around the town of Oudenaarde, which, after Peter Sagan was crowned victor there in 2016, has hosted the finish each year since. This year marks the return of Bruges as the men’s race start town, with the race having started from Antwerp since 2016.
A bigger change in 2017 was the reintroduction of the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen, although its distance from the finish meant it wasn’t the decisive berg and was promptly removed again and the climb is saved for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The women’s peloton scale the cobbled bergs of Flanders on the same day, although on a shorter course – 158km versus the men’s 273.4km – from and back to Oudenaarde. Like the men’s race, it’s still the one-two punch of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg that will shape the finale of the race.
Tour of Flanders 2023: Key information
Date: Sunday 3rd April 2022Start: Men’s – Bruges, Belgium / Women’s – Oudenaarde, Belgium Finish: Oudenaarde, Belgium UK live TV coverage: Eurosport, GCN+, Discovery+Distance: Men’s – 272.5km / Women’s – 158km
Men’s Tour of Flanders 2023 route
The Tour of Flanders has changed the route numerous times over the course of its 100+ editions. This year’s parcours is very slightly longer than 2022 at a whopping 273.4km.
From its start in Bruges the race heads towards the town of Oudenaarde, with neither cobbles nor climbs kicking in until after more than 100km of racing.
The first cobbled sector is Huisepontweg at 109km and the first climb comes just over 5km later at Korte Ast. Oude Kwaremont is the first big name another 20km down the road at 136.8km into the race, and it is there that the action really begins.
With its 103m ascent gain, averaging 4.8% gradient and topping out at 10%, the Kwaremont will be tackled three times taking in both sides of the climb with the final with just under 20km to go.
A total of 19 cobbled hellingen (climbs) including the famous Wolvenberg, Valkenberg, Koppenberg, Taaienberg and Kruisberg soften the legs and split the race to pieces before we head into the finale.
Shorter than Oude Kwaremont but viciously steep with gradients of up to 20%, the Paterberg is tackled first at 51km and is the race’s final climb at 13km to go, with a flat run-in to that iconic finishing straight after its cresting.
Women’s Tour of Flanders 2023 route
The women’s route is similar to the men’s, albeit over 100km shorter and both starting and finishing in Oudenaarde, with the same Kwaremont/Paterberg one-two punch headlining the action.
The women’s peloton will tackle 13 bergs and it’s all-go from the start given they head right into the thick of the Flemish Ardennes, starting with the Tiegemberg at just 10km in and taking in the classics including Wolvenberg, Valkenberg. Koppenberg, Taaienberg and Kruisberg before the Kwarement/Paterberg finale and flat run-in from there.
Tour of Flanders 2023 TV and streaming guide
As per every WorldTour race, the Tour of Flanders will be broadcast live on Eurosport and available to stream live on GCN+ and Discovery+ (all with the same coverage, times below).
Streaming coverage via GCN+ will be available in territories across the world but not Australia, Canada, New Zealand or the US, check territory restrictions to avoid disappointment.
TV schedule below in UK time and subject to change by the broadcasters.
GCN+, Discovery+: 08:55-16:25Eurosport 1: 09:30-1600
GCN+, Discovery+: 15:30-17:30 Eurosport 1, 16:00-17:30
Tour of Flanders 2023 men’s teams
Benoît CosnefroyStan DewulfLawrence NaesenOliver NaesenMichael SchärDamien TouzéGreg Van Avermaet
Silvan DillierSam GazeMichael GoglSøren Kragh AndersenSenne LeysenOscar RiesebeekMathieu van der Poel
Jenthe BiermansDavid DekkerHugo HofstetterMatis LouvelDan McLayAndrii PonomarClément Russo
Leonardo BassoCees BolYevgeniy FederovDmitriy GruzdevAlexey LutsenkoGianni MosconGleb Syritsa
Nikias ArndtKamil GradekJonathan MilanMatej MohoričAndrea PasqualonJasha SütterlinFred Wright
Louis BlouwerCériel DesalRemy MertzDimitri PeyskensLudovic RobeetNathan VandepitteGuillaume Van Keirsbulck
Patrik GamperMarco HallerBob JungelsNils PolittMax SchachmannDanny van PoppelJonas Koch
Piet AllegaertWesley KrederChristophe NoppePierre-Luc PérichonAlexis RenardJelle WallaysMax Walscheid
Alberto BettiolStefan BisseggerOwain DoullMikkel HonoréKens KeukeleireNeilson PowlessJonas Rutsch
Vito BraetAlex ColmanSander De PestelLindsay De VylderGilles De WildeAaron Van PouckeWard Vanhoof
Lewis AskeyKevin GenietsStefan KüngOlivier Le GacFabian LienhardValentin MadouasSam Watson
Kim HeidukMichał KwiatkowskiJonnatan NarvaezTom PidcockLuke RoweMagnus SheffieldBen Swift
Sven Erik BystrømAimé De GendtBiniam GirmayAdrien PetitBaptiste PlanckaertMike TeunissenTaco van der Hoorn
Guillaume BoivinJakob FuglsangHugo HouleKrists NeilandsTom Van AsbroeckSep VanmarckeDylan Teuns
Luke DurbridgeMichael MatthewsLuka MezgecKelland O’BrienLukas PöstlbergerElmar ReindersZdenek Štybar
Edoardo AffiniTiesj BenootChristophe LaporteWout van AertDylan van BaarleTosh Van der SandeNathan Van Hooydonck
Jasper De BuystFrederik FrisonSébastien GrignardBrent Van MoerFlorian VermeerschCédric Beullens
Imanol ErvitiIván García CortinaJohan JacobsMatteo JorgensonOier LazkanoIvan RomeoMathias Norsgaard
Q36.5 Pro Cycling
Jack BauerTom DevriendtAlessandro FedeliTobias LudvigssonKamil MaleckiAntonio PuppioNickolas Zukowsky
Julian AlaphilippeKasper AsgreenDavide BalleriniTim DeclercqDries DevenynsYves LampaertFlorian Sénéchal
Patrick BevinJohn DegenkolbAlex EdmondsonNils EekhoffLeon HeinschkeTim NabermanKevin Vermaerke
Edvald Boasson-HagenMaciej BodnarDaniel OssPaul OurselinPeter SaganAnthony TurgisDries Van Gestel
Markus HoelgaardDaan HooleAlex KirschMads PedersenJasper StuyvenEdward TheunsOtto Vergaerde
UAE Team Emirates
Sjoerd BaxMikkel BjergMarc HirschiRui OliveiraTadej PogačarMatteo TrentinTim Wellens
Uno X Pro Cycling
William Blume LevyMartin Urianstad BuggeKristoffer HalvorsenAlexander KristoffErik ResellAnders SkaarsethRasmus Tiller
Tour of Flanders 2023 women’s teams
Maaike BoogaardJulia BorgströmJustine GhekiereLotta HenttalaRomy KasperAshleigh Moolman-Pasio
Shari BossuytElise ChabbeyChloé DygertKasia NiewiadomaSoraya PaladinSarah Roy
Alice Maria ArzuffiLaura AsencioArianna FidanzaMarta LachKathrin SchweinbergerLea Teutenberg
Martina AlziniVictoire BerteauAlana CastriqueValentine FortinGabrielle Pilote-FortinJosie Talbot
Nathalie BexDanique BraamMalin EriksenAntonia GröndahlAndrea MartinezKelly Van den Steen
Zoe BackstedtLetizia BorghesiClara HonsingerAlison JacksonAbi SmithLauren Stephens
Loes AdegeestGrace BrownClara CopponiVittoria GuazziniCecilie Uttrup LudwigGladys Verhulst
Sanne CantJulie De WildeYara KastelijnGreta MarturanoCarina SchrempfChristina Schweinberger
Human Powered Health
Alice BarnesHenrietta ChristieMarit RaaijmakersMarjolein van ‘t GeloofJesse VandenbulckeLily Williams
Caroline BaurHannah BuchFien DelbaereTamara DronovaThi That NguyenElena Pirrone
Georgie HoweKristen FaulknerNina KesslerAlexandra ManlyLetizia PaternosterRuby Roseman-Gannon
Teuntje BeekhuisAnna HendersonCoryn LabeckiKarlijn SwinkelsEva van AgtMarianne Vos
Ella HarrisMaria NovolodskayaTyphaine LauranceApril TaceyMargaux VigieBabette van der Wolf
Valerie DemeyMarta JaskulskaKatia RagusaQuinty TonTereza NeumanovaSilke Smulders
Wilma AintilaKristyna BurlovaKatrijn De ClercqKieke DocxQuinty van de GuchteSterre Vervloet
Aude BiannicSheyla GutierrezLiane LippertFloortje MackaijArlenis SierraAnnemiek van Vleuten
Femke GerritseLieke NooijenQuinty ShoensSofie van RooijenMarith VanhoveMargot Vanpachtenbeke
Trine HolmsgaardJudith KrahlFebe SchokkaertMelissa HofmanCeline van HoutumNienke Wasmus
Elena CecchiniLotte KopeckyChristine MajerusMarlen ReusserDemi VolleringLorena Wiebes
Pfeiffer GeorgiDaniek HengeveldMegan JastrabFranziska KochJuliette LabousElise Uijen
Elisa BalsamoLucinda BrandLauretta HansonElisa Longo BorghiniAmanda Spratt
UAE Team ADQ
Alena AmialiusikMarta BastianelliEugenia BujakEleonora Camilla GasparinniLizzie HoldenSilvia Persico
Uno X Pro Cycling
Elinor BarkerMaria Giulia ConfalonieriMarte Berg EdsethAnouska KosterJulie LethAmalie Dideriksen
Maggie Coles-LysterAudrey Cordon-RagotDanielle De FrancescoMichaela DrummondMareille MeijeringDebora Silvestri
Tour of Flanders: Previous men’s winners
2022 – Mathieu van der Poel (NED) Alpecin-Fenix
2021 – Kasper Asgreen (DEN) Deceuninck-QuickStep
2020 – Mathieu van der Poel (NED) Alpecin-Fenix
2019 – Alberto Bettiol (ITA) Education First
2018 – Niki Terpstra (NED) QuickStep Floors
2017 – Philippe Gilbert (BEL) QuickStep Floors
2016 – Peter Sagan (SLO) Tinkoff
2015 – Alexander Kristoff (NOR) Katusha
2014 – Fabian Cancellara (SUI) Trek Factory Racing
2013 – Fabian Cancellara (SUI) RadioShack-Leopard
2012 – Tom Boonen (BEL) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
2011 – Nick Nuyens (BEL) SaxoBank-Sungard
2010 – Fabian Cancellara (SUI) Saxo Bank
2009 – Stijn Devolder (BEL) Quickstep-Innergetic
Tour of Flanders: Previous female winners
2022 – Lotte Kopecky (BEL) SD Worx
2021 – Annemiek van Vleuten (NED) Movistar
2020 – Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (NED) Boels–Dolmans
2019 – Marta Bastianelli (ITA) Virtu
2018 – Anna van der Breggen (NED) Boels-Dolmans
2017 – Coryn Rivera (USA) Team Sunweb
2016 – Lizzie Deignan (GBR) Boels-Dolmans
2015 – Elisa Longo Borghini (ITA) Wiggle Honda
2014 – Ellen van Dijk (NED) Boels-Dolmans
2013 – Marianne Vos (NED) Rabobank-Liv Giant
2012 – Judith Arndt (GER) Orica-AIS
2011 – Annemiek van Vleuten (NED) Nederland bloeit
2010 – Grace Verbeke (BEL) Lotto Ladies Team
2009 – Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (GER) Team Colombia Women
The following contains contributions from the wider Cyclist team
Tour of Flanders 2023: Key climbs
The Oude Kwaremont is an important climb at the Tour of Flanders, as it appears three times over the course of the race. The final appearance is 16km from the finish, so serves as the perfect place to grind out an attack.
Although it’s not especially steep (average 4%), it is 2.2km long and has ramps up to 12%.
The Paterberg appears twice in the Tour of Flanders, just 3km after the Oude Kwaremont and is the final climb in the race just 13km before the finish line.
Although the Paterberg is less than 400m long, it averages just under 13% and has ramps up to 21%. This is the final place for riders to make a big attack – Fabian Cancellara used the final few metres to gap Peter Sagan in 2013, before soloing away to claim victory.
Despite its infamy, the Koppenberg only appears once at the Tour of Flanders, 220km into the race. The Koppenberg is steep (average 11%, max 22%) and narrow, but with 44km of racing to go is too far away from the finish to be a likely place to mount a race-deciding attack.
That said, the racing here is manic as riders do not wish to be caught at the back, where you usually end up walking, ending your race.
Tour of Flanders: History
The Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen, the second of five Monuments in the professional racing calendar, can trace its history back to 1913. Most classic races were started to create headlines for a newspaper, and the Tour of Flanders is no different.
The race was first conceived by Léon van den Haute, who wrote for Sportwereld, as a celebration of the Flemish region as the other major Belgian race, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, was held in the French-speaking region of Belgium.
The first edition of De Ronde left Ghent at 6 am on the 25th of May 1913 and wound its way to a wooden velodrome in Mariakerke through 330km of badly kept roads. The first winner was Paul Deman, aged 25, outsprinting a group of six after over 12 hours of racing.
Although the first few editions were successful, the race still struggled to attract a lot of entries, and financial sponsorship with it. The race really gained popularity in the 1930s, perhaps as a result of shortening the race to 264km, and by 1933 there was 164 riders on the start line.
The first 40 years of the Tour of Flanders is also famous for not allowing the riders any mechanical assistance. In the ‘30s the rules were changed so that a rider could accept a pump, or spare tyre, but only in an emergency and entirely at the commissaire’s discretion. Bike changes were only permitted if the frame, wheel or bars broke while riding.
Over the course of the 1950s, the rules were changed to bring the Ronde more in line with other professional races.
The 1960s was the decade that cemented Flanders in cycling history. Tom Simpson became the first British winner in 1961, followed by a huge popularity surge in 1962 that saw the finish moved to Gentbrugge to cope with the spectators. 1969 marked the emergence of Eddy Merckx, who won the race by 5’ 36” over Felice Gimondi – the race’s largest ever winning margin.
Era of the ‘Bergs’
Flanders made more big changes in the 1970s – the race was known for its tough course but many of the original roads had been paved over, making the course considerably easier.
In 1973 the finish was moved again, this time to Meerbeke, close to the Muur van Geraardsbergen, which became a legendary part of the race. In 1976 the Koppenberg was included, feared by many due to its 22% cobbled ramps, and was the location of the beginning of Roger De Vlaeminck and Freddy Maertens’ bitter rivalry.
The 1980s were characterised by complete domination by Belgian and Dutch riders, including the legendary 1985 edition that saw only 24 out of 174 finish.
The 1990s era of Flanders is best known for Johan Museeuw’s exploits that included three victories and eight podium finishes. So complete was his control of the race he was nicknamed the ‘Lion of Flanders’.
In 2005 the Tour of Flanders was included in the inaugural UCI Pro Tour, establishing it as one of the five Monuments of cycling. In the 2000s a new star of Belgian cycling emerged, Tom Boonen, who won two consecutive victories in 2005 and 2006, with another following in 2012.
The big upset came in 2011, not from the riders but from the organising committee. The race was taken over by ‘Flanders Classics’, who moved the finish to Oudenaarde, much closer to the Koppenberg but also removing the Muur from the parcours to a great outcry from the fans. The Tour of Flanders celebrated its 100th edition on 3rd April 2016.
Tour of Flanders: Top five editions
1977 – De Vlaeminck vs. Maertens
Roger De Vlaeminck and Freddy Maertens were the stars of Belgian cycling towards the end of the ‘70s and were bitter rivals. They had both been dropped in the 1976 edition as they both decided they would rather lose than see the other one win.
In 1977, Maertens suffered a puncture on the newly introduced Koppenberg while De Vlaeminck broke away. Maertens was given a wheel by a spectator and assisted to the top where he quickly caught De Vlaeminck, who had also punctured. As it was just the two riders together, De Vlaeminck refused to work with Maertens.
Maertens rode 70km to the finish, with De Vlaeminck stuck to his wheel, and was then easily beaten by a relatively fresh De Vlaeminck in the sprint. It was De Vlaeminck’s only Flanders win.
The riders both fell out and to this day still dispute that day’s events. Maertens claims he believed he was to be disqualified for the wheel swap, and De Vlaeminck supposedly offered to pay him to keep riding and evade the peloton.
De Vlaeminck denies this and claims he was riding tactically as he knew Maertens was a better sprinter.
1985 – Vanderaerden vs. the elements
Although Eric Vanderaerden’s solo win, aged 23, is worthy of a mention itself, it’s the weather that really grabbed the headlines. Vanderaerden broke a wheel before the Koppenberg but managed to chase back onto a strong leading group including Greg LeMond and his team-mate Phil Anderson.
Although a sprinter, Vanderaerden attacked on the Muur and soloed the final 20km to the finish. While the attack is impressive enough, it all took place during a severe storm that broke during the second leg of the race. Of 174 starters, only 24 finished.
1987 – Jesper Skibby vs. the race official
The Koppenberg’s fame comes not only from the steepness of its cobbled slopes but also the narrowness of the road. This all came to a head in 1987, when Danish rider Jesper Skibby was hit by an official car.
The car was following close behind and when Skibby began to slow, the car (pressured by the encroaching peloton) knocked Skibby to the ground while trying to pass then ran over his back wheel, narrowly missing his leg and ending his race. After this, the Koppenberg was removed from the race for 15 years while the road was widened.
1994 – Bugno vs. Museeuw
Johan Museeuw dominated the Tour of Flanders so much that they nicknamed him the ‘Lion of Flanders’, but 1994 didn’t go his way. While the Belgians owned the race, the Italian classics riders wanted to claim it with Argentin, Bartoli and Bugno all taking wins.
In 1994, Museeuw contested the sprint with Bugno and lost by just 7mm – the smallest winning margin in Tour of Flanders history. The next day one newspaper ran the finish line photo with the headline ‘The Sorrow of Flanders’.
2017 – The return of Phil Gil
Rumour has it that when Phil Gilbert signed a one-year contract for Deceuninck-QuickStep in 2017, the salary for a former World Champion and triple Monument winner was quite low. If he wanted an extension and a better payday, then big victories would be necessary.
With 55km left to ride, Gilbert broke clear of his rivals on the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. The next time his rivals would see him, he would be on the top step of the podium having won the Tour of Flanders.
Tour of Flanders sportive: Ride report
Words: Peter Stuart Photography: Geoff Waugh
The top tube of my BMC is currently obscured by a bright yellow sticker that runs along its length. It marks the 15 climbs that lie ahead of me over the 245km of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. This, the hard man event of cycling, promises not only climbs but cobbles, crazy gradients and savage winds that blast across the Flemish landscape.
It’s 6.40 am and I’m standing in a state of sleep-deprived hypnosis in a car park beside Bruges’s Jan Breydel football stadium.
A few thousand people surround me, many making last-minute adjustments to their bikes before shooting off to the start line 7km away in the centre of town.
Unlike most European sportives, the start has no loud music, shouty commentator or starting pistol – instead, participants can set off any time between 7 am and 8 am.
By the time I amble to the start line, it’s 7.30 am and all the serious riders have long since departed. I waste no time in hitting the first stretch of the infamous Flemish cobbles.
The path to Oudenaarde
The cobble is a curious little artefact. Protruding about one or two centimetres from the ground at random jagged angles, with a slippery and inconsistent surface texture, it would appear to have been designed deliberately to provide the worst possible surface for riding a bike on.
Rolling along Bruges’s cobbled city streets, I repeat to myself the advice I’ve been given time and time again: ‘Loose hands, big gear, light steering.’
It’s all going remarkably well, but I begin to suspect these neatly laid stones pale in comparison with what lies ahead. Crossing a drawbridge out of the centre, hundreds of cyclists feed onto the main road and head on the 100km journey to where the cobbles proper begin.
Interestingly, none of the routes available on this sportive replicates the precise route of the pro race of the following day. The race organisers decided in 2011 to loop over the Oude Kwaremont climb three times, offering a hub for spectators, but removing some of the classic climbs from the race’s history.
In contrast, the sportive follows a hybrid route between the old and new course. It covers 15 climbs (‘bergs’ as they’re called), and a handful of cobbled flat sections. But first comes the trek to Oudenaarde.
On seeing the route plan, I imagined we would hurtle through the first 100km on wide roads in a pack hundreds deep. But unfortunately, the organisers are quick to force us onto the cycle paths that border the roads. Little known to me is the fact that the use of cycle lanes is compulsory where they’re available in Belgium.
While the cycle paths are impressively maintained and wide, we quickly find ourselves in a thick bunch squeezing through bollards and hoping that no unseen obstacles pop up out of the mass of riders.
I get into a conversation with a pair of friendly Londoners, Ryan and Dan, who warn that the next 90km is much the same, but promise that the cobbles will be worth the wait.
Up ahead a handful of riders are powering away from the group. I seize the opportunity for a little more space and sprint my way up to them. I glance behind and see a solitary figure chasing us down. ‘That’s one match burnt,’ he exclaims in a strong Irish accent.
In our smaller group we manage to cover the first 100km in a little under three hours. Herbie, the match-burning Irishman, has pushed hard on the front at an alarming pace that means that by Oudenaarde I’m slightly worried that my own matchbox may soon be empty.
The tip of the Berg
As seemingly flat as the region of Flanders may be, it’s also home to innumerable short climbs with painfully steep gradients. It’s what makes the Tour of Flanders the domain of only the toughest riders.
What’s more, the insistence by the Flemish government to protect the cobbled road surfaces as sites of national heritage gives rise to a unique feature – the cobbled climb.
The first climb of the day is already strewn with broken spirits. The Wolvenberg, reaching only 60m of elevation at an average of 4%, looks easy on the route profile but it includes a nasty 200m stretch of 20%, and as we grind up the slope I’m painfully aware of the 130km left ahead of me.
Having crested the Wolvenberg we hit two flat cobbled sections in quick succession that make me realise just how mild the Bruges stretch was. My hands are tightening up, I’m pushing all my effort into a big gear and maintaining a reasonable speed, but it comes at a great cost to the energy reserves in my legs.
After our flirtation with cobbles, the road returns to glorious tarmac for a while, cutting through sunny farmlands, until I spy a cobbled path emerging from the hedgerow to our left. Looking ahead at the Molenberg snaking up into the hillside, I get my first real taste of the savagery of the Ronde.
The Molenberg is extremely difficult to climb. The cobbles give little traction and the road tilts up to a punishing 15%. More than a muscular or cardiovascular demand, the real challenge is maintaining balance. Remembering the friendly advice of fellow cyclists, I try to keep the gear high and my hands loose, but it’s easier said than done. I’m struggling to keep a decent cadence and I’m gripping my bars for dear life.
What’s more, by the time we hit the cobbled climbs, we’re arriving alongside the stragglers from the shorter routes, and I have to dart and squeeze through gaps while keeping up some reasonable pace on the climb.
The Molenberg is followed by an easy 20km on tarmac punctuated by cobbled and concreted sections. But it’s not long before the climbs are back, with the paved Valkenberg and Boigneberg striking in quick succession, and the cobbled Eikenberg following.
The gutter offers some relief from the cobbles, although I feel a little guilty for rolling along its flat surface. Herbie, who I’ve stuck with so far, looks away in disgust, opting instead for the middle of the pavé. ‘You can avoid cobbles at home, mate!’ he shouts.
Then, only a food stop separates us from the hardest climb of the day – the Koppenberg.
King of the cobbles
In the run-up to the Koppenberg, it seems that only me and a Flemish man, who must be in his late seventies, seem to be keen on doing any of the work at the front of our little chain gang, and by the time we reach the foot of the climb, it’s clear enough why – the road is crowded with walking cyclists.
On the lower slopes, the cobbles immediately drain what little reserves I have left, and I switch straight into my easiest gear – fortunately a considerate 34/32.
As the Koppenberg starts to bite, I’m juggling the quad-tearingly steep gradient with my route through the crowds and my traction on the cobbles. It was here in 1987 that Danish pro Jesper Skibby famously hit the ground while on a solo break, and was subsequently run over by the race director eager not to hold up the chasing pack. I’m hopeful not to reenact the scene.
I manage to stay upright, and just as I feel like I’m about to pop, I suddenly seem to be airborne and floating above the road. The cobbles have given way to tarmac and the relief is exquisite.
Before I have my breath back we hit the Steenbeekdries, which again mixes incline and cobbles. It’s also the only stretch of the course to offer a cobbled descent, which is a prospect that has my already aching joints twanging with trepidation. Strangely, at speed the cobbles seem barely perceptible, and I touch 45kmh on the descent (a glance at Strava afterwards shows that Nikki Terpstra hit 65kmh on this same stretch).
Next comes the Taaienberg, followed quickly by the Kanarieberg, the Kruisberg and the Karnemelkbeekstraat. Keeping track of the climbs is almost as exhausting as riding up them, but I know we’re winding towards the finish now, with a couple of obstacles in our way – the queen climbs of the day.
The Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg are both cobbled, with the Kwaremont being the longest climb of the day, and the Paterberg the steepest.
The Kwaremont may be long, but it’s considerate in its incline and begins with a winding 5% tarmac section (it will be here that Fabian Cancellara will make his break in following day’s pro race to win the 2014 Tour of Flanders).
When the cobbles hit, there’s no hiding as there’s not even an inch of gutter, but I’m finding my rhythm and with the sun out, and the land opening up to pleasant vistas, I’m beginning to enjoy the rattle of the cobbles.
The pavé spikes up to an aggressive 12%, but then levels off and moves to a shallower 3% stretch. I spot some flat paving in the gutter and steal a moment of relief, until Herbie’s look of disappointment pulls me back onto the cobbles. Looking over the rolling Belgian fields, I can see why, despite its desolate flatness, Flanders holds a magnetic charm over cyclists.
The Paterberg is the centrepiece of the pro race, featuring three times. The climb has an interesting history, in that it’s one of the least historical climbs of the race.
It was featured for the first time in 1986, only after local farmer, Paul Vande Walle wrote to the organisers insisting his own self-paved farm track outdid any of those currently included in the race. They repaved it to ‘regulation’ cobbles and it’s beena central feature ever since.
Squeezing my way up, I curse Vande Walle with all my limited breath. Taking the first corner of the Paterberg, the full 400m cobbled stretch lies in view, and the summit seems desperately far away.
I’m sitting in my trusty 34/32 and trying to keep my cadence in double figures, but I do feel I’m finally learning how to handle this abominable road surface – balancing my weight evenly on the bike, I leave my hands loose and let the bike find its own way. Finally I reach the cheering crowds at the summit of the berg, and it’s all downhill from here.
What starts off as an amble, with everyone catching their breath after the Paterberg, slowly gains speed towards the finish and grows into a full-on train. With Herbie and two Flandrians taking turns on the front, I glance down to see 50kmh pop up on my Garmin on flat roads.
As the line approaches, our growing pack readies for the final sprint, even though the fastest finishers came in long ago. I fly under the banner and raise a weary arm aloft, before slamming on the brakes to avoid the hordes of riders taking selfies around the finish line.
As I settle down in a cafe, my bones simply don’t feel right. I’m dehydrated to the point of mummification and I fear it could be days before feeling returns to my perineum.
Despite the satisfaction of covering 245km in a day, I slightly resent the first 100km – it only served to dilute the charm of the cobbles, and hampered my opportunity to attack them as hard as I would have hoped. Next time, maybe I’ll choose the mid-distance event, but one thing is for certain, I know the cobbles will draw me back again.