I headed down to Flanders to ride the Gent-Wevelgem cyclo on Saturday. The sportive largely follows the route of the Gent-Wevelgem pro race on the Sunday, the main difference being that it starts and finishes in Wevelgem and goes nowhere near Gent. Presumably ‘Wevelgem-Wevelgem’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!
I’d been quite ill for most of the two weeks prior to the event, to the extent that I’d written off any hope of riding the full 135 mile / 215km distance. Fortunately I was feeling better by the time we headed out to Belgium and decided that the cycling-downtime might actually serve as a useful pre-event taper.
The furthest distance I’d ridden on a bike was 125 miles (200km) on the warm and sunny, pan-flat roads of the Loire Valley. So this ride would be a step into the unknown, especially when combined with the cobbles, hills and dirt-road sections.
We road as a four man chain-gang for the first 60 miles, heading North towards the coast along narrow farm tracks and country lanes. It was an exciting route of short, straight stretches followed by sharp ninety-degree turns, interspersed by rumbling across cobbled village squares.
We turned South to work our way along the French border and were met by the wind. The more experienced member of our group shouted at us to “echelon the f**k out of it”, probably the funniest and most repeated quote of the weekend.
The flatlands and headwinds were eventually replaced by the greater challenge of the ‘bergs’ – the hills. We had 12 in total to conquer, the most famous of which being the cobbled climb up the Kemmelberg. Individually, none of the climbs were too bad, mostly just short and steep hills. But within the context of such a long ride they began to take their toll. We broke up on the ascents and regrouped on the other side of each one. I was either 3rd of 4th in our little group so had the added nasty challenge of always having to fight to catch back up with a couple of riders who were rested and ready to burn again. The disadvantage tends to compound in these circumstances.
The bergs finally ended, but the final 25 flat miles were a battle to keep going, We still had our headwind so it was infinitely preferable to be in a group than riding solo. But I constantly felt the stretching of that invisible piece of elastic connecting my bike to the one in front. Over the last 12 months I’ve had more races and more hard training sessions than in all my previous years of cycling added together. I’ve been forced to quit a few times, and despite the macho-BS of statements like “pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever”, there is still a certain truth to it. Giving up can really sting afterwards. With this in mind, I just kept pedalling.
The feeling of relief and accomplishment at the finish line was fantastic. Plus the sun had unexpectedly come out so we stuffed our faces with frites, burgers and beer and enjoyed the warm glow of the first sun in six months, combined with the pumping Euro dance beats. Party time.