Having been literally locked down at home for what feels like five years, the opportunity to cross the English Channel with a close group of friends to see the famous cycling classic The Tour of Flanders was too good an opportunity to pass. Little did I know when I left, that I would be waking in Brussels to snow on the ground.
I’ve never quite understood the appeal of travelling to watch a bike race. When you think about it, it’s not like motorsport for example, where you can see the cars repeatedly racing each other lap after lap. Instead, the riders competing in the race might go past you for no more than 30 seconds, and even then, they might be chatting to each other like they are on a Sunday sportive.
Ultimately therefore, this type of trip is for people who want to be involved in the experience more than to watch it. To be there with the fanfare, the other cyclists, the heritage of the location. In many ways, the unique and quite nerdy appeal of it that you know is lost on most others and that itself is part of the appeal.
The pre-amble for the event was a ride from our base in the centre of Brussels. It meant our first opportunity to ride some famous Belgian cobbles was now upon us and we were all looking forward to it. That in itself is odd, given the fact that they are renowned for being difficult as well as uncomfortable. About an hour into the ride and my hands were hurting so bad from the cold I wondered if I could even continue. It was on my mind to turn around and head back to a cafe in Brussels centre and hug some hot chocolate with pastries. That thought never left my mind until we eventually stumbled on an outer city family operated cafe that offered both. It wasn’t the best cafe, the coffee was not really what we were used to, but everything about it worked. The entire family who operated it seemed to be present on our arrival and they, in one single movement, moved down the table to make room for us. Fifteen pastries and ten coffees later we were as ready for the outdoors as we were going to be and headed back down the road.
For Stuart our host the situation got worse. With the Garmin device not performing well in the surroundings, he was left to use his phone to navigate his visitors back home and this meant glove free. He was clearly putting on a brave face and didn’t complain about it once, but we all felt desperately sorry for him – as well as guilty for not bothering to load the routes onto our own devices. Fortunately, everyone arrived home in one piece and this meant we could focus on cleansing, warming up and getting ready for a night out.
The restaurant was a Peugeot/Citreon car garage. Literally! But it was also a bicycle shop and bar and somehow all four blended magnificently together. The group choice of burgers and chips was superb, the beer as great as expected and the ambience, service and staff just perfect.
The next ride offered slightly warmer temperatures and enough to remove of us the previous days frost bite. This time we avoided the cobbles and spent a good period riding through some magnificent forests on our way to a large park. The sun was now shining, the photo opportunities were growing and the speed decreased to allow us to enjoy both. To cap it all off, there was a coffee stand at the end of the park and it made one of the nicest coffees we had all had in a long time. Perfect!
And now for the big event, the actual Tour of Flanders. Due to the consistent cold weather, we ruled out the idea of going on a long bike ride and instead agreed we would drive to the start of the Women’s race in Oudenaarde as this was also the finish line for both too. It was a wise decision as we found ourselves right in the heart of the action and with the perfect vantage point – just as the men rode past.
As we ventured into the centre, we realised very quickly that we had probably missed out on all the fun. The whole of the main square was a maze of railings set-up to keep the crowds at bay for when the female teams were unveiled on a purposefully built stage. Unfortunately, there was hardly anyone around as most had now made their way to the ‘fan zone’. The good news is, this gave us ample opportunity to mess about on the stage and to take plenty of photos as we momentarily waved to the imaginary crowd.
And then relief. As we made our way round to the fan zone, via the much needed hot dog and French fry food area, we picked up a free espresso and shuffled our way through the now very crowded streets. The Fan Zone was superb! The floor was shaking with the music from the huge speakers that brought us high speed techno music from a DJ that I can only assume was more known to the locals than he was to us oldie Brits. I must admit, I loved the music and the huge TV screens showing the live racing that sat either side of the tiny DJ stage made the whole experience well worth braving the cold for. The smell of cigarette smoke, beer and fried onions filled the air for the next 90 minutes and for that entire period I was pretty content in that noisy bubble.
All in all this was a great experience and, as it was my first visit to Belgium as well as the Flanders region, it made for a great trip that I would love to repeat again next year.