A Quest for Cobbles (Part 3)
Brian and I slept on the foldout IKEA couch in the IKEA furnished living room, while the Bentel and Goguely brothers slept on an IKEA bunk bed and IKEA mattress in the IKEA furnished bed room across from the IKEA furnished kitchen. We had left all the IKEA windows open to let in some cool air. We woke up by 7am on this Friday to discover that flies (from IKEA?) were eating us alive all night. Before the boys started cooking eggs and running to the bakery in town, I went to brush my teeth before helping out. When I looked around the IKEA furnished bathroom, it was that moment when I realized that we’re actually in fucking Belgium.
We went into town to stock up on groceries for the next couple of days. We had a stupidly complicated system of tracking each of our expenses to that all of us can be fairly reimbursed, and it did kind of work out in the end. It turned into more of a sightseeing trip more than anything. We found ourselves inside of artisan Belgium chocolate shops, butcheries, and probably the best bakeries I’ve ever been in. This might be because I was so damn hungry. I can’t help but think of those chocolate croissants. Absolute heaven inside a perfectly plump, flakey, buttery, warm, chocolate goodness. We ate all of them before we got back to the house.
On the way back, there was this Red Bull poster on the street we saw (in Flemmish, of course) of a bike race up the infamous De Muur climb in the town nearby. The date said it was going to be Saturday, June 7th, which happens to be tomorrow! And here was our plan for the next day. We had no clue if we would be able to register or not for the race, but at least we would be at a Red Bull event. I was so stoked for the next day, and we haven’t even started today’s festivities.
Good morning, IKEA model home in Belgium.
Jules and Emile had put together a pretty cool route. It consisted of famous roads from the classic Tour of Flanders. We were going to tackle a few of those iconic cobbles you see from vintage cycling posters and photos, those same roads that legends like Eddie Merckx ate up back in the day. This was not going to be an easy day, although we did take our sweet ass time (12mph average, baby). But to be fair, we did get 3 flats and a broken wheel out of this.
A field day to say the least.
After we ate both a substantial breakfast of eggs, pastries, breads, and an even larger lunch of pasta and such, I think we all agreed that we were ready to leave the house now. We kitted up in our only other pair lycra we have and hit the road, or lack thereof (this ride was 35% cobbles, 25% dirt, and 40% asphalt).
We hit the first cobbled climb of the day. I can barely pronounce or much less spell the name. Just look at the segments in the Strava activity. I know, I’m ignorant. Anyways, there were start and finish lines drawn in white paint on these hills, like the locals expect cyclists to race up these roads every time someone rides through.
I vividly remember us riding over that thick, white line: we all shut up and looked at one another, side by side. There was no traffic in either direction. There were nice, old homes to our right, and woods to our left. The cobbles were rattling all our bikes and as the elevation pitched up, the sounds of shifting clicked to my left and right. I accelerated to bring up the pace. Jules on my wheel, Emile to my left. Brian, Nikolas, and Lukas no where in sight. I bring up the pace, and Jules accelerates between me and Emile, putting a fast gap between us. I get out of my saddle to hang on, but pulled off when my legs and arms started to give up from the heavy vibrations. Emile goes for the chase and it’s the Goguely brothers who take 1 and 2 for the first “race” of the trip. Ow owww. At the top of the climb, we add one to the flat tire count: it was Brian who popped a tube. Break time.
Paterberg. Tagged. Here we go!
About half an hour after that last climb, next up was Paterberg. It took us a few wrong turns to get here. We were getting pretty deep in Belgium farmlands. We tagged the sign, took a few photos at the base, and went on to tackle our first 20% cobbled climb.
Emile, Brian, Lukas, and Nikolas went on ahead while Jules and I finished taking the photos we wanted at the base. I saw Nikolas and Brian on the side of the road, walking up this unbelievably steep hill. Like, who’s idea was to build a road up the steepest part of the hill like this? I “almost” made it up the whole climb until my chain dropped right in front of Nikolas and Brian, right after this photo of me was taken. Gah. Cobbles—2, Alec — 0.
At the top of the hill, we were all feeling pretty good. It was a beautiful day! We went down the other side of the hill (where there was actual pavement) into even deeper farmlands. There were road constructions all around us, so we took the side roads of these side roads to get around. There was broken up concrete and dirt, and you can gurantee that we added another to the flat tire count. It was Jules who popped this tire. We took this time to do some sexy photo shoots with Nikolas.
Did I mention that we were in the farmlands? We even found a windmill on the ride. We couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
We looped around back into the town center to find the infamous Koppenberg, where the cobbles are sharp the hill is steeper. It was crazy to think that this is the hill that the legends of the Classics have all riden up, and that the condition of the road, and the town, have all relatively remained the same throughout the years, as if the area were stuck in time.
Koppenberg. Tagged. Brian, Lukas, and Nikolas passed on racing up the hill with Emile, Jules, and me. Emile mounted his GoPro to his handlebars to record the ride up.
Let me tell you what happened: Jules leads both Emile and I up climb. I’m holding a solid cadence, around 100rpm, I’m feeling good, just waiting to make my move. I have no idea how long this climb is, nor how steep this gets, and I’m feeling pretty pro that we’re actually doing this. We see Brian coming up on the side of the road taking photos, and I get impatient so I make an early attack. I was digging deep, holding just under 800 watts for 5-15 seconds (yep, here comes the cyclist talk) banking on my weight and steepness to get Jules off of my wheel. But ignorant me, this is a power climb, not long enough for a climber. The cobbles worked against my weight advantage and I couldn’t get my back wheel to stay down. I was bouncing all over the place. When the trees covered above us, we went into the shade unable to see the ground. All I could feel was the cobbles getting worse, sharper and further apart. I could hear Jules behind me, as he shifts up a gear and rockets past me. I exit the darkness to find this rapidly growing gap between us. I let go, and I’m swerving left and right trying to recover to make another hard effort up. I was too cooked, and Emile guns it past my broken soul to the top of the hill. Cobbles — 3, Alec — 0.
Later in the ride, Emile got another flat and we were just hanging out, bathing in the sun, resting, on top of another steep hill we just climbed. Cresting from the road, we see this mom with her baby seated on the back of her steel frame bike and her 5 year old riding this kiddie bike with a woven basket in front, smiling like that climb was nothing. I’m kind of in disbelief that this family rides up this hill everyday to get home from school, work, or errands. These people are beasts. It made us feel like bitches to be complaining about how tired we are and see that happen in front of us.
After this, I went on to attack every other climb of the day just to play with the guys, especially Jules. It’s just so much fun to see everyone go 100%. The last hill of the day, I make huge effort up the climb to see who will play with me. Of course Jules will be on my wheel. It’s honestly a terrifying feeling, knowing you’re going all out and the person behind you is chilling waiting to blow you away. And it wasn’t until the final incline when he jumps into a bigger gear and grinds past. Although, this time was different and I stayed on and caught up with him. He broke a spoke and the wheel was rubbing against the brake!
It took us some time to figure out the shortest route to get home. We were probably at the furthest possible point on our ride from home, and didn’t know how we were going to get home. I ended up swapping wheels and having to ride the broken wheel for being the lightest dude on the trip. Fun is over, now time to head back and rest up.
Beer, wine, pasta and vegetables. The good life.
We went back to town, bought a new wheel, went home, showered, did laundry, cooked dinner, and drank Belgium beers with our host until bed. It was a stressful day, but nonetheless, successful. We experienced a ton of new things, and we had plenty more to come.
With the flies buzzing all around us at night, we talked about our race day at Red Bull tomorrow afternoon. It was surreal to think that we were going to be doing our first international race tomorrow, a Red Bull race! We were all pretty amped to do it, and didn’t know what to expect.