Actually we were warned of the opposite = "If it is raining, this must be Belgium." Throughout our October visit to Brussels, everyone was telling us that this was not typical weather. So, taking to the cobbles of Flanders without the cold and the wet might NOT have been THE REAL experience, but Mel & I agreed. the dry rock was more survivable.
We drove to the museum in Oudenaarde dedicated to de Ronde van Vlaanderen, or the Tour of Flanders. Sports fans, if you have a bucket list and are a cyclist, this is one place you don't want to miss. Hallowed ground, a sacred space, their Canton, Ohio. I got the same feeling in Boston one December day when the grounds keeper at Fenway let us walk down the ramp and into the stadium. You see, the Tour of Flanders (or Ronde) is the equivalent of the OSU v Michigan game. If you live in Belgium and even if you have no interest in cycling, you have an opinion about whether Fabian Cancellara was guilty of mechanical doping or if Stijn DeVolder is a worthy champion. Oh boy, do you have an opinion.
In the museum you can see Eddy's bikes, the muddy jersey Tom Boonen wore when he won the Ronde and you can even meet Freddy Maertens the former World Champion, and winner of Liege, the Vuelta, and of course the Ronde. The real treat here is the riding. From the museum, you can do several routes that afford you the opportunity to test your legs on the narrow roads of Flanders passing cows and school children who yell "Fietsen - fietsen!"
Mel and I were accompanied by our friend Kristof a true Belgian hardman, while we found nice bikes, Kristof rode a single speed fixie! Gulp...48x16. You do the math, my knees were aching, just looking at the bike. I guess I couldn’t complain about the ex-pros bike I was riding (no compact crank) with a 21! A 21-tooth cog, for the love of God, er, Eddy. For the love of Eddy Merckx!
His name was Ronny Assez and he showed us pictures of his races with Eric Zabel and super Mario. He had done the Ronde several times and even raced the San Francisco GP.
We rolled out, riding the tiny, no, REALLY TINY roads of the Ronde, past apathetic cows and a few young Museeuws in the making. No need for a yellow line rule here, if you aren’t at the front of the race, there is no way for you to move up. Sometimes I even felt nervous when a car was coming the other way. Would there be enough room? At one point a car full of tourists stopped me and asked for directions, of course in Flemish, when I replied in my best Brooklyn accent “What do I look like, a map?, they all began laughing and calling me "Lance, Lance, Lance." Then, I guess it was better than "Floyd, Floyd, Floyd."
Riding the cobbles was what we were here to do, and we got plenty of practice. Ask Mel about the blisters she made on her hands. My bike bounced left and right following Kristof. No way was I going to attempt to ride next to him over the cobbles, I followed Phil Ligget’s saged advice and kept to the crown in the middle of the road. By the time we got to the Oud Kwaremont climb, about 3 hours into the ride, I was ready for the cobbles. Bounce, bounce - seated bounce and I was past Kristof who was turning his gear over a bit slower now. There’s the church and I’m up. Certainly that was enough. Back to tell Ronnie about our exploits. He says with a bit of a smirk, “If you come back for the Ronde, don’t expect this nice weather.”
On the drive back to Brussels we stopped in Geraardsbergen to walk up the Muur de Grammont , or the famed wall. Beginning in the town center the cobbled road just goes up. And up. This cobbled climb is steep, 20% at the ouchy part, and not much wider than your driveway. It has the feel of Philadelphia’s Manayunk wall until it turns into a small forested climb and then past the chapel.
Arriving just before sunset, it was so quiet, but yet it was easy to imaging the roaring crowds who wait all day for their heroes to make a move and ride on to the Bosberg.