Cyclocross Magazine reader Greg Nelson sent us his story of watching and riding the classics in Belgium with one of the top ‘cross racers from America.

P4030086.JPGHow I lost a saddle or came to love the cobbles

If you bend over your handlebars: a close inspection of the cobbles reveals a thick gooey layer of mud over blocks of granite mounted half-hazard in the thick mud of Flanders. If you stand up to pedal, your tire simply rotates in the mud, sliding sideways into the other crazy cyclists packing the Tour of Flanders course the day before the real race. Mud dripped off my shoes and spattered my glasses. I had sucked in enough mud to coat the walls of my lungs, so coughing seemed a good idea. So did walking. I climbed off my bike and started walking up the Koppenberg. Me and about a few hundred other cyclists.

The Koppenberg is perhaps half a kilometer in total length, but exceeds 20%. I walked most of it. In the mud. See the theme yet?

Jack Maris and I landed in Brussels early Friday, April 4 and marched down to lower levels of the airport to catch a train to Oordenarde, Belgium. Although the ticket guy failed to mention that the train left in 4 minutes, we managed to shrug off the flight fatigue to jump onto the train just moments before it pulled out of station.

We were off to meet Jonathan Page!

Tour of Flanders April 2008 082.jpgOnce ensconced in our hotel in Oordenarde, we called Jonathan to announce our arrival. Jonathan, a three-time Elite Men National Cyclocross champion, had wrapped up his racing season and before leaving to return to the States to start his summer road racing season, and had kindly arranged to take Jack and myself on a bike tour of Flanders. Jonathan’s bike sponsor, Ridley, provided us a pair of carbon road bikes for the week. Jack got to try out the Noah road model while I got to ride Ridley’s Helium. Both were fitted with Shimano components.

Our first ride was following the route of the Tour of Flanders, which would happen the following day. It’s like Seattle to Portland in distance and madness, but adds cobbles, and double the number of riders. We started from the home of a CSC Team Doctor, “Pete.” Some last names are being withheld pending the outcome of Jack’s drug tests.

Jonathan and Dr. Pete led Jack and I on a short couple miles ride before landing us at the first climb, the Paterberg. The climb is short, but maddeningly steep and cobbled. Heavily populated with cyclists, most walking, it was part party and part cycle tourism. And largely mud.

I managed to ride to the top dodging fallen or walking cyclists. Regrouping at the top, we then dropped down the climb onto smooth asphalt, took a couple of sharp turns and that’s when the sign came up: “Koppenberg 22%.” Ugly if just a regular road, but cobbled and muddy, it was unridable. I managed half a kilometer and then climbed off in humility. The next day, while we watched the pros tackle the Koppenberg, I noted less than half rode up, most ran and pushed their bikes up.

We did two more classic climbs, and my success rate was about the same, walked up one, rode up the other. On the final climb of our day, I stood momentarily to get over the gear and when I sat down, I landed on the saddle’s metal rails- the saddle had fallen off behind me. No doubt pummeled by the cobbles into submission! I unclipped and set the bike down in the grass at the side of the road, and picked my way back down the climb, dodging riders to sneak out and pick up the errant bike part from the mud. If I kept my weight on the saddle, I could hold it in place and finish the ride.

Back at Jonathan’s house, we showered and planned the next day’s activity: watching the Tour of Flanders. Jonathan had mapped out prime watching locations and even secured us entry into a VIP tent on the course, partially sponsored by Ridley.

We did an easy 2 hour ride with Jonathan in the morning, Jonathan had not only replaced my saddle, but he washed both bikes! Post shower, we jumped into his car and out to the racing!

Our first stop was along a short cobbled section at around the 120 km mark for the race. Beer seemed to be the morning drink of the spectators. Jonathan made peanut butter sandwiches as we waited for the race to fly by. Suddenly a helicopter appeared and beneath it came the lead cars, and then the racers blew by at amazing speeds. In the follow vehicles, I just made out Barney Riis of Team CSC, who appeared to be reading a map of the course.

We sprinted back to Jonathan’s car and drove off to another site, before returning to the cobbles of the Koppenberg for a 3rd stop along the race route

P4030114.JPGAt the Koppenberg, we watched Tom Boonen lead the pack up the hill, an Astana rider missing most of his shorts close behind. Erik Zabel ran by, pushing his Colnago. I screamed “Zabel” but apparently he had other things on his mind than stopping to chat with a rabid fan. Rain was falling and the cobbles must have been maddeningly slippery. The farmer’s fence around the route was being pushed down by fans trying to get closer to the action. Thousands of people lined this small farming road

We sprinted back to Jonathan’s car and then drove to the 25 km to go mark for the race. There, food and beer waited.

At the Ridley VIP tent, I was bummed to see the food was already eaten and we were only offered beer, but I quickly regrouped when the server said the beer was free. I stood near the bar and watched the race being shown on several television screens hanging overhead. I was doing my best to uphold the ugly American myth with the free beer while Jack spoke with the Ridley bike rep. When the racers were approaching, the tent cleared and we lined to road to watch Devolder in his tri color jersey scream by, being chased by the pack.

The following day we were treated to a tour of Vermac clothing factory and the Ridley bike factory. Although calling both places a factory is a bit misleading as neither location actually makes the product they sell: Ridley’s bikes are produced in Taiwan and Vermarc’s clothes are sewn in Italy. We didn’t get to take home any samples, but we did get to see the new team bikes for this year’s Tour de France, and inspect the new time trial machine being produced by Ridley. Think Cobb’s funk aero forks all over the place! Lotto riders were gathered at the factory, each trying out new bikes in anticipation of the next weekend’s race: Ghent-Wevelgem.

What followed was a few more days of cycling around the area of Belgium called “Flanders” with Jonathan, and a ride to the start of Ghent-Wevelgem, in the town of Dienz. As we rode into the town, we were followed by the team buses taking the riders to the start. At one traffic light, I rode around the Gerolsteiner bus and planted myself in front of it, waiting for the light to change. Jack casually reached out and balances himself off the bus while we waited for the light.

At the starting area, team mechanics put the finishing touches on the bikes and Jonathan pointed out some of the details of the start area, including how to get around the barriers and follow the riders as they left the start. Which we did, Jonathan leading the charge.

At the start line, I again watched Erik Zabel ride by on his way to the sign in sheet. Again, he ignored me. I’m starting to think it’s personal now. One Lotto rider was late to the start and had to chase through the follow vehicles, however just meters from the start line, he pulled to the side and relieved himself, mere feet from the crowds.

Like before, we raced-this time by bike-to Jonathan’s van and drove to the finish line. While waiting for the riders to show, Jack and I marched over to one of the numerous “frite” stands and ordered some French fries. Before I could stop the server, he squirted a good half cup of mayonnaise on them, handing a small plastic fork. I can’t say its much better than ketchup, but the fat content makes me cringe even weeks later.

When the low flying helicopter passed overhead, we knew it was close-lead cars screamed down the roadway, and down into an alley and parked. We leaned against the barriers and suddenly felt the rush of the riders as they sprinted to the line-Spaniard Oscar Freire won. The race was so suddenly over. We marched back to the van, which Jonathan had parked in a pasture just outside the small town of Wevelgem. As we walked past the podium, we watched Oscar dousing the second and third place riders with Champagne! The excitement of the finish was palpable.

Tour of Flanders April 2008 117.jpgOur trip to Belgium was splendid and Jonathan his family was more than kind. We were treated to a personalized tour of the historic city Brugge, dinners at the Page’s dinner table, and generally treated like good family friends. Jonathan’s wife, a former professional cyclist herself, shared with Jack and me the hectic schedule her husband keeps, and the trials and tribulations facing an American cyclist in the trenches of professional cycling. Jonathan, until his recent success at the World’s Cyclocross Championship in 2007, was treated shabbily by not only other racers (who told him he belonged in the back) but race promoters themselves, who even went so far as to deny paying Jonathan his appearance fees at races. Cori tells a funny story about chasing down such a promoter for the appearance fee, saying “He was terribly surprised to see me standing there demanding the fee, because he thought an American wife wouldn’t that!”

Just as quickly as our trip started, it ended. Jonathan drove us one last time, this occasion being to the train station. We shook hands and expressed our appreciation for his kind efforts and hospitality, and we committed ourselves to joining him in Las Vegas to cheer him on race day later this year.

Then we flew home, leaving two very nice bicycles behind.

My Highlights:

  • Hanging out with a professional cyclist at his house.
  • Free loaner bikes from Ridley’s better stock.
  • Belgium chocolate (email and ask them to mail you some- [email protected]).
  • Riding the Merckxx Loop with Jack and Jonathan.
  • Seeing Erik Zabel in person.

Note: A slightly different version of this story was previously published earlier this summer on Nelson’s club’s site.