Flanders is a much fabled cycling destination. Over the past 2 months many of us have been glued to our screens as Van Aert, Van der Poel, Pogacar and the pro peloton have treated us to an extraordinary spring of attacking racing and super human feats.
It was with these scenes etched into our memory that we headed to Flanders in late April to take on the Flandrien Challenge.
The Flandrien Challenge was designed by the team at Cycling in Flanders, the department of the local tourist board tasked with further developing cycling in the region. The challenge involves riding 59 designated sectors within 72 hours, we chose to follow the route developed by the local experts which involved just over 400km in 72 hours - including just shy of 5000m ascent and a lot of cobbles and steep gradients. The route is not designed to be raced, but instead, to be experienced and that we certainly did.
For our trip we stayed in Oudenaarde at The Leopold Hotel, just a stones throw from the Tour of Flanders museum and the race finish line. The hotel is well versed in hosting cyclists and the sight of cleat waddling, lycra clad lunatics is common at the breakfast buffet.
Like with any long distance challenge, the Flandrien challenge is as much a mental examination as it is physical. We were keenly aware that each effort should be moderated with a nastier surprise never far away. However, this method was tested on only the second climb of day 1, with the first ascent of the Kemmelberg (Ossaire) leaving us with little option, but to grit our teeth and grind over the cobbles before arriving at the foot of the war memorial. This would be the theme of the challenge - moderate efforts until the terrain meant you had no choice!
Day 1 starts and finishes outside the Cloth Hall in the centre of Ypres. For cyclists this region is made famous by Ghent-Wevelgem, however it's fields have born witness to some of modern histories most terrible battles and scenes of suffering and endeavour. As a slight juxtaposition to its history, cycling here is wonderful, the rolling fields and narrow farm lanes are a great playground for cycle tourism.
The Kemmelberg provides a stern test which ever route you choose and the ascent up to the Baneberg is well worth the grunt, to see the picturesque windmill at the peak. Finishing the ride through the Menin gate, is both a privilege and a timely reminder of what real suffering is and that our efforts over the next two days pale into insignificance when compared to those men and women who fell there a little over a century ago.
Day 2 is an absolute monster - not in terms of climbing, but the distance certainly keeps you honest. The pursuit of high average speed neglected in the knowledge that day 3 is where the real beasts lie. The route on day 2, whilst long, is really varied. The early cobbled segments of Doorn and the Paddestraat are perfect for the more powerful riders.
Whilst the climbs of the Berendries and Wolvenberg are well suited to the grimpeurs. The iconic climbs of the day come just after 70km where riders take on the Muur van Geraardsbergen and then The Bosberg. Taken 'full gas' the Muur would be incredibly difficult, however if you can soft tap through the town, before putting the power down over the rough cobbles - all riders will be greeted with the iconic image of the Chapel as they round the left hand band at the top. You can really sense that you are riding through one of cyclings great theatres!
Day 3.........well if Day 2 was a monster, Day 3 is a monster that got out of bed the wrong side! We definitely recommend saving some efforts for this ride and laying off the very tempting Belgian beers the night before. A cursory glance at the route map would highlight the all the iconic ascents are packed into the last 60km. However, before that there are some serious tests.
Personally, I think this route - as a stand alone test - is awesome and a real test of physical and mental fortitude. Within 1.5km of the start you are hit with an ascent of the Achterberg, which feels a rather rude awakening having just 'fuelled' at the breakfast buffet. Stinging climbs and technical descents are the theme of the first 50km of the day. By the time the day is done riders we are under no illusions about why Belgium produces so many top cyclists, as technique and physical attributes are constantly tested.
It is on the outskirts of Ronse that things start to get interesting with the ascent of the Kanarieberg quickly followed by the cobbled Berg Ten Houte. Both are tough climbs and to quote one of our group - 'I went to a dark place there'.
It is now that you are likely to recognise the roads from the Ronde, with the climb of the Oude Kruisberg and the left turn up to the Hotondberg featuring before they head to their finishing circuits. A rather unpleasant surprise then awaits with the Scherpenberg - taking you back up to the Hotond hotel - this is a stem chewing climb with some nasty gradients and one that we didn't recognise nor anticipate!
Now onto the icons to really finish you off. The Oude Kwaremont is amazing - a sticky start is followed by a bumpy drag for well over a km tells only part of the story. This really is a special climb - achievable for all, but not at the speed with which Pogacar attacked it. Then onto the Paterberg - swing right, get your head down and stamp those pedals! By the top your legs are screaming, and that left turn at the top is both welcome and iconic.
Then comes the Koppenberg - I am unsure how to frame this section of road, other than to say it is bloody awful. Coming after 120km
of riding and two previous big days in the saddle - it is even worse!! However, once over this the biggest challenges are done and there are just a couple of bergs (including the Taienberg) before your descent to greatness and a well earned feeling of both relief, ecstasy and pride! And several Belgian beers.
I would like to thank Richard, Graham and Matthew for travelling to Flanders with us for our first fixed date trip.
We intend to make this trip an annual pilgrimage and truly believe it could become a bucket list challenge for many UK riders. With Oudenaarde being only a couple of hours from Calais, Cycling in Flanders need be neither expensive nor stressful. 2023 challenge dates have already been released............what are you waiting for you :)