Josephine, Merckx and the M20…

This is the Third part of my European roadtrip, if you haven’t read the previous posts then find them here Journey to “The Worlds”…

The morning after the race before:

Now that the Gran Fondo World Championships was done and dusted, a massive weight had been lifted I could relax and enjoy everything now without the burden of a big race weighing heavy on my mind. We ate our final Italian breakfast whilst poring over the road map, plotting our return route, we’d largely stick to the same roads but with a detour thrown in for an overnight stop and another potential stop in Belgium. We packed the van up, complete with plenty of snacks, water and sandwiches for our long drive, we were aiming to get up as far as the French-German border for our overnight stay, planning to get up early and head towards Belgium. I was super excited about this part, if verything went to plan and we had no hold ups or delays we’d have some time to kill before the ferry, so all being well I’d get a ride in Eddy Merckx Country.

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We passed through Italy quickly and over into Switzerland through the seriously impressive mountain roads and tunnels. -Switzerland is definitely on my bucket list for laces to ride with it’s epic switchback climbs and breathtaking scenery, but i’ll save that for another trip perhaps- not least the Gotthard Tunnel, cutting straight through the heart of the San Gotthard mountain for a mega 11 miles! I’d recently read that the road that goes over the top of the mountain was voted the #1 climb in the country by a number of magazines. After 4 hours of terrible radio it was time for a tea break, the Swiss aire’s are famously scenic places to stop, they offer picnic tables, free toilets, showers and overnight camping is encouraged. We took advantage of these facilities knowing as soon as we crossed into France we’d have to pay to pee! On went the gas kettle for our tea as we enjoyed our sandwiches and snacks in the seemingly rare sunshine.

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Full of food and Cornish tea we pressed on for the rest of the day, creeping up the map page by page towards Strasbourg and neighbouring Germany. It had been a long day but a beneficial one with a solid chunk of the journey behind us, the light had that early evening feel to it and our stomachs were reminding us it was getting close to feeding time again, we started searching for places to stay the night. After stopping in Phalsbourg we quickly found that nearly everything was closed on a Monday and only the very expensive hotels were open however, a quick Booking.com search threw up a few nearby places to stay, we decided that Chez Josephine, only 6 miles away at Metting would be ideal; cheap and cheerful and close enough to the motorway for us to be able to get up and go in the morning.

Chez Josephine…

We drove the bizarley undulating 6 miles to Metting where we were met by our hostess for the evening; Josephine Pfieffer. Imagine your Grandmother, your very German Grandmother and you get the idea; Josephine welcomed us in but only spoke French and German, we could more or less get by in French, but struggled with German,we’d had such a long day we would have probably struggled with English. She brought us regional beers and offered us sandwiches, I struggle to explain what Gluten Intolerance means back home in Cornwall let alone in Italian, French or German! Josephine sat us down and in her German/French and our terrible English/German/French we told her about ourselves, and she in turn, about herself. She’d told us she had lived here her whole life and that pre-war it had been a part of Germany but in the aftermath had been reclaimed by France, she considered herself German but accepted that she was now officially living in France and was technically French.

img_4050I’d been cooped up in the van for most of the day and I really wanted to stretch my achey legs out with an easy quick spin, the 12mile loop to Phalsbourg and back was like nothing I’d ever ridden, to say it was rolling is an understatement! There was next to no flat riding at all, the road just hurtled down steep ramps before rising sharply over and over again, absolutely crazy!

I arrived back at Josephines’ to find my Dad still in the front room with 4 other guests and the digger driver from across the road! Fortunately the other guests spoke very good English and could easily translate our hosts’ stories. We chatted away over coffee with cream before making our excuses and droving to the nearby town of Saverne to search for somewhere to eat. Much the same as Phalsbourg, most of the townwas closed with the only thing open being a Carrefour Metro, we weren’t too fussy so stocked up on the typical french picnic fare of soft cheeses, cured meats and antipasti, I even maged to find some Gluten Free bread! We drove part of the way back to Josephines before pulling over to lay-by looking down the valley to eat our picnic-style dinner before heading back to Metting.

We woke early, aiming to be on the road by 0730. Josephine however, had other ideas and insisted we stayed for breakfast; She’d laid on quite a spread with freshly baked breads, pastries, cured meats, boiled eggs, homemade jam and yogurts. Again, the Gluten barrier was proving quite tricky! Luckily I still had some of the bread from last night so I filled up on Jam sandwiches while sneaking the pastries and bread presented to me to Dad when she turned her back!

Back on the Road…

Once we’d said our goodbyes to Josephine, the other guests and the roadworkers who turned up for breakfast we finally hit the road. Dad and I ploughed up the map towards Metz, covering page after page of the map before eventually making our way through Luxembourg. We were making good progress so a ride in Belgium was looking increasingly likely, as was a visit to the famous Centrum De Ronde cycling Museum in Oudenaarde, I was so excited. After a quick mid morning truck-stop coffee to perk us up after our belly full of breakfast we had Brussels in sight by Midday, the trusty satnav wouldn’t take us around the outskirts but instead opted to take us straight through the heart of the city, but actually it was great! A small but beautiful city, with fantastic architecture, lots of bikes and typically metropolitan coffee shops on every street.

We passed through Brussels reasonably quickly, it was nothing like any cross-city drive in the UK, much more photogenic and hassle-free. On the way I’d been googling potential rides that would include the Paterberg and Kwaremont, two of the most famous cobbled climbs in the spring classics. I struck gold with cyclinginflanders.cc who had a number of download-able route maps that could be synced straight to my Garmin. Due to time constraints and “Value for Riding” I opted to ride the 50 km “Eddy Merckx Route” . This would start and finish in the small town of Ruien- where Merckx claimed the last of his incredible 525 victories- not far from the Centrum De Ronde Museum.

img_4115The sleek and modern looking “Centrum De Ronde” museum stands in stark contrast to the gothic cathedral in the cobbled centre of Oudenaarde, surrounded by bustling cafes, rows of shops and full of the usual hubbub of a european town. I was so excited to finally get to see the museum I’d seen in my cycling magazines at home,  I love all cycling history, from the more recent modern rivalries and scandals to the epic battles of the 50’s and 60’s, but the Belgian classics, especially the Tour of Flanders, are such iconic races, the riders who participate are more like gladiators that cyclists.

The visit didn’t dissappoint as at the entrance of De Ronde, is Merckx’s old Molteni team car gleaming in its’ iconic orange, behind the car spanning the whole length of the museum are the Cobblestone trophies given to the winners of De Ronde Van Vlaanderen, one of, if not the most famous of one day races. I looked at every single one from the earlier era of  Rik Van Looy, Tom Simpson, Merckx, De Vlaeminck and the two wins by Goodefroot 10 years apart, to the Legendary wins by Cancellara, Boonen, Devolder and Sagan era. I would’ve paid money just to look at the cobblestones.

We paid our 12 Euros entry and were given our English translation booklet as all the displays and articles would be in Flemmish. The current exhibition looks at the role of champion cyclists during the first world war as messengers and spies, the bicycle being the perfect mode of transport for covert operations, this was followed by a Virtual Reality experience of wartime cycling on a static bike. The rest of the museum had everything a Flandrian Fanatic could ask for; Greg Van Avermaets’ winning BMC Team-machine bike, Tom Simpsons’ actual jersey, (his actual jersey!!) it even had The Lion of Flanders’ himself; Johan Museuws’ Mapei Colnago C40.

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I was in heaven. In the next room was the legendary Flandria team car, complete with spare bikes and tannoy system exactly as it would have been in Freddy Maertens time. More memorabilia fills the room and everywhere I look I see more and more history such as Lizzie Armitsteads’ S-Works tarmac, Pauline Ferrand-Prevots’  Rabobank World Champions jersey, a whole wall full of bottles from different teams over the years and life sized cardboard cut-outs of recent winners. Once through the museum we passed through the gift shop, I buy some bottles and a PDM Cassettes race cap, I had to buy something! We use our entry ticket to get a free coffee or Kwaremont beer in the adjoining cafe. I’m a big time fanboy, I’ve read tonnes of cycling books, watched films and old race tapes so I feel I sort of know who’s who in the sport, so I’m pretty sure it was Freddy Maertens sat at the bar with his beer watching the Cycling on the T.V!

With De Centrum de Ronde ticked off my bucket list It was time for me to have my own taste of the famous cobbles… we drove a few miles down the road for me to start the Eddy Merckx route, as well as the route on my Garmin there would be route markers along the way keeping me on course, in fact there were a number of route markers taking you on different loops in the area including the full Ronde course the professional riders would race, over 200 km!

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Cobbles…

Unfortunately Dad didn’t fancy it, understandably he couldn’t see the appeal of riding on the cobbles but was happy to drive around and watch at various points along the way with his cuppa. I set off on my ride barely able to conceal the huge grin on my face, I was going to be riding on on famous roads! I’d opted to ride my Ritte Vlaanderen with its more classic frame shape and more comfortable geometry, over the stiffer and less forgiving Cervelo S5. Aerodynamics weren’t going to be a factor today, besides, the Ritte was actually called the “Vlaanderen”, if I was going to ride it anywhere, this was surely the place.

The Ritte was equipped with Sram Red, Ritchey finishing kit and Mavic CXR 60mm tubular wheels which was hardly ideal, but at least I wouldn’t get a pinch flat. How harsh could the cobblestones be anyway?… Turns out, pretty harsh!

I started a little past the official route start so I began by staring at my Garmin in fear of making a wrong turn, I needn’t have worried as the route markers were pretty consistent and easy to see. I eased myself into the ride by coasting along the concrete Belgian backlanes before  quickly being met by the first of the famous climbs; The Oude Kwaremont. At 2200 meters long with an 89 metre gain It averages just 4% to begin with, then builds to a maximum 11.6% in the middle where it eases to the summit. The gradient wasn’t an issue compared to the Italian slopes and the short sharp nature of it reminded me of Cornish climbs, it was the surface that was the issue. I’d heard the “cobbles as big as babies’ heads”  before but dismissed it as hype and scaremongering, but man, these were crazy! I’d ridden on cobblestones prior to this ride, even in Italy but nothing like this, this was an assault on all the senses, I fought hard to keep the pedals turning as the hefty cobbles shook my hands and arms violently around, throwing away any sort of rhythm I had. The gaps between the stones snatched at my wheels, and the vibrations seemed blur everything momentarily.

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I remember watching Cancellara attacking Chavanel and Sagan after the third time up the Kwaremont in the E3 Harelbeke, he seemed to float over the cobbles, his head staying perfectly stable and his legs hammering away like pistons on the pedals, powerfully yet smoothly, basically the complete opposite of whatever it was I resembled!

Sure enough Dad was at the top, camera in hand, documenting my happiness. Once the Kwaremont started to flatten out near the top the ferocious cobbles gave way to smaller, polished and much smoother stones where I could regain my momentum and composure again. I Weaved through more of the peaceful lanes before turning onto a long concrete road which was painted with the names and dates of each winner of De Ronde. As I rode by each of the names I tried to guess who would come up next, I didn’t get the highest score. I dutifully doffed my cap at Tommy Simpsons name and stopped at the first of Cancellaras’ wins before passing Boonen, Devolder and Sagan.

After the pleasant but brief relief of a concrete road, its back on to the winding, dusty lanes typical of the region, skirting around the fields before thankfully having to descend the Rampe -another famously hard cobbled climb- rather than ride up it, I think its actually easier going up the cobbles rather than going down, at least you have some sort of control overthe speed and the rattling, trying to pick a line down the cobbles is quite something.

Having tackled the Rampe in one piece, an easier and mellow ride on the stunning, tree-lined Keuzeligenstraat was my reward. I still couldn’t believe I was riding in such an incredible place, the grin was well and truly on. As I started to relax into the narrow and windy lanes I turned right and the then sharply left where I was met with the colossal wall of the Paterberg. I couldn’t believe it, it was so sudden and unexpected, one minute I was on a normal road, like somebody’s driveway and then the next minute, boom, there’s the legendary Paterberg! Topping out at 20.33% with an average gradient of over 12% for a total of 43 painful metres, it’s one of the toughest climbs in the region, mega steep and mega cobbles! My heart rate soared and my grin changed to more of a grimace as I rattled up the climb. But where to ride? in the middle or in the gutter? It didn’t seem to matter, it was bumpy as hell everywhere and my legs were taking a beating.

With the Cobbles done for the time being it was back onto “proper roads” for the Hotond-Hoogberg ascent, a 2.7 km long drag but on comfortable Tarmac without a single cobblestone in sight, I saw the first riders i’d seen all ride in the distance so pushed on, wishing it to be a older De Vlaeminck or a recovering Philippe Gilbert, turns out it was neither and just a guy out for a ride, not knowing the climb I’d pushed on early and now had to hold my pace for the rest of the 107 metres, oops.

The remainder of the ride took me on a speedy but relaxing cruise alongside the River banks of The Scheldt. I passed a few more riders, not really knowing whether to say Bonjour or Hello, I probably should’ve read up on Flemmish greetings prior to the ride. Interestingly all the riders’ i’d seen had been riding either Merckx, Ridley or Colnago, each one with it’s own ties to the region. I weaved through the industrial town of Kerkhove, passing cement works and various other factories before finally crossing the line of the Eddy Merckx route on the smooth, cobbled street in Ruien where, 40 years and 352 days earlier, the Cannibal himself had crossed the line hands aloft.

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What a great ride, it may have been short and sweet but it certainly crammed a lot of things in, the climbs were savage but knowing the riders who had previously ridden them, I really enjoyed them. Cycling is one of the only sports where you can get so close to the professionals and ride the same roads as them, imagining you are them, you can’t play football in the San Siro or Rugby at Twickenham so I think cycling can feel much closer and more real.

To Close…

Obviously the race itself and the build up was very exciting and now that its over I can say I enjoyed it, but the Eddy Merckx route was definitely one of my highlights. My only regret is that I didn’t push my Dad enough to ride it with me, the ride we did back in Mezzomerico was so special I wished I’d shared this with him too. But, I guess it gives me an excuse to come back again, maybe this time I’ll do the driving!

A bike re-pack and quick change later, we made the final advance to Dunkirk ferry terminal, we showed our passports and boarded the ship. Doing the very British thing we drifted through the duty free before heading to the restaurant deck to wolf down some hot food before buckling in for the long haul with playing cards. Farewell Belgium, Hello Great Britain.

I always feel the journey always takes twice as long on the way home, the ferry crossing was quite a rolling one and we were quite happy to back on terra-firma. It was starting to get dark as we left the terminal for the last leg of our adventure, summer was on the way out and Autumn was on the way in. we filled up with fuel ready to tackle the last hurdle before home, driving on the right side of the road made everthing feel more familiar, surely the home-stretch would be the easiest bit?

Our first issue arose with the closure of the M20 between 11pm and 6am, pretty much the time we’d be travelling. Bummer. We battled with the satnav for a while, taking the scenic route through many unmemorable towns before coming back on the A303, we were both pretty tired and despite my efforts to get Dad to share the driving he wasn’t keen and tried to get me to sleep. We stopped off a few times for emergency supplies; Coffee, Jelly babies, Tangfastics and even a Redbull!

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As we came across and overcame more roadworks and road closures the miles soon started ticking by, we debated stopping the night somewhere, but once it had got past 2am we didn’t really see the point. Travelling at that time of night is a weird feeling, there isn’t any scenery or anything to look at, there’s hardly anyone else on the road apart from the occasional lorry, you’re driving through different counties and regions reasonably quickly so the radio stations are in and out too. (The Vans’ radio is pretty shitty too) The end of a trip is never fun and exciting, it’s just a necessary journey to get back to reality. We crossed the Cornish boarder as the sun was starting to rise, conversation had run dry too, we just wanted our beds. 6am came and went, a text from Mum asking when we were due back was all the pick-me-up we needed as we stopped for the last time just outside Truro. The home straight.

I’d driven through Truro at this time of the morning loads for Time Trialling on the A30 and the S6 but this felt different; everyone going about their daily commutes and morning routines, why didn’t they know where we’d just driven from? Why were the traffic lights not guiding us home with green lights all the way? Tiredness was at an all time high.

7:27am. Home. Finally. 

Porthleven, we’d done it, home at last. We pulled onto the drive, switched off the van and just sat there for a second, relieved. What a drive, what a trip! The bikes could wait ’til later on, right now I just needed my bed. Mum and the Dog had other ideas and wanted hear all about the trip. Shattered, I flopped onto the sofa and drank my cup of tea, home flavoured tea, from my kettle, in my mug. Bliss.

I’d thouroughly enjoyed my european adventure, I’d brokn it down into three parts; the getting there, the race and then the journey back, each part was fun in it’s own different way. The race is what I would call “Type 2 fun” as in, it was fun but only once i’d finished it, i’m not so sure I had “fun” during if that makes sense?

The highlights for me would be the climb up the Mottarone in Italy, I had the whole mountain to myself and a full scale mountain at that! The feeling of flying along in a big peloton during the Gran Fondo race was fantastic too. The Flandrian cobbles and the museum trip was definitely up there aswel, I was like a kid at christmas and I still talk about it constantly. But number 1 on the list would be the pre-race ride around Mezzomerico, 20miles of zero-effort, flat land riding with my Dad. As before mentioned, i don’t get to ride with my Dad too often, and to do so in a different country through such a scenic part of the world was so special.

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A massive thankyou to my Dad, as far as travelling companions go he’s awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to share the whole experience with. Another shout out to my local bike shop and JD the mechanic for sorting every cycling related issue i’d have and supplying me with all the tasty Veloforte bars and Torq products I could need.

And lastly, thanks to you guys and girls for reading..

Now, Just Go Ride.

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