Flandrien Challenge by Ray Robins

59 segments in 72 hours – sounds simple?

Let me start by explaining that I am a fan of Simon Warren’s books about climbing hills on his bicycle, another simple idea. So, a theme is starting! I have all his books and I’m slowly ticking off the hills. The books provide inspiration to set goals and challenge yourself, but perhaps more importantly they take you to areas you otherwise would not have visited. Whether iconic mountain climbs in the Alps or nearer to home, hills in Essex (there aren’t many)!

How pleased I was to find a challenge set in Flanders where I could tick off 21 out of a possible 50 climbs set in Warren’s book – Helligen, (there is a clue in the title).
My initial response was to circulate my exciting news to friends who may enjoy the challenge. Some of the responses are unrepeatable! A consensus was questioning my sanity. However, I found fellow enthusiasts and the plan was put into action. My preparation had not gone to plan first with Covid and then apparently it is not a good idea to cycle after a knee arthroscopy. Well at least I got my excuses in early. Sometimes you are the hammer and sometimes the nail – I knew which one I was going to be for the weekend.

Eight of us travelled to Belgium spending our first night in the historic town of Ypres. The town is rich in military history. We had a little time before dinner, taking the opportunity we walked around the main thoroughfare visiting the Menin Gate Memorial. A memorial dedicated to the missing British & Commonwealth soldiers who have no graves – over 54,000 names appear on the walls of the memorial, a sobering thought. As it was Easter, we were also treated to free street art entertainment, an impressive show. But food was needed – carbohydrates for what was next in store. Ypres is a town I will re-visit.

This was only my second foray onto the pavé of Belgium, at least I had an idea of what was to be expected – knee crunching gradients often upwards of 20%, even the shallow gradients of cobbles become energy sapping beasts, perhaps the bigger test is the descents. Trying to control the bike on an unpredictable surface.

The following morning a short car journey to the start of day 1 ride, in Kemmel, our shortest day on the saddle. A gentle 5-mile warm-up completed; we then took on the segments – just the nine. And yes, it was brutal particularly the Kemmelberg with 20% ramps! The designers of the course I think have masochistic tendencies as we climbed the Kemmelberg, twice – from both sides. The cobbles are irregular, and you bounce around struggling to hold a straightish line! I attempted to stick to the crown of the road – not much chance as I veered left and right fighting with the bike to get back to the centre – a chaotic climb on the treacherous surface. Again, atop of the Kemmelberg is another monument – Monument Aux Soldats Français’ (The Angel) to commemorate the 5,294 French killed fighting for possession of the hill. A hill had vast strategic importance during the first World War. Ride complete with no untoward incident – result! Just a short drive to our next base Oudenaarde & the Leopold hotel.

Oudenaarde is perhaps the spiritual home of cycling in Belgium in the heart of Flandrien territory. It’s where the Tour of Flanders finishes, also involved during Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Saxo Bank Classic, Dwars door Vlaanderen & the Ronde Vlaanderen. It’s where the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, a museum – café – shop is based a short walk from the hotel, the originators of the Flanderien Challenge. If successful, Cycling in Flanders will engrave your name on a cobblestone (really a pebble) & put it on the wall in the museum. Another meal and an early night.

Day 2 the longest day in the saddle over 120 miles and 23 segments. I found riding in the area a little disconcerting regarding traffic, cars, vans lorries would stop and smile at you, waving you out at junctions! No shouting abuse – no swearing and no gesticulation. Vehicles would slow and shout words of encouragement on the climbs! Just something I’m not used to. Amongst the 23 segments we took on the legendary ‘Muur van Geraardsbergen’ (Grammont Wall) with its 20% ramps. On another day I’d like to pause and visit the city, one of the oldest in Belgium and again steeped in cycling lore. It is the headquarters to Remco Evenepoel’s Fanclub, unfortunately no time on this ride. The ride is relentless so many of the segments you grind up the gradient which is in double figures although you can’t actually focus on the Garmin as the cobblestones are tossing you around. I think we all struggled at some point; we had become quiet no banter. One of the guys was indeed struggling, considering throwing in the towel! It was at that point the group came together, no fuss, no drama, just a few words of encouragement and riding together in a close group got him and us through it. One of the highlights of the ride!

Day 3 now on tired legs and minds we realise we made an error the previous day & missed 2 segments, so day 3 just become harder both mentally and physically. 27 segments and 96 miles. We had been lucky with the weather up until this point but on day 3 the rain came, and what a difference the rain makes to the cobbles both ascending and descending. Amongst the segments we took on the trinity of the Oude Kwaremont, the longest cobbled climb in the region, Patterberg short and steep averaging just under15% but tops at 21%, with a right-handed turn into the base to ensure no run up and the Koppenberg! I found the Koppenberg by far the most difficult climb, not because it is steep at 22%, but its cobbles are even more uneven and irregularly spaced out. It runs between two high banks and is covered with a canopy of trees. The gaps between the cobbles can easily swallow 28m tyres. Mud runs from the banks over the cobbles which themselves have patches of green lichen and the rain causes a stream to flow through the cobbles. Mr Warren gives this climb just 9/10 – I’d award it a full 10. In these conditions it was unrideable – I wrestled with the bike but in the end succumbed to the inevitable and slipped to a stop. Only one of our number made it and he perhaps made the wisest choice by riding a gravel bike. One rider wasn’t so lucky and had an ‘off’ fortunately no injury. Walking wasn’t much easier as I made a good impression of Bambi on ice! After 30m or so the gradient eased, a farmer had left some metal sheets on an entrance to a farm. I decided to re-mount and push on, that was no easy task, with the back wheel constantly slipping but lady luck was with me, and I did manage to stay on this time until the end. After over 8 hours on the bike, we finally rolled back into Oudenaarde. We had all completed the challenge! But one more incident yet before putting the bikes away – a slight ramp down into the garage area of the hotel, we each descended dripping water and mud onto the almost perfect concreate surface unfortunately the last man down did come down and heavily. No broken bones but a bloodied and bruised knee and sore shoulder.

A celebratory dinner and even a couple of beers finished the day!

The last day we were awarded the ‘engraved pebble’ and our names went up on the wall along with about 800 others who previously completed the challenge.

Ray Robins
Club Runs Captain.