When it comes to cycling destinations, there are two prevailing attitudes towards spending money and time visiting a city such as Oudenaarde, the town most central to the cobbled climbs of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders), the most important race in Belgium.
One school of thought is that Belgium is relatively flat, prone to wet weather, known more for its chocolate and beer than cuisine, and wholly lacking in the Mediterranean flavor of Tuscany or the alpine mystique of Annecy or Grenoble. However, for hard-core cycling enthusiasts, a trip to the Flanders region of Belgium is nothing less than a pilgrimage to the most hallowed grounds in the sport — the roads where natives Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen became legends.
Close to Gent and Brugge and located along the banks of the River Scheldt, Oudenaarde (meaning “old field”) is about 75 minutes from the beaches of De Panne and the sand dunes in Koksijde, near the infamous battlefields of World War I. Once renowned for its tapestry production, for a century now Oudenaarde has been the central access point to a network of loops connecting the cobbled climbs of De Ronde. The town of 30,000 is the traditional starting point for the women’s Tour of Flanders, and is home to Centre Ronde van Vlaanderen, a two-story museum located in the main town square dedicated entirely to the race and its place in Belgian cycling history. In addition to several thousand square feet of displays of memorabilia — jerseys, bikes, tools and more — Centre Ronde van Vlaanderen also features a conference room, café and gift shop.
Unless you’re Belgian, it’s unlikely you speak Flemish, the local Dutch dialect, but that shouldn’t dissuade you; the majority of Flandrians under the age of 40 speak English fluently, and most conversations and interactions are quite easy. (For almost a decade American cyclocross expat Jonathan Page has called Oudenaarde home.)
The annual Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo is one of the coolest and most well attended organized cycling events in existence. Nearly 20,000 cyclists of all shapes, sizes and ages descend upon Flanders to ride the “hellingen” of De Ronde. For the 2014 event, held April 5 — the day before the classic — three routes are available: 247km, starting in Brugge and following a similar route to the one the pros will ride; 134km, which starts and ends in Oudenaarde and delivers 15 climbs; and an 75km version, which delivers nine climbs, including the Koppenberg and Kwaremont. Best of all, cost of entry is relatively low, about $40.
In 2012 organizers moved the finish of De Ronde from Ninove, where it had finished since 1973, to Oudenaarde. In 2014 the Oude Kwaremont will feature three times and the Paterberg will appear twice, replacing the Muur-Kapelmuur of Geraardsbergen as the most pivotal late-race climbs. There was public outrage in Belgium over the removal of the Muur, but the new course design only cements Oudenaarde’s position as the epicenter of Belgium’s biggest race.
Air: Fly in and out of Brussels Airport, about an hour away. Flights from the U.S. are overnight, so be prepared to disembark into the hustle and bustle of Belgium’s busiest airport during morning rush hour.
Train: Use SNCB, Belgium’s national railway company. Oudenaarde can be reached by train from Brussels (45 to 50 minutes), Gent (30 minutes) and Kortrijk (20 minutes).
Auto: From Brussels there are two routes. The highway route involves taking the E40 towards Gent, merging on to the E17 toward Kortrijk, and taking the N60 to Oudenaarde. The back road route involves taking the N8 west from Brussels in the direction of Ronse; after passing through Ninove and Brakel, head north from Ronse on the N60 to Oudenaarde.
Passport/Visa requirements: A passport is required to depart on an international flight, and upon arriving in the European Union.
High-end: For a garden terrace, sauna, and view of the Scheldt River, look into Hotel-Restaurant De Rantere.
Mid-range: If swanky, modern design across from the town square appeals, see Gastenverblijf Steenhuyse.
Budget: If a communal kitchen, wrenching on your bike, great beer, and a relaxed atmosphere are more your bag, book at The ChainStay. Youth hostel-style rooms are available at Het Moerashuis (The Outsider), on a lake near the city center.
Three color-coded Ronde van Vlaanderen routes are signposted throughout the region, and all three pass through Oudenaarde. The routes, which take in a variety of De Ronde’s climbs, are 78km, 103km, and 114km in length, and were recently updated, so have a look at one of the local cycling maps before heading out onto the road.
If these routes are too long or too hard, you can choose from 18 signposted, numbered routes ranging from 30 to 50km. Mountain bikers will love the Flemish Ardennes trail network, with over 220km of signposted mountain bike routes. Routes can be downloaded as GPX files and pre-loaded onto a GPS.
The expansive town square (“Markt”) is lined with cafés and bars. One good option is De Cridts, a café-restaurant serving standard Flemish dishes at reasonable prices, with main courses averaging $20.
Sights to see
Cycling fans will gravitate towards the Centre Ronde van Vlaanderen and its Brasserie De Flandrien, a café populated by both tourists and locals watching televised races, sipping Belgian beers and dining on daily specials such as Carbonnades Cancellara, Spaghetti Boononaise and Pasta Ballan. Admission is 7 euros, or, for 75 euros, you can enjoy a guided tour by museum patriarch Freddy Maertens, the two-time Belgian world champion who, sadly, never claimed a Ronde title for himself. Admission to the brasserie is free.
Oudenaarde has a rich brewing tradition with many regional breweries. Four are still active today: Roman, Liefmans, Cnudde and the newest brewery, Smisje. These can be found on tap at Hanske de Krijger, a pastel-decorated bar off the Grote Markt. A second option is De Carillon, the oldest café-restaurant in Oudenaarde, consisting of a pair of 400-year-old brick and sandstone houses and a large sidewalk terrace, all in the shadow of the Market Hall.
The Wheel Palace is a full-service cycling megastore located 4km from the town square.
Matthew Beaudin contributed to this guide.