Cobbles, hills and 16,000 friends: Riding the Ronde sportive
Editor’s note: In between covering the spring classics, we are riding the sportives of Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. This coverage is made possible by sponsorship from Pearl Izumi, Schwalbe, Stages Cycling and Roll Massif.
By dawn, thousands of riders are amassed on the roads into Oudenaarde. Cars squeeze into tight spaces far from the start. Layers and helmets are pulled on, and tires are pumped. Streams of cyclists, many in matching club kits, merge into rivers as the multi-national peloton makes its way to the start of an enormous Belgian tradition.
I’ve done the Tour of Flanders sportive seven or eight times, and I’ll do it again as often as I can until I’m dead. How do I love the Ronde sportive? Let me count the ways: it’s the course, the people, the party.
First, a quick primer on The Tour of Flanders. De Ronde van Vlaanderen is the biggest one-day race in Belgium, and of course, Belgium is absolutely nuts for bike racing. The men’s and women’s races are held in early April on narrow, sharply shifting lanes, with cobbled climbs punctuating the course and providing springboards for attacks. Win here in the WorldTour race on Sunday, and your career is made.
The sportive — now dubbed We Ride Flanders — is held the day before on many of the same roads. There are four routes: 74, 139, 174 and 229km, the latter of which mimics the pro race in starting from Antwerp and finishing in Oudenaarde. The first three start and finish in Oudenaarde. VeloNews editor Fred Dreier and I went in for the 174km option. The full route is for the birds; sure, it’s big, but it’s logistical brain damage getting yourself back north after a long day on the bike. Plus, all those extra Ks are flat road miles. All the good stuff is in the 174km route, and most of the good stuff is in the shorter two as well. Our logic, however, did not stop some of our Belgian friends from calling us wimps, among other choice words.
The course: 18 Hellingen, 5 Kasseistrook
I’ve often described the Belgian country lanes as singletrack for road bikes. Often just one-car wide, the paved stretches are like nothing you’d find in America. Constantly ducking, banking, rolling and often including holes, cobbles and road furniture, the roads keep you on your toes. With an enormous pack flowing through the route, it is impossible to get bored; you are in the flow. Throw in the fact that you’re whizzing through ancient villages with beautiful churches, bucolic scenes with farm animals, and pivotal battleground scenes from decades of pro racing … it’s bike riding heaven.
The two longer routes feature 18 climbs, or hellingen, most of which are cobbled. You know the big names from the race: the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Koppenberg, the Taaienberg, Oude Kwaremont, and the Paterberg.
There are also five flattish sections of cobblestones, or kasseien, on the circuitous 174km route.
As you probably know from following the race, the climbs and cobbled sections are short, usually between 500m and 2km. It’s enough to be an endorphin-generating challenge, for sure, but not long enough to be straight-up demoralizing.
Using Stages power meters and Dash M50 computers, it was fun to look at the power we did on the bergs and then compare that to what the pros did the next day. Suffice it to say, we’re keeping our day jobs.
Schwalbe sponsored our Belgian boondoggle, so we had our choice of German tires. To make the cobbles as smooth as possible, we used 28mm Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless Tires. On my 3T wheels with a wide, 25mm-internal-width rim, they measure over 30mm. I put about 75 psi in mine. We’ve seen a few pros racing tubeless at the classics this year, including Alexander Kristoff (UAE), who won Gent-Wevelgem on 28mm tubeless.
One benefit of tubeless is being able to run lower pressures without worrying about pinch flatting a tube. Lower pressure, of course, means more comfort and often better grip. Sure, you add a minute amount of rolling resistance with the drop in pressure but come on, we’re out here for fun, not a WorldTour win!
The people: We are the world
More than half to the sportive riders are from outside Belgium. Brits and Dutch riders make up the biggest groups, but many Italian, Spanish, French, and American riders fill out the herd. Some are amateur racers, most are pro-race fans, and all love the challenge of the ride.
Many of you are now familiar with Zwift, where on a virtual ride there are endless packs of riders to jump in with, whizzing past in mass every few seconds. The languages spoken and countries represented are seemingly as diverse as the bikes being ridden. That’s the Ronde but, you know, in real life.
I love how comfortable everyone is riding in close quarters. For American riders, if you can get 100 cyclists together for a group ride where people understand pack dynamics, you’re doing pretty well. Imagine your biggest local group ride. Now multiply that by 160.
The party: Not limited to the riders!
The Ronde sportive is a huge bike nerd party. Some of the cool kids or locals will tell you that you shouldn’t ride the event because it’s too crowded. And, yes, if you want to get a clear shot at the Muur or the Koppenberg, go ride them on any other day of the year except sportive day and race day. But riding by yourself is not the point of the Ronde Sportive any more than having a quiet drink alone is the point of going to Mardi Gras. You’re here for the party!
The Muur is usually crowded — including with friends and family on the roadside near the church — but it’s almost always rideable, as are nearly all the other climbs. You might go slower than if you rode alone, but you can keep the pedals turning over. The Koppenberg, however, is another story. It’s like a Disneyland ride, at least in terms of the line. Yes, there is a wait backed up onto the bike path below the climb.
The organizers started a new program of letting 100 people go at a time to try to avoid the worst of the bottlenecking where the climb pinches in width and steepens in gradient, and people usually come off their bikes. Of the eight or so times I’ve done the sportive, I’ve been able to ride without putting a foot down twice. That has been on dry years. Lose traction on the slippery steep section in the wet and you’re walking, buddy. (And even that is a challenge in road cleats!) Usually what happens is someone in front of you starts to falter and either tips over or veers wildly to the side, ending your shot at everlasting amateur-in-stretchy-pants glory.
The 100-at-a-time plan worked okay, but with the road basically three riders wide and kicking to 22% over rough cobbles, your chances are still slim unless you’ve got the holeshot. Sure enough, on this go a rider ahead of me lost his mojo, flailed and flopped his bike and body at a hard right angle, and into the hillside. For me, that meant a foot down, and one more loss in the Ben vs. Koppenberg-on-sportive-day column.
Coming into Flanders, we brought a whole bag of Pearl Izumi gear — rain jackets, water-deflecting warmers, booties, winter hats and more. Thankfully the roads were dry for our big rides. That meant, Koppenberg aside, riding up the Oude Kwaremont and then the sharp Paterberg in a big bunch was doable and safe.
The finish always cracks me up. On the flat run-in on wide roads, people coalesce into hard-charging packs a few kilometers out from the huge finishing truss. Most of us are not young people. None of us are actual racers. And, most crucially, this is not an actual race. It’s a start-when-you-want sportive with 16,000 people. Yet why not wind it up a bit for the finale?
Across the line, it’s time to find your friends, find some food and toast the day with a Belgian brew. Just be careful on the drinks; the beers here are as high in alcohol content as the bergs are steep.
The gear we used
Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless 28mm. Photo: Ben Delaney | Roll Massif
Stages Dash M50. Photo: Ben Delaney | Roll Massif