We headed out along the canals, pushing a steady mid-30s pace for the better part of an hour. After a quick refueling with the team van we set our sites on the Kemmelberg – another of the famous cobbled climbs of Belgium. Across the rolling fields the berg rose like a camels hump – explaining, I assume, the name. We hit the base of the climb and each rider began their attack. I took it easy as the rattling that my bones received on the Koppenberg taught me that these climbs are deceptively tough.
As I rounded the bend at what I thought was the top I was presented with an even steeper section of the climb. It’s here that I decided to stand up and try to really hammer. Bad move. The rear wheel started spinning and I felt like I was on ice! So I sat back down and had to power through the final meters of the climb. It was tough. But fun. So much so that I tried it again.
We then descended on the cobbled road on the other side and zig-zagged our way across the Belgian countryside. The roads here are truly made for cycling. (In fact I would not want to drive on most of them as they are too narrow and too twisty!)
Entering the town of Westouter the pavement turned back to pavé, and we hit the gas! Three of us had distanced ourselves from the group and we were riding like a three-man breakaway. It was awesome. We ripped through the town, bouncing along the cobbles before attacking another fun climb. At the top of the Rodeberg we were directed to take a different route back towards De Panne so we could catch the finish of the pro race. The return route took us through an incredible valley, and over a couple of fun climbs before depositing us at the bottom of the Kemmelberg. Again. Faced with another climb of the cobbled monster I settled into a nice rhythm and made my way over the top. We had some fun on the climb with Matteo hoping out of the team van and giving Brad a little push – just like we see in the pro races!
The team picked us up and we made our way to De Panne for the race. We met the team at their hotel, had a terrific lunch, and then received our car/rider assignments for the individual time trial. I rode behind Matthias Krizek and Ted King. It was exhilarating. The speed, the fans, the sound of the team director shouting encouragement at the rider, etc. It is truly amazing how fast the pro riders can ride. A true delight for this cycling fan!
After the race finished – Cannodale rider Maciej Bodnar won – we had a drink at a local pub before returning to our hotel for massages and some rest. Even just sitting in a pub, soaking in the atmosphere, and the beer, is a surreal experience. I’m sitting in a pub, in Belgium, drinking a local beer, watching a bike race on TV, a race that is happening 100 feet behind me, a race that I was just “participating” in. Wild!
In the evening we had dinner with the team and management – another extraordinary feast put on by the team chef. The riders signed all of our goodies before we all retired for the night.
So far each day has been more incredible than the previous. I can only imagine how awesome the Ronde on Sunday is going to be!