The Flandrien Challenge is a collection of 59 iconic Flemish cobbled sections and (normally cobbled) hills and 72 hours to tame them.
I decided, just for Jaegher, to ride an Ultra Version, combining the 3 routes proposed by the organiser, Cycling in Flanders: A total of 443km, 5500 height metres and a modest 26km of cobbles. Gulp! A real Flandrien ride for a real Flandrien bike.
My challenge is to ride these 3 routes as quickly as possible and, apart from during the depths of night, I'll be followed by a car from Jaegher. Whilst this means that, unlike most of my racing, my Flandrien Challenge will not be strictly Self-Supported, I will lose less time hunting for food and water and I won't have the problem of carrying large amounts of that or of clothing on the bike.
Despite the companionship provided in those few stops, it promises to be another long and lonely ride. So I make playlists and download my favourite podcasts for company and away we go...
KM 0 - IEPER (0/59), 15/04 - 17U00
At the start of my ride, it is 11 degrees. The weather looks changeable, but at least I can start in the dry. With the Menin Gate as backdrop, I set off for the first part of my Flandrien Challenge: A 75 kilometre loop through the pretty Heuvelland, including the first 9 Strava segments. It should be a brisk 3 hours in the saddle, taking in the Baneberg, the Monteberg and both sides of the Kemmelberg (Ossuaire and Belvedere). The Kemmelberg will also put the first cobbles behind me.
Though it is a beautiful route, it confirms early on that I'll need to be careful to measure my effort as much as possible on the climbs... There is still a lot of climbing to come.
KM 75 - IEPER (9/59), 20U00
As the Last Post plays at 8 o'clock, I fill up my bidons for the first time and leave Ieper behind me for a 54km ride to Nokere. It's a boring route whose only purpose is to connect me to the second part of the Challenge and consists of long, straight main roads. However, with podcasts from De Rode Lantaarn and De Tribune ringing in my ears I arrive quickly enough. Meanwhile, it's getting darker: Time for an extra layer of clothing. Now the sun has set, the temperature has dipped to 2 Celcius, with a North East wind making it feel even lower. It's going to be a cold night on the bike.
The Nokereberg is the first segment on this second leg and 5 kilometers later I ride over the well-laid cobbles of the Huispontweg, in Wannegem Lede. A deer crosses in front of me. He looks at me, shocked at my intrusion and disappears across dark fields.
Before I set off I was worried that riding cobbles in the dark would have me constantly on edge; scared of not seeing a hole and puncturing, but I can see much further than I expected. This meant I could enjoy the atmosphere of the deserted country lanes of the Flemish Ardennes. Even when you can't take in the view, cycling here has its charms.
KM 189 - GERAARDSBERGEN (19/59), 16/04 - 01U05
After a few more hills and famous cobbled lanes, such as Paddestraat and the Lippenhovestraat, I arrive in Geraardsbergen. "Real Flandriens Ride On The Cobbles" says a sign next to the road on my way up to the Muur. On a normal ride, I'd heed the advice and stick to the stones, but tonight the footpath is too tempting an option. I've already ridden a good dose of cobbles and there are plenty more to come. The challenge is Flandrien enough even without this particular stretch.
It's a great feeling to ride on the Muur of Geraardsbergen at night. The temperature keeps rising and dipping above and below freezing but so long as I'm climbing I can keep warm. The vibrations from the cobbles are also helping my hands and feet stay warm.
Emanuel from Jaegher is waiting on top of the Muur with a thermos of warm water. Add a vegetable stock cube and you have a warming soup on a cold night. Soon the temperature will drop definitively below zero, not rising again until around 7am. That means I have to eat and drink more than normal, as my body is using extra energy just to stay warm. I stuff down a couple of peanut butter sandwiches, put some pieces of cake and Innerme gels in my jacket and ride off into the night for a lonely five hours before sunrise.
With the Bosberg, Valkenberg, Berendries, Molenberg and the cobbles of Kerkgate, the Eikenberg and Wolvenberg on the menu there are no sections where it's possible to really take it easy on this route but at least it keeps me warm and focused. I took a caffeine pill on top of the Muur, as fatigue was starting to set in. My music and podcasts are also helping to keep me awake.
KM 295 - RUITERSSTRAAT, MATER (34/59), 6U16
It's been below freezing for three hours now, in fact it's around -4 Celcius, but knowing that the sun is starting to come up is keeping my moral in good shape. At the end of the cobbles I see Emanuel again, he's spent a short night in his van back on the Muur. We agree to meet again in two hours for breakfast. I order coffee and croissants. Again, a world of difference to the self-supported racing I normally take part in... but a good difference. A little comfort every now and then won't kill me.
KM 334 - FOREEST, SCHORISSE (40/59), 8U20
In every Ultra-race that I've ever ridden, this is one of the best moments. The sun rising after a long night and then eating breakfast. I come to the top of the Foreest climb and feel a cold sweat on my back for the second time... Covid? No... It's the bonk! I've been eating and drinking all night but the freezing temperatures have ensured that I've burned a lot of extra energy just to keep warm. Time to fuel up: Two croissants, a pain au chocolat and a coffee later, however, and I'm ready for the 'finale' of my Flandrien Challenge. Another 110km and 19 segments and I'll cross the finish line outside the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen in Oudenaarde. With 334km already in my legs, I'm feeling fatigue but I've been careful in my efforts and I think I still have enough in the tank. This should go.
KM 397 - KLUISBERG, RUIEN (51/59), 11U15
Just before the Kluisberg, I start to feel a little niggle in my right knee. Maybe these steep hills aren't supposed to be ridden fifty at a time...
At the top of the Kluisberg, I make a short stop for something to eat. These pauses are getting closer together, a sure sign that I'm starting to find it tough. And there is yet another mental test coming... After the descent of the Kluisberg just as I'm starting to count down the hills, I get to climb the Knokteberg to get back to the top of the ridge above Kwaremont. It's a nice hill but, as it begins in Wallonia, it doesn't count as one of the segments. Kluisberg and Knokteberg at two for the price of one. Thanks Cycling in Flanders.
KM 408, OUDE KWAREMONT, BERCHEM (52/59), 11U50
The Big Three of the Flemish Ardennes are next up. The Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg and the Koppenberg. The pain in my knee is gone, the sun is shining and the temperature is a balmy 10 Celcius. I feel the end getting closer and dare to ride a little faster... Faster being a relative term after 400km and nearly 5000 climbing meters.
As I get to the foot of the Koppenberg, I feel a combination of joy and fear. The Monster of Melden is not unknown to me, but it remains a climb that you have to force your way up every time. I hope I still have enough power to get up it. I let some other cyclists start ahead of me, not only so I don't get in their way if I have to stop, but also for the mental boost of having a target to chase. I manage to catch three of them and in 3 minutes and 26 seconds I'm at the top. That's a full minute and 20 seconds slower than my best. On the descent, I can see the belfry in Oudenaarde and I feel like all I have to do is ride back there. Sadly, there are still four segments to ride and they're all harder than I would like.
KM 435, KOUTERBERG, MAARKE-KERKEM (58/59), 13U21
Thanks to the gutter (think Tom Boonen but slower), I make it up the Taaienberg but the start of Kouterberg throws up another mental test. A family on city bikes start the climb before me and I can't catch the two children and am groveling to the top. I try to save as much energy as possible for the final climb of Ladeuze, just to make sure I get up. I make it, but only thanks to the fact that it is, in fact, the last hill. I want to take a photo to commemorate the moment, but there's no line here to mark the end of the segment. I don't go back to search for it... It's time to descend to Oudenaarde and the finish line.
KM 443, CENTRUM RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN, OUDENAARDE (FINISH), 13U46
What a great feeling... After 59 segments, 443 Kilometers and 5350 height meters I arrive on the Grote Markt in Oudenaarde and to see the orange Molteni team car in front of the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen. It's over. My Jaegher x Flandrien Challenge is in the books. 20 hours, 43 minutes and 29 seconds after I set off in Ieper. Time to eat and time for sleep. Lots of sleep.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENTS DURING THE FLANDRIEN CHALLENGE:
#1 Koppenberg (55/59): Even so close to the end, the Koppenberg remains a favorite. The combination of terrifying and beautiful, the classic of the classics.
#2 Schapenberg/Scherpenberg (50/59): A horribly steep but beautiful hilleen. I had the feeling here that I was riding through a tiny mountain village.
#3 Huisepontweg (11/59): A cobbled section with a better view than expected in the dark (with a good light) and thanks to a deer crossing my path one of the special moments of this ride.
#4 De Muur (19/59): The Muur by night, Completely deserted and truly special to climb at 0130hrs
#5 Kemmelberg Ossuaire (1/59): The steepest and longest side to climb the Kemmelberg. with cobbles that seem to pull you down as you ride up. A beautiful climb, but I was happy it was at the start of the ride.
This was my first ultra ride since I abandoned the Race Around The Netherlands last year with stomach problems. During my successful race in Portugal in 2019, I also suffered from this towards the end of the race.
So it was time to look for a solution and to adjust my nutrition on and off the bike. Since then I no longer eat processed sports-food on the bike and as little as possible off the bike.
In terms of sports nutrition, I switched to the Belgian Innerme, natural sports nutrition that not only provides energy, but is also nutritious. My favorites are the gels (strawberry and lemon) made from natural sugars from tapioca, agave and corn. I ate eleven of those gels during this challenge and wasn't tired of them yet
In addition, I had homemade cakes based on sweet potato or rice (recipes from Hannah Grant, recommended!).
In terms of drinking, I only drank water, no sports drink, cola or other sodas.
During a self-supported ultra race I am, of course, even more dependent on what I find along the way but the fact that I did not suffer from stomach acid after this challenge is a great reassurance for me.
By avoiding those refined sugars, I also lost two kilos in two months, without consciously wanting to lose weight. Not to be sniffed at if you have to ride uphill a lot.