Hannah and I decided to head to Belgium this Spring to catch as many of the pro races we could. It also gave us the chance to ride some of the same roads the pros do. We were signed up to do both the Gent – Wevelgem Sportive and Tour of Flanders Sportive. I completed the short version of Gent – Wevelgem in 2017. We were down to do the longer 136km route which proved to be a different beast.
Unlike last year the weather was a lot nicer. It was chilly but significantly less windy – a trade-off that we’re both prepared to make! We made a start at the finish line of the actual race. It makes sense to start at the end and do a loop. Instead of starting miles away in Roeselare like the pros.
Starting the Gent – Wevelgem Sportive
The first part of the route is relatively flat and gentle. Large groups formed and we followed the wheels to stay out of the wind. On the first tiniest 20 metre section of cobbles, my bottle popped out. It got squished and destroyed by riders behind. We didn’t stop, it was a goner. We then hit some easy cobbles in one village and everyone slowed right down. One rider ended up on the receiving end of my ire for slowing and only coasting. The correct thing to do is to speed up and they hurt less!
The groups kept increasing in size. Winding their way around very narrow lanes with lots of sudden 90 degree turns. The edges of the road had fallen away into the fields too. The knowledge from last year meant I knew to not even think about flirting with this edge. I didn’t see it, but Hannah told me someone went full-on deep into a field. There were no fences or hedges so he hadn’t hit anything. He went a good 25 metres into a ploughed, muddy field before stopping.
The ride followed the road from Wevelgem to Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish). With plenty of reminders of history by the side of the road. Lots of the white headstones of military cemeteries from the First World War were visible. Gent – Wevelgem itself recently went under a rebranding to add ‘In Flanders Fields’ to the title. This was in recognition of it being 100 years since the fighting began. There were to be further reminders later on.
We hit the town of Ypres itself and had fun on its nice cobbles. We were then back on the narrow roads, heading into the countryside. I managed to find myself a bottle by the side of the road. Ironically a Tour of Flanders one given what we had planned for the week. We started the named climbs for the day which all rolled into one or two in our collective memory.
The two we two remember specifically were brutes. The Baneberg is short but a killer. Turning off the main road, the road went straight up to 9% as we entered a wood. Before it shot up to 23% whilst rounding a bend. The steepness abated as we left the wood, to be greeted by the sight of the windmill at the top of the hill. Hannah certainly looked pleased it was over when she crested it.
The second of the hills was the Kemmelberg. The hill made famous by the race, the pros would climb it from two different directions the following day. The hill slowly wound itself up steeper and steeper, eventually being 9% as the tarmac finished and the cobbles began. The cobbled section hits a max of 25%, the steepest climb we’d do all week.
Hannah stopped at the bottom to take a photo and I ground my way up. I’d stayed on all the way last year and was determined to do the same. Someone who was already off their bike chose the moment I was coming past to turn their bike around and get in the way. They got some abuse from me. I was side by side with another rider all the way up. Happy to say I beat him by a wheel to the timing sensors line.
The next sections we can both recall are the Ploegsteerte. Two sections of gravel roads that paid homage to the First World War and the fighting that took place over the same ground. One section took us over Hill 62 (the catchy military name) which was a timed segment by the organisers. I hopped on the back of a group of four quick riders as the road started to go upwards.
One by one they dropped off until I was following just one guy. As we came near to the top of the crest, I attacked to make sure I’d given everything. Only it wasn’t the end. Now with a huge heart rate, I had to push on to get the speed back on the flatter section. Eventually, it went downhill again and I was overtaking everyone I could see. I ended up with a time that put me 150th of 4151 riders that day.
The next section of gravel roads was ever so slightly downhill which meant I was able to average over 23mph on it. Then getting a chance to rest at the end. Going round gravel corners at that speed is something I’m not used to. But it’s amazing how much a road bike will let you do to it, even on slick tyres. This was Hannah’s favourite section of the ride.
The final stretch of the Gent – Wevelgem Sportive
Hannah was wearing her Storey Racing jersey and got mistaken for an actual racer. A man had a conversation with her about a specific race (Graham Edmondson?) to which Hannah didn’t say much. At the next feed stop, she got recognised by the same guy and Hannah had to let him down gently in front of his mate, who laughed.
The last section of the ride was perfectly flat as we followed the canal between the back into Wevelgem. Whilst it was good to not have any more hills to climb, it was slightly boring as the scenery didn’t change particularly. Every now and again a huge group of riders would pass us. All getting an easy slipstream back to the finish but we let them pass. Eventually, we turned off the canal onto the main road into Wevelgem.
It was on this road that we passed a gillet on the floor. After deciding that it hadn’t been there longer than today. I stopped, turned around, picked it up and stuffed it up my jersey. After finishing, we remembered it and got it out to check the size and see who was going to win the gillet lottery. Hannah did and wore it during the Tour of Flanders for good measure.
As we had the Gent – Wevelgem Sportive finish line gantry within sight, I hopped onto the back of some Islington CC riders who were coming past in a hurry and outsprinted them to the line. Hannah stayed with our original unofficial lead-out train and outsprinted them too. We both crossed the line happy we’d finished on a high. We both had a beer to celebrate and returned our timing chip for a Gent – Wevelgem Sportive t-shirt. Hannah had done well to finish her second-longest ever ride. This one having a lot more climbing than La Ronde Picarde did too.