Monday 7 April 2008

A Dream of Cycling: the Tour of Flanders

Stijn Devolder in action
(Photo by Romain Racciari/Creative Commons)

Today was the running of the Tour of Flanders, the famous "Ronde". A big win was scored by QuickStep's Stijn Devolder on his Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL2 and there will be a lot of happy Belgians tonight.

The day before the professionals ride the Ronde, amateurs can try their hand (and wheels) at the same course. Here is my experience at this event, something never to be forgotten.

Tour of Flanders, April 2002

For most people, competitive cycling is an odd enough sport that there is no need to look into the strange finer points. For those with only a nodding acquaintance of the Tour de France, the idea that there is a totally different kind of road racing to be found in Spring in Belgium (Belgium?), the Netherlands and Northern France must seem weird. The Spring Classics are one-day races with a long pedigree and a gauge of just how great a cyclist can be. They are often held in wretched weather, often over wretched roads--sometimes not even really falling into the definition of "road" at all--and often into wretched wind. Although the sunny Milan-San Remo is an exception, the Spring Classics usually mean mud and cobbles and the names Omloop Het Volk, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Gent-Wevelgem, the Flèche Wallone, Paris-Roubaix (called both "the Queen of the Classics" and "the Hell of the North") and a race I had a particular interest in, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders. And this interest was because I knew I could ride it too.

Paul, a former colleague from the Southern Europe Division of the Department, had moved to Brussels with his family to take up a posting with our NATO office and had invited me to visit. After some research, I discovered that I could take a night bus from Berlin and bring my bike in a case and if I timed it properly I could participate in the "Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Wielertoeristen en Mountainbikes" on Saturday, April 6, 2002 and then watch the professional race the next day. The amateur route was not a race but covered the last 145 kms of the real route, including all the famous hills and cobbled stretches. So, on Thursday, April 4, I dragged my case and a small overnight bag to Bahnhof Zoo to catch the 2000 hrs Gulliver's Reisen bus.

The bus people charged me a reasonable 2 Euros to put my case in the bus storage area and I climbed on board and looked for my sleeper seat. Oh no, what's this? A hideous couchette kind of thing, made from four normal seats that folded flat and looked like wavy bunk beds. Taking my cue from someone else, I took off my shoes and climbed up. It seemed pretty narrow, but more comfortable than sitting upright all the way to Brussels, twelve hours away. Then I discovered that the seat was a double thing and I was joined by a girl going to Paris. The crew gave us blankets but no pillows and there we were, wedged in place. I found that being flat on my back was the easiest but the problem with being in the top bunk was the tendency to roll every time the bus went around a corner. And oddly enough, I almost immediately fell asleep.

At Hannover, we had to change buses as the one I was on continued on to Paris. A bus was waiting for us and we moved our suitcases into it and settled on board once more. It was totally full but, having figured out the procedures, I zipped to the back and my next bunk. This time I was not so fortunate, have a large German smoker as a bunkmate. But again, I fell asleep fairly soon.

Around 3 am I was awakened by an announcement that we were taking a twenty-minute break and that we should have our passports ready for inspection. My first response was to panic as I worried that I had taken the wrong bus and ended up somewhere outside of the European Union. Then when I realized that this was not so, I panicked again as I had not thought it necessary to bring my passport. Luckily, I noticed that the Germans were showing their ID cards to the border police and I had brought mine with me. The policemen were very impressed to see a diplomatic ID, particularly since most of the other passengers looked look African job seekers or impecunious students. I have never had to show my passport while travelling by train or aircraft within Europe, so I was quite surprised to have to do it between Germany and the Netherlands.

After all the passports were examined and returned, our twenty minute break became a five minute one, enough to go walk over to the convenience store/gas station and go to the washroom and buy an ice cream bar. It was quite cold outside, so we did not tarry long but boarded the bus again and set off for the next stop. Before I could dose off, we were boarded by Dutch police this time, who were also so impressed by my ID that they passed it around among themselves.

At 5 am we stopped in Amsterdam, where the majority of passengers disembarked. I think that the stop was right in the centre of the city as I could see canals, and pretty houses with their distinctive Dutch gables, in the darkness, if I twisted myself over to look through the window. But soon I dozed off again and before I knew it we were cruising through sunshine and the sprawling outer reaches of Brussels, one of Western Europe's less attractive cities but with some definite things to commend it.

Christiane, Paul's wife, found me immediately after I got off the bus and we heaved the bike case into the back of the car after folding down the rear seat and then I enjoyed a little tour of some of the nicer parts of the city as we drove to their house in Wezembeek. The house is in a very attractive park-like area and has a nice big yard. After meeting the Willox young daughters again, I was introduced to the newest member of the family, a 12 week old Finnish Spitz named Fala, after FDR's famous Scottie. Fala is a very pretty dog, with an alert, fox-like face and, like all puppies, invested with boundless energy. As a guest, I tried to make myself useful by helping to wear him out with lots of playing.

After enjoying an excellent breakfast, I shed some of my travel weariness with a hot shower, and got changed. After chatting, it was somehow time to eat again and I enjoyed a wonderful selection of cheeses. But it was time to be a tourist and the first item on my agenda was a visit to the Eddy Merckx bicycle factory, located in a small village on the outskirts of Brussels.

Eddy Merckx is Belgium's most famous athlete and the most successful racing cyclist ever. He was honoured in 2000 with the UCI's special award of "Greatest Cyclist of the 20th Century" and it is a sign of his stature in the sport that there were no other serious contenders for the prize. I had brought a wool jersey in the colours of Eddy Merckx's 1971 Molteni team when, as World Road Champion, he had one of his best seasons and I left the jersey to be autographed by the Cannibal himself. After leaving pro racing in 1977, he was at odds with what to do with his life until a businessman offered him an interest in small bicycle factory. After various ups and down, the company is solely in Merckx hands now and has supplied top racing bicycles to a number of well-known teams, including Motorola and Domo-Farm Frites, the current Belgian powerhouse team.

The factory itself was not at all what I expected, looking like a big Flemish farmhouse, with an attached family compound. The showroom had a range of beautiful complete Merckx bikes on display, covering not only road, track and cyclo-cross bikes, but also some hybrid trekking bikes which are apparently the latest additions to the line. For beautifully constructed bicycles with this kind of pedigree, the prices were fair but, of course, not cheap. After picking up some brochures, we headed back out in the car.

The next stop was another delight, as my friends took me to the Waterloo battlefield site. We watched a little display, similar to the Gettysburg Electric Map, that showed the development of the battle and the movement of the troops and then saw a short film before climbed up a monument, a large man-made hill with a lion on a pedestal at the top. It gives a good view of the flat farm lands below and you can see the roads where the armies approached and where they were camped. And even though he was defeated and a permanent end made to his imperial career, it is clear that Napoleon is the big star of Waterloo and the darling of the gift shops.

We went back to the house and Paul helped me to build up my bicycle out of the case. We then had another excellent dinner, with lots of pasta and vegetables. It was important for me to load up for carbohydrates for my ride the following day.

Getting up at 6 am, I had a pretty extensive breakfast since I had read that Belgian organizers were not very good at providing food during bike marathons and I wanted to be prepared. It was early enough in the season that 145 kms was still a long distance for me and I wanted to enjoy my ride as much as possible. Luckily, the weather was quite decent, with clear skies and a high forecast of 11ºCnot as warm as on my tour of the German Fairy Tale Route the week before during Easter, but much more acceptable than the usual grey rainy weather that marks the Spring Classics in Belgium.

Christiane was kind enough to drive me on this cool Saturday morning to Ninove, east of Brussels and the start of the ride for the Wielertoeristen (I love this word!). But the traffic was so heavy that we decided that I would leave from a parking lot and would ride to the registration point at the local technical college. We would meet at the parking lot again at 1700 or so. I had hoped to start riding at 0730 but the traffic made that idea impossible, so it was more like 0930 when I had my start card stamped and headed off after the crowd. Someone on the ride told me that 5-6,000 cyclists had registered for the ride, while a friend in Germany said that on television they had talked about 15,000 participants, which seemed rather unlikely to me.

I had received my registration materials in the mail, so with my number (11518) attached to my handlebars, I rode up to the table where a man stamped my route card and then I was off. Of course, as I rode off, I realized that I had not filled up my water bottles. There were huge crowds of cyclists milling around and it would have been quite difficult to get through; since I had Gatorade powder in the bottles, I figured I could stop at a gas station for some bottled water anytime if I needed to before the first checkpoint.

The material the organizers send to you is quite comprehensive. Along with the start number and the route card, you receive a thickish booklet, the Wegwijzer, which gives you written directions for the whole route. It was probably unnecessary, since it was just a matter of following the other cyclists, but the route was marked with little red arrows with "RVV" on them as well. This was the same route the professionals would follow the next day. In fact, there were some Wielertoeristen who were doing the full 270 km route today, but I thought you could have too much of a good thing, particularly since the first 130 kms were essentially flat.

The first thing that struck me was that in Flanders the colours are very subdued, with dark brown brick houses everywhere, and, similar to Friesland in Holland, the roads are really, really narrow. There were a surprising number of bikepaths around, which was a good thing as the traffic was rather heavy on some stretches. Unlike a German "Radmarathon," the Tour of Flanders does not go out of its way to avoid crossing major roads and I had to pay attention to traffic. And the Belgian drivers were not inclined to make any matters easier for cyclists.

After 23 kms of quite pleasant, athough a little chilly, cycling with a favourable tailwind and a decent average speed, I reached Zottegem, where our route entered the official race route. It was here that I experienced my first Flemish cobblestones, with stretches of 1.3 kms, 2.5 kms and 300 m in the next 9 kms. These sections were all flat, which should have made things a bit easier, but I was not entirely sure how to ride this surface. The cobbles are natural stone, shaped like little breadloaves, and there are stretches of the road where they are quite tight together and others where there are big gaps. It did not really seem to make much of a difference which section you rode, however, and I looked at other riders to see what they were doing. Many of the local riders did not seem to slow down at all when they reached the cobbles, which really impressed me. Perhaps they wanted to get them behind as fast as possible. I rode gripping the flats of the handlebars, then the brake hoods and even the drops, but nothing seemed to help and I noticed no consistency of positioning among the other riders. It was clear that you had to hold on quite firmly as the bouncing tended to throw the front wheel off of a straight line and I found that if I got much over 18 km/h it was very difficult to control the bike. As well, I experimented, gingerly, with braking and found that the smooth but uneven cobblestones made braking pretty ineffective. How do people ride these things in rain, I wonder? I had changed my tires to the wider 25 mm ones I planned to use for touring later in the season in Spain and the 2 mm, which does not sound like much, made a big difference in terms of shock absorption. I have never seen so many cyclists get flat tires as I did on this day but I did not have to use either of my spare inner tubes.

Riding the cobbles is extremely tiring and you feel the endless vibrations first in your legs and arms and then on your spine. Each section of asphalt was a respite to enjoy. Then at Kilometer 34 I came onto the Molenberg, my first "berg" in the Tour of Flanders. We made a sudden right turn and there it was, a narrow cobbled road with a banner waving above it, showing the number 1. I shifted at the right moment and found that riding cobbles uphill for a short distance (300 m) was a lot easier than riding them a long distance on the flat, even though the hill had a maximum grade of 17%. The road was really narrow, perhaps 8 feet across, and it felt more like some farmer's driveway than a public road. I felt pretty good about the climb, but another long section3 kmsof cobble soon followed as I continued to ride westwards.

For some reason, our route diverged from the professional stretch and we did not do the next hill, the Wolvenberg, but instead had a long flattish stretch that brought us to the first control point, 60 kms along and at the foot of the Kluisberg. Hundreds of cyclists crowded around the control station and it became apparent to me that the Belgians lacked some basic organizational capabilities. There was one official with a rubber stamp for the start cards, already a bad idea when dealing with several thousand riders, and he was cleverly positioned at a table right next to the refreshments. Of course this meant that the line was unable to move as once you had the precious stamp you were in the area where people were trying to get drinks and something to eat. The other difference I saw immediately compared to German radmarathons was the inferior quality of the refreshments, which consisted of tiny Dixie Cup-sized serving of Isostar energy drink and bananas which appeared to be cut into sixths! The volunteers were taking 250 ml bottle of Isostar and pouring them into the tiny cups, a complete waste of effort since all the riders were drinking at least five or six of them at once. I cannot imagine what kind of person could think this procedure up. Luckily, I persuaded one of the volunteers just to pour the Isostar into my water bottle.

While waiting to get my card stamped, I heard English being spoken and found two Brits who worked for the well-known Geoffrey Butler bicycle shop. One of them had even lived in Ottawa for a while. We had a nice chat and I asked to ride with them. They agreed readily, but on the next hill, the 1.1 km long Kluisberg, they dropped me pretty quickly. Since you have to ride at your own pace on the hills and they were clearly in much better condition than me, I let them go ahead rather than try to put on some steam and catch up. I find the hill tiring as it came immediately after our control stop. The road was paved and a maximum grade of "only" 15% but I felt very slow. I also realized that I had forgotten to change to my special "mountains and loaded touring" rear cassette, meaning my lowest gear was only a 32 x 23 instead of a 32 x 28. At this point in the season that extra gearing would have meant a lot, but at least I did not have to walk up the Kluisberg.

The next hill, the Knokteberg, was also paved and not a particular problem but it was followed within 3 kms by one of the Tour of Flanders legends, the Oude Kwaremont. This hill, 2.2 kms long with a maximum grade of 11%, begins with paved road for perhaps for the first quarter then suddenly changes to really badly-laid cobblestones. I came off the paved section with good momentum, which seems to be the trick here, and soon was grinding my way slowly upwards, sometimes rolling off the cobblestones and riding on the firm shoulder, where there was one. It seems to use more effort to get back up on the cobblestones, though, so I just tried to pick my way through the better sections. After reaching the summit, the cobblestones continued for a bit, but then we had a very nice downhill stretch of excellent paved road that took us about 8 kms to the next hill.

This hill is the Paterberg, which has a strange history. In 1982 a Flemish farmer was so jealous of a friend who had a place on another hill, the infamous Koppenberg, and hence was able to see the Tour of Flanders from his doorstep each year that he declared he would build a new section of cobbled hill so that the Tour would come past his door and, sure enough, within 18 months he had cobbled a previously-innocuous hill. In 1986 the Tour organizers added it to the route and it has been there ever since.

Of course, I was not really prepared mentally for this thing. I rolled innocently past a long hedge and then turned right only to see the Paterberg looming above me, like some sort of cobbled cliff. It looks absurd, being quite narrow and amazingly steep, with a maximum grade of 20% but probably an average of not much less. Of course, coming around the corner, I did not have a lot of momentum and when I shifted down my recalcitrant chain decided that now was the moment to come off. I had no speed and no resistance on the crankarms so I could not get out of the pedals fast enough. The result was an embarrassing fall, as I tipped over to the left and brought the bike down with me onto the cobbles. There was only one other rider around me and he looked concerned, probably because of my enthusiastic cursing in an unknown language, but I jumped up and said I was okay, so he continued upwards.

Since I had had no forward speed, there was not much risk of injury, but my wrist was a bit sore and my left knee burned, probably from losing a bit of skin. I walked the bike back to the paved road I had come along and shook off the pain after putting the chain back on the smallest chainring and adjusting the shifting. Soon I was ready to try again, after hordes of cyclists passed, and this time I carried some speed through the turn and onto the cobbles. Unfortunately, I was only able to get about halfway up the hill when a) I ran out of speed, b) the cobbles got really bad, c) there were a lot of other cyclists clogging up the road and d) a group of huge motorcycles had also shown up. Since nobody was about to offer me a professional contract, I got off and walked, joining a good number of others. I was impressed that so many riders were able to power their way up, but I was here to have fun and I knew that there were 11 more hills to climb.

The Paterberg is so steep it is quite difficult to walk up it. The metal cleats on my shoes are the type that come with little rubber pieces fitted around them, so I was in a somewhat better position that the cyclists who were using the all-metal versions. The road was very narrow and on either side there were metal barriers to control the crowds who would assemble for the pro race. Today most of the spectators were at the top of the hill and many of the cyclists stopped to take a breather before heading onwards. I stopped for a moment myself to look down the hill and it looks even more gruesome from this direction. Luckily, the farmer had enough pity on cyclists that the back of the hill is paved with a lovely road so once I had something to drink I headed downhill.

The hills of Flanders are not immediately apparent, sneaking up on you like some kind of repetitive nightmare. I had a strong impression that the route was simply taking us up the same ridge over and over again and then had us simply circle around at the bottom. The map suggested that we were doing just that, redoubling and making comparatively little distance in a straight line. And now, at Kilometer 85 was the feared Koppenberg, a hill that caused so much chaos during the professional race it was dropped after 1987 and 2002 marked the first year of its return since then. John Wilcoxson wrote a good piece about this in Velonews.

Hills of Flanders
(photo by Klaas de Buyser/Creative Commons)

The Koppenberg is not a particularly difficult hill, being only 550 m long and with a maximum incline of 11.6%, but it is exceptionally narrow and the road surface is very poor. It is like riding in a ditch uphill and I can see why it would have caused problems for a massed peloton. There is a very famous series of pictures taken in 1987 showing the Danish rider Jesper Skibby falling on the Koppenberg while leading the race and having his bicycle wheel crushed under the officials' car that was following. The narrowness of the road meant there was no where else to go and Skibby was very lucky, judging from the photos, not to have his feet run over. He was never a factor in any subsequent Tour of Flanders.

I ended up walking the last third of the Koppenberg because there were so many cyclists ahead of me, either trying to ride or walk, along with motorcycles and spectators, that it would have been quite difficult to ride through. The motorcycles, which were probably doing a run-through for the pro race when they would carry photographers and officials, were especially annoying as they took up so much space. I cannot understand why they could not have done the course on Friday since they knew there would be thousands of cyclists out on the route today. And the fun did not end there--reaching the top was not much of a triumph since I soon entered another long stretch of flat cobbles that ran for more than 2 kms.

After the 7th hill, the easy 5% and paved Steenbeekdries, I soon came to another dreadful cobbled hill, the Taaienberg, but I managed to crawl up this one without getting off my bike in spite of its maximum 18% gradient. It is fairly short and I was lucky that at this moment there was not a lot of traffic around. The hills were coming quickly now, as the Taaeinberg was followed by the Eikenberg and the Kapelleberg, with flat stretches of cobblestones between them. The hills were not too bad, perhaps in comparison to the ones that had come before.

At St-Kornelis-Horebeke I came to the second checkpoint. This meant I only had around 40 kms more to ride and I still felt pretty good. The lineup at this checkpoint to get the stamp went more quickly, but the refreshments consisted only of the little cups of Isostar. Looking at all the thirsty riders around who had just ridden some very tough hills in the sunshine, I was surprised that nobody was complaining about the apparent rationing of the Isostar. I managed to get one of my bottles filled, which I thought would be enough to get me to the finish line.

The next twenty kilometers saw us riding into a rather steady headwind and I was starting to feel the day's exertions. The hills continued, but the Leberg (16%), the Berendries (14%) and the Tenbosse (also 14% maximum gradient) seemed pretty easy compared to what we had already undergone, particularly since we did not have to do any more cobblestone riding on them. But I knew that the worst was yet to come and I anxiously kept an eye out for the town of Geraardsbergen as we cruised up and down the hills.

At Kilometer 126 we entered the little town and rolled down the main shopping street. It was, of course, cobbled and slowly began to climb as we passed all the Saturday shoppers and the little stores. Up and up we went. At a little square, I stopped for a moment to massage my calf muscles and enjoy watching the other riders. I rode on a little bit and then got off, knowing that I was now on the infamous Muur-Kapelmuur of Geraardsbergen. It was often on this hill, the so-called "Wall," that the professional Tour of Flanders was decided. But I had no intention of exploding here myself and walked up in the company of a lot of other tired riders.

The Muur is quite ridiculous, going from a main street into a narrow cobbled pathway with a sharp right turn in it. The hill is 825 m long and has a maximum gradient of 20%. Of course, by the time you get to the right turn, everyone is walking because the road is so narrow and you have so little momentum. One rider who was really doing quite well suddenly ran out of steam and fell off, tipping over and landing on an elderly French-speaking couple standing behind the crowd barrier. He was also a French speaker and it was quite entertaining to hear them all apologizing to each other.

The narrow cobbled path continued on through some woods and then turned left, rising in front of a small church. I got back on and rode the last little stretch as the traffic had diminished but it was still pretty hard. Once I had crested the hill, there was another big crowd assembled, this time to accept the cold cans of Red Bull energy drink, being handed out by truly gorgeous young women. I downed three of the smallish cans with no trouble at all and feeling much better I headed downhill and onto the last stage of the day.

There were some more little hills but nothing too bad until we reached the Bosberg. This hill is also cobbled but at 11% maximum grade and 475 m in length it really was not a big deal. I think it looms large in the history of the Tour of Flanders because it is the last of the hills. Another 10 kilometers of riding through little towns and the outskirts of Ninove brought us to the official finish line of the Tour (Aankomst Ronde van Vlanderen!), passing the crowd barriers and the tribune, but we had to ride another 2 kms to get back to our starting place at the technical institute. There were police everywhere to direct us, so this went pretty quickly.

At the technical institute I had my control card stamped for the last time and I kept my plastic number plate as a souvenir, rather than turn it in for the 5 Euro deposit or a large container of Isostar powder. Continuing into the main hall, I found a long table set up and picked up my medal and my certificate. Hung from a yellow ribbon, the aluminum medal is a fairly modest one with the charming Ronde van Vlaanderen logo of four cyclists bent flat over their bikes on one side and a portrait of Briek Schotte, who win the Tour in 1942 and 1948 on the other. The certificate is, for the first time ever in my experience, made of stiff plastic, a brilliant idea as it lets you shove it down your back when you ride home without destroying it. It has the logo in colour, other logos from sponsors and notations in French and Flemish. It say that I "heeft deelgenomen aan de Ronde van Vlaanderen voor wilertoeristen en mountainbikers georganiseered op het officiël parcours op 6 April 2002." In case anyone had any doubts...

The certificate also has a portrait of Briek Schotte again, with a caption that the medal should be stuck on top of it. I am not sure what people in Flanders use to glue aluminum to plastic but it seems like a strange idea to me. According to another bit of paper given to me, the medal is not just a souvenir, but also a "collector's item." Each year there will be a medal bearing a portrait of a Tour of Flanders rider who won at least twice and the sheet gives an indication of who will be appearing each year, from 2003 to 2013. Interestingly, this could be a gallery of Famous Flemings, as Jan Raas of the Netherlands and Fiorenzo Magni of Italy are the only "foreigners" shown. I will have to wait until 2009 if I want the Eddy Merckx medal and, even worse, until 2013 for Johan Museeuw.

Leaving the technical institute to ride back to where Christiane and Paul were waiting, I promptly got lost. It should have been a direct ride of 2.3 kms and then I should have seen a silo and the parking lot should have been across the street. But nothing looked recognizable at all, so I rode back to the technical institute to try and get my bearings. I saw someone with a cell phone and thought I could borrow that and quickly call my friends in their car, but the Belgian was not inclined to be helpful and looked terrified when I ran through my gamut of languages in an attempt to make myself understood.

Riding around again, I found a pay telephone which promptly swallowed 4 Euros and let me speak to Christiane for about 1 minute before I was cut off. At least they knew that I was lost and, I hoped, they would stay where they were until I figured out how to get back. This was starting to get frustratingthe streets of Ninove were surprisingly busy and there seemed to be a traffic light only every 3 kms or so--and I think fatigue was hampering my thinking a little. So once more I rode back to the technical college, having seen pretty well every street in Ninove, and concentrated. I decided that my first choice of a road had been correct and I decided to just continue on it further. Of course, this turned out to be correct. I saw the silo, finally on the left and then looked for the parking lot. It had disappeared behind a lot of tractor trailer trailers and when I cruised around, I found Christiane and Paul immediately. I had a feeling that I had actually ridden up to the parking lot before but had not recognized it now that it was filled but I felt terrible that I had kept my poor patient hosts waiting for so long. If I had stuck with my original inclination, I would have only been about 20-30 minutes late, but my Tour of Ninove had added another aimless half-hour. So, instead of the advertised day's ride of 145 kms, I ended up covering around 160. My average was an okay 20 km/h but I had not planned to break any speed records. Walking slows things down a lot since I do not believe that any of the numerous bike marathons I have ridden have ever been so slow. On the other hand, I had a good look at Flanders and did the distance comfortably in spite of the lack of mileage in my legs.

That evening I had another wonderful meal as Christiane prepared crespelle, an Italian version of crepes. They seemed a little disappointed when I only ate twice as much as anyone else as I had said that after a long ride you have a huge appetite. But even I can only shovel in so much, no matter how delicious. I felt pretty good, except that my wrist was becoming quite sore as a result of the fall on the Patersberg; my knee had been scraped and there was a bit of blood, but it was not bothersome. We iced my wrist and then watched a film, "Reunion," starring Jason Robards and with a script by Harold Pinter. It was about an American Jew who returned to Stuttgart to retrace his past and was quite good although I had not heard of it before Paul told me about it. To my surprise I stayed awake until around 11 pm, but suddenly felt everything start to shut down so it was off to bed and a very, very sound sleep.

On Sunday, April 7, I slept in a bit and woke up around 8:30 then went downstairs to yet another excellent breakfast. I cannot understand why the Willoxes are svelte and not big round people since my self-control vanishes in front of such good food. We sat and talked and drank tea. With Paul's assistance, I disassembled the bicycle and put it into its case, with the usual battle to close the darn thing and then, after noon, we switched on the television for the professional version of the Tour of Flanders. Oddly enough, it was broadcast on the French station rather than one of the Flemish ones. And there was also a strange Belgian touch where every so often you had to switch channels to continue watching the race.

I had my list from the Tour of Flanders Website showing where everyone should have been and at what time. Fairly soon I recognized the first stretch of pavé I had ridden the day before and then the riders were into the nasty little hills. A young Belgian had gotten out in front and had had, at maximum, a twenty minute lead, but this would be whittled away as the peloton got serious in the hills.

Although the pros ride nothing like me they did not appear to slow down at all when hitting the cobbles, or on the hillsthere were some similarities to the amateur race in that riders were getting flats all over the place and they were falling off everywhere as well. This is definitely not an easy race and it was fascinating to see that as each hill was surmounted the lead group became smaller and smaller. The Belgian was swept up. The Koppenberg did not break up the race, as expected, but the final group took off at the Mur in Geraardsbergen and that was pretty well it. The little group stayed together over the Bosberg and there were very powerful riders at the front, including Johan Museeuw (riding for his fourth Tour of Flanders win), Peter Van Petegem and George Hincapie. But with only around 3 kms to go, the Italian Andrea Tafi, who had been riding quite aggressively, attacked once again, but this time successfully, and opened up a decent gap. The others all looked at each other and argued about who was going to lead the chase, but it was soon too late and Tafi crossed the line alone. He was followed by a very disappointed Johan Museeuw and then Peter Van Petegem. George Hincapie was doomed yet again to finish fourth in a Classic. A few moments later, a larger group followed, including not only the on-form Mario Cippolini but Lance Armstrong as well. A great race, even if the weather was not typical for Belgium in spring, being much too nice.

At dinner I was reduced to one helping of couscous and tajine, a vegetable stew I had never had before, because I thought I would blow up. It would have been better to ride the 270 km route if I had realized how much I would be eating during my stay!

Christiane drove me to the bus stop in the evening and the bus arrived right on time to take me away. I ended up sharing my bunk with a pleasant Brit who had come in from London. He had gone to collect his daughter, take her to Berlin, return her to London a week later and then return himself, all on the bus. I thought that 12 hours one way was bad enough, but 20 hours twice on a weekend would have been really hard. I was feeling pretty sleepy and dozed off fairly soon. In Amsterdam, a lot more people got on the bus and it looked pretty full.

After the passport check again, we finally pulled into Hannover around 5 am. It was freezing outside but we all wanted to stretch our legs after the long ride. The next bus to take us to Berlin was due in around 5:30. It arrived closer to 6 am. We loaded our bags on board (I had to rearrange things a bit to get the bike case in) and then we stood in line to board, only to discover that there were not enough seats! Although we all had reserved seats, twelve of us were stranded in Hanover while the bus steward told us that there would be a bus coming for us "soon." None of us liked the sound of this very much, and the bus drove off. Luckily, we had gotten a telephone number and were able to call. After several attempts, we were told that the next bus would come and get us around 7:30. It was -5ºC at the bus platform so we decided to walk over to the nearby train station to get warm and have something hot to drink. I was debating taking the train back to Berlin but did not have my BahnCard with me and it would have been very expensive and only save me about two hours.

Finally, closer to 8 am, the bus pulled in and off we went to Berlin on a brilliant Spring morning. I do not recall much of the trip since I fell asleep almost immediately, as did everyone else. It took over three hours to get to Bahnhof Zoo (about half the speed of the fast train) and once there I staggered over to the taxi stand and put my case into a station wagon. I was dead beat and had a runny noise, and since it was already around noon I decided to stay home for the rest of the day and sleep off whatever I had. Not a great end to the weekend and I think pretty well my last experience with a night bus.

A week later my Molteni world champion jersey arrived in the mail with Eddy Merckx's autograph "für Leslie Thomas Reissner" meaning that my trip was really over. Except for the last bit with the bus, it had been a great success and a wonderful experience.

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