Just imagine: a place where once a year great food, fine drink, and vintage bicycles being ridden on unsuitable roads come together in a multi-day festival in a country obsessed by cycling and racing history. Sounds like l’Eroica in Chianti, right? Well, yes but this description applies just as well to Belgium’s Retro Ronde, which has just completed its seventh edition on May 25/26, 2013. And you get a glass of beer at the end.
Growing rapidly, the Retro Ronde offers an impressive menu of events , including vintage racing and the opportunity to ride some of the brutal Hellingen, as the steep cobbled climbs of the Tour of Flanders (de Ronde van Vlaanderen, which marked its centennial this year) are known. It is centred around the town of Oudenaarde, which for many years hosted the finish line of the Tour of Flanders. Ourdenaarde, easily reached from Brussels, is the home of an impressive cycling centre/museum/bar, the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, one of a multitude of sponsors of the Retro Ronde.
The rules are pretty simple and rather less exclusive than l’Eroica’s: show up with a “vintage” racing bike (not really defined) or a pre-1987 bike or a singlespeed or fixed-gear bike with a steel frame; shifter levers on down tubes; no clipess pedals; vintage or replica clothing without modern accessories. Nobody is checking too strenuously since the whole point is to have fun but you would have felt foolish riding your carbon time trial bike anyway. Registration is a mere 10 Euros (12 Euros at the start) and 5 Euros to join one of the criterium races on Saturday evening. This includes a vintage-style photo of you before you ride off on Sunday, marked routes of 40, 70 or 100 kms, great food stops with live entertainment, mechanical and/or medical assistance and cheering crowds when you roll back up the ramp to finish. Then you get a bacon sandwich and an excellent dark-brown beer. Remember: 10 Euros (US$ 13.50) for this.
Besides the Sunday rides, event s include Friday evening’s Beer Cycling Contest at the Centrum and which appears to involve riding a bike on a training stand at high speed while consuming beer; the jumble sale where you find that special frame or obscure part; the Retro Dansant ball, with music by the Lindy Hop Dansinitiatie and the Dipsy Doodles; and, of course, the beauty contest to choose the “Ravissantste RetroRondeRenner,” or “Most Ravishing Retro Ronde Rider.” The last event had no fewer than four categories: a rider with a pre-1987 racing bike and retro clothing; a rider with a pre-1987 non-racing bike with a retro outfit; an individual rider with a homemade jersey; and a team with homemade jerseys.
A necessary aside on the homemade jersey requirement. As the bike market was closing I met Isabelle Finet who sells patterns for sew-it-yourself jerseys. The patterns come in the form of charming children’s books about la Famille Victor and are available in English as well as Flemish. Popular patterns include the famous Flandria bicycle brand and we saw a number of these jerseys at the event. But once you have the pattern you can choose your own colours and style changes, of course, and perhaps look like Hugo Koblet in the Yellow Jersey in 1951. The rules for the contest stated that to win you should have sewn the jersey yourself (!) or have a family member or friend do it—no pros, please. Furthermore, clever amendments to the Flandria or Superia design put you “in the good books” of the judges. Lastly, the seamstress/tailor should be present at the judging. This is a wonderful idea and reflects the spirit of enthusiastic amateurism and down-hominess that characterizes the Retro Ronde. That said, organization of the Retro Ronde is impressive and professional.
The entire centre of Oundenaaarde is cordoned off on Saturday evening and all day Sunday for the Retro Ronde. On Saturday evening there is a series of criterium races in categories of multi-speed, singlespeed and fixed gear bicycles, presided over by an announcer in a tweed suit with plus-four trousers. This was all highly entertaining to watch. Each of the races, except the final, was 10 laps through the town, mainly over cobbles, and begin with two neutral laps where the riders were preceded by two ancient scooters as pacesetters.
The riders, none of whom wore real helmets although the infamous “leather hairnet” was much in evidence, were generally d’un certain age, as the French put it, so not only were the bikes rather experienced but most of the riders had been around the block a few times too. This became evident around Lap 7 or so when the field had long broken up into little groups and several of the participants were either brilliantly red-faced and gasping or sampling cruising around hands-off. We were dismayed when an ancient rider on an ancient yellow Faggin was pipped at the finish line by some young whippersnapper after leading most of the race during the Multispeed II crit. Shameless Youth!
RSV Vagabund ’13, the Rhineland’s newest vintage bicycle club, was well-represented with the presence of myself, Nick and Tom, standard-bearers for Canada, Britain and the USA. Flanders is convenient to a lot of places in Europe so there was a strong presence from neighbouring Germany, France and Holland and a huge contingent from across the Channel. Retro rides are growing rapidly in popularity on the European continent but the UK, which has many collectors and many fine vintage bicycles, does not offer the same event opportunities, we were told.
|Grant from England with his Raleigh Team Pro
We drove in from our luxurious bed-and-breakfast (you would be amazed what kind of accommodation Flanders offers!) to Oudenaarde and followed the excellent signage to a huge parking lot not far from the Centrum. It had rained all night but the forecast was fairly positive and although it was not raining when we assembled the bikes it was rather bitter and damp. We slowly made our way through the mass of riders. Having already picked up our start numbers we joined the line to the sign-in. Yes, just like a pro race the announce in his tweed suit and flat cap asked us about our bikes and where we were from (in three languages, no less) before we rode up a little ramp to a platform where a big board had all of our numbers.
One of the costumed crew members—a policeman, a nun, a village priest or a local mayor with a tricolour sash—held your bike while you signed in beside your start number and waved to the adoring crowds. There were many really beautiful bikes, including a purple 1935 Automoto and various marques unknown to me. The announcer noted immediately that I was riding an early 1980s Belgian bicycle, a Cicli Diamant made in Flanders, and I said it was a great opportunity to bring the bike back to its native roads.
Down the ramp and into another line, this time for an Olde Tyme photo in front of a Retro Ronde backdrop. Nick and I had our pictures taken although Tom, sadly arrived too late but there is always next year. Then we were marshalled, sort of, onto the main street in front of the Centrum and around 10 minutes late at 10:40 we departed with the hardcore riders planning to do the 70 or 100 km courses. Fifteen minutes later the 40 km people would leave.
Our route began by taking is around the centre of Oudenaarde, clearly a test to see if everything on the bike was secure as we bounced over the cobbles. But they were pretty civilized cobbles and we made some good time. It was wonderful to look at the diverse colours of all the vintage bicycles, so different from today’s limited palette of black, black, black and some white or red.
About twenty minutes into the ride Tom discovered that his Continental Puncture-Proof tires were not so we took a break to look after the rear flat. Most of the group passed us, including a cyclist doing the course on a high-wheeler. After some wrestling, Tom nearly had the tire back on when the Broom Wagon arrived. A very large gentleman offered some help and a floor pump. Tom was struggling with the tire but our Broom Wagon Friend took it from him and with gigantic practiced hands simply rolled the Conti back onto the rim with no effort. And we were on our way again, our goal being to pass the high-wheeler and confirm the superiority of the safety bicycle.
|This British rider was doing the full 100 km course on his highwheeler!
|The Nun With The Stamp checks Tom in
Having ridden all of 12 kms, we now arrived at Control 1 at de Valleihoeve, where the aforementioned nun stamped our cards and we enjoyed some atmospheric accordion music while consuming fresh strawberries that a local farmer was handing out. There was chocolate too and some other nice things to eat. We looked at some of the other bicycles and then went off on the next leg which would see our route separate from the shorter ones.
We had a brief climb (den Ast) and then two sections of flat cobblestones (Molendamstraat and Oude Dorpsweg). As I had feared, the gearing on the Diamant, which I had purchased only the week before, was totally unsuited to steep climbs but I just dropped into my lowest gear (46-19!) and slowly ground my way up to the top while Tom and Nick, riding more sensible Italian bikes with gearing for humans, went on ahead.
Our route took us through back roads which were sometimes just muddy farm paths and through quiet neat villages with dark-brown brick houses, where often people leaned on their fences to shout encouragement or just beam in pleasure. A very different attitude from those places where the locals are infuriated if the road is closed for an hour of a race…
We were accompanied by a collection of vintage cars that generally were no faster than we were. My favourite was an Austin Seven, but there were lots of Citroens too, including the iconic 2CV and the DS. They all got in the way a bit at times but nobody was in a hurry anyway and it certainly added to the atmosphere.
Passing a small castle near Hoeve Ter Weede, we continued along two more sections of cobbles and then climbed the Nokereberg, another cobbled hill, before coming to Control 2 at In den Hemel. In addition to more live music, we were given big tureens of excellent tomato soup to enjoy. There were more picturesque cyclists and their mounts to admire and everyone was impressed with a family of four in matching gear: father, mother, older brother and, on a tiny bike, the little brother who looked around seven or so. They start they young in Belgium. We also met up with the group of Germans that had been staying in our B&B. Unfortunately, the one riding an elderly Legnano had had some bad mechanical problems and his ride was over. We found out later that he sold the bike on the spot; perhaps he found another to continue the ride!
|The tomato soup ladies
|Waiting to check riders in
Riding out of the control point we rode through an allée of tall trees, bringing us past the Kasteel Baron Casier, a water castle constructed in the mid-19th Century in the classical style and today housing a tea room in addition to the fine park we were riding through. We climbed a little hill and then rode just east of the village of Wortegem-Petegem (now there’s a familiar name to Belgian cycling fans!) before approached Control 3 at de Stroheve. We could see everyone at the food stop straight ahead but the red arrows marking the route took us to the right. The reason was that our path now took us directly through a huge stable, where there were many black Belgian horses to admire, including several wobbly colts, and a collection of interesting carriages. And riding to the control we discovered that in addition to the usual apples and oranges and cookies there was a large gentleman smoking a cigarillo and pouring out lemon schnapps for everyone.
All this cycling was the typical roundabout course you find in Flanders. Having ridden 40 kms we saw a sign indicating that Oudenaarde was 6 kms away! No matter: onward to the hard part of the course. We streamed by another castle, the Domein de Ghellinck, that had been converted into a restaurant/family centre and then find ourselves riding along a fast smooth path along a river. The routes separated again and we had another cobbled flat section to enjoy before the Tiegemberg, another nice little climb, before looping back to join the 70 km course.
This brought us to one of the very famous Tour of Flanders climbs, the Oude Kwaremont, which begins pleasantly enough but soon you leave asphalt behind and the cobbles gradually deteriorate in quality as you approach the 19 percent maximum grade. My legs definitely did not like this much but I managed to get to the top without walking. Nick missed the turn and continued to climb against a one-way road directly to the top.
|On the Oude Kwaremont as it begins to steepen
A bit further one was probably the worst climb in terms of steepness. It is described as the Rampe and must be at least 22 percent, although short. Time for Mr. Diamant to get a push since I was walking this one, accompanied by some elderly Brits with some really admirable bikes to look at. Our next control was in a big barn and featured a duo doing AC-DC music to give us energy. We carefully rode along the cobbled farm driveway and back on course—35 kms to go!
A steep climb at Kuihol saw some admiring children rush over to give us a push, although Nick got a slap in the leg from a little boy, and we were making our way through the hardest part of the course. Next up was the Taaienberg, also a featured cobbled climb in the Ronde and then one more paved climb before the last control point. We were left with just 18 kms to go but this included four climbs, including the rather painful Kapelleberg and one final stretch of cobble, which ran through the village of Jagerij and must have been the inhabitants’ pride and joy.
Now the end was in sight and we tore downhill into Oudenaarde, rolling up the finishing ramp and signing out with 102 kms and 1075 m of climbing in our legs, three of 535 participants at the Retro Ronde. A welcome sandwich was provided and an even more welcome cool brown beer. We enjoyed our refreshments while listening to the Vindaloo Five perform and then it was off to use the showers at the Centrum, say goodbye to our British friends who were packing up and jam Tom’s Fiesta full of our gear and take the highway home.
|Entertainment at the finish line
Everyone had a smile on their face and all have agreed to come back next year for the full program since missing the Beer Cycling Contest was tragic. We may even work on our sewing skills in preparation for next year but no matter what the Retro Ronde is one of the most entertaining (ravishing!) weekends you can have on a bike. Admission is a bargain: entry is 10 Euros, there is plenty of reasonable accommodation in the region and as to getting equipped: well, my handbuilt Diamant, made from quality Reynolds 531 steel and with excellent Shimano Arabesque components, cost me complete roughly half the price of a modern wheelset alone. But that sprinter’s freewheel has to go!
|RSV Vagabund '13 looking good!
For more information about the Retro Ronde go to www.retroronde.be
And because you really want a vintage-style jersey or want to sew one for a Significant Person, ask Isabelle at www.lafamillevictor.be.