I spend quite a number of rides wondering why I am on the bike, debating with myself the relative merits of a nice sit down with a good book or simply pulling the duvet over my head and rolling over into blissful sleep.
I can't say that this was one of them.
Despite the desperately early start. Being ready to leave with bike, back up bags, organised food supplies and wearing the appropriate clothes by 6am was a challenge. I'm rubbish in the morning and this compounded my fear that I wasn't properly prepared or would screw up by forgetting something essential. I arranged my sink so with everything I needed to do around the edge. Spread clothes out on the floor and wrote a series of notes in block capitals. Do I really need to be told to brush my teeth? Yes I do.
|Fill bottles, brush teeth, drink beetroot… etc|
BMC had arranged cars to get us to the ride and to meet us with food and spares along the route. It was still black when we loaded up, clutching croissants from the deserted breakfast buffet, and an eerie quarter light when we unpacked into the Bruges square. The police were moving cars on fast and we fumbled, flustered and scurried to get wheels on and kit sorted. Squeezing gels into my pockets and hoping it was enough. Wriggling into last minute leg warmers having underestimated the pre-dawn chill.
Then we were ready, the light was clearing and we made our way to the inflatable arch which marked the start. I was glad to be with the BMC group - guys who'd ridden the Ronde many times and some who'd done it as pro riders as well as us, the six lucky Granfondo Experience winners. I was so nervous I just needed to follow the group.
But that's the thing. As soon as the cranks turn and the wheels spin, it's all familiar again. The timing beep sounds as we scoot over the line and then we're bowling through Bruges streets in the early light. It's started. A great big rush of joy starts at my toes and ends in a grin. That hardly departs all day.
We are stopped at a bridge being raised to let a large boat sail downriver. I look at the guys round me in BMC jerseys. The first ear worm of the day wriggled awake: I'm sticking to you, because I'm made out of glue. I don't think Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were really into bike riding but this incongruous 70s number fuelled my magnetic attraction to the BMC jerseys and wheels in front of me.
The group was to stay together for the first 100km. This was a mixture of major and minor roads and bike lanes. Some of the bigger roads were really exposed and a couple of guys from the BMC Concept store made it their mission to keep me out of the wind, making sure I was protected by being in groups and that I didn't drop off the end at junctions and traffic lights. I watched the speed on the Garmin. 35, 36 even 39 km per hour. And the distance counter ticking up at a hitherto unimaginable pace. Peloton riding is fun.
The riders in the Granfondo experience were a mixture of the uber trained and the more mortal. Davy from Belgium belonged in the former category and rode rings round us - literally. Dropping back to make sure we were all there and then accelerating forward to span the whole group with good humour. He gave me the second ear worm. We're nearly there, he quipped, at about 45km. And we all roared with 'Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies'.
|Kathi and Frank, her partner who came along for the ride.|
Christoffe in the foreground and Steffan in the back.
At 100 km he roared off to meet the cobbles singing 'Here comes the sun', only (we heard later) to be beasted by fellow Belgian, Steven, whose brainchild the Granfondo Experience is. The next group was also pretty fast - ex-pro riders Christoff and Stijn on the front with super fit athlete Fiola keeping them on their toes whilst shepherding Alex and Peter from Brazil and Sweden respectively. I could catch the BMC train and stay with it for a while, but I didn't dare accelerate when they went off. I wanted to have enough in my legs to climb the cobbles and I worried that blasting off would use them up. I was, compared to Peter, Alex and Davy, very underprepared. They were all aficionados of the 200km+ ride. I'd never ridden this far in my life.
So I let them go. There were three stops when the van met us though, and each time I found that I wasn't really far behind. The youngsters (as I like to think of those under 30), Joe from the US and Kathi from Germany would roll up a little behind me. Kathi, determined to take it at her own pace was honing a special range of German expletives to describe the cobbled climbs.
I loved riding the flat and rolling pave, pulling out the stops to overtake everyone in front of me, thrilling at the whirr when I reached the magic speed at which it seemed to smooth (a little). Then on the roads I'd judiciously sneak into groups and sit behind bigger riders until my mind was filled with a jumble of club jersey names from Belgium and Holland. I wondered what van Meesters did and mused that surely Mulder should be accompanied by Sculley. Sometimes we chatted, sometimes not.
|Find a big bloke and sit behind him...|
At one point, someone came alongside me shouting a cheery 'congratulations'. I realised that probably quite a few people around me had entered the Granfondo competition. I countered with 'it's the hardest prize I've ever won' and he pedalled off, laughing.
I rode for a while behind a chap from Witham Weavers. I asked where that was (Lincolnshire) and we rode along discussing where we'd come from and the utter splendidness of the day.
Once we hit another cobbled climb I went steady. My gears were just perfect and before I realised it I was up the Koppenberg. It has an interesting and distinctively steep section with wheel-catchingly wide gaps between the cobbles half way up. But the bike climbed over them smoothly and I used the descents to make up places, loving the bike for letting me blast out of corners and storm past people on the long straights. Which is how I would catch the train a last time.
|The BMC bus with Joe, Fiola, Christoffe, Peter and Steffan|
I was in the BMC train when the Garmin clicked past 180km. I was now riding the longest distance I have ever ridden. It was sunny though, the lanes were lined with new green foliage, the light was glorious and I was happy. It was great to share the moment.
Then more cobbles and I let the train go. There were several bergs beginning with K before the final climbs of the day and the names - on a convenient sticker on my top tube - had begun to swim before my eyes. I didn't really storm up any of them, letting Fiola and the other fast guys do that for the team.
The penultimate berg, the Oude Kwaremont at 223km was my real nemesis. The climb itself is not too bad, but it's followed by a mile or so of flat cobbles which I had to take with no momentum and tiring legs. That was my only real moment of earthy German expletives.
|Smile or grimace? A bit more tired now.|
Then just the Paterberg. I'd caught up and then lost Pete from the Witham Weavers a few times, but this time he waited for me at the top. It was short and steep but over quickly. Relieved that we'd effectively done the Ronde, and without stepping off on any of the climbs, we chatted our way back to Oudenaarde, sitting behind a Belgian cycling club who kindly took the wind. My feet were pretty sore, but that could not damp my elation.
The faithful BMC van was waiting at the finish, there was beer. And frites. And a strange feeling. There were times that day that I didn't want it to end, the streaming sunshine, the speed, the warm air and the laughter. It was almost hard to finish, but good. A warm feeling of completion and pride. And I was still smiling.