If Europe is the heartland of cycle racing then surely the hills in Flanders must be the beating heart itself. A friend of mine has guided riders up and over the bergs for years and is now well known for finding the most interesting back roads to ride on. Now that his partner and he have started a one-stop shop for cyclists, a day trip to Belgium might become an even more regular occurrence!…
The first time I rode with Henk, it was about zero degrees, sleeting and we ended up riding our road bikes off-road to a bakery in Ellezelles for fresh coffee and waffles – I immediately knew we were on the same wavelength!
A year later our club returned, the weather had improved and another route was just as much fun as the one I fell in love with. I’ve been to Flanders many times and have some family there too, so I’m well used to the classic routes and must-ride-cobbled-bergs, but Henk’s routes always seem to have that little bit extra that most tourists will miss – I always try and set similar routes back in Sussex, so when we turn off onto a little used footpath across a field I get out of the saddle and start smiling!
Henk’s partner, Sylvie has put together a brilliant package in a small village just up the road from Oudenaarde and now the pair of them are able to offer everything the cyclist could want – a morning coffee and home-made breakfast, a guided ride through the real best bits of Flanders, a recovery lunch and more freshly brewed coffee, a chance to buy some souvenirs and even a treatment or leg massage. That’s just about all bases covered I reckon! They’re set up for day trips but it’s easy to find accommodation in Flanders so multi-day trips are possible too. We organised our own trip and met up with Henk and Sylvie in April, so when we heard about their official open day on May the 1st we knew we had to be a part of it!
Leaving Sussex at 4:45 for the 6:15 train (car shuttle) to Calais (for before 8am local time) it’s an easy 90 minute drive to breakfast at Ride On Coffee. We’d then be ready to ride at 10am normally. On May the 1st we then headed out for a 90km blast on real Belgian roads and being the only two non-Belgians (and Pip being the only lady) we were being treated to the full local experience. Henk (Flanders On Bike) will tweak the ride to just about any ability and to those individuals taste, but the ride we were on was a proper Flemish Club Ride.
We had some great battles over the short sharp hills and it’s always a blast when the locals start to accept you into the group – the conversation was flowing firstly in my terrible rendition of Flemish, and soon after in their perfect English! I chatted to a couple of guys that raced locally who both looked about seven foot tall – proper Belgian hardmen. Another rider was sponsored by the local BMC Concept store to race Gran-Fondo’s and stage races across Europe and yet another was studying at school and currently in a dilemma about which port to choose to try and go pro in – football or cycling. He was currently fighting with the rest of us up the climbs whilst keeping one eye on his watch as he had a game he needed to get back to play in!
Three hours later we’d made it back to the Ride On Coffee HQ to a brilliant home-made recovery lunch. Drinks, rolls, cakes and coffee were consumed by everyone whilst the conversations continued to flow. Pip and I then wandered around the shop and bought half of it! A great selection of socks, hats and jerseys will be added to throughout the next few months. Another few Flemish coffees later Pip and I said our goodbyes and made our way back down to the Schelde for our afternoon ride along the canal, before heading into Oudenarrde for a look around the Tour of Flanders museum.
Legs now thoroughly worn out we were back in the car at 17:30 and headed back to the coast for a quick steak and frites dinner and then onto the Shuttle for 8pm local time. It’s then an easy drive back home for about 9pm – kind of just like a big day out in the UK for a sportive or race and well worth it in my opinion. All told the cost must have been about £60 to £65 per person including all fuel, trains, guiding, food and drinks – £100 each when you buy a few goodies!
Photos by Henk Ballet and Glen Whittington.
Glen rides for the Southborough & District Wheelers. He races mountain bikes, road bikes, TT and ‘cross at local and national level. He receives personal support from Helly Hansen, Scott Sports, The Velo House, and the.æight.bicycle.cømpany. Glen runs The Velo House with Olly, a coffee shop, workshop and bike shop welcoming all cyclists and non-cyclists, based at 5 St.Johns Road, Tunbridge Wells, TN4 9TN – 01892 554 505 – firstname.lastname@example.org. He also contributes to Simpson Mag @eightbikeco #aeightracer