Who wouldn’t want to be a pro for a day? With John Degenkolb’s absence at the Spring Classics a definite, we got a call from Giant-Alpecin asking: could we step in? This meant that this year’s Tour of Flanders for us wasn’t just going to involve high expectations on the dreaded cobbles and brutal climbs around Oudenaarde, but we would be doing it on a shiny new team bike and with full race support to boot.
“Get the f*** out of my way,” yells a rider ahead of me. This is war, no question about it as we ride the Paterberg, a ramp that knows how to split the pack. Those who have ridden the Ronde van Vlaanderen (RVV) know only too well just what these brutal, short, steep climbs do to your legs, even making the legs of grown pro riders quake and forcing many mere mortals to admit defeat and push. Not me though, I say resolutely, weaving my way through gaps, relying on strength whilst trying to maintain my cadence . I’ve already suffered 20km of cramps, but they’ve worn off and excitement to reach the finish takes over. Once there, mics are pushed into my face. A cameraman wants to know what’s so special about the race. I realize that, as a non-pro, I should probably explain myself before answering.
Not all podium girls and victory salutes
Life as a pro is glamorous – or, at least, it can be when you’re the rider in the spotlight, showered in media attention and respect. But it’s also exhausting: sacrifices, training, insurmountable hierarchies and concrete routines – that sounds more like it for the majority.
Many of us attempt to follow what we think is the pro lifestyle, adopting their monastic routines of self-sacrifice to ride faster. But we’re just kidding ourselves really, like kids playing out their daydreams.
Of course I wasn’t filling in for Degenkolb; I was Alpecin’s guest, over in Belgium to ride the sportive version of the RVV (“the Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo”) the day before the pros take the same roads. But Alpecin hooked us up with the team kit, a team bike and full ‘pro’ support – all in the name of: ‘Ride like a Pro’.
All the gear, no idea
Not quite. Admittedly, having the full team set-up does make life on two wheels easier, so I wouldn’t knock it – well-organized, high performing equipment, on-hand support and a director sportive too. But on the flipside, starting clad in full pro kit did cause a stir with the rest of the sportive riders. Curious looks, revered glances, and being attacked by those wanting to measure up against someone they mistakenly believe is a pro. But pro kit or not, no one is immune to pre-race nerves. So what’s it like to ride this 130km route with 7 of Europe’s infamously unforgiving sectors of pavé and 15 of its leg-crushing climbs?
The day of reckoning arrives and those pre-race nerves hit me. There is one thing I’m sure about though: I wouldn’t even try to consider winning this. With events like the Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo, you have to remember why they exist. . Anyone (and on this day there are 16,000 ‘anyones’) gets their chance to ride their own version of this iconic race. Pretty cool, right? What football fan gets to tread on the hallowed pitches of their glorified teams? Cycling allows everyone a ringside seat at the action, tying generations together through heritage and heroics.
Riding an event like this with the illusion of victory is likely to end in frustration. Certain sections tend to bottlenose, so you’re better off discarding those ambitions and riding for fun, tucking in to a waffle at the feed stations and counting the number of Flemish flags.
Enjoy the moment
Take a moment to realize that this is not a race against 16,000 riders, but a ride with each other. Every single rider should look out for each other, taking responsibility for their own riding. There are neither bouquets nor podium girls, so why take risks? Once that’s understood and your ego is put back under lock and key in its box (its day will come, trust us), then you’ll be in for an unforgettable weekend.
Beer vs. pre-race prep
It’s the night before and my ‘pro support’ director sportive Mario Kummer talks me through the route. I listen attentively; after all, he’s the ex-pro. We sip our beers, soaking up the Friday evening vibes with little thought for their effect come tomorrow. After all, it’s not a race so why be as anxious as a top-flight, thoroughbred pro racer and skip the beer? One can’t do any harm, right? And if you do happen to have a bad ride, well, it’s easier to blame beer than a lack of training.
This is how I expected to see myself the next day: flattened. Unfortunately this time there was no chance to blame it on the material or preparation.
Hotel doors start slamming at 5.30am followed by a cavalcade of feet in the hallway. I curse, not appreciating being robbed of my final half hour of sleep. With a long week of work behind me, it was never going to be easy to rouse myself this early – but this makes it worse.
It’s race day! Isn’t it? The automated instant coffee does nothing for my palate, but has the desired effect on my brain cells. I’m ready. Shuttled from the hotel to the start, the final preparations take place and from the relative calm of the team bus I watch a small group gather outside. Oh balls, I thought. If only they knew what was really going down, and that I was just as nervous as them. Don’t let the team kit fool you, I’m still just a regular guy (although there was never going to be much chance of the film crew from German television ZDF and their well-known presenter Annika Zimmerman going unnoticed).
Peace and order resettle on the bike, and I figure I can enjoy the liberty of being at one on two wheels. Or not… I’d forgotten the other 16,000 riders.
I push hard early on with fresh legs, spurred on by my kit and the bike – both a curse and a blessing as I realize quickly. Yeah, my pro kit garners respect and gives me more room, but also makes me vulnerable to almost constant attacks. I feel the pressure; eyes drilling into me, expecting the guy in full pro kit to produce the goods, but clothes don’t make the rider – I pray not to be labeled a “full pro kit wanker”. This sportive was turning into much more than just a battle with myself.
But whether it’s the RVV Cyclo, the Paris-Roubaix Challenge or L’Etape du Tour, these mass-participation events are buzzing with the exact same passion as their legendary pro counterparts. That’s why it’s so damn popular to ride the same route as the pros. As many of the races are staged the very next day, you’ll get what the pros are going through: the pain, the passion and the leg-destroying parcours.
This particular sportive gives you the choice of three distances, and each has so many feed stations that you’d be a fool to bonk. But they don’t serve coffee, I discover, so I pull up at a bar en route. Why not? It’s virtually the same as a feed station (except it’s my cash for my caffeine fix). I’m greeted with a friendly wave as I enter the bar. Locals are already enjoying their first beer of the day. Clearly this is the right spot, I confirm to myself, eyeing up faded relics of cycling history lining the walls.
Caffeined-up, I get back on the bike, knowing that I need to ride the pavé sections at full gas. The wise words of my DS ring in my ears: “hit it hard,” he’d said, seriously. “The faster you go, the smoother they are.” I survive, arms burning. And later as I grind my way up the notorious Kwaremont and Paterberg, I replay the deafening crowd as they scream for Museeuw and Van Petegem, going head-to-head like two Belgian gladiators from a bygone era of cycling.
Bring on race day! On Sunday we could enjoy the race live in the Giant-Alpecin Mini.
Stood at the finish, my arms as tired as my legs – thanks, cobbles – I don’t bother checking my finish time, and to be honest I don’t care. What’s more important is the sensation of having completed this spectacular sportive with amazing people, great support and a well-earned beer at the finish. I had my ‘Pro Experience’, faced the cobbles, wore the kit, and tackled the media throng – but I was happy to leave the racing and the suffering to the pros. The RVV Cyclo is a genuine festival for all, with the roads lined with around a million spectators – which, incidentally, the following day I careered along inside a Giant-Alpecin team car in pursuit of the peloton. And having ridden it less than 24 hours earlier, it was all the more insightful to enjoy the real event in the Giant-Alpecin Mini.
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Words: Robin Schmitt Photos: Noah Haxel