Of baby heads and waffles: doing the Flandrien Challenge

I decided to do the Flandrien Challenge. They were two difficult days in the saddle, then the detention ride. But I did it.

My family and I decided to use our first post-COVID vacation to reconnect with distant family. Mine in London, Irene’s in the Netherlands. When first we had the discussion, Irene said “I assume you’ll want to cycle somewhere.” This is why I love her.

I immediately thought of Belgium and riding the Flandrien Challenge, which I’d first encountered in this GCN video. My second thought was “I’m going to need more time.”

I had pangs of guilt and remorse at the thought of being away from my family for a few days but it was a rare opportunity to experience an almost mythical part of cycling. So much is written and said about the cobbled roads of Flanders. I had to try it. I’ve done Paugan and Transoutaouais many times, I reckoned. How much worse could it be? These will be the words on my tombstone, I reckon.

The bike I rented

The setup

I reserved a rental road bike from the Centre Ronde Van Vlanderen, the museum/café/store that organizes the virtual challenge. I found another road bike rental agency or two in the area, but I really wanted the convenience of a quick walk between rental and hotel. Their selection is not vast. And their approach to tires is properly Flandrien (Wide tires for comfort? Just HTFU). But they had one in my size (a recent vintage Ridley Fenix SL), with brifters, where I could use my own pedals, and that was all I was really looking for.

I liked the look of Oudenaarde. I mostly saw the main square, but I did have to range deeper into the city to find groceries and to get to the train station. The square, which is not really a square, is lined with hotels with patio bars out front. It’s only a bit more than 1km from the Oudenaarde train station to the main square.

The town hall

Prowling for food

The main square hotels’ ground-floor bars had tiny tables and were well-shaded by beer-branded umbrellas and they all had a fair number of (mostly grey-haired) patrons sitting there. But none of them were eating. They were all nursing a glass of beer or wine. This is all well and good, but I needed to ensure my glycogen levels were at their peak.

As it happens, there’s the perfect place for that. A little up Stationstraat, there’s a modest lunch and early evening joint called Pasta Picasso that was more or less built for people like me. For around 10 Euros they give you a takeout bucket of fresh pasta doused in the sauce of your choice. If I had a less ambitious kilometre/elevation count, I might have wanted to venture forth for something different. But I ate three dinners there because all I really cared about was being able to sustain enough power to climb the last of the day’s segments and crawl home.

I found yogurt, granola and bananas at the Colruyt for when I had to be rolling before the Hotel’s 6:30am breakfast. I stopped in at the Hema on Hoogstraat to pick up a bowl and a spoon (forgot to bring one from home!). And my room at the Leopold had a small fridge. I was set.

Best plans

The organizers of the Flandrien Challenge give you route options on RideWithGPS that allow you to complete it in one, two, three or four days. I picked the two day option because it seemed do-able and I reckoned that my family would want me around for the rest of our first post-COVID vacation. The plan was to join them in eastern Netherlands, which meant a long day on a lot of trains. So I booked three nights at the hotel, which would give me an extra day to return my bike, maybe walk around a bit then take a leisurely trip to the Achterhoek.

The first day of the two-day challenge has you start in Ieper, about 30km west of Oudenaarde, ride a circumlocutious, 206km route through the Flandrien countryside and end up in Oudenaarde. While 30km is not a lot of riding and it’s certainly possible to bike between the two towns, I decided to take a train from Oudenaarde to Ieper and start from there. The trains run fairly frequently and your ticket is good all day. The trip takes 1:12 mins and you have to switch trains at Kortrijk. You also have to pay 4 euros extra for a non-folding bike. The first train is at 6:30am. I would have liked to have been rolling earlier, but not so much that it was worth doing an extra hour of riding.

Kemmelberg Ossuaire

Day 1: Ieper to Oudenaarde via everywhere

I had great weather. There was a slight chill on my arms riding to the station, but the forecast was for sunny and overcast with the high in the mid-20s. And not much wind to speak of. I imagined having to do a lot more walking with the bike (platform changes, etc) but the cleat covers I bought for that purpose weren’t necessary. They certainly weren’t worth taking up precious space in my jersey pockets.

A quick bathroom break at the station in Ieper and I was off. And I ran straight into construction. After a brief check I found a route-around and was on my way. After about 10km of flat riding along quiet, narrow, paved roads, off to the bergs. The day’s first 40 or 50km are spent circling about the hills near Ieper, chasing nine or so segments, the nastiest of which is the Kemmelberg – Ossuaire. It’s a short, steep climb (maybe 400m at a 11 per cent gradient). This would be fine but for the fact that the steepest bit — where it kicks up toward 20% — is cobbled.

This, dear reader, is where I realized that the gravel we have at home is not at all comparable to the pavé. And as I type several days after the fact I am still trying to decide which is worse. I think in certain circumstances gravel is worse. If the road is steep, gravel might be smaller and easier to roll over than cobbles, but the fact that it is shifting makes it tougher to climb than cobbles, or rather easier to end up on the deck. And your average unmaintained logging road or similar will have stretches that will be technically harder than cobbles. But your average maintained municipal gravel road will be easier than a similar stretch of pavé by quite a margin.

With cobbles, you can always guarantee yourself a certain level of technical difficulty. And a truly rock and roll experience. Most everyone who has heard of the Flandrien cobbles refers to them as baby heads. With each fractional rotation of wheel you feel like you’re picking your bike out of a tiny rut. On hills it feels like an extra two or three per cent gets added to the gradient. On flats, you wonder how your teeth are going to stay in your gums.

On the Kemmelberg – Ossuaire I realized how much extra power you have to put out to overcome the rolling resistance the rocks put up. I needed near-sprint level power to keep my tires rolling over the cobbles. But my normal solution for really steep ramps — climbing out of the saddle — felt like a recipe for unscheduled contact with the ground. Climbing gravel, you want to keep weight on the rear wheel to keep traction. But it was so steep it was hard to keep the bike’s front end down. So I had to find a balance. The first time was more than a bit unnerving.

Route recalculation ruined my day

I remember when I turned off Garmin’s route recalculation feature for the first time. It was many years ago, on my Edge 800. There were two roads close together when the unit signalled a turn ahead. I squinted at the tiny black and white screen and chose the wrong one. The head unit threw up an “Off Course, re-routing” prompt and wiped out my whole route, sending me home on stroads and highways.

Fast forward to today where my Garmin Edge 1040 Solar’s route recalculation routine understands that, a lot of the time with cycling it’s the journey, not the destination that matters. So when it deems that you have gone off course, it offers you the option of rerouting to your destination, but it will also route you back onto the course. Whether it does this automatically or with your approval is a setting. By default it warns you, then ten seconds later routes you back to the course.

My first assessment was “helpful or harmless, either way, we ride on.” But later, as I was wheeling my way along the Lys River toward the Oudenaarde part of the day, I realized it had been very unhelpful indeed.

See, the route for both days looks a bit like spaghetti in the bottom of the pot. The route crosses over itself in places and you repeat some stretches of roads in order to hit all the Strava segments in the correct direction. But say, for example, the route expects you to head north, then loop around on another road, do a segment and then cross your first path before proceeding west to continue the route. And say instead of following the course, you veer west instead, possibly because you’re descending a cobbled hill and cannot read your tiny Garmin screen, as you and it shake violently, to see that you’re going off course. Well the Edge will reroute you to your course, or, in my case, to another part of the course, namely the part of the course after the segment I was supposed to ride.

I can see the head unit’s perspective. To it, it looks like I’m trying to shorten the course. And why would I not? It looks nasty. And who is the head unit to judge after all. So it reroutes the rider onto the course and starts bleeping and blurping like everything’s fine.

Only I’m now riding away from a segment I need to collect without having ridden it.

Regrettably, there’s no way to turn ‘course recalculation’ off entirely. The closest you can come is “Prompt only” where the unit just alerts you that you’re off course and waits until you choose an option to get back to the course. Unfortunately for me, the default is “Prompt with Auto-reroute”. Which is to say that it warns me that I’m off course, then ten seconds later picks some way back to the course and starts guiding me there.

I had put together a list of all the segments I needed to ride and at what kilometre mark they were supposed to hit. But this wasn’t much use as I had bike brain and had lost track of what segments I had ridden, had no idea of the proper order in which they were to be ridden, or how many were yet to come and which one was next.

I reckon probably the best way to deal with this is to end, save and upload your ride at the end of every segment or after riding through all the segments in a particular area. You’ll get instant feedback on how you’re doing from the Flandrien Challenge website and won’t have to backtrack too far if you have missed one. But I didn’t want to pour four dozen tiny rides onto my Strava feed. I wanted to give followers the whole picture of the ride in a single convenient card. You know, like normal Strava.

I had already spent a lot of time stopped by the roadside staring at the screen trying to figure out the turns. And I was in no mood to double back and re-ride some, several or all the segments in case I had missed one, some or several. So I decided to ride on and risk it.

After riding along the shore of the Lys River — mostly flat, along bike paths — you come back into the Oudenaarde area. You get some flat cobbled segments, some hills and some cobbled hills. But none of the famous ones.

I finished the first day feeling more tired than after a ‘normal’ double metric century and with the uneasy feeling that something had gone wrong. But my ride distance and elevation totals seemed to match the route profile’s, so I held out hope.

But no. I was missing two segments. I felt this pit in my stomach that no amount of pasta could fill. Over dinner I concocted options, sick and sensible. In the end I decided that the grown-up approach would be to Take More Time™. It wasn’t the goal, but in the end I figured it just meant I would spend a bit more time riding in this beautiful part of the world and that couldn’t be bad. So with familial approval I changed my outbound train ticket and planned to ride again on day three.

It started off well enough

Day 2: more effort, no mistakes needed

The route that the challenge organizers supply is shorter on day two but has much more elevation than day one. And it includes four of the most infamous cobbled climbs. Three of them come within the last hour of the ride. I reckoned my strategy really needed to be all about energy conservation. My Garmin was telling me that I had overdone it yesterday and I was aware that day 2 would be harder.

To fend off further navigation disasters, I numbered all the segments I needed to hit in the order I needed to hit them. I added them to the route profile as special cues. And hoped that I could keep track of the sequence. I had to avoid an overly long or demanding route for day three. I didn’t have all day to ride.

My first mistake was thinking I needed to get my money’s worth out of the hotel. I should have done a hurry-up hotel room breakfast and gotten rolling earlier. Instead I availed myself of the breakfast buffet. Which only starts at 6:30. So I was rolling at 7:20am. As mistakes go this wasn’t bad. Going earlier would have meant a bit more self-cooling and avoiding the sinking feeling you get when you’re a long way from home and the sun is getting low.

The next mistake was much more expensive. Once again Garmin found me at a junction of the course and re-routed me onto another part of the course, namely the home stretch, the last 20km which also happens to be the first 20km. And it wasn’t until I was practically on the main road into Oudenaarde that I realized what was going on.

After I got my wits together I decided that the best approach, rather than risk creating a new route on the fly, or letting Garmin autoroute me to where I reckon I left off or wherever the hell it felt like, was to go back to where the way-back and the way-out split off and start over. So I did. It would mean an extra ascent of Ladeuze, the Achterberg and Mariaborrestraat-Steenbeekdries, but I have almost no patience for futzing about with technology mid-bike ride. If you have a better idea about what I should have done, I’m all ears. Or, rather I do read the comments.

Getting back on track was a huge boost to my morale. I wasn’t bothered about the extra elevation. Perhaps I should have been. I paid for it later. I wasn’t bothered about the lost time. I reckoned so long as I made it back to Oudenaarde before the pasta trough closed at 7pm, I’d be fine. I had no other appointments or requirements beyond surviving.

The challenge organizers have painted the roads to mark the start and finish of many of the segments which is reassuring, but you can’t count on it. Some have no markings. Some only partial markings. And my custom “Segment #X” prompts provided some reassurance, but the route prompts, the cue sheet prompts and Garmin’s Climb Pro did conspire to hide some of them.

What helped, when lost, was to look at the pink line of the route on the head unit’s map. If you zoom in enough you can see little arrow markings on the route line, indicating the direction of travel. If the course has you doubling back on that road (which it does in places) you will see arrows in both directions on the same stretch of road. Which is less helpful.

Apparently the true Flandriens who complete the challenge are not only physically strong but also mentally strong enough not to be driven mad by their GPS units.

On I rode. Much of the second day’s route seems to be about descending on a main road, then deeking off onto a side road to climb a berg. Again a clever ploy on the part of the course designer. You don’t want to have the tourists plunging down cobbles at a -14% incline, after all.

Around 3pm I was starting to feel tired. I was still facing the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg and the Koppenberg and felt I had a lot of riding to do to get home. I still had some gels, but I reckoned the calorie count wasn’t going to be in my favour. I had refilled my bottles at hour seven and was well on my way to draining them again. There didn’t seem to be any stores anywhere.

Gauffre saves the day in style

But then I landed in Ronse. And lo and behold, I found a tea room — the Tea room den bruul — whose lone employee/owner/manager was still around, hanging out with some friends. He seemed as shocked as me when I asked if he would serve me some food. He showed me a menu. I was a little dismayed. I had been thinking of a sort of standard, gas station “I’ll eat anything”, grab-pay-go stop. But it did occur to me that a little enforced recovery time would be beneficial. Even as the sun started to paint the town with the orange of late afternoon.

The tea room was perfect. They had a little courtyard where I could put my bike, a patio table where I could sit and watch it. He refilled my bottles. And they had waffles. Plated beautifully with a strawberry, a dusting of icing sugar and a dollop of whipped cream. He asked me where I was from. I said ‘Canada’ which I am sure was some relief to him as he was expecting ‘Mars’. I paid and got rolling again. The segments were a bit more spaced out on this part of the course, so I reckoned (hoped) there would be enough time to digest before hitting anything hard or, if not, the effort would not be so long and sustained as to induce too much nausea.

Of the last batch of hills I think Schapenberg – Scherpenberg was the nastiest. It wasn’t even cobbled but — and Strava confirmed this — it’s the longest with the steepest average gradient. I managed the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont just fine. I walked a short stretch of the Koppenberg where the gradient kicks up above 17 per cent and the cobbles are so spaced out they look like they are about to tumble downhill. Kortekeer wasn’t a problem and I’d already done Ladeuze so I knew what to expect. Apart from a traffic jam (two cars approaching from opposite directions at the summit) it was fine.

It was getting late, though. And the scope of the final challenge was laid out before me. I had fifteen minutes to get back to Oudenaarde before Pasta Picasso closed. At first I thought I was hooped. I was feeling spent and the distance-to-destination numbers on my head unit weren’t all that helpful. Ambiguous at best. But also not out of the question.

So as much as I could, I floored it. And for the last ten minutes or so I pushed as hard as I could. At the time I surprised myself with how strong I felt. But looking back at the numbers I realize I should mostly have been surprised that I was still upright.

Appropriately, the last actual cobbled segment was through the Oudenaarde market square and down Stationstraat to the pasta place, where I hopped off my bike, salt-stained and dusty, five minutes before closing.

Day 2.1: loose ends

I don’t have words to describe the relief I felt when, back at the Leopold, I synced my ride with Strava and saw that indeed it was still just the two segments from Day 1 that I was missing. This meant I still had a chance. I had been in touch with the challenge organizers the night before to see if there was any wiggle room on collecting all the segments. And they allowed that maybe insofar as I had ridden long enough, that if I promised to come back and complete the two missing segments, they might let me off with a warning.

This was very kind of them but I couldn’t do it. And my family had most graciously agreed to let me arrive later. So I changed my ticket home, bought a return ticket to Ieper and built me a route to ride out to Kemmel, do the two segments and ride right back. It had to be an early start (the first train through Oudenaarde is at 6:30) and it would mean missing dinner at my partner’s relatives in Eastern Netherlands. But having done all this riding — nay suffering — I couldn’t go back without my name on the wall.

I could have gone right from my hotel — I expect that’s what truly true Flandriens would have done. But that would have added another 70km to the ride and I still had to check out, change, return the bike and get to my train. So a commute was the order of the day. A simple out and back over quiet, gently rolling farm roads, two hills (one cobbled) then home. The cobbled climb — Kemmelberg – Belvedere — was quite a bit easier than the Ossuaire climb. And before I knew it I was back on the platform, waiting for my return train to Oudenaarde.

My good luck streak with the weather came to an end but really, if your only problem is having to bike five minutes from the train station to the hotel in pouring rain, do you really have a problem? Besides — I didn’t Strava so did it really even happen?

Back at the Centre, they printed up my ‘cobble’, I gave back my bike, had a great big plate of pasta Genovese, bought a souvenir casquette and headed off in search of chocolates and then off to the Achterhoek to meet up with my family.

That's me with my 'cobble'

Leave a Reply