With approximately 16,000 riders slaloming all over Flanders’ famous cobbled bergs and tiny farm roads, We Ride Flanders is one of the biggest sportives in the world, and, in my estimation, the absolute best. I’ve ridden it at least eight times now on a variety of test bikes, and was looking forward to tackling the 179km version on a Specialized Aethos with Shimano’s new Ultegra Di2 12-speed group. There was one little problem, though … stay tuned to find out what.
Held the day before the men’s and women’s WorldTour races on many of the same roads and climbs, the Flanders sportive is one boisterous part of the enormous weekend-long party that is the Tour of Flanders. It benefits from the race’s momentum, signage, road closures and hundreds of thousands of fans.
Days before the race, hundreds of camper vans stake out their places alongside the course, their national and fan supporter flags flying in the Flemish breeze. In addition to enjoying all the pro race’s banners, fencing, and signage — plus having virtually every intersection orchestrated by police and volunteers — sportive riders also get to enjoy the energy and cheers of fans who are essentially tailgating all around the course, with music and food and beer on hand in no small measures.
And the course itself is a treat, with a barrage of famous cobbled climbs offering rewarding challenges and snaking, twisting roads providing a singletrack-for-road-bikes playground. Cars are absent on the cobbled climbs, and a non-factor virtually everywhere else on-course.
Lastly, there are the thousands upon thousands of riders who converge from around the world into enormous pelotons snaking through the countryside. Dutch, French, Italian, and English in a variety of accents are heard, and seemingly everyone is comfortable riding in tight proximity.
In short, We Ride Flanders is awesome. I can’t recommend it enough.
What failed: airline transport ruins a bike
We had two Thule travel cases at the office. The full hard case option, the RoundTrip Transition, had wheels and an integrated workstand, and it seemed ideal until I realized that it weighed 39lb empty. Putting even a hyperlight bike like the Aethos in it put it over the 50lb weight limit for flying free on United. So I took the RoundTrip Pro XT, which has plastic sides that fold down for storage but nothing in the way of cross-structural support.
I took the RoundTrip Pro XT on a trip with my family to San Diego, where I was annoyed to take the bike out of the case and realize a rotor was bent beyond repair. So, for the Belgium trip I removed the rotors and packed them in cardboard, put the wheels in the padded Thule bags, attached the frame to the Thule mounting rail that doubles as a work stand thanks to an included tripod, and wrapped the frame with foam padding that another bike had been shipped in.
Upon arriving in Belgium before Gent-Wevelgem, I carefully checked the rotors, wheels, derailleur hanger, chain, and tires, as I built the bike on the included stand. I used Strava to map out a route, and headed out for a spin.
Every few minutes I heard a weird sound, like I had run over an aluminum pie pan.
The first couple of times I looked back to see what I hit. Then I pulled over to look at my bike.
The sounds I heard were coming from a big hole and cracks in the down tube. Cue the sound of sad trombones.
My best guess is that the Thule case took a big impact in transit, and either a rim or a hub smashed into the frame — despite the frame being padded in foam and the wheels being inside padded bags with big plastic discs covering the sides of the hubs.
What saved me: Human Powered Health loans me a pro bike
Feeling sorry for myself, I sent a photo of the broken frame to a few friends, including my Boulder neighbor Andy Bajadali, who was in Belgium directing the Human Powered Health women’s WorldTour team. We were planning on getting out for a ride in the week before Flanders. Now, it appeared, that wasn’t happening.
‘Oh snap!’ he texted back. ‘What size u need? 56?’
Human Powered Health didn’t have a spare 56cm bike, but they did have a spare (unisex) 58cm Felt AR FRD, which mechanic Raf Wittenberg built up for me with tubeless wheels and SRAM Red/Force eTap drivetrain complete with a Quarq power meter. I was floored, and grateful.
My first impressions of the bike were positive. Riding a bike path along a canal, I was struck by how quiet and quick it was. Turns out, having a pro mechanic build and tune a bike is quite the luxury. For an aero bike, I was also surprised that it didn’t feel harsh when hitting cracks and holes and rocks. Most of the absorbency I can attribute to the 28mm Goodyear tubeless tires, but also to the Vision Metron wheels that weren’t super deep, to the Specialized Romin Evo Mimic saddle, and, presumably, to the frameset.
How the Felt AR Disc fared at We Ride Flanders
After a few weekday rides around Oudenaarde, I took a jaunt in blowing snow down to the Roubaix velodrome, where I managed to cut the rear tire on broken glass outside the old track. The cut was big enough that the sealant couldn’t repair it without losing a fair amount of air, but it was enough to limp back north.
Happily, I ran into an old friend Stephen Niblett on the road back. He and his wife CJ bought me a couple of Leffes at their hotel in Kortrijk, and then he sent me on my way with an inner tube. Just. In. Case.
As the Aethos was set up with clinchers, I had not brought tire plugs to Belgium. (My favorite system is Dynaplug for how quick and easy it is to plug a cut and be on your way. I pack the double-ended Dynaplug Racer for gravel races.)
Saturday morning dawned cold but clear, and the sealant seemed be holding, so I got my number plate and flowed into two-wheeled river of We Ride Flanders.
The tire seemed to hold at probably 55psi for first few dozen Ks, but then went soft coming into Geraardsbergen, home of the famous Kapelmuur (or Muur van Geraardsbergen, or just the Muur). Riding up the cobbled Muur, I had to stand and ride gingerly so I didn’t smack the rim. Happily, just over the Muur is one of the sportive’s many support stops, which are chock full of a variety of foods, huge tanks of energy drink, and mechanic stations. I borrowed a pump and put in a tube (thanks, Nibs!).
Back up and rolling, I carved down the pavement off the Muur. I love a lot of things about Flemish cobbles, and a top one is how wonderfully smooth and fast they make normal roads feel when you come off them.
Aero bars plus tubeless wheels and tires on the cobbles, and SRAM’s gearing for the climbs
I have tested a variety of bikes and gear here over the years, from endurance bikes with 23mm tires and rim brakes to what we used to call monster ’cross bikes (read: gravel bikes). I tested SRAM’s first 1x road drivetrain in Flanders, and I’ve also used a variety of computers.
Although not as brutally rough as the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, the Flemish stones are a far cry from an asphalt road.
I had an interesting chat with Raf about various strategies for reducing friction on cobbles. While many riders will use padded gloves or thicker tape — particularly for Roubaix — another strategy can be to ride without gloves and even without bar tape, to reduce the potential movement between layers.
The Vision Metron Aero road bar was wrapped in the drops and just around the corners of the tops, leaving the flat portion of the top bare. I started the day with two pairs of gloves — not for padding but simply because it was below freezing!
The first time I rode cobbles was on a Specialized trip in 2004 or so. Peter van Petegem joined the group, and advised to grasp the bar tight but keep the elbows and upper body loose. To Raf’s point, this does minimize the friction at the hands.
I had no issues with my hands, and probably rode 80/20 on the hoods versus on the bare tops for climbing on the cobbles.
The bar’s swept forward design, combined with a slightly inward position of the levers, made for a secure aero position when trying to get low in the wind and resting the forearms on the flat tops. The drop shape felt natural and secure for descending, where I could grasp the bar with three fingers and the thumb on each hand and brake confidently with just the index fingers.
Thinking back over past experiences, it’s laughable how much more confident and secure it feels to descend cobbles on softer 28mm tires with disc brakes than on hard 23mm tires with rim brakes — particularly in the wet!
The SRAM gearing of 50/37 with a 10-33 cassette offered plenty of rope on both ends. I definitely needed the low 37-33 gear for the steepest climbs like the Koppenberg and the Paterberg. Riding in the heavy traffic of the sportive makes these climbs particularly challenging, as you have to weave around stalled-out riders. I’ve only made it all the way up the Koppenberg maybe three times during the sportive because of traffic jams. This year I was able to ride it, thanks in part to the organizers’ new strategy of sending riders up in waves.
My advice: Start at the back of a group, and let the group get well ahead, even if that means putting a foot down at the bottom for a while. Then slowly start making your way up, and once you hit the back of the group, many of whom will be walking, just keep calling out in a friendly but loud tone the whole way up.
Even on the days when I tackled the Paterberg and Koppenberg on my own, I was definitely in that 37-33 when going full gas up the 22 percent pitches. On the other end, I never needed more than the top 50-10, but it’s not like I was attacking downhills like Victor Campenaerts. For context to those of you familiar with Shimano and Campagnolo’s traditional gearing, a 50-10 is bigger than a 53-11 and a 37-33 is smaller than a 34-30.
By the end of the nearly seven-hour day, which finished with the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, I was tired and grateful for the low gear to crawl up the bergs.
Takeaways: Visit Flanders — and pack carefully!
I realize I am spoiled rotten to have been able to borrow a WorldTour bike for a week when Plan A cracked. (And thank you again, Baj and Raf!) Another fallback plan could have been to rent a bike from one of the many bikes shops scattered around Flanders. Regardless of what bike you bring or borrow or rent, you should visit Flanders, ride the area, and do the sportive. That is of course presuming that you are in fact a Flanders fan, which I presume you are if you have read this far.
My other suggestion would be to take great care and caution when packing your bike. In the past I’ve driven with bikes from the UK and flown with bikes in cardboard boxes. Unlike the Thule case, cardboard boxes don’t collapse inwards and therefore offer some protection against your bike getting mushed. But whatever your vessel, take full precautions when putting your precious machine inside before lugging it to the airport.
See you next year in Oudenaarde?
Check out the gallery below for more photos.