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Cycling in Flanders: Spend a weekend riding in cycling's heartland

Flanders 10

Cobbles, bergs & beers: Flanders is a must-visit location to experience the beating heart of cycling - at any time of the year

As a cycling destination, Flanders is most associated with the Spring Classics and everything that goes with them: rain - sometimes even snow, mud, cobbles and hardy riders. But Visit Flanders and Cycling in Flanders are keen for visitors to see the northern half of Belgium as a year-round destination.

After the 2019 Tour de France kicked off in Brussels on Saturday 6th July, anyone visiting the Grand Depart would also have had the chance to explore the lanes, cobbles and bergs of the surrounding Flanders region.

Despite how much better races are to watch when the cobbles are wet and the riders get muddy, riding there in person will almost certainly be better when it's dry and sunny – as should be the case for much of this summer.

The Tour's beginning in Brussels – Belgium's capital that sits as a Francophone exclave in Flanders – means that this summer is the perfect chance to see the region under sunny skies (hopefully), riding the roads and watching the pros.

Even so, it was on Classics opening weekend under leaden skies and often in heavy rain that Cyclist made the first of two Classics era visits to get a feel for the place and see what all the fuss is about.

Rain and wind on Classics opening weekend

With all eyes on the Tour de France, Classics opening weekend seems like a very long time ago now. As we all know, the cycling season starts properly with the back-to-back running of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne over one weekend around the start of March. The amateur sportives for the events run on the opposite days to their respective pro races.

On the first day of the opening race weekend, led by Dries from Cycling in Flanders, we rode a quick 40km loop that took in the Oude Kwaremont, skipped across the bottom of the Koppenberg (but avoided going up it) and visited D'Oude Hoeve.

D'Oude Hoeve is a fantastic little pub on Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat (Tour of Flanders street), right near the monument to Karel Van Wijnendaele, the race's founder, and part of the current route. The road also marks the sometimes fractious border between Flanders and Wallonia, with the race venturing into the latter region for a small part of its route.

In true Flandrian style, the pub was showing Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on several televisions in its small bar area. A bit like pubs showing football in the UK, but where everyone is interested and no one's getting unduly worked up.

Leaving the warmth of the little cycling pub was difficult, but back into the wind we completed our ride ready for the more gruelling following day to come.

Part sportive, part get-me-back-to-a-warm-shower

The weather was truly Flandrian as we set off on the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad sportive while the pros would have been looking out the window contemplating if they really needed to ride Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Strong winds and heavy rain lashed the group of riders as we made our way along a canal-side cycling road, wide enough for groups to pass two abreast in opposing directions and completely inaccessible to motor vehicles.

Wet cobbles aren't as bad as you end up telling yourself they will be, but the added effort and concentration really take a toll on energy levels. Finding myself consistently hovering near the back of the group and struggling to stay warm, I opted to activiate my Wahoo cycling computer's 'take me to...' function and left the route for a fast solo 30km back to the hotel.

I was concerned about the reaction of the hotel staff as I traipsed into the reception area of the NH Gent Belfort, kit covered in mud and bike caked in dirt, but I needn't have worried: this is Flanders and they're used to this sort of thing.

The staff stored my bike in the luggage room while I tried my best not to leave dirty cleat prints on the carpet.

My DNF on the sportive, although unfortunately adding to a building reputation in the Cyclist office, had the happy side effect of meaning I was back in plenty of time to watch the second half of Kuurne. I grabbed a prime spot in Gent cycling cafe Pedaleur de Flandres and all the seats were soon taken, with plenty of people choosing to stand for the final couple of hours of coverage. Flanders lives and breathes cycling.

Oudenaarde, cycling city

The first outing of the trip over to ride with Visit Flanders started and ended at the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen in Oudenaarde. The Tour of Flanders Museum is a must-visit location for any cycling fan entering any part of Belgian territory.

The Centrum hosts a huge erray of memorabilia as well as a great little cafe, showers and lockers for riders, bike racks and staff more than happy to advise on routes in the local area.

Oudenaarde is the ideal choice for the location of the museum, firstly for the obvious reason that the town hosts the finish of the Tour of Flanders but also because of its proximity to so many of Flanders' amazing cycling routes. Within easy reach are all the famous cobbles and bergs – Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Taaienberg, and plenty more besides – and the town can also be easily reached by train and car from Brussels.

This proximity (after all, Belgium's not a huge country) and its position en route back to the UK mean that anyone heading to the Grand Depart really should consider popping by for as little or as long as they can.

Back to België

Returning a few weeks later for another trip to Flanders, this time the weather was much better (apart from when it snowed for about 10 minutes just after the summit of the Koppenberg).

This trip was based in Bruges, the famous fairytale town not far from the Dutch border. The city's proximity to the Netherlands inspired a ride across the barely noticeable frontier into the picturesque town of Sluise for some frites and mayo, the whole way into a stiff headwind, before a loop back into Flanders.

The key part of this visit was the Tour of Flanders Fan Ride, which gives amateurs the exciting yet thoroughly intimidating experience of riding on the Tour of Flanders course on race day, close enough to the time the pros come through to ensure lively roadside crowds.

The Fan Ride was done as part of a group hosted by Velusso, the British cycling holidays and events company. The brand has recently opened the Velusso House of the Lion, a cycling cafe and shop in Bruges that has a rotating stock of memorabilia from the career of the Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw.

Bruges is away from the traditional area associated with road cycling in Flanders, despite hosting the start of the Tour of Flanders until recently, and is often overshadowed by other locations – such as Oudenaarde, as mentioned above.

However, in some ways it has more to offer: multi-day rides, sightseeing, beer tasting and chocolate eating are much more suited to Bruges and its surrounding area.

Forget the Alps, time to head to Flanders

Whatever time of the year, and with Belgium's hosting of the Tour de France Grand Depart imminent, cycling fans from the UK and Ireland should look a bit closer to home the next time they think about a trip to southern France or the mountains of Spain.

With loads to offer and a whole culture around everything cycling, Flanders is a location that riders won't regret visiting.

Links and more information

Visit Flanders: visitflanders.com 
Cycling in Flanders: cyclinginflanders.cc  
Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen: crvv.be  
Velusso: velusso.co.uk/velusso-cycling-cafe-lifestyle-store-bruges  
Flanders Fan Ride: cyclist.co.uk/tour-of-flanders-fan-ride

This is not a sponsored article, it's a guide for those thinking about a cycling trip to Flanders