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After-Action Report: The 2008 Ronde van Vlaanderen

Disabuse. It’s a fancy word. As I recall, I learned it about 15 years ago when I was cramming for the GRE. Disabuse. It’s a sufficiently fancy word, in fact, that I’ve never even used it once since I learned it. Disabuse: To be liberated from misguided notions. It’s the best word to describe my experience of doing the ‘cyclotourist’ ride the day before the Tour of Flanders, and my experience watching the Ronde the next day.

The cobblesBefore my visit to Flanders I thought I knew the score. Pavé? I’ve walked the backstreets of Boston. I ride Arkansas farm roads all the time. Hell, I almost won Rouge-Roubaix two years running back in the days when I took my racing far more seriously. What’s pavé other than a gentle, delightfully-perverse spanking? The faster you hit it, the greater the thrill, right?

The answer, my friends, is absolutely no. Nothing about it is fun. And nothing I’d ever previously thought about it was correct. Belgian pavé has no relation -- distant or otherwise -- to chip seal, or semi-gravel, or colonial brickwork. The cobbles are laid alongside each other according to chaos theory, in non-symmetry in every dimension -- front-to-back, side-to-side, and, worst of all, up-and-down. The multi-inch differences in the height of one cobble to the next gives you the sensation that you’re dropping out of the sky with every pedal stroke. It’s the brutality of speeding off one curb then ramming directly into another, again and again for endless kilometers. Holding your bars normally is an impossibility. Not just for the violent shock waves that scream through your bike and body, but for the agony in your fingers themselves. Frontal, medial, distal -- every segment of your fingers cramp. And, in a reality never voiced by Phil and Paul during their race coverage on OLN, authentic Belgian pavé batters your balls in most painful, sterilizing oscillations. Mind you, you can’t stand up on the pedals on pavé, so you must sit and suffer in ways unimaginable. And nothing you’ll ever experience will require you to piss and piss now than a few km on the cobbles. Legs? That’s the least of your problems. The rest of your body -- places you otherwise never heed -- that’s the problem.

Did you ever read George Will’s baseball book ‘Men At Work’? In it, he waxes rhapsodic about the beauty of the fact that bases are 90 feet apart. No matter what’s happened to the strength and speed of the players over the last century, defense always balances offense, and 90 feet has proven its constancy as the perfect distance for challenging a double-play or a tagged-up sacrifice fly.

More cobblesBelgian pavé, by contrast, is nowhere near as geometrically convenient for its sport. Some of the cobbles, when laid back in Roman times or whenever it was, are close enough together that a 23c or 25c tire won’t slip down in between. But other gaps are marginally wider and if you’re big-ringing a flat section -- fingers throbbing, balls centrifuging, piss dribbling -- it’s impossible to discern nuances in gap width, especially if the gap is half-full with the aromatic Belgian mousse made from cow shit, poppy mud, and ceaseless rain. And heaven forbid you’re doing a cobbled climb. The steepness, the dubious traction, and the uncertain moves of your fellow riders together preclude the luxury of choosing even a marginally optimal line. Get your front wheel caught in one of those wider gaps, the cobbles steer you where they will.

Our experience in Belgium has inspired our first official Competitive Cyclist Customer Bill of Rights. Simply stated, if any of our employees suggests that a product -- frameset, tire, handlebar tape, whatever -- ‘soaks up the pavé’, call me. My name is Brendan, I’m the boss, and my phone number is 888-276-7130. Give me the employee’s name and I’ll fire the damn liar while you’re on hold. And if in any prior-to-Belgium product copy we’ve written anything that suggests similar technical benefit, please report the infraction immediately to prevaricator.alert@competitivecyclist.com.

Do we sell stuff that lessens road shock? Yes. Are some frames gentler on lousy roads than others? Yes. But my point here is that pavé is explicitly NOT road. It’s Belgian WMD -- a clear and present Flemish tool of terror. When you ride pavé, nothing helps. Well, maybe those Vittoria Pavé CG tubulars in 27c width we sell would be a plus. But, except for cyclocross frames, we don’t sell any bikes those tires fit on. So, in short, you’re pretty much screwed. Go back in time. Get born in Belgium. Start riding the pavé no later than age 5. That’s you’re only hope. And we don’t sell that, so we can’t help much.

We’ll spare you lengthy details of the cyclotourist ride, other than to say that we did the whole thing and we still don’t know how we survived. It was 256km, taking in the entire Ronde parcours. What the TV coverage and race reports don’t convey is the fact that besides the mess of cobbled climbs, you also 3 lengthy sectors of flat pavé (a la Paris-Roubaix), plus a terrifying 2km cobbled descent leading into the 11th climb of the day, the Leberg. Any of these stretches would shatter the peloton in an American race -- I don’t care if it’s Cat 3′s or domestic pros -- the carnage would be swift and severe. And these sections get nary a mention during the Ronde. Unbelievable.

What the tourist ride made clear is that the first half of the Ronde (it’s relatively tame, with only 2 climbs and one flat sector of pavé) serves a specific purpose: To force attrition. Jockeying for position in the crosswinds, gorging yourself with food, dropping the bottom out of your core temperature thanks to low 40′s temps and sideways rain -- it exhausts both mentally and physically, and it ensures that the second half of the race -- with its 15 climbs and cobbles galore -- always produces a deserving winner.

It was a 10-hour ride for me, including 4 feed stops to fill up bottles and devour sugar-encrusted waffles by the pound. It also included 2 bike shop stops -- one to replace fatally wounded chain (thanks to a ham-handed shift on the Kluisberg); and one to do triage on my rear derailleur that was rapidly perishing under 4 layers of toxic Belgian mousse and countless km being brutalized by the half-broken chain running through it. By the end my cover socks had liquefied on my shoes. My sunglasses had vanished. My cleats barely held me in -- either for the mud clogged in them, or for the damage I’d done walking up the dark comedy known as the Koppenberg.

When I get back home to the states I’ll likely burn the clothes I wore. What was once elastic is now flaccid; what was once colorfully hued is now dim; what was once insulating was pounded thin into a lifeless, useless shell. And my bike, my beloved bike, does it feel the way I do? Brittle, sodden, used up? Possibly newly fragile for the duration? If I power-spray it, will anything structural slough off?

And what can we say of the pros? The men of the Spring Classics race like this 20+ times in the stretch between Het Volk and Paris-Roubaix. And it’s not just an illusion created by TV that makes them look so at ease on the pavé. On Sunday we stood atop the Oude Kwaremont -- the longest climb of the Ronde at 2200m, cobbled bottom to top -- in expectation of a frantic, detonated field. The wind was howling. An angry God spat down a stinging rain/hail mix (is it called rail?) What we saw, though, was a mass display of elegance. Near the climb the first 100 riders rocketed over the crest. The gears were massive, their cadence lacked in any signs of chop. Tom Boonen looked like a nordic deity -- his savage tan sparkled under a thick layer of sweat and embrocation; his blonde mini-mullet poured fluidly from under his helmet; tens of thousands of fans screamed his name, willing him upward.

We stood 100m from the top, sandwiched between a ring of prototypical Belgian women-with-jowls shrieking ‘Tomke!’, cyclocross celebrity Jonathan Page, and toothless, Jupiler-pounding old men perched upon milk crates (to ensure undisrupted sight lines down the road). And it was there that Boonen cracked the whip. He stood up, geared down, and challenged the peloton to match him. The gap between the pros and us -- must we bother with voicing the words ‘no contest’? Can’t Your Honor just let us crawl back to our cell of inadequacy in awed silence?

Our advice? Do it. Punish yourself for a winter to get fit, then do the 256km tourist ride. You’ll never get to drive Monaco. You’ll never play 18 at Augusta. You’ll never pitch an inning of relief at Dodger Stadium. The Ronde gives you an experience unavailable in any other sport. Watch the Ronde depart the next day from Brugge -- one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Drive to 2 or 3 climbs and cheer like mad. It beats the hell out of the Tour de France.

And would we choose a trip to the Ronde over Paris-Roubaix? Yes. For two reasons. One is the tourist ride. Paris-Roubaix doesn’t offer one. The other reason pertains to the monotonous terrain of Paris-Roubaix. In Flanders you can watch the peloton rage over flat sectors of cobbles -- and they’re no less gnarly than Roubaix’s. But you get the overwhelming beauty and drama intrinsic to the Ronde’s 17 climbs. Yes, the Arenberg Forest in Paris-Roubaix is spectacular. But possibly no stretch of road in bike racing is more lovely, more historically significant, and more of a catalyst on a year-to-year basis as the Muur. If you only have the chance to see one, fly to Brussels and take in the Ronde. Disabuse yourself of soft-focus American notions of the pavé. Learn from hard-earned experience. You’ll be thrilled with an experience like none other in cycling or in sport as a whole.