Friday, April 17, 2015

L'Enfer Du Nord - Part I

Wow, where to begin.

Turning 40 this year I wanted to challenge myself while doing something that would be an unforgettable experience.  As a cyclist there are lots of options but what stands atop the list of the hardest races are those of the Spring Classics, specifically, Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen) and Paris Roubaix.  Both races cover the fabled cobbled roads of Belgium and Northern France and are usually subject to the harsh spring weather filled with rain and strong wind.  A lot has been written about these races and the hard men who have conquered the cobbles through the more than a 100 editions of each race.  The Ronde van Vlaanderen is punctuated by it's short, steep cobbled climbs of the Koppenberg, Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont along with several other difficult paved climbs while Paris Roubaix is best known for it's relentlessly punishing 27 sectors comprising 30mi of pavé
-->.  The history and location of these races made them the perfect choice.
In deciding how to attempt the trip, there were two options.  First was to just wing it and rent a car and make our way around Belgium and France on our own.  Second was to find a tour group and hope it followed through with expectations. Given there is little room for error in making it to the key spectating locations for one-day races and the logistics of getting to and from two sportive events, each with 16,000 participants, in foreign countries, it was clear a tour company was the best bet.  After some research I found Sport Tours International UK who had a 10-day classics package that included everything I wanted and more.  There were also seven us making the trip so working out the logistics and timing of getting all of us around Belgium and France made the tour group the optimal choice and in the end they really delivered.

Myself along with local friends Jeff, Brian and Matt departed IAD on Wednesday, April 1st for Brussels where we would spend a day acclimating to the time change before transferring to Ghent to meet up with Brian's brother Aric and his west coast friends Saul and Ian as well as meet up with the remainder of tour group at our Belgian base hotel the NH Belfort.  For our stay in Brussels I studied the map of the city and settled on the Hilton Grand Place which was conveniently located near the old downtown Grand Place market area and turned out to be the perfect choice as everything was within walking distance to experience the Old World city sites.

Day 1 - Brussels

After an uneventful overnight flight and finally finding our way through the airport to lock up our bikes and large bags at the airport security to make traveling into the city easier, we made our way to the Hilton via cab.  With only one of two rooms ready we dropped bags off and made our way into the market for some breakfast and site seeing.  One mission for the trip was to bring back some of the most hard sought after beer, Trappist Westvleteren.  There are 7 Trappist breweries, 6 in Belgium and 1 in Holland.  Of all 7, Westvleteren is the only beer that is not distributed even within Belgium let alone exported to the U.S.  Given the difficulty of scheduling a pick up at the Saint Sixtus Abbey during our time in Belgium it was going to come down to luck finding it somewhere.  As we strolled the cobbled streets of old Brussels, a wall of beer in the first chocolatier shop we passed by had attracted my attention and needed more investigation.  As soon as we walked in the shop, there it was, sitting in a corner on the floor propped up on a milk crate, the Holy Grail of beer. 
Needless to say I immediately snatched up four bottles while Jeff grabbed three.  The clerk at the store got a good laugh at us and joked that we were buying out his entire stock, I wish.  At 18 a bottle 4 was going to have to do.  Later that evening when we passed by again, there were only a handful of bottles left so I was glad we got ours when we did.

We spent the next few hours taking in the city and the sites. 

The Grand Place in central Brussels.

Parc de Bruxelles with it's interestingly manicured trees with limbs neatly trimmed and intertwined to form a sort of netting.  We ended up seeing this all over Belgium.

After heading back to the hotel for a nap and cleaning up, we headed out for dinner and a sampling of the wide range of beers Belgium has to offer. 

Dinner at 'T Kelderke (the cave)
 The more interesting serving glass of the trip for La Corne (the Horn)
Grand Place lit up at night

Without going into details, let's just say we enjoyed our one night in Brussels sampling many (maybe a few too many) of the fine beers Belgium has to offer.  

Day 2 - Transfer to Ghent

Not much to tell, spent most of the day recovering from the previous night's indiscretions before packing up and catching the train back to the airport to meet up with the tour group for our transfer to Ghent.  At the airport we met Howard, one of our three awesome guides for the week.  We sat in evening rush hour making our way to Ghent for the group meeting at one of the other hotels to go over details of the next day's Tour of Flanders cyclosportive before checking into our hotel.  Also met up with Aric, Saul and Ian.  After the group meeting we checked into the hotel and grabbed some dinner before building up the bikes and trying to get some needed sleep before our early departure for Oudenaarde in the morning.