Winter Cycling Inspiration
As memories of riding on warm summer evenings fade into wistful thinking, even the most devoted rider needs inspiration and motivation to train through the cold wet winter months in the UK.
For many, the idea of venturing to sign up to one of the big sportives or challenge rides can take some time to mull over. Often the big names are brought up at coffee stops - L'Etape du Tour, Marmot or Ride London perhaps... But it’s usually with hesitation that trips to Belgium or Northern France, are suggested as early season goals. And the cobbled classics are almost certainly reserved for the daring or more experienced.
The first of the Classics takes place the last weekend of February (Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne), early enough in year to really focus the mind on winter training. The choice then comes thick and fast through March and April.
There is a long list of recognised classics on the UCI calendar, of which five have the revered status as 'monuments' amongst cyclists.
Of these historic races, there’s only a handful that run sportive challenges on the same weekend. However if your looking for a challenge, this list should give you something to chew on!
In order, dates not given as subject to change
Omloop Het Nieuwsbalb Kuurne-Brussells-Kurrne Strade Bianche Nokere Koerse Milan – San Remo E3 Harelbeke Gent-Wevelgem Dars door Vlaanderen Tour of Flanders Scheldeprijs Paris-Roubaix Brabantse Pijl Amstel Gold Race Liege-Bastogne-Liege
*Not early in the season, but a monument and brilliant sportive to take part in
The two biggest and most popular sportives held on the same weekend as the pro races are the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix - just one week apart. The brutal cobblestone sections characterise both events.
Tour of Flanders
Tour of Flanders (The Ronde) is famous for it short but steep climbs such as The Koppenberg, The Paterberg and Kapelmuur with gradients up to 20% of murderously slippery cobble stones. The sportive is limited to 16,000 and places sellout quick. The longest route is 270km, starting in Antwerp and finishing in Oudenaarde. However, most opt for the medium length route that starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and still takes in almost all of the famous paved sections.
From personal experience, booking accommodation early is essential and staying in Oudenaarde is advisable for the festival like atmosphere and ease of logistics. This is also where the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum is located - well worth a visit.
Paris-Roubaix (The Queen of the Classics or The Hell of the North) has 29 cobbled sectors spread across 54km - but the most famous part of the route comes in the later stages of the ride called The Arenberg Trench. There's barely any climbing over the entire course; it’s the state of the laid pave sectors that’s renowned on this gruelling ride. The long route is 172km, finishing in the Roubaix velodrome.
Roubaix itself doesn’t offer much in the way of celebratory atmosphere, you may just be thankful its over. But I’d advise staying in the near by Lille a 20min drive away for a much better selection of hotels, restaurants and bars.
Planning logistics for this ride is important and there are several approaches:
1. Stay in Roubaix. Registration and getting on the bus to that start is easy. But accommodation options and after event celebrations are pretty much non-existent. 2. Stay in Lille, which means an early morning drive (20 mins) and finding parking (relatively easy) near to the bus park to depart to the start. 3. Stay near Cambrai (most go for St Quentin), drive to Roubaix and register the day before. Leave the car there. Then take the train back to Cambrai. This means a much more relaxed morning start, but then a bit of a drive to get back to the hotel after one of the most gruelling rides of your life!
Of the hotels in Roubaix, the Mecure or Ibis in the centre seem to be the best budget options. And of course, they do get booked up quickly after the event goes on sale.
You must be warned the early morning scenes of bikes being packed on to the lorries won’t be forgotten I can assure you! Once you’ve handed over your bike to be “carefully" packed on to a lorry with a corresponding rider number, you’ll then go to find a seat on packed buses waiting with colour coded route distances.
Have I put you off?
Nothing can prepare you for riding on cobbles. People talk methods and tactics. High gears, sitting back into the saddle, forget standing…etc. You’ll swear, maybe cry, and smile in disbelief but you'll never forget the feeling of elation.
All this said, for me personally these brutal rides remain one of the very best experiences I’ve ever had on a bike.
And my best tip of all... Make sure you have a bottle cage that holds your bedon tight enough that it wont rattle out. Bend it if you have to.