An hour into our trip through the Flemish Ardennes, Sir Bradley Wiggins is in his element. In this small nook of Belgium, every hill and cobbled avenue has a tale to inform from a century of cycling history, and he is aware of them all. It’s an unusual revel in to have a Tour de France winner – and a man who has played a significant position inside the neighborhood lifestyle – as your excursion manual, however right here I am following within the wheels of no longer just one legend but the loads who have helped to shape an area in which biking is plenty extra than a recreation.
Starting some 15 miles south of Ghent and accessible via a huge, vehicle-unfastened cycle direction beside the River Schelde, the Flemish Ardennes (pretty wonderful from the other Ardennes in the ways south of Belgium) is the canvas on which the Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen) paints itself each 12 months. The anticipation builds week by using week across the location, and the environment on the day itself is a mixture of the London Marathon and the distinction days of the FA Cup very last. More than a million humans line the roads, and there may be blanket tv insurance.
Wiggins was born in Ghent and dedicated his profession to racing inside the Flemish Classics. Today, but, we are using at the eve of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the conventional curtain-raiser of the Flemish biking calendar, and Wiggins is showing us his favorite roads and cafe stops in the area, as well as explaining why it is this sort of unique vicinity to move biking. “The wonderful component approximately Belgium,” he explains as we roll down the cycle course, “is that you can power an hour and a 1/2 from the Channel crossing and be in a very distinct international. Drivers respect cyclists, you prevent in a cafe and people welcome you and want to understand in which you’ve been. They embody biking.”
Unfortunately, the speaking has to stop as we hit the Molenberg, the primary of the day’s cobbled climbs. The difficult, off-camber cobbles are a short but intense creation to what cycling in Flanders is all approximately. You can believe the peloton’s speed as they take the pointy corner and right now hit the stones. The struggle for traction and the task of selecting the proper line is tough sufficient solo; the thought of doing it surrounded using 100 different riders appears nigh-on impossible. After more than one kilometer on roads that crisscross wintry weather fields, we arrive at the Haaghoek, a 2km cobbled road that the peloton will cross 3 instances within the Omloop.
This spot, northwest of Brakel, is famous with spectators. Certainly, a group of novice photographers is ready, hoping to trap a glimpse of the expert teams as they recce the Omloop direction. Indeed, Greg Van Avermaet’s CCC Team passes us quickly after at the steep climb of Berendries, the Belgian Olympic champion’s favorite education climb. If you were to ask a layman for an image of the Tour of Flanders, they would possibly conjure up Eddy Merckx or Fabian Cancellara rounding the final corner on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the impossibly steep and kind of cobbled climb up to the pretty church that sits above the town, presenting superb perspectives all the way to Ghent inside the north and Brussels to the east.
The climb still resonates for Wiggins, despite having ridden it endless times in his career. “It’s something special climbing out of the marketplace right here,” he says. “When I experience up to the cobbles, I’m nevertheless seeing Johan Museeuw [the Lion of Flanders and three-time winner of the Ronde] attacking out of the saddle. I get the same feeling driving as I did once I was a child, watching – the climb is just iconic.”