A Fortnight in Flanders - TCA's Ciaran McSherry U23

Every year, the British Cycling Calendar seems to have a blank space during the

month of august. A bit of a strange one, as most riders are generally on top form at

this time. While I was thinking this would maybe be a good time to get a big block of training in, a good friend of mine, Tom, had a different idea. “Planning a couple of weeks racing in Belgium, fancy it?” Now this was an offer I couldn’t turn down!


Planning

We got to work planning our trip, these planning sessions generally consisted of

early morning calls and sending over Airbnb links on WhatsApp, discussing what the

cheapest method of travel to Belgium would be, catching a plane, a ferry,

or…..drive?


As all good plans, this one was fairly last minute. I was to leave on Saturday, but it

was Tuesday and I still didn’t didn’t know how I was getting there. I didn't fancy the 9

hour drive to meet Tom in Calais, so decided I'd fly. Good old Ryanair coming in

clutch with their £30 return flight (a small price to pay for the uncertainty of your bike

actually turning up).


With the travel sorted, we needed somewhere to stay. Having discussed the

possibility of Airbnb’s, we weren’t sure if we would have the access to knowledge

that we needed having never raced in Belgium before (let alone how to navigate the

Cycling Vlaanderen website). This is when Peter, my team manager at The Cycling

Academy, pointed us in the direction of Jamie Anderson & Bernard Moerman, the

owners of ‘The Flandrien Hotel’. https://flandrienhotel.com/


As soon as we looked at The Flandrien’s website and spoke with Jamie, we knew

this was our best option, the hotel has been described as the “ultimate place for

cyclists” and we could see why. Located in a small town called Parike, The

Flandrien, is right in the heart of Flanders. With Geraardsbergen only being a 15

minute ride away, you’ve got the most infamous/famous (depends if you’re on a good

day or not) climb in the whole of Flanders, De Muur, right on your doorstep. With

access to a fully equipped sports gym, service course and self catered as well as

catered cooking options, we really couldn't ask for anything more.

Arriving

Having booked my Ryanair tickets and borrowed a bike bag from my teammate, I was ready to go. Now I'm sure you’re aware that Ryanair like to do ‘additional costs’. So instead of paying another £30 or so for a hold bag, I decided to get my money’s worth and fill up my bike bag with as much as i could fit in it (for under 30kg). This worked exceptionally well if I do say so myself…. until the conveyor belt at Edinburgh airport broke…. And I had to empty the entirety of the bag onto a search desk to be manually searched. Shoes, gels, socks, boxers… you name it, it was all up on that desk. Not the most ideal start to my journey!


Having had to unpack & then repack all of my belongings, I rushed through security

and went to the big board to find out which gate I was…. DELAYED, classic Ryanair.

I took this time to look up some useful dutch phrases that i could use while i was

over, such as “Twee Fanta alsjeblieft” and “aan je linkerkant”.


After arriving in Belgium I got on the bus to Brussels and headed for the train station

where I had a 7 minute window to make the 19.51 train to Geraardsbergen,

otherwise it was an hour wait for the next one. I quickly bought a ticket, then with no

idea how the platforms were laid out I ran for what I thought was platform 4, and

went to board the train.”Excusez-moi monsieur” i heard, it was the conductor, (I have

a big sister who’s fluent in french and I had taken french up until my third year of high

school so i felt quite ready for this moment) “Oui” i replied. As it turned out, if i had

boarded, instead of the Belgian cobbles, i would’ve been heading to those of Paris

and the champs elysees. After that, I was quite happy to wait an hour for the next

train.


I sat down and phoned my parents to let them know how i was getting on, You know,

the usual that's me arrived safe (insert Still Game S3 E1 @ 03:30). I noticed that

along the bench from me, a man had sat down. Where’s the news in that? I hear you

ask, well, this man had shaved legs, sock and short tanlines, as well as what

seemed like white helmet straps coming down the side of his face. After finishing my

phone call I hopped on the train and very kindly this man who was sitting next to me

offered to help get my bag onto the train. I accepted and before I could say thank

you, he said (in a New Zealand accent) “are you Ciaran?”. Now I know that I’ve been

mentioned in the world famous ‘All Bikes Scotland’ facebook group a couple of

times, but a Kiwi, in Belgium, randomly bumping into me and knowing who I was?

That was a bit of a shock. “Ehhhh yeah?” i replied, “ah sweet im James, I stay &

work at the hotel, Jamie said you were getting on this train and i figured it was you

when i saw the bike and the pale legs” …………. Yep that makes more sense.


Day 1

Having arrived in the evening Tom and I hadn’t done much other than unpack, eat

and go to bed, so it wasn’t until the morning that we got a first proper look around the

hotel. This place was amazing! Everywhere you looked there were bikes, and not

just any bikes, these were part of Jamie’s massive and very impressive collection.

Spanning 3 decades, it is truly a collection worthy of a visit. There was a bike store

for our bikes and access to their own service course, for tightening all our bolts after

we’d battered over some belgian cobbles. We had breakfast in the communal

clubhouse before setting up the bikes and getting kitted up. 3 espressos later and we

were ready to go, we had picked one of the flandrien challenge routes and set off

ready for a day of sun, cobbles and bergs. You know it’s the heart of cycling when

there are strava segments officially printed onto the road, this turned a supposed

‘chill zone 2 endurance ride’ into a ‘put in a dig on every sector without actually

saying what you’re doing’ ride. After a sweaty three and a half hours, we turned for

home which meant the iconic Muur Van Geraardsbergen.



Having only seen the very top of the climb, not what lay before the crest and the

famous chapel (‘Kapel’ in dutch) Tom and I set off with what you could call an

element of naivety. Our pace started off high and only increased as we halfwheeled

each other further and further up the cobbled climb. With neither of us wanting to

give in, we began pretty much full on racing. This was all before reaching the

steepest part of the climb. As the road turned right we saw what can only be

described as a wall of cobbles in front of us, we both knew where we were now and

it was time for full gas. Reaching the summit and seeing the Kapel, we truly felt like

we had arrived in Flanders.

As we were now only about 25 minutes away, I texted Jamie from the Flandrien that

we were on our way, “that’s great, lunch will be ready for when you get back” -

replied Jamie. This definitely made the ride back much easier, knowing that we’d be

met by the homely feel of the Flandrien and Jamie’s home cooking, not to mention

the ice cold coca-cola’s in the clubhouse fridge.


Day 2

Day 2 started off just as usual for me, waking up in a puddle of my own sweat (my

own fault for sleeping with my entire duvet on in 30 degrees). Not thinking much of it

I picked up my phone and checked the time, this is when I saw Tom checking his

phone…. “I think i’ve maybe got covid” he said.

After 2 and a half years of living in the pandemic with neither of us having caught it in

that time, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been on planes, trains, placement in a high school

5 days a week for 5 weeks and the occasional offseason night out. Managing not to

contract the virus. So at this point i was thinking “ahh it’ll just be a cold or

something”. I asked Tom why he thought he had it; “well I’ve got a really sore head, I

had a fever last night and my whoop score is at 1%”, ah, not great then. I then texted

Jamie and explained our suspicions, he was gutted for us and brought over some

tests, hoping for the best we each took a test. The news was not the best, almost

instantly, Tom’s test came back with the darkest line you can imagine…. Uh oh. At

first, I was hopeful as mine wasn’t showing any line yet, but sure enough after 25

minutes a faint line had shown up on my test too.


A text to Jamie to confirm the positive tests which he must’ve been dreading, as he

was trying to run this amazing homely and sociable hotel, which now had 2 covid

patients. Within 20 minutes of us having confirmed the test results, there was a

bigger room, with a shower ensuite, fan, smart tv and mosquito catcher ready for us,

UN.REAL.


Isolation-stations

As the days of covid isolation went by, we dived deeper into Netflix. First, we finished

off the series ‘Derek’, followed by the Arsenal Documentary and then I started Tom

on the Office with Michael and Dwight keeping us entertained whilst we felt sorry for

ourselves. All whilst being fed by Jamie, James, Bernard & Anne, who would bring

over our dinner and leave food supplies from the local supermarket ready for us to

make breakfast and lunch with. Absolute top service.

As the days went by and we started to feel better, we ventured out into the outside

world, bit by bit. This started with a walk up and down the road outside the hotel one

day, an extremely gentle spin the next and ended with full on leadout practice along

the Oudenarde Canal path a few days later. At this point we had two full days left, so

we decided that we didn’t want to come over to not race at all, so the next day was

race day.


Race Day

Here we go, race day. The one and only race that we would get to take part in during

our two week ‘racing’ trip (thanks again covid). For the first time since testing positive

we were back into the ‘clubhouse’ and enjoying the big coffee machine again. I think

Tom and I had about 3 or 4 coffee’s each and were absolutely buzzing, both with

excitement as well as the insane caffeine rush.

The race was taking place in a small village called Gijzenzele, about 35 minutes

north of Parike. As common as it is in Belgium to ride to and from your race, we were

slightly hesitant to do this. While we did feel okay, we did think it would be wise to

have a way of getting back to the hotel if things didn't go so well that didn't include

flashing blue lights….


As I said before, Jamie & Bernard deliver the best service imaginable - including a

fully equipt team car that is available to hire for the day. So Tom and I jumped into

the car, cranked the tunes and away we went on our wee journey.

When we arrived it was clear to see we were in the right place, this tiny village

absolutely overrun with bikes and team cars. We hopped out of the car and went to

sign on, now this was the funny part. Having tried and failed to set up a Cycling

Vlaanderen account, I had to sign up on the day. This wasn’t a problem as these

races have capacity for 140 riders. So I went to sign on and paid my fee of 15 euros,

amazing. Tom on the other hand had managed to successfully sign up prior to

arriving, so he paid a fee of 16 euros…. something I wasn’t complaining about.


Here. We. Go.

The Race

Gijzenzele Kirmesse

Distance: 117km

Laps: 20


Having spoken with Bernard, he told us that we were in for a baptism of fire.

Because essentially we were doing a tight town centre crit with double the field size

we were used to back in Scotland. His top tip was “get to the front, stay at the front,

don’t let anyone past you” With this knowledge, we knew a good start and sticking

near the front would be key. We did our warmup on the circuit in order to have a look

at what we were going to be throwing ourselves at and lined up a tad early so we

would be at the front. Just as Bernard and Jamie said, it would be knives out and

death stares from before the race even started, these guys were here to race, not to

chat with their pals.


In classic flemish style, the race organiser calmly sauntered over to the start line,

smoking cigarette in hand, and explained to us only what I can assume was the

usual pre race rider briefing (my Dutch wasn’t quite up to scratch at this point).

WHISTLE BLOWN AND AWAY WE GO!!!!!!!


An extremely fast start was some way for us to test our covid lungs…. But Tom and I

were up to the task and quickly found ourselves off the front in the first lap with

maybe 7 others. We worked well for the next lap, forcing a hard pace. Unfortunately

for Tom it was at this point he felt a tightness in his chest so decided it was time to

pull the plug, no point pushing through that without knowing the consequences so

soon after covid.


As my breakaway group approached the line for the second time, a number of riders

sprinted for the line. This confused me for a second thinking “why are they breaking

the group so early??” until I realised there was a 10 euro prime every second lap.

This sprint broke the harmony of the group slightly and allowed a group of about 15

to join us on the third lap. We worked for the next lap until the prime was looming

and I could see riders moving around into position. I thought “I fancy some of that”. I

moved up and took the wheel I wanted, with Bernards advice of “no-one will give you

anything, you’ve got to take it”. Coming round the sweeping left hander I was sat in

2nd wheel and went to go on the inside of the rider in front. He tried to close me off

by moving left, fair enough, but what he had done was leave a gap… where? The

gutter. Zoooop into the gutter and up his inside, I took my first Belgian Prime.


Our group of about 22 was now too big, with a lot of riders sitting in. this slowed the

group and we were caught by the main group at the start of the 5th lap. Seeing this, I

decided to take matters into my own hands. I hit one of the tighter corners on the

course hard and accelerated hard out of it, gapping the bunch quickly. I pushed on

and extended my gap going into the 6th lap, taking a quick glance backwards. I was

hoping for some company. However it was just a full chase by the peloton. I pushed

on as I knew the next prime was less than a lap away. I solo’d to the third prime of

the race and my second 10 Euros. I eased my pace and allowed the bunch to come

back. Sitting happily in the top 15 wheels for the next lap, i was lucky enough to have

a chat with an angry Belgian….


“This is not how we race in Belguim” - he said

“What was that?” - I said

“you don’t go for the next prime, you have won enough already, this is not how we

race”


I had a chuckle to myself, had I been unsure whether i’d contest the next prime or

not, I was certainly sure what I’d do now. What he didn't know was that I’m a trainee

Physical Education teacher and I don't think there’s anyone as competitive as us. So

sure enough the next prime was coming up and I was near the front again. He

spotted this and moved up next to and then in front of me. No worries, still 400m to

go. I placed myself on his right just before the sweeping left hander and faked a

move causing him to move right, opening the inside for myself to sprint up and take

prime 4 of the race and my third. Happy Days.


The next 20km went by quickly including some attacking and sitting in from myself,

until i felt my chest tighten too. I spotted Tom on the course and pulled the plug also.

Not bad for having tested positive for covid just 11 days previous.

I collected my prime money, thanked the commissaires and handed my number back

for a 5 euro refund. Despite the covid DNF’s, it was fair to say that Tom and I were

buzzing after our first Kirmesse experience. We were right up there, being

competitive and taking the race to them. On the drive back to the hotel the

soundsystem was well and truly tested.


“On our way back” - I texted Jamie

“Ace, dinner will be ready when you get back” - Jamie


Once again, we were blown away by the hotel’s service. All credit to Jamie, Bernard

and Bernard’s wife Anne. Nothing could be faulted.

We got back and right enough dinner was ready. Finally being negative we were able

to get the full Flandrien experience and sit down around the two large dinner tables

and enjoy our dinner in the company of the hotel’s other guests and of course Jamie, Bernard, Anne and James.


Time To Go

Having packed our bike bags up the night before, we were all ready to go. One last

Flandrien breakfast and use of the espresso machine first though.

After Finishing our breakfast and our isolation reminiscing, it was time to go. Big

hugs all round and we jumped into the van. Bernard dropped us off in

Geraardsbergen, only this time it wasn’t De Muur that we were tackling. Instead it

was the 20 or so steps down and then back up to the train station platform, not the

easiest task with two 30kg bike boxes.


We spent most of our journey home chatting about our time in the Hotel and how it

felt like we’d only just arrived, but at the same time it felt so familiar, like a home

away from home. You might say that was due to the 10 days we spent isolating

inside, but the truth is that the team behind the Flandrien Hotel are honestly

incredible. They really do make you feel at home and provide absolutely everything

you’re going to need for a stay in Flanders. Whether you’re racing, taking on the

iconic Flandrien Challenge or just looking for a lovely hotel, they have you covered.

They are especially keen to help up and coming racers that might not have the help

of large cycling bodies with massive sponsorship. They pride themselves on helping

these aspiring athletes by offering vast experience, advice and everything you could

need when spending time in Flanders racing. Currently this can be seen with their

2022/23 Cyclocross Scholarship Programme, offering subsidised stays for U19, U23,

Elite and Masters athletes looking to test themselves in the home of cyclocross.

All I can say now is a massive thank you to Jamie, Bernard & Anne for their absolutely

outstanding hospitality during what was not the simplest of stays for them. And of course

to Tom for suggesting the trip in the first place, despite being out of action for 70%, it was

a undoubtedly a worthwhile trip, we can’t wait to return in the spring of 2023

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