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!
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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 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,
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
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.
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
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