Isla Rush, who is supported by WyndyMilla, is widely considered to be one of the most promising young cyclists in Britain today. Knowing that if she’s going to be able to hold her own in the big continental races she needs to be familiar with Belgian racing, dad Steve – who organises the North Norfolk 100 time trial – has been taking her to see the finest Flemish events. Last weekend she was at the biggest and toughest of them all, the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen, and she wrote us this report.
Flanders is the undeniable home of cycling; the draining bergs, howling winds and energy-zapping cobbles make the ronde a formidable race, but fantastic to watch. This year, I was lucky enough to go and see what the fuss was all about. The day started in Oudenaarde, which was shrouded by ‘Oudenaarde (heart) de Ronde’ banners across the whole town. Although the men’s race started in Brugge, thousands of eager spectators marched the streets leading to the market square trying to find the best spots for the roll out. The team vehicles were situated a few hundred metres from the start line, making it a relaxed atmosphere where fans could just wander up to the riders asking for photos and autographs. This is the main difference between men and women’s cycling; it’s all very chilled before the start at women’s races, so the spectators have an opportunity to interact with their cycling heroes. Unlike the typical Flandrien weather, we had beaming sunshine warming up the morning. Everyone was in high spirits; after all, one of the greatest bike races on earth was about to start.
The race was underway promptly, and the hoards of people dotted around the starting roll out roads rushed to their cars to watch the riders around the course. Unfortunately, lots of roads were shut or incredibly busy, so the sat nav was required to get us from Oudenaarde to the first climb: the Wolvenberg.
The Wolvenberg (for us) marked the race beginning to break-up. The peloton remained as one pretty much but a few riders had begun to drop off the back; the maximum gradient of 14% must have been a killer. In true Flandrien style, the local pub was open, so flocks of spectators were stood outside with Ename beer and cups of coffee. The race pace was strong with the group beginning to spread out towards the back, so it was important to be at the front of the bunch. After the girls came racing up the climb, we decided to move on to hellingen number two: Oude Kwaremont.
Being one of the best-known cobbled climbs, the Oude Kwaremont was swarmed by thousands of spectators out to catch a glimpse of the world’s best riders. The women’s race had split significantly on the descent down ‘Ronde van Vlaanderen Straat’ before they reached the climb. Elisa Longo Borghini was smashing it on her breakaway effort, whilst the peloton which had at least halved in size whizzed past a few moments later. On the Oude Kwaremont, the group had split again, with Lizzie Armitstead working on the front of the chasing group in hot pursuit of Longo Borghini. The support for the women’s race was truly fantastic, as the keen fans of the men’s race had taken their positions early so were in key place to cheer the girls up the cobbles. It’s important for every fan of cycling to see the women’s race, as it will gain more supporters and get people out watching more women’s competitions. Unfortunately, this was the last time we saw the girls come past, but the courageous attack by Longo Borghini really paid off; she won the Ronde van Vlaanderen 2015.
The Tour of Flanders is a magnificent race to watch; the sheer enormity of the ‘caravan’ following the riders, the thousands of spectators and Flandrien roar make the Ronde incredible.
Oh yeah, the men’s race was alright too.