Key memories in life are formed when you must go thru extreme difficulties, whether by accident or choice. If you're lucky, some memories will cross an invisible line and become history, sometimes yours, sometimes part of a history that is bigger than you. I'm pretty sure that I and some good friends just became part of (some) history, having ridden the 2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclosportive.
The professional cycling sport has a set of races every year held in the same spring dates that together are called the Spring Classics (often split into the Cobbled Classics and Ardennes Classics). These are races with their own deep histories because of the epic difficulties faced by the riders, and the awesome demonstrations of physical limits overcome by winners. The Classics are loved by cycling sport fans because these put riders into special, unique kinds of difficulties. Foul spring weather might bring ugly, cold dampness that puts just enough sleet, snow, fog or other crap into the race to increase the risks of crashing, but not enough foul stuff to slow down a charging peleton. Narrow farm roads and tiny town corners add more nervousness.
But the most formidable component of the spring classics is cobbled roads. We're not talking merely the well-formed paving stones used in many cities throughout Europe. These cobbles are rocks that were probably discarded by other street builders as too-misshapen, too peaked, too irregular, too sharp to be used on a normal traffic road, so they're put in the "country road" pile. The TV commentators famously call these "Pave." The locals are more no-nonsense; they simply call them "the stones." These are laid down in lower densities, too, to cut the cost of paving the lightly travelled county roads - which means wider, and deeper gaps between the stones.
Now, ride these on a bicycle. A racing bike. Fast. Hands, guts, ribs, shoulders, wheels, tires, ass, and ..., well, you name it - they all get jarred like nothing you've experienced before. A continuous, irregular, savage slamming that makes riders feel like something has got to give; maybe a wheel will taco, a fork might break, a wheel might get stuck in micro-canyon between stones, or pinch flat rolling out of that onto the next stone edge. Hell, your larynx might just shake out if your throat. Or just maybe it will be the will to finish a mere stretch of cobbles that will be shaken as everyone swerves abruptly in front of you to avoid water bottles shaken from other riders' cages.
And then there is deRonde. She is special, because to this mix she adds "bergs". Short but very, very steep climbs that loom up unexpectedly, often right after a tight blind corner. Cobbled farm roads barely wide enough for a single car to keep its wheels on the road. Where the average gradient is 8%, but with stretches exceeding 20%. Steep, stony torture fests that test cyclists ability to keep moving as they climb the stony walls. Climbs that are so well known they each have names. The Koppenberg, the Kappelberg. And the finishing climb this year: the Paterberg; the father of mountains.
Roads like these are the stuff of races that turn memorable races into history. Heck, even ONE race over such a course would be historic. deRonde has been run 75 times. THIS is history.
And, deRonde is in Belgium. Unless you're a pro cycling fan, you may not know what this means. Even if you are, you won't really understand just how much Belgians are passionate about cycling until you experience it yourself. Let's just say this: the nightly news I watched on TV had more coverage of cycling events around the world than local stories.
deRonde gets the nation out. A full third of the country's population will camp out all weekend, lining the roads, packing the start & finish lines, & crowding around TVs in bars to drink beer while watching the biggest annual sporting event in Belgium.
This is the kind of nation where its obvious to everyone that the right thing to do is open the course to anybody to ride it. To challenge mere mortals to put themselves in difficulty. To let wanna-be's ride shoulder-to-shoulder with local Belgian riders who ride these roads weekly, and watch the locals kick the butts of interloping visitors. Oh, and let people conquer a classic.
In fact, the Ronde Cyclosportive has become a classic in its own right, separate from the pro race. Annually, 20,000 riders ride some or all of the pro course, pitting themselves against the same unforgiving roads that will claim victory over professional athletes the next day. Conquering climbs that other amateurs can't, and must walk. Or, instead being beaten by the stony giants, and having to make the walk of shame up the narrow dirt shoulder.
Five friends and I had our own battle with the stones last week. We battled all of the climbs, and won most of them. We muscled up the Molenberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg. We were sadly forced to walk the Koppenberg because 20,000 riders just can't squeeze up a 9' wide, 22% grade on stones without causing a domino of stoppage. We drank lots of excellent belgian beer, chased & cheered the pros during their race, and screamed our voices hoarse when the local guy won. We did it all in 3 and a half days, overcoming jet lag, surviving my obsessive over-planning - and were supremely happy from start to end.
And I was continuously washed over by the sense of history. History in the making as friends together, forming memories that we will talk about on the road in future rides for years to come, tiny micro-events that will cross that line from memory to history in our minds. The precious nature of the history I'm living with my close friend, who rode with me in the colors of my local cycling team, and who made his own history by overcoming an involuntary difficulty to beat cancer last year. We became part of the 75 year history of deRonde. And we realized we were but tiny bit-players in the epic history of the sport of cycling.
Trips like this are what cause memories to cross that thin line from memories to history.
I lost a shoe (toe) cover from one of my feet on the Koppenberg. I'm going to frame the other one, leaving an empty space for the lost one, and put there the words "This one is lost to history on the Koppenberg. There isn't a happier, more historic end for a shoe cover than this."