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Can you catch a country? Not catch like a baseball, catch like a disease. But a good disease.
I’m halfway to Belgium as I write this. Somewhere over the Atlantic, in an empty Boeing 767 en route to Brussels. Turns out not many people want to go to Belgium in April. I can’t imagine why? For the next two weeks, I don’t think any bike racing fan should want to be anywhere else.
In fact, if I could only attend one week of bike racing all year, this would be it. Not the Tour, not even the Giro. Flanders and Roubaix.
This will be my seventh trip to Belgium to cover the classics. I’m far from an expert, but I am proficient at getting around this tiny country, seeing the sights, drinking the beer, and riding my bike on the closest thing cycling has to sacred sites. As such, I get asked how to get the most out of a classics vacation pretty regularly. So I thought I’d provide a little sample itinerary.
This isn’t how I do it, because I have to work (thanks, Wade), but it’s how I’d do it if I didn’t have to work. This also assumes you’re coming in from a different continent and will need some time to adjust.
It may be a bit late to get to Belgium this year, but mark your calendars. This is a pilgrimage every race fan should make.
Day 1: Thursday before Flanders
Land in Brussels. Check in at your AirBnB in Oudenaarde, where the Tour of Flanders finishes. Build your bikes, which you brought (don’t bother with a rental), outfitted with 28mm or larger tires.
Head out on a shakedown ride. Sunlight is good for jetlag. From downtown Oudenaarde, jump on the canal path, ride southwest for about 10k. Turn left. Ride the Koppenberg. Ride home. It’ll take about 60-90 minutes.
Return to the square, get a beer.
Day 2: Friday before Flanders
Time for a slightly longer day on the bike, but not too long. You’re going big tomorrow. Let’s head to the Muur.
The Muur is in Geraardsbergen, about 35k away. This route will get you there and back. When you get to Geraardsbergen, hit the Muur straight away. Do not stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect a beer yet. Hit the Muur, race anyone you’re with, stop at the top for many photos. Have a friend stand on the outside of the the sweeping left hand corner and frame a shot of you smashing the cobbles with the church in the background. You will not regret having that photo.
After that, you have two options. One, drop off the backside and hit the Bosberg, which is sneaky hard and worth riding. Or, drop off the backside and turn left, back into the base of the Muur, and stop near the base at a place called Anso. Get the strudel. It’s really good.
The wind often picks up and you’ll likely have a headwind on the way back to Oudenaarde. So don’t drink too much beer.
Day 3: Saturday, ride the Flanders Sportive.
Not much to be said about this, other than do it. It’s madness. 10,000 people, all trying to get up the climbs. Either go very early, or very late. I’ve often started after 9am, two hours after the actual start. That gives you a clear run at most of the climbs.
Day 4: Sunday, watch Ronde van Vlaanderen
Don’t try to drive. This is why you’re staying in Oudenaarde: Get on your bike, go to one of the climbs (Kwaremont/Paterberg are fun), and camp out. Bring umbrellas for rain and sun. Bring beer. Have a good time.
Day 5-6: Monday and Tuesday, re-ride the sportive
Chances are, in the sportive you got knocked off line on the Koppenberg or Paterberg by some goober. Head back out, hit all the climbs near Oudenaarde that you didn’t get a clean run at last time. Stop, take photos.
Beer fans, head to the nearest grocery store (if you haven’t already). It will almost certainly have an entire wall full of stuff you can’t get, or that costs an arm and a leg, back home.
Day 7-9: Wednesday through Friday, transfer to Gent
I tend to stay in Gent, or split my time between Gent and Oudenaarde. Gent is almost as pretty as Brugge but is more centrally located. It’s halfway between the Flanders start in Antwerp and its finish in Oudenaarde, and there are tons of housing options. It’s a university town, so there’s more going on at night, more restaurants (you’ll run through all of Oudenaarde’s options in about four days), and a more lively atmosphere. Lots of folks like myself, who do this year after year, choose Gent because it’s the most practical.
Gent’s geography is defined by its canals. The big one looks like an arrowhead pointing north. You want to be in or near the point of the arrowhead.
Kortrijk is another good option, recommended by longtime cycling journalist Lionel Birnie in his blog, which is well worth a read if you’re heading over on a Belgian cycling holiday. I like Kortrijk. In fact, I’ll be there for a couple of nights this year. But it is far smaller than Gent, and it’s not as close to the good climbs as Oudenaarde.
It’s hard to go wrong in Gent. Did you know Bradley Wiggins was born there? It’s true.
Two coffee shop recommendations: Caffe Rosario, run by an Italian fella who loves bikes, and Bar Bidon, which also has a lot of bikes about.
(Edit: Just this morning, after landing, I met up with a friend at a place called Madam Bakster, a vegan place. It was delicious. I had pancakes covered in fruit and an almond milk cappuccino. I’m not vegan, but if you are, Gent apparently has lots of options.)
Het Pakhuis does a good Flemish stew. De Karper is owned by Iljio Keisse’s father and is located near the old center.
Top tip: Head to the town center or one of the train stations and rent town bikes. There’s a rental spot under the Giant Wooden Thing in the center of town. I think the actual name is City Pavilion, but it’s easily recognized as Giant Wooden Thing. The bikes usually cost about 10 euros a day, if I remember correctly, and they make any stay in Gent far easier. I learned this one from my old colleague Andrew Hood.
This is mostly a time to relax, take in the sights, and even do some non-bike stuff. But Scheldeprijs does take place on Wednesday. If you want to go to a race start, this is the one to hit. It’s far mellower than Flanders or Roubaix, but has most of the big-name riders in attendance. If you’ve never been to a pro bike race, you’ll be amazed how easy it is to access most of the riders.
Day 10: Saturday, to France!
I’d avoid the start of Roubaix, in Compiegne, France. It’s a nice little town, far nicer than Roubaix, but you won’t get much out of it. In fact, most starts aren’t particularly exciting. That includes Flanders. As I said, if you want to go to a race start, go to Scheldeprijs.
There’s no need to head all the way south to Compiegne. Move yourself somewhere near the border, if you want to be a bit closer. Don’t stay in Lille. Consider simply staying in Gent; nothing is that far away in that part of the world.
Saturday is once again sportive day. I’ve always said that the Roubaix cobbles need to be ridden to be understood, and so you should try to go ride them. The 150km, middle-distance sportive starts and finishes in Roubaix, which makes for much easier logistics (the full length starts in Compiegne and you have to get in vans).
Why ride the sportive rather than just head out on your own? Because you get to make the right turn into the Roubaix velodrome, and it’s the coolest feeling on earth.
Day 11: Sunday, Paris-Roubaix
Without press credentials, hitting 2-3 sectors is probably the limit. I’d go for Arenberg and Carrefour if you don’t want to see the finish. But the Roubaix velodrome is something special; I’d personally hit an earlier segment like Arenberg and then head to Roubaix to watch the end on the big screens, then watch them hit the velodrome. If you hit Carrefour or one of the other late sectors you’re like to miss most of the race.
Day 12: Monday, hangover, fly home
Go home, flying out of Brussels. Start planning for next year.
There are, of course, a million and one ways to put together a classics trip like this. If you’ve done one, throw your suggestions in the comments below. Have more questions? Throw them in the comments, too.