An hour into our journey by way of the Flemish Ardennes, Sir Bradley Wiggins is in his component. On this small nook of Belgium, each hill and cobbled street has a story to inform from a century of biking historical past, and he is aware of all of them. It’s an odd expertise to have a Tour de France winner – and a person who has performed a big position within the native tradition – as your tour information, however right here I’m following within the wheels of not only one legend however the tons of who’ve helped to form a area the place biking is rather more than a sport.

Beginning some 15 miles south of Ghent and accessible through a large, car-free cycle path beside the River Schelde, the Flemish Ardennes (fairly distinct from the opposite Ardennes within the far south of Belgium) is the canvas on which the Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen) paints itself annually. The anticipation builds week by week throughout the area and the ambiance on the day itself is a mixture of the London Marathon and the glory days of the FA Cup last. Greater than one million folks line the roads and there’s blanket tv protection.
In the present day, nonetheless, we’re driving on the eve of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the standard curtain-raiser of the Flemish biking calendar, and Wiggins is displaying us his favorite roads and cafe stops within the space, in addition to explaining why it’s such a particular place to go biking.
Wiggins was born in Ghent and devoted the latter a part of his profession to racing within the Flemish Classics. “The beauty of Belgium,” he explains as we roll down the cycle path, “is that you would be able to drive an hour and a half from the Channel crossing and be in a very completely different world. Drivers respect cyclists, you cease in a restaurant and other people welcome you and wish to know the place you’ve been. They embrace biking.”

Homecoming … Wiggins, on the left, biking by way of Ghent, town he was born in
Sadly, the speaking has to cease as we hit the Molenberg, the primary of the day’s cobbled climbs. The tough, off-camber cobbles are a brief however intense introduction to what biking in Flanders is all about. You’ll be able to think about the velocity of the peloton as they take the sharp nook and instantly hit the stones. The battle for traction and the problem of selecting the correct line are powerful sufficient solo; the considered doing it surrounded by 100 different riders appears nigh-on unattainable. After a few kilometres on roads that crisscross winter fields, we arrive on the Haaghoek, a 2km cobbled street that the peloton will cross 3 times within the Omloop. This spot, north-west of Brakel, is well-liked with spectators and certainly a bunch of newbie photographers is ready, hoping to catch a glimpse of the skilled groups as they recce the Omloop course. Certainly, Greg Van Avermaet’s CCC Workforce passes us shortly after on the steep climb of Berendries, the Belgian Olympic champion’s favorite coaching climb.
In case you had been to ask a layman for a picture of the Tour of Flanders, they might in all probability conjure up Eddy Merckx or Fabian Cancellara rounding the ultimate nook on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the impossibly steep and roughly cobbled climb as much as the gorgeous church that sits above the city, providing spectacular views all the best way to Ghent within the north and Brussels to the east. The climb nonetheless resonates for Wiggins, regardless of having ridden it numerous instances in his profession. “It’s one thing particular climbing out of the market right here,” he says. “Once I journey up the cobbles, I’m nonetheless seeing Johan Museeuw [the Lion of Flanders and three-time winner of the Ronde] attacking out of the saddle. I get the identical feeling driving as I did after I was a child, watching – the climb is simply iconic.”

Wiggins on the ‘iconic’ Muur van Geraardsbergen
Over a espresso and a mattentaart (a candy curd pastry native to the city) in Bar Gidon – a biking cafe on Geraardsbergen’s market sq., the place every chair bears the title of a winner of the Tour of Flanders and the partitions are festooned with jerseys – Wiggins elaborates on why the Flemish Ardennes is such an excellent place to journey. “It’s principally a Scalextric monitor of biking historical past. Each avenue and hill has a narrative, and it’s unending. In case you rode daily for every week, you’d nonetheless have climbs and roads that you simply haven’t seen, which are completely different.”
After departing Geraardsbergen, we take a few of these roads-less-travelled – with stunning views throughout rolling hills and forests – to Brakel, house of two-time Ronde winner Peter Van Petegem, and on to Ronse, a small city that has twice hosted the World Championships. Alongside the best way, we move bars internet hosting supporters’ golf equipment for native professionals, and residents tidying their gardens in preparation for the approaching month, when their homes will seem on televisions internationally.

As we pedal, Wiggins says, “I all the time benefit from the really feel of driving right here.The buildings, the bars, the cafes are all a part of the races. In case you go to the Alps, you possibly can perhaps journey one or two climbs in a day and cease in a restaurant that doesn’t care that the Tour de France passes by way of. Right here, you possibly can journey the entire monitor of a well-known race, absorb so many alternative sorts of driving, and cease someplace the place they love biking and welcome you.”
Slightly later, having climbed the well-known cobbles of the Oude Kwaremont, we do exactly that. D’Oude Hoeve is a gorgeous cafe, nonetheless heated by a 19th-century vary, on Kwaremont’s Ronde Van Vlaanderenstraat, the place the names of each winner of the race are stencilled on the street. The cafe partitions are adorned with footage of biking champions previous and current, and after taking an image with “Sir Wiggo” so as to add to her assortment, our host, Joëlle, serves us a few of the area’s well-known beers and dries our jackets on the vary.
Sadly, we are able to’t keep all afternoon. The following problem is the Paterberg, a hill with a mean gradient of 12.5% however with its steepest part topping out at 20%. The Paterberg is a comparatively latest addition to the climbs of the Tour of Flanders, paved solely in 1986 by a farmer, jealous that his good friend lived on the notorious Koppenberg (most gradient 22%), some 3km away. That any individual would need a steep, cobbled hill to ship cyclists up for their very own amusement is an efficient illustration of the importance biking has in Flemish tradition; that the Paterberg now enjoys the identical “protected monument” standing because the historic centre of Bruges is one other. That is the final climb of our journey and it’s right here that Wiggins reveals the category that outlined his profession, leaving us all in his wake to cruise over the crest alone.
We end our day’s journey with a 5km run down one other car-free cycle path to Oudenaarde, the small city on the coronary heart of the Flemish Ardennes and the end line of the Ronde since 2012. On arrival, Wiggins makes a beeline for De Carillon on the primary sq., the oldest cafe on the town. Over the basic Belgian snack of frites and mayo, Wiggins says, “Wherever you rode on the planet you couldn’t discover a small space with extra historical past or extra hospitality. And it’s not simply the well-known climbs. It’s the locations you go to alongside the best way, the cafes and the villages. It’s only a no-brainer.”
• For extra particulars go to cyclinginflanders.cc
Pit stops: 5 basic Flemish biking cafes

Wiggins in Bar Gidon
Bar Gidon
Available on the market sq. in Geraardsbergen, Bar Gidon is the place to metal your self with a espresso and a mattentaart pastry earlier than taking over the Muur. The inside serves as a biking museum, with jerseys from former and present execs, autographs from visiting stars on the tables, and every chair named after a Ronde winner. • On Fb
In Den Groenen Growth
Run by Lien and her household, In Den Groenen Growth is a hidden gem on the finish of the cobbles of the Holleweg. Though the bar might seem abandoned, it’s all the time open, and as soon as somebody emerges from the kitchen you might be positive of a heat welcome. On race days, nonetheless, the place is reworked. This is among the venues the place racing groups take their VIPs to get a style of what biking actually means to Flemish folks.• Geraardsbergenstraat 155, Oudenaarde, no web site
D’Oude Hoeve

Joëlle, proprietor of D’Oude Hoeve
Each biking fan ought to name in on Joëlle at D’Oude Hoeve. The cafe is on the Ronde Van Vlaanderenstraat, throughout the primary street from the highest of the Kwaremont, the place the names of each winner of the race are stencilled on the street. Coming into the cafe is like stepping again in time, and when you ask properly you possibly can even dry your moist gear over the vary. • doudehoeve.be
De Carillon
A stone’s throw from the end line of the Tour of Flanders, De Carillon is the oldest bar in Oudenaarde and a basic bruin cafe, the Flemish time period for a standard, unpretentious bar. The type of the constructing, the low beams and the ambiance are all unmistakably Flemish. The cafe is on the primary sq., the proper place to complete your journey. • decarillon.be
Flanders’ greatest cobblestone climbs

Wiggins on the Oude Kwaremont
Oude Kwaremont-Koppenberg-Paterberg
This trio of basic cobbled climbs over solely 11km sits simply exterior Oudenaarde and might be ridden within the order they seem on the Ronde. First comes the Oude Kwaremont: at 2.2km, the longest cobbled climb within the area and the scene of numerous dramas, together with Peter Sagan’s 2017 bid for victory ending when he hooked a spectator’s jacket together with his bars.
Since 2012, the Paterberg has been the last word climb of the tour and sometimes marks the decisive level of the race. The Koppenberg, at 22%, is each the steepest and the worst-surfaced climb within the Flemish Ardennes – a mixture that makes you not sure if it is possible for you to to journey up it, regardless of how skilled you might be.
Haaghoek
Between Horebeke and Brakel, the Haaghoek is a 2km cobbled strip, beginning with a quick descent (at 70km/h by the professionals), then by way of fairly farms. It’s used 3 times within the Omloop and is a well-liked spot for watching the races.

{Photograph}: Tuur Tisseghem/@cyclinginflanders
Molenberg
A brief however intense introduction to biking in Flanders, this roughly cobbled floor has a mean gradient of seven%, with its steepest level at 14.2%. In Zwalm, 25km from the centre of Ghent, it’s a protected monument, with, at its foot, a 13th-century watermill, the Moldergemmolen.
Muur van Geraardsbergen
The impossibly steep (common 9.3%, steepest part 19.8%), roughly cobbled ascent to the gorgeous church above the city of Geraardsbergen is among the most well-known climbs. The 1988 Tour of Flanders winner, Eddy Planckaert, stated: “The Muur is a rendezvous along with your character.”
Cobble loop
Simply exterior Oudenaarde, it’s potential to journey a 5km loop solely on cobbles, through the Wolvenberg climb. First comes the Ruiterstraat, a quick, barely downhill part into the village of Mater and on to the Kerkgate utilized in nearly each Flemish race. Following this street brings you to Holleweg, which boasts cobbles tough sufficient to rival Paris-Roubaix. Fortunately, there are a variety of fine cafes to relaxation in alongside the loop.