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Mauro Mondonico's 2003 Tour of Flanders

During the winter of 2002 a few friends and I decided to ride the Tour of Flanders for the cycloamateurs. The ride, which is not a competition, is on exactly the same racecourse as the real Tour of Flanders, the second round of the UCI World Cup. It is 255kms long with 19 walls (hills).

We were quite excited about this. That's why we have trained all the winter long. We needed to be in the best possible shape to ride the Flanders tour.

The start of our Belgian adventure, on Saturday, April 5, was in Bruges and the finish in Meerbeke. We drove up north on Thursday arriving in Bruges at the Hotel Fevery around 5pm. There were 5 riders in our group, including me. The other fellows were Fabio, Paolo, Ernesto and Giancarlo. My brother Giuseppe also came with us. He was to drive the car the day of the race following us like a team support car.

The day after we arrived, Friday, we decided to make a quick visit to one of the most legendary walls of this race: "The Muur" or the muur of Grammont. We were really impressed with this narrow and very steep cobbled wall. It has a maximum gradient of 20%!! While we were impressed, we were also worried, thinking that we had to climb that wall after 239kms... Anyway, we were there for that.

Then, we registered for the ride collecting our numbers and checking card. At each control stop, we would have the race organization stamp our card so that we had a certified record our having completed the terrible ride. We were ready for the race.

The organizer planned the start on Saturday to be from 6.30am to 8.30am. We choose an intermediate time, 7.15am. We started from the Market Square in Bruges for our adventure. The temperature was quite cold but since I hate tights I decided to ride in shorts using Qoleum hot embrocation and oil for my legs.

I immediately noticed that we had a head wind in every the direction we headed. In Eeklo, after only 21 kms, we came to the first control. We stopped for few minutes; just to have the stamp of the organization on our checking card and we then proceeded.

After 70 kms, just before the second control in Waregem, I had a crash. There was some glass on the road and the rider in front of me, trying to avoid the glass crashed very badly on the road. I immediately turned left to avoid him. It was a good move but two guys behind me hit me. One on the right side and the other on the left side. The first fell down and hit my right leg with his handlebar. The other crashed (I don't know how) with his bike embedded in my rear brake. I was able to avoid falling, staying on the saddle of my bike. When I stopped, after 30 meters, I saw the rider running towards me looking for his bike that was 30 meters up the road. I had been very lucky. Despite everything, my bike and wheels were OK. I had just a little pain in my right leg. My friends that were riding behind that saw the crash say that it was something quite spectacular to see.

Then, we arrived at the second control after 75kms. Then, we came to another stop, control stamp. It was time to be thinking about the first cobbled wall of the race, the Nokereberg. The sun was out but it has been quite cold with wind for the entire day. The first wall seemed to be easy but it was only the start of a long day of suffering. After the first wall we rode into several cobbled sections. For several years I have watched the spring classics on the cobbles on TV. But you will never know what it is to really ride on the cobbles until you actually ride on them.

Kilometer 80, Mauro passes gloves to Giuseppe

We then climbed the Molenberg and the Wolvenberg arriving after 148 kms in Oudenaarde to the third control. I was tired and I knew that more and more was to come. In fact, after eating and drinking enough to continue we were facing the most difficult section of the race.

Top picture: Mauro's friends Fabio (yellow jacket) and Ernesto. Mauro is puzzled that they seem to be happy. This is kilometer 155. Bottom: Mauro at the same point.

The penultimate control was in St. K. Horebeke at kilometer 217 but to arrive there we had to climb 11 walls. Here is the list: kms160 Kluisberg - kms170 Knokteberg - kms175 Oude Kwaremont - kms182 Patersberg - kms184 Koppenberg - kms192 Steenbeekdries - kms194 Taaienberg - kms199 Ladeuze - kms202 Boigneberg - kms 209 Foreest - kms213 Steenberg. The Koppenberg has a 22% gradient. But the other are 20% 19% 17% 15%......and riding on the cobbles with so such steep hills is really hard.

When we were close to 200kms I was quite tempted to give up. But I thought that this was not my plan for that day! Having Giuseppe following with the car, it was easy to think: "Now I will stop, I will leave the bike here and get into the car".

I arrived very tired to the fourth control in St. K. Horebeke after 217kms. 5 walls to go including the legendary"Muur". We stopped for about 10 minutes before we continued for the last 40kms. With the usual head wind we rode into a very bad cobbled section on the flat (about 2,5 kms) that reminded us that we were riding in Flanders. Then, 3 other walls: km218 Leberg - kms223 Berendries - kms228 Tenbosse. If you think that at this point you have had enough, you should remember that you still have "The Muur" to climb.

And, here we are. After 239kms I climbed the legendary wall with a chapel at the top. This wall has taken everything I had. but at the same time I was at this point, sure to be able to finish in Meerbeke. At 12kms to go, I climbed Bosberg, the last cobbled wall. Then, we rode the last 10kms flat, always with ahead wind, crossing the line of the race in Meerbeke. We were successful.

Despite the fact that we were more than tired, with pain everywhere, the satisfaction to live one day like this is huge. Paolo and Ernesto (two guys riding with me) have already ridden the Paris-Roubaix cycloamateurs twice. The first in 1996 and the second last year. They both agreed that Tour of Flanders is harder. Fabio has ridden the most famous "granfondo" in Italy and he is always physically very well prepared. Even he has finished the Flanders very very tired. This is just to give an idea of how difficult this race course is.

What about me? My maximum training distance was 130kms. That day I rode 255kms with 19 walls. Not bad. Our goal was to finish and we have done the job! On Sunday 6th April we were on the spot to follow the pro race. And where we could go if not on the Muur? We were there waiting for the riders. This was another very special moment, the last of a very special trip.

One last note. When we arrived in Meerbeke we all agreed that we will never again come back to ride the Tour of Flanders because it's too hard.... We were too tired because after 5 days we are changing our ideas about this...

It's been a hard day on the cobbles. Mauro Van Petegem, the Lion of Concrezzo rests.