Herentals Belgium 1200, July 2-5 2014

Ride Report from David Thompson:

This ride starting in Herentals BE was unlike any other in so many ways … where do I start?

— Most people can complete the ride and never actually ride in the dark. Jan Geerts has the ride organized with 5 am starts each day and with reasonable riding conditions most finish in daylight every day.

— roughly 360, 275, 275 & 275 days leaves the last day a little long perhaps but follows the routine.

— Nine Controls? Have I ever completed a 1200km ride with so few Controls? Those Control points pulled out their stamps before you could even ask the question.

— I will have to double check once I unload the data from my Garmin but the climbing came in around 20,000 feet, perhaps a little more. That certainly sets a record (low) for climbing.

— City riding? When is that interesting? Well, it certainly is when that city is Paris!!! It was like a hop-on-hop-off tour bus, with one major difference – we saw the glory of the city as well as the dregs. No tour would expose the underbelly as well.

— From city to countryside – Paris to villages in Champagne; incredible vistas of grape vines. Had it not been so early in the season, I’d have been hard pressed not to stop and sample – tch tch. The rows were posted with owners. Who knew that there were so many Champagne producers? I did recognize Moet et Chandon…

— Like Paris Brest Paris, the ride goes through innumerable small towns; Hamid commented at one point that Belgium had more towns than people! Town doesn’t mean open facilities; however, even in daylight we’d ride through small towns and see no people, no activity. In Ireland each of these towns would have had at least three pubs!!

— Canals and rivers? Did I mention canals and rivers? A canal takes you into the heart of Paris; you follow the Loire deep into France; the Seine, of course, is your guide through Paris itself.

— Each of those small towns, naturally, had its ancient cathedral and, perhaps, a huge estate or two.

— Organization to the n’th degree. Jan has this one down pat after 7-8 years in a row. He provides some food and you handle the rest. There are reasonable restaurant choices at nights two and three right at the hotel; he takes care of the first night with a sandwich buffet from his van.

— Semi private accommodation – standard is three per room but for a few more Euros, two per room. Pay for two – it’s worth it. These small hotel rooms are tiny and Spartan by North American standards but beat sleeping in hostels or a gymnasium by a long shot. One drop bag follows the ride which is very convenient.

— While tiny, these hotels are squeaky clean. You never had the sense that you might get from a well-used Motel 6 in North America.

— Yes, we were riding in two countries, but the only visible transition was the flags hanging from the windows. In fact, due to the World Cup, there were many Belgian flags. Unfortunately BE was eliminated on the evening of the ride finish. Of course it was Belgium that eliminated the U.S. the evening before the ride start but did anyone expect otherwise?

— Volunteers, contrasting with the Irish ride — Jan manage the ride with himself and two volunteers riding in a large van. With 25 riders more-or-less riding a similar schedule that works quite well. In Ireland there was a team of volunteers at the overnight controls who provided food etc. That was necessary in Ireland due to the late night finishes. Different rides, different needs.

How did my ride go? Very well, as a matter of fact.

As usual, I set my own pace. I really should work at that, i.e. pick up the pace, but there’s little incentive. I don’t really enjoy a tight group ride and dropped back early on. Hamid stuck with some of the faster riders – he’s really upped his game – and finished the first day about 45 minutes ahead of me at 9pm vs. my 9:45 – PS being so far north and close to June 21 means long days. That first day had the most climbing, around 7,000 feet but the slopes are all gentle. That night we stopped just north of Paris.

There were poppies everywhere. There were small military cemeteries with crosses all lined up; no names. I was reminded of the poem “In Flanders Fields” but in fact the poppies were along and in the farmed fields, not among the crosses. Those little cemeteries were well tended.

On the second day Hamid and I left shortly before the main group, followed the canals into Paris, had a cappuccino after going around the Arc de Triomphe and largely followed the Loire to Cosne sur Loire. There wasn’t much climbing that day. It was hot, hot, hot. We (Hamid and I riding together at this point and for the rest of the ride) finished up around 8pm. Paris was slow going what with the sightseeing (mandatory) and bike paths and traffic, but that is the trade-off. We rode many many miles (km?) along a levee along the Loire as we worked our way south. The second day had less than 3,000 feet of climbing.

I have to say that if there are highlights to be mentioned and I’m limited to two, that would be Paris early on the first day and Champagne late on the third. Gentle climbs as we started our way back north, a short flat interlude and then climbing in earnest. We’re not talking the Shenandoah Valley climbing here, but we did have at least one low gear up-we-go in Champagne. We finished the third day about the same time – 8pm give or take. There was about 600 feet of climbing that day.

Hamid and I started early on the fourth day, wanting to get it done and to get packed before the celebratory party. He was flying home the next day and I was heading to Paris.

Jan was very accommodating providing bread, meat and cheese so that we could make sandwiches to take with us. There are no 24×7 convenience stores here. If we didn’t carry food with us, we’d have been running on empty.

We started that day at 1:40 am and finished at 3:50 pm. That put the official total ride time at 82:50. This is one that definitely could be finished faster … but why?

The next rider in was only about 1/2 hour later even though he started around 5am. Now that’s pushing it!

Jan held the finishing celebration barbecue at 8pm. Eight of the twenty-five riders were still out in the course. They all made it in by 9pm. No DNFs. Around 9:30 the Mayor of Herentals handed out medals. A few family members were in attendance including Hamid’s wife Shab and her brother.

I waited for Hamid only a couple of times on the Irish ride. On this ride, in fact, he was often waiting for me. My normal pace is slower than his. He’s an entirely different, stronger rider than when we first rode together. He probably could have kept up with the fast group, but not me. I was able to up my pace to his when I needed to, not pushing myself per se, but left to my own devices, I’d have ridden slower. That said, I would have also stopped for less time at night so perhaps it would have worked out the same in the end? We will never know. This is certainly a ride that can be done sub 80 hours.

As always, Hamid is a great riding partner. We have many rides together at this point.

What’s it like doing two of these with only a week between? No problem! In fact, they are an ideal pair with the harder ride first. What would I do differently next time? Well, first of all I wouldn’t carry so much spare gear. Jan was always out there so did I really need that spare Shifter with me? Cassette tool? Food and clothing that I carried up the hills in the large rack-bag that I never touched? Oh well, I had a great time; always do. There were many riders who were out there with a seat-wedgie and camel-back sized backpack. That would make for light, fast, responsive riding.

There’s as much personal satisfaction from completing number 16 as number 1. I’m so lucky to have the financial wherewithal, health and understanding spouse to do this. Please don’t tell Sandy though!

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