May 4, 2016 – For centuries men and women have embarked on journeys aimed at attaining a sense of spiritual enlightenment. The concept of a religious pilgrimage is prominent in the Abrahamic religions of the West as well as for Buddhists in the East. The faithful flock to the birthplaces of their sacred prophets, or their religion’s holy cities. In Flanders though, there is cycling; and Koers is Religie (Racing is Religion).

Written by Clive Pursehouse/Photo by Yuzuru Sunada

You may have doubts about the fervor for bicycle racing in Flanders, or have a sense that I’m using an excess of hyperbole. However, you need only visit the blue-collar epicenter of Flemish cycling talent, the town of Roselare and the deconsecrated Paterskerk or Father’s Church where the exhibit Koers is Religie makes the parallels perfectly clear.

While it falls on the Sunday after Easter, the Ronde van Vlaanderen is without a doubt a High Mass for the Flemish cycling faithful. I, along with ninety nine other true believers, all of us ardent pilgrims, made our way to the holy land of cycling. We came for the 100th Ronde van Vlaanderen, and more specifically the first ever (and perhaps only) De Ronde Fan Ride. We would ride the last one hundred kilometers of the one hundredth running of Flanders’ most esteemed of races, and we would do it in between the women’s and men’s professional pelotons. We numbered one hundred and we came from all over the world. We were the chosen ones. (Winners of the #RideLikeAFlandrien contest and accompanying journalists.) What we would experience would border on the spiritual and miraculous.

We rode alongside a Lion named Museeuw, on chariots created by cycling’s closest thing to a deity; Merckx Cycles. We would tackle ten of the bergs, the hellingen; some of them paved and the most notorious among them cobbled. We would plunge headlong into treacherous lengths of cobblestones, the Paddestraat and the feared Haaghoek; which once felled the great Spartacus.

Anyone who tells you that riding cobbles is easy is either a fool or a liar. You can ride them fast, or you can ride them slow, but in either case, they hurt you.

By the time we hit the paved Kanarieberg, at kilometer sixty-four, we saw the first of the congregation. The fans, who would come to be one of the most defining elements of this entire experience. Flemish cycling fans come in droves to take in this day of days. Throngs of them set up alongside these bergs to cheer their favorite pros and in our case shout encouragement. At least I think it was encouragement, I don’t speak Flemish.

After Kanarieberg we hit the final climb before we’d have to move off course and let the women’s peloton pass us by. The Kruisberg is not one of the Ardennes climbs you hear talked about much. I’m not sure why that is because it’s absolutely brutal. We rested up, ate some waffles (that’s not a joke) and mentally prepared ourselves for what was to come. The last two bergs, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg were still ahead. If I’m being honest, I feared them that day. The Kwaremont most especially.

After the women’s race passed and we shouted them on we hopped back on our bikes to ride the last thirty kilometers or so. The approach to the Oude Kwaremont is fast, you descend, turn right and then make another right and then the road narrows. To me cycling is unique because you can take your bicycle and you can ride these same roads that have been the setting for so much of the sport’s drama and history. Sure the pace is different but the cols and the bergs are the same, except without all the screaming fans. At least usually.

When we hit the cobbles on the Kwaremont, it felt as though the heavens split open and all hell broke loose. The congregation had flocked here, and they were in full throat. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. The faithful along the barriers of the Kwaremont were in the clutches of the an epic cycling fervor. Fans offered beer hand ups, shouts and high fives in an atmosphere that was absolutely electric. It was a wall of noise, ecstasy and cobbled agony.

On to the final climb: the Paterberg. Short, steep and especially brutal. The faithful were here too, shouting us on, electrified. There was a moment on this climb where I honestly felt like I might not make it, something that seems laughable given the miles in my legs, but these cobblestones sap you. I found a way, if not for my own pride, than for them that lined the roadway shouting me on.

We would work our way into Oudenaarde, pass under the red flag and across the finish line. Finally, our journey, a pilgrimage complete. What we had experienced was once in a lifetime, it was our faith fulfilled. It was Flanders.

We will return to our home countries, and our day jobs, but we’ll never forget that experience the day that for a moment we rode like a Flandrien, even if only in our minds. Our faith renewed on the bergs and cobbles of the Flemish Ardennes. There are many beautiful places to ride a bicycle, but there is only one holy land. There is only one Flanders.

The #RideLikeAFlandrien contest and this experience was made possible by Visit Flanders and Cycling in Flanders.