War on a bike
This year sees the 100th edition of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen cycle race: Breandán Kearney suggests a cycling and beer tour to attempt in its honour
The Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders, is a brutal, 265km cycling race across narrow cobblestoned hills, whose most dramatic events unfold in the Flemish Ardennes. While the Ronde always begins in Bruges, it’s only when it crosses into East Flanders that anyone takes notice, so jump on a train to Oudenaarde (there’s a direct connection from Ghent) and rent a bicycle. Make your way to Gavere – the Town of the Ronde in 2007 – to discover the beer that was created especially for the race.
“The beer we made for the 2007 Ronde was a cooperation between the community of Gavere and our brewery,” says Frederik De Vrieze of Brouwerij Contreras. “They wanted to call it El Toro, because that was the nickname of the 1960 Ronde winner, Arthur Decabooter, who lived here.”
Brewery tours are available by arrangement at Contreras, where you can learn more about that beer, now called Valeir Extra, an India Pale Ale of 6.5% ABV brewed with Sterling hops for bittering and dry hopped with large amounts of Amarillo. “We discovered the name El Toro was owned by a big warehouse company in the Netherlands, so we changed it to Extra,” says Frederik. “When we saw that people liked it, we brought it into the Valeir range.”
Next, move on to the modest facade and antique furniture of Café Herberg de Rotse, 1.5km south of Gavere. It’s a Contreras pub, so you’ll be able to try the brewery’s other beers, including one of their oldest, the Tonneke Spéciale Belge, an amber-coloured pale ale of 5% ABV, and the Contrapils, one of the few lagers from a small brewery in Belgium.
Then head towards Nederbrakel and negotiate the Valkenberg – literally Falcon mountain or hill – where falconers overlooked the town and called for their birds in days gone by and which now forms a legendary climb on the Ronde that rises 43m along its 875m length.
With an old-fashioned stove and a small bar made from wooden slats, Café In Den Hengst is your reward for conquering the Valkenberg. You’re as likely to rub shoulders here with retired cyclists as you are with local farmers, and, despite its understated vibe, the large murals and delicately tiled floor suggest a place with more history and authenticity than you could appreciate in the time it takes to drink what might be the cheapest pintje in East Flanders. So stay for two.
Your next stop is Café In Den Trap Op, 5.4km away. It’s the perfect place to grab lunch: their Flemish stew is made with oud bruin. The world champion jerseys of Tom Boonen and Johan Museeuw hang here on the walls, delivered in person by the cyclists themselves. Every year on the day after the Ronde, the bar shows the whole of the race again on its TV, just in case you didn’t get enough the previous day.
You’re now only 1km from Brouwerij Roman, a brewery that embraces cycling culture and boasts a long history. The Ronde proper takes place on a Sunday, but the day before there’s a tourist version in which 18,000 people brave the route. “At 2pm on the Saturday, we run a guided tour for individuals,” says Thomas Lauwaert, the brewery’s marketing manager. “Interest in our tours is high throughout the whole of April, but on that day it’s particularly high.”
A 2km cycle north takes you to a very different brewery. Johan Brandt was a printer by profession and a hobbyist beekeeper before he started brewing 200l batches of a huge range of beers in plastic fermenters under the name of his former printing company, Rainbow. It’s now Brouwerij Smisje, and Johan has ditched most of the original recipes to focus on a smaller range of beers with a 2,000l kit. The brewery taphouse is open on Sunday afternoons, so treat yourself to a glass of their Smiske Nature-Ale (7% ABV).
Cycle south towards the language border now, through Kerkem and Louise-Marie and the picturesque town of Ronse. Before taking on the triumvirate of climbs – the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg and the Koppenberg – we recommend one final stop. Bakkerij ’t Molentje is well known among locals for its energy-giving rice tarts. Before glucose packs and energy drinks, professional cyclists stopped here to fuel up for the final push, and amateur cyclists still incorporate the small bakery into their route.
American cyclist George Hincapie famously called the Ronde “without question, the hardest one-day bike race ever created”, comparing it to “war on a bike”. Your first battle will be the Oude Kwaremont. Brouwerij De Brabandere brews a beer simply called Kwaremont to honour this stretch of road leading up to the Kluisberg hill. It’s a fruity blonde ale of 6.6% ABV marketed as a rewarding experience for those who can tame the hill. These cobblestones were classified as monuments by Flemish decree in 1993 and have been part of the Ronde since 1974.
Once you’re over the Kwaremont, get ready for the Paterberg, one of the newer hills on the Ronde. A local farmer wanted the Ronde to pass by his house, so between 1983 and 1986 he laid cobblestones on the narrow dirt road between his fields here. It worked. The short but brutally steep hill is now a permanent fixture on the race.
The Koppenberg’s savage climb is so iconic that they’ve reconstructed the hill in Colorado to replicate racing conditions. The inside shoulder of the steepest section is at a murderous incline of 25%, its cobblestones unforgiving. History is written here every year. Take it all in between deep breathes.
Oudenaarde is just over the hill, so don’t lose heart. It will all be worth it when you come to the Ronde museum’s bar, Brasserie des Flandriens. The term Flandrien – initially derogatory – soon developed to refer to the hardiness of riders from Belgium who kept winning the big races and is now seen as a real badge of honour.
In the bar itself – a homage to cycling heroes of yesteryear and a hodgepodge of Ronde memorabilia – order the Liefmans Goudenband (8% ABV), a poster boy for the oud bruin style indigenous to the city of Oudenaarde. It was named Best Belgian Beer at the Brussels Beer Challenge in 2014 and offers all the complexity of flavour that a post-Ronde celebratory drink should.
Say hello to Freddy Maertens if you see him. He works at the museum now as a guide, but in 1977 he was disqualified from the Ronde after changing bicycles on the Koppenberg. Once disqualified, he didn’t stop, staying ahead of cycling legend Roger De Vlaeminck (who won Paris-Roubaix four times) and pulling him to the finish line in a tremendous show of strength. Freddy was subsequently presented with a trophy for that race naming him the ‘mental’ winner of the 1977 Ronde. You’ll have plenty in common to discuss with him over a beer.