“Half term next week so Newhaven ferry fully booked on Friday night and Saturday morning. Saturday night has space but price is higher than usual, 55 quid each return with bike, no… sorry, 60 bloody quid. Sodding half term.”
“I have a car. We could drive over?”
“98 quid with car going overnight Saturday, coming back Sunday evening.”
“Daytrip? Eurotunnel – leave 04:34 Sunday, back 21:50. 60 quid all in”
“Do it! I’ll get the maps out.”
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“Forty-five minute drive to De Panne. Could do a loop out to Gent? Ooh, hang on, we could ride to Roubaix and try and sneak in to the velodrome.”
— — — —
Which is why at 3.45am on a Sunday morning we’re driving through cones on the M20 looking at the time and the distance left to Folkstone thinking “This is going to be tight!”
We just make it and drive straight on to the train. By 7.30am local time we’re spinning through De Panne looking for a cash machine so we can get some breakfast from the bakery we spotted as we drove into town.
Out of town we bash into a headwind. A headwind we know will stay with us for the first 100km of the ride. It’s not brutal but stiff enough for the effort to be felt. A few kilometres on quiet Sunday morning main roads before turning onto narrow lanes across arable land. Rows of trees and canals accompany us here and there. Sunrise is glorious, the temperature slowly rising. Roads twist and turn between large fields. The horizon is low and flat in every direction. Church spires silhouette against the pale dawn sky. Cyclists coming the other way seem to be going remarkably fast for what appears to be little effort. We start to think of the tailwind we’ll have back to the coast this afternoon.
Somewhere George picks up a flat, a tyre lever is snapped, there’s some swearing, and then a valve is bent. We continue. A couple of kilometres later we stop to change the tube again.
Near Diksmuide we pass the Trench of Death, a remnant of the First World War trench system. A tall tower can be seen not so far away in the town, the Yser Tower, a peace monument. They are the first signs of a dark and horrifying part of the history of Flanders. We’re riding right through the Western Front, the day is likely to be filled with reminders of the human expense of war.
A bit further on we enter the city of Roeselare which seems to be entirely shut. I had planned this as coffee stop number one. Out with the phone and Google Maps to the rescue, seems there should be a bakery close to our route out of town. We turn onto a side street and can’t see anything obvious but then spot the word Brood above the big wooden door of an imposing looking building. On the steps is a black board with the word Open written in chalk. I lean my bike against the wall and try the door. Inside I find a fine bakery with a coffee machine. Yes! Caffeine!
We chat to the owner who tells us about the 1970 Road World Champion, Jean-Pierre Monseré, from nearby in the city, who was killed in a road race the following year when he was hit head on by a car driver who drove onto a closed race circuit. Tragically his young son was killed on his bike by a driver a few years later. Before we leave he hands us a couple small pastries on the house “for the road”. Carefully wrapped in a serviette we place them in jersey pockets. Given the headwind they will almost certainly come in handy later.
Back into the headwind towards Wevelgem, across the river Leie, and loop around to the east of Roubaix. Ice tea on the forecourt of a tiny petrol station in a town straddling the French border. We turn back to the north, out of the wind at last. Through a housing estate and bouncing across some kerbs we turn into the famous velodrome.
It’s empty and looks a little scruffy, but this is the place of legends. Today there are just some bored teens smoking in the top corners of the grandstand. We lap it a few times then climb to the top of the banking to sit in the sun. I remember the Roeselare pastry in my back pocket.
Out of town it’s slightly downhill and the wind is now at our backs. We hammer along. On the corner of a quiet square in a small French town we spot an open bar.
“Small coffee and a small beer?”
“Deux café, deux Jupiler, s’il vous plait”
Across the river Leie again, back into Belgium. I recognise the Belgian side of town from the ride to Copenhagen in October We’re heading for the Kemmelberg, the cobbled climb famous from Gent-Wevelgem and Three Days of De Panne. For the first time in 120km the land starts to undulate, it starts to feel like Spring Classic country. We can see the Kemmelberg from miles away, it’s the only hill. It’s not high but from a distance it looks substantial enough. Gradually it nears. We approach on roads that narrow as they steepen, and then we turn onto the cobbles on the “easy” side, climbing to the memorial to French soldiers at the summit. We loop around to the bottom of the punchier steeper side. George climbs it. I decide to take a photo of him climbing it is sufficient, I’m starting to feel a bit bonkyfaint and dreaming of food.
Starting off for Ypres we speed (downhill plus tailwind) through the narrow roads until George appears to be front wheel drifting around a fast corner. It doesn’t look deliberate which is confirmed by the exclaimed “Shiiiit!” He’s clipped a stone, punctured, and somehow managed to hold it without hitting the floor or sliding into the ditch opposite. Skills. Standing on the steps of the Kemmel No.1 French Cemetery I delve into a jersey pocket for an inner tube.
A short while later we enter the city of Ypres via a gate in the ramparts and trundle through the cobbled streets to the Menin Gate. The list of names of lost or unidentified soldiers is staggering, nearly 55 thousand in total. That’s 20 thousand more than the entire modern population of the municipality of Ypres. It’s difficult to comprehend, yet is but a fraction of the total loss of the First World Way. The nearby Battle of Passchendaele alone cost nearly half a million lives. Just one battle in a war of four years.
We really need food, 150km has been ridden on snacks and a couple of coffees. We head towards the middle of the city and the In Flanders Fields Museum keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat. I spot the flashing lights of a kebab shop down a side street. Excellent. It’s reached the point where anything will do and the quicker the better. Burger, chips, Coca Cola. Sorted. That’ll get us back to De Panne. However it’s later than we hoped so rather than our planned route via Vleteren for a beer from the Trappist brewery we consult the map for a more direct way back. Not the really direct 40km of N8 cyclepath way as that would be unpleasant and dull. We work out a smaller roads alternative that runs parallel. We roll along the flat roads at a fair pace, the pushing wind helping the legs out. Sunset is a mirror image of sunrise. We flick on our lights and by the time we start to ride along the canal path back to Veurne the dark has absorbed the landscape around us.
From Veurne we retrace this morning’s road back into De Panne, 195km ridden. We’re knackered and hungry (again/still). Time to head home, via whatever food we can find on the way. Which turns out to be Burger King at the Eurotunnel terminal. It tastes mighty fine.