oneeighttwo – aieghttech – long term test bike pt.1 – S-Works SL6
Inspired by Philippe Gilbert’s victory on the Flemish cobbles in 2017 I lusted after a Tarmac SL6 for nine months – when the chance arose to ride one for a local bike shop in Kent as a long-term test bike I knew I had to get stuck in – Then a friend of mine asked if I wanted to bring it out to Flanders for the 2018 race – an offer too good to miss…
They say that the Ronde van Vlaanderen is the biggest bike race in Belgium, but to Belgian’s it’s the biggest race in the world and I think that just about hits the nail on the head. The TV cameras and press descend upon the tiny region along with the biggest teams on the planet for around a month, but crucially one major day.
A Cyclo-Sportive with 15’000 other riders wouldn’t normally be on my list of things to do, but there’s something about the carnival of Flanders that drew me in – a friend of mine in Belgium offered Pip and I a lift to the start and said he’d sort out the plan for the Pro-race too so we signed up without knowing exactly what to expect. It became one of the best weekends we’ve had complete with classic vlaandrian weather, some amazing food and really close access to the race typical of the Belgian style of doing things.
After a few months of prepping my own SL6 for the riding I took it out for a 50km shakedown on the Friday morning. A route that took in the Oude-Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Mariaborrestraat and the Kruisberg proved that my set-up was ready and my les seemed willing too – lunch in Ronse and then Flemish Steak and frites for dinner rounded off out recce day nicely.
I’m basically running the standard set-up of the Ultralight S-Works SL6 Tarmac which has a Dura-Ace R9150 Di2 drivetrain, Roval 50mm carbon wheels, and S-Works finishing kit. The bike weighs in at 6.8kg including pedals, cages and Garmin. Due to my Retul bike-fit I run an inline seatpost, Specialized Power saddle and a fairly low 120mm stem but I’m quite unusual and I whilst I wouldn’t recommend the set-up for most riders, it works really well for me – proper bike fitting regardless of experience or ability is very important before buying a bike like this and that’s why most of the pro-teams invest in the technology.
The next day we were picked up at 6am for a transfer to Antwerp where I’d be dropped off to start the 229km sportive, whilst Pip continued on to start her 174km ride from Oudenaarde one hour later. This meant I had a one hour head-start but 55 km to catch up – the race was on! People had warned me of 3 hours of boring roads until you get to Zottegem – the reality was some of the most beautiful farmland imaginable at dawn with virtually no traffic, which pretty much made it heaven in my book – I absolutely loved every high speed second of that blast across Belgium and for me it made the ride complete. It also gave me a true taste for real riding in such a beautiful country before all the noise and excitement started.
And then it started!… The full Flemish circus began on the Lippenhovestraat (1300m) where my bottles made their first bid for freedom, followed up by the Haaghoek which at 1700m was a long hard section for a small climber like me to sustain a decent tempo. The long ride down to Geraardsbergen was rewarded by one of the greatest climbs in the races history. Fabian Cancellara attacked Tom Boonen here in 2010 to win the race on his Specialized Tarmac and it’s one of my favourite bergs, especially the section just below the top which always stays greasy and provides a proper challenge before the cobbles open out toward the famous chapel at the top.
Back to Oudenaarde via the Valkenberg and the Eikenberg I managed to maintain a good solid pace slightly below my 30km/h target, but a couple of punctures slowed me down – my fault really as the Specialized Turbo Cotton tyres have been so brilliant in training that I’ve basically worn them out and I should have stuck some fresh rubber on before I started – overnight rain had washed a lot of debris onto the tiny Belgian roads and this would also plague the pro-race.
Now we headed to the Koppenberg, a melting pot of Flemish history as well as the meeting point for all four of the sportive routes, which could only mean one thing! Mustering all the ‘cross skills I could find and (politely) shouting to be allowed through, eventually one rider too many put their foot down and I was forced to do the same – a short run and a remount that WvA would be proud of saw me quickly back on the bike but I think it’s the one part of the route that the organisers need to rethink slightly as it’s such a great climb when you’ve got a clear run at it – notably in the pro-race only the top 15 or so top riders made it through before the same problem hit them which made me feel better about myself!
Onto the punishing 2km stretch of Mariaborrestraat which I always get a masochistic kick out of and then onto Taaienberg, Kaperij and Kanarieberg before dropping down into Ronse on the Flemish/Wallonie border – one of the nicest places to find lunch or a coffee. This time for me, after 7 hours and 200km, it was time for me to stuff my pockets with the last few waffles and gels and make a beeline for the famous finishing loop. We climbed out of Ronse on the Kruisberg (1800m at up to 9%) before looping back down to the mostorus Oude-Kwaremont (2000m up to 11.5%) where Philippe Gilbert attacked to win the race last year on the most important early win for the new Specialized Tarmac SL6 . I really love the section after the cross-roads where you can shift up to the big ring and give it the beans, but notably on the pro-race they do the whole thing in the big ring which in most cases is a standard 53 or 54 tooth ring.
And then, the final obstacle – 400m of up to 20% – the Paterberg is the jewel in the Flemish crown and is well known as the final place to launch a race winning attack like Peter Sagan’s in 2016 on the Tarmac SL5. As you descend a tiny inconspicuous Belgian lane you turn 90 degrees at the bottom and suddenly the wall of cobblestones rises up in front of you allowing only the strongest Flemish lions to ascend the final barrier before the long 9km time trial to the finish line in Oudenaarde. After 8 hours I was ready for a beer!
Look out for part 2 of this blog for a full run down on how the pro’s race the same course… A massive mention to my friend Wim and KBC Bank in Belgium for looking after us during our stay in Flanders, he made it a really great weekend for Pip and I.
Photos by Glen Whittington.
Glen rides for the.æight.bicycle.cøllective and Southborough & District Wheelers. He races mountain bikes, road bikes, TT and ‘cross at local and national level and is currently racing his 15th season. He receives personal support from Helly Hansen, the.æight.bicycle.cøllective, Four4th Lights and CeramicSpeed.
GOT WHAT IT TAKES TO RACE WITH US?
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