Last weekend we went with Ibón Zugasti to one of the most important cycling festivals in the world, the Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo, better known as the Tour des Flandres Cyclo: more than 16,000 people from countless countries taking their passion for cycling to an extreme, in a place where cyclists are rock stars.
While Tomi Misser stormed the enduro mountains of Málaga, Ibon took on the climbs and cobblestones of the Tour des Flandres Cyclo, for a distance of 141 km.
He was escorted in the cycle tourism event by our road product manager Joseba Arizaga and two people from Orbea’s marketing department, Jon Azkoitia and Aitor Otxoa. We spoke with Aitor, who is also a former rider from the nostalgic Euskaltel-Euskadi team, so he could make us jealous by telling us how he experienced the festival that paralyzes an entire country.
– Aitor, what’s it like to ride in the Tour des Flandres Cyclo?
Aitor Otxoa: All four of us chose to ride the 141 km distance, because we had 18 climbs and 5 stretches of cobblestones, so it was quite challenging. Unlike the cycle tourism events here, you have a margin to leave from 7 to 9 in the morning, so there’s no fuss about it. You do your thing and the people are laid-back; they don’t approach it as a competition and there is a lot of respect…they let you pass and vice versa. When you reach the finish line, they give you a medal. You are proud to have completed the same climbs that the professionals will do the following day and there are lots of refreshments with local products: hamburgers, potato chips, a beer called Kwaremont – like the climb – with the same percentage of alcohol as the pass…It’s as if here they were to include marmitako o cod… Very curious, isn’t it?
– Which segments were the most difficult for you?
AO: The most difficult are the climbs at Molenberg and Paterberg, with a 14% and 20% slope, respectively. Besides, of course, the cobblestones, with what that means for us, since we're not used to riding on this type of terrain and it compromises your stability a bit.
We started the day very cautiously, because it was raining early Saturday morning and, of course, the cobblestones are nothing to joke about, and with percentages of around 20%. As we were headed towards the starting line in Oudenaarde, the weather improved. We were a little afraid as we approached the first climbs, but after the fourth one, you’re like a world champion… You go full speed, like any other local cyclist. There is a lot of up and down, and the big climbs came after kilometer 70, so we held back quite a bit. I was struck by the route; there were a lot of bike paths, secondary roads, etc., while here, we’re used to the main roads.
– How would you describe the atmosphere you experienced over the weekend?
AO: Wow! Incredible, it’s crazy. It gave me goose bumps. It’s Belgium’s “national holiday,” the whole country grinds to a halt. It’s a giant party that I never would have imagined. I had the chance to experience the Paris-Roubaix as a cyclist as a kid, but I had never been to anything like this; I thought it was more of a myth than reality. The climbs were lined with fans, in the streets they whistled and cheered you on, the shops were decorated with cyclists, there were cyclists on TV, on the covers of newspapers… Kids stopped you on the street to ask for autographs… I’d never seen anything like it, with cyclists and the race. There were people with party caravans on the grass from Thursday on, because they rent land there… It was tremendous.
– Compared to the Basque Country, another region where we live and breathe cycling…What differences and similarities do you find?
AO: Well, differences… few. I was lucky enough to ride with Euskaltel Euskadi, so I felt loved and respected in the Basque Country, but there you’re a rock star. The Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi over there are cyclists. Here, people cheer you on a lot from the beginning to the end… There too, but I would say the main thing that is most important to them is where the race is being held. But we are very similar.
– What bike would you recommend to use? A nervous bike to attack, like the Orca, or a resistance bike that grabs the ground better, like the Avant?
AO: Both are UCI Legal competition bikes: the Orca is more reactive and lighter, which comes in handy in a race like Flandres, where there are a lot of climbs. The Avant is better for races like the Paris-Roubaix, since it is more stable and provides greater comfort. It lets you reach the end with more stamina, in a race where you have been riding over cobblestones at great speed. In any case, in Flandres, three out of the four of us rode an Avant, and it seemed perfect to me. Since it was a rainy day, we also felt very safe with its disk brakes. While it is true that the disk is heavier, I would prefer to have good, fast braking, with a great feel. In general, you saw a lot of endurance bikes, many disk brakes, bikes with higher head tubes…
– Did you have the chance to see the Tour des Flandres live on Sunday?
AO: Yes, we saw them from the Oude Kwaremont climb, which was where Gilbert attacked, who was also wearing the Belgian championship flag. It was crazy. During Gilbert’s last 200 meters, absolutely every bike brand and components manufacturer was clapping, there were people crying… Imagine, a Belgian with the Belgian champion’s maillot winning in Flandres. Crazy.
There in Kwaremont, every brand, every manufacturer had its area where you could get something to eat, have a beer…The people talked about who was going to win. No one was betting on Gilbert; what’s more, everyone thought Sagan was the favorite. They offered you something to drink, they asked you if you had taken part in the cycle tourism event…Everyone was interested in talking about cycling. They live for it and you experience it with them.
– I’m sure that a weekend with Ibon makes for a lot of funny moments…Can you tell us about one?
AO: He arrived pretty beat up from the Cape Epic, and at first he was a little grouchy, but then he cheered up and he was the Zugasti you see in the videos: hyperactive. Stories? Especially the guy who found some plastic genitals handing on his bicycle and, well… Everyone around him laughing… (video of this moment on Ibón’s video channel). Then, at kilometer 77, we stopped at the refreshment stand before the final stretch of climbs, and there Joseba told us that we had to try some cookies made with honey that they had there. So we arrive at the refreshments stand, and in good Spanish form…Everyone grabbed 7-8 cookies and stuffed them in our pockets. Afterwards, that night, Ibón liked them so much that we went to the supermarket to buy some boxes to take home.