Cobble Wobbles in Belgium

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Matt Blease – An Illustrator’s Guide to the Ronde

Matt has spent August cycling around Belgium, following the route of the Ronde de Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) with his brother Tom, a Devon-based cycling mechanic. Originally, it was an excuse for the two to spend some quality time together, but Matt also took time out each day to create an illustration which he posted on Instagram. These illustrations will then be collected into An Illustrator’s Guide to the Ronde. We caught up with Matt to ask him how the trip had turned out.

How are you feeling?

Considering what we’ve been riding, I’m feeling pretty good!

What was the reason for the trip?

My brother lives in Devon and I’m in London. We love riding together, but rarely get the opportunity to do more than a weekend ride a few times a year. This whole thing was really just an excuse for us to hang out.

Tell us a little about the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) road cycling race.

The Tour of Flanders is an annual cycling race held in Belgium every spring. It’s now been running for over 100 years. Along with Paris – Roubaix, it’s considered one of the most important ‘cobbled classics’ in the cycling calendar.

Where does the route take you?

We arrived by ferry to Calais at about 4:30am and headed towards our first stop, Oudenarde in East Flanders. From there we followed the route of the Tour of Flanders before dropping back down into France and riding sections of the Paris-Roubaix race. Once we arrived at Roubaix we couldn’t resist doing a few victory laps of the Roubaix Vélodrome, I’d like to think we were the first rack bikes on the track!

Why did you choose this route for your own cycling trip?

There’s so much history and prestige related to the route that when we were talking about possible destinations this seemed like the one that would give us the most satisfaction. Although it’s one of the most challenging races within cycling, spreading it over three days meant we could hit all of these incredible cobbled climbs, but still manage to have a smile on our faces at the end of it.

Are you a keen cyclist?

Yes, I love riding and it’s a huge influence on my work.

Did you have to train for the trip?

Yes, I’d been training lots. I had a fairly strict schedule that I tried to stick to for three months prior to leaving. I was doing regular hill reps in preparation for the climbs. When you’re training it sometimes feels like you can’t see the benefits but it all really paid off when I was on the bike. More importantly, I changed my diet in a desperate bid to not look like a sausage in Lycra.

Was the trip inspired by your work with cyclewear brand Rapha, and your recent #morethanarace illustrations for the Tour de France?

Not directly, but it was great to come straight out of the Rapha project into this trip. It meant that my head was in gear (no pun intended) and I was feeling inspired by the incredible performances during the Tour.

Were you actually racing, or just taking your time?

Ha! Interesting question. We were taking our time, but there were plenty of moments when sibling rivalry snuck in and one of us would try to outsprint the other.

How tough is the route?

At times it was incredibly tough. Some of the cobbled climbs (like the Koppenberg) hit a 25% gradient. You’ve just got to grit your teeth, know that you’ve put the training in and keep on pedalling. Seeing some of the locals fly up with such ease put my dreams of being a pro into perspective.

Did you struggle with the cobbles?

When we hit the first section of cobbles I felt like I’d never be able to draw a straight line again! I quickly learned to keep a loose grip and hit them as fast as I dared – this seemed to be a technique that worked for both me and my poor bike!

Tell us a little about your bike.

I took my cyclocross/adventure bike. It’s built up around the Brother Kepler frame with carbon Ritchey Cyclocross forks, canti brakes and 33c tyres (we both rode Challenge Almanzo which were amazing). I had a rear rack with a dry bag for all my kit.

How useful was it having your brother Tom, a bike mechanic, along?

He really was a legend. If it wasn’t for his Mr. T ‘bolting something together from nothing’ attitude I’d probably still be inching my way down the Koppenberg climb on foot.

Did you have any disasters?

I had ten punctures over the trip, not a disaster but, considering my brother had none, it was pretty frustrating! I guess I must have been riding harder than he was (sorry bro). 

There was a moment on the side of a French motorway that I’d rather forget. Let’s just say that you should always double check the GPS… if it feels wrong, it probably is!

What did you see along the way?

Lots and lots and lots of ghost towns! Our trip was during a national holiday, which meant that so many shops, petrol stations and villages were almost entirely abandoned.

We had a couple of thirsty moments when we were saved by friendly farmers and their hosepipes.

What were the highlights of the trip for you?

The Geraardsbergen climb was incredible. So picturesque, so brutal, but so rewarding. I’d go back there just to ride that again.

You were documenting the trip with daily illustrations. Did you manage to keep that up?

I did, just about! In order to meet our timings we had long, gruelling days in the saddle. I’d try and sketch ideas down when we stopped for a coffee or had mechanical issues, but most were drawn once we had got to our destination and I had a beer in hand.

You’re planning to collect these images in An Illustrator’s Guide to the Ronde. What’s the format for this collection?

Whilst I was away, I filled a sketchbook up with drawings and notes about the journey, weird scenarios that we found ourselves in, some hectic moments, some hilarious and some other-worldly!

I posted a few pieces during the trip but the others will be worked up a little and collated together to form a bit more of a narrative about the ride.

What’s your next adventure going to be?

We’ve been talking about a bikepacking trip to Skye, and also trying to figure out how we can make a trip out to the USA happen.

Are you thinking of entering the race next year?

Ha! No, not until they spread it out over three days, and provide plenty of beer.

Images: A visual diary from Matt showing both a selection of his drawings and photographs from the trip. Enjoy!