My Ride: An easy day on familiar roads for a rider heading for retirement
Distance:: 50 miles (80km)
Challenge:: Kemmelberg

Nico Mattan doesn’t venture far from his home in the West Flanders village of St Eloois-Winkel when it comes to training: “I always trained on these roads, the roads down in the direction of the Kemmelberg. I train in West Flanders because I’m from West Flanders. Belgians are like that.”

Flemish people stay faithful to their roots. They rarely move far from where they were born, no matter how successful they become. It’s like they need the familiar, and Nico Mattan, a good Classics rider, winner of Ghent-Wevelgem and a top prologue time trial specialist, is no different.

“We are all the same, but we are the same because of our little differences. I am very interested in the differences and I can tell from anybody’s accent where they come from. We speak one way here where I live, then just 30 kilometres away in Ieper their accent is different to ours.

“Some of the accents are so different that they are like separate dialects, like the Gentenaar that they speak around Ghent or the dialects of Antwerp and Limburg. I think that happens because we like to stay in our own region,” Mattan explains.

Time to go
Today’s ride will be an easy one. Mattan joined the British DFL Continental pro team for his final year as a bike racer and has been a mentor as much as a leader. He’s enjoyed it and he’ll continue with it in 2008, working as assistant directeur sportif with the team.

Mattan’s training buddy for the day, Britain’s Daniel Lloyd, also needs an easy ride having just finished a heavy stage race. He says all the team have benefited this year from Mattan’s input. “Nico takes us out to look at the routes for Belgian races before we ride them. He explains what will happen on the cobbled climbs if the wind is from this direction or that direction, but the best thing has been riding the races with him,” Lloyd says.

“Belgian races can be very nerve-wracking, fighting for position all the time, but Nico will say: ‘Right, you can relax for a bit now,’ at certain points in a race. Or he will tell us to move nearer the front in five kilometres. It saves you a lot of energy. I had raced in Belgium before and I knew the roads, but riding with Nico has given me another layer of experience,” Lloyd adds.

The ride that Mattan and Lloyd have chosen for us is a loop out to the Kemmelberg, the most famous climb in West Flanders, then they will trace the finale of Ghent-Wevelgem before heading for home.

Before the climb, Mattan and Lloyd pass through Moorslede and Ieper, better known to English speakers by its French name, Ypres. The battle for this town was a key one in World War One, and reminders of the conflict hang over the whole area.

Opening time
The pace picks up after the Kemmelberg. Mattan is anxious to show us his friend’s cafe and since it’s Monday and it’s his day off he’s worried that his friend might have gone out. Luckily we arrive at ‘Eet Huis In de Zon’ just in time, and Dick Ghyselinck is there to tempt us with a beer.

Ghyselinck was a good amateur rider in the late Seventies who turned pro in 1980. “But we found out that the team had no money, so that was that, I came home,” he tells me. As well as his cafe, Ghyselinck deals in antiques and he’s converted a small outbuilding in his backyard into a replica of what he says were: “The kind of cafes that they had around here before the War. They were small but there were hundreds of them, and they didn’t just sell beer. They had a shop and the owner could cut hair and give you a shave. I think that was very civilised, you could buy some potatoes, have your hair cut and drink a beer at the same time.”

Mattan and Ghyselinck are very good friends. Like most Belgians they are good talkers and soon start swapping stories for my benefit. Mattan tells me about the time he raced in the Milk Race in Britain: “It was the time trial stage and I was the Belgian champion then. The announcer gave me a big build-up for the crowd, saying: ‘The next rider is the Belgian time trial champion, Nico Mattan.’

“So there I was in the start house with everybody looking at me, expecting something good I think, and the starter began his count down; five, four, three. But on two the guy who was holding me let me go and I fell sideways and forwards and slid all down the start ramp on my side. I was lying on the floor still fastened to my bike and everybody was looking over the barriers at me. I think they were wondering if I was for real. I couldn’t get up because I was laughing so much.”

Eventually we tore ourselves away from Ghyselinck’s infectious hospitality and set off on the road, heading for Wevelgem. This part of Flanders is called the Heuvelland, which means hill country. Not only is the Kemmelberg here but also the Rodeberg and Zwarteberg, which are both on the Ghent-Wevelgem route.

Border running
It’s border country too. The route runs parallel with France, and just to emphasise the language differences in this complicated little country, we pass through a tiny enclave of French-speaking Belgium around Ploegsteert. The troubled cycling star Frank Vandenbroucke comes from here. His parents have a cafe in the square.

Just before the French town of Armentières, the route turns north-east through the towns of Wervik, with its famous windmill, and Menen. Eventually we arrive in Wevelgem, where Mattan does a two-handed victory celebration for us on the finish line of the great race.
When he starts his new job Mattan will continue riding his bike.

“I like it out in the lanes. It will be good for me,” he says. And he’s right, West Flanders is a good place for cycling. It feels more open than East Flanders, and it’s easier to avoid the hills if you want to. For enthusiasts, though, there are plenty of steep ones along the French border, and if you really want some more punishment you aren’t far from the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.

YOUR GUIDE: NICO MATTAN
* Age 36, born in Izegem, lives in St Eloois-Winkel, West Flanders
* Married to Sabrina, has two daughters, Steffi and Romy
* His major victories are: 2000; GP Gullegem. 2001; Paris-Nice prologue, Three Days of De Panne overall, Three Days of De Panne time trial, GP Plouay, Tour of Piedmont. 2003; Paris-Nice prologue; 2005; Ghent-Wevelgem
* Born on 17/07/71, and believes his lucky number is 17. It was his race number when he won the Paris-Nice prologue in 2003 and has featured regularly in his career


WHICH WAY?
From Wevelgem the route goes north to Rollegem-Kapelle, then loops through Moorslede and the First World War-torn village of Passchendaele, before heading south-west to Ypres and due south of Kemmel. The route to the Kemmelberg is clearly marked in the village. Take care on the descent and only go as far as Loker. Then the route skirts the top of France through Ploegsteert and loops north then south again to avoid using the busy N58. Just after Warneton the route joins the N515 to Wervik and from there drops south to Menen and then follows the N8 to Wevelgem. The finish of the Classic is on the N8; keep going until you see the painted finish line.


WEST FLANDERS RIDES NOTES
Wevelgem or Ypres are the best bases for this ride. From the Channel Tunnel/ Calais ferry port take the A16 north to Dunkirk, then take the A25 in the direction of Lille.

Leave the A25 at junction 13, Steenvoorde, then follow signs for Poperinge on the D948. After seven kilometres you cross the Belgian border and the road becomes the N38. Follow this road around the south of Poperinge and continue to Ypres. Continue through Ypres on the N8 for Wevelgem.

From the Eurostar terminal at Brussels Midi station follow directions to the A7 Brussels ring and take the exit for the A10/E40, direction Ghent. At the A10/E40 and A14/E17 crossing head south on the A14/E17 for Kortrijk. At the A14/E17 and A17 crossing just south of Kortrik go north in the A17 until the first junction, number five, for Wevelgem. Continue on the N8 for Ypres.

From Brussels Zaventem airport, follow directions to the Brussels ring and Ghent, then follow the Eurostar directions above.