One ride in Flanders that changed everything

A return to normality after more than four months of illness.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 29.04.2024 Photography by
Andy van Bergen, John Natiw
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A stiff breeze blows across waterlogged Flandrian fields, threatening to push us from our bikes. The skies overhead are dark with the promise of more rain. The stench of roadside manure wafts through the group.

Cutting through the wind noise is a symphony of upcoming-turn alerts from nearby GPS units. All the while, a chorus of unhelpful thoughts are bouncing around inside my head. Was joining this ride a mistake? Will the day’s legendary climbs be beyond me? Am I digging myself into a hole that’ll take me weeks – or maybe months – to climb out of?

I try to remember what a psychologist told me a few weeks earlier. That worrying about what might happen is a good way to doom myself to failure. That those future problems are just that; problems for the future. That I should be focused on the here and now; the world around me.

Lost in thought, I drop the wheel in front. The gap opens to 30 metres before I even realise it. I don’t ride with other people much these days. I certainly don’t ride in groups of 20 or more like I’m doing now at the Escape Collective Member Summit in Belgium. In fact, it’s been nearly five months since I last did a ride this long and this challenging.

Looking back now, it was probably on that last ride, sometime in November, that everything fell apart. Just 57 km, but ridden hard at a time when my body was busy fighting a virus of some kind. The added strain from the ride was enough to put me in a hole I’ve languished in ever since.

Half a dozen doctor’s appointments and a raft of tests later, I’m still no wiser to the nature of the condition. Some specialists have suggested post-viral fatigue, some have called it burnout, others have mentioned chronic fatigue. No one’s been confident enough to offer a definitive diagnosis.

All I know is it’s been more than four months of low energy, body aches, and an overarching feeling that something just isn’t right. I’ll have a day or two of feeling close to normal and then, without any discernible trigger, I’ll be back in that hole; back to needing a lie down after walking around the block.

In the days before this ride though, I seemed to turn a bit of a corner. I try not to get comfortable with that idea though – hope has burned me too many times in the past.

Trying to keep a lid on it all (and not get blown off my bike).


We hit our first cobbled climb of the day – the Molenberg. I’m feeling strangely good on the bike and as the road kicks up, asphalt giving way to rough cobblestones, I find myself surging as others ahead of me do the same. The doubts and the anxiety return – what am I doing? Why am I pushing myself so hard, so early? And for what? I try to remind myself to just stay in the moment – worry about anything else later.

Before too long we’re over the top and heading towards our next climb. A wave of fatigue washes over me. My heart sinks as my arms and hands start aching and a feverish chill starts to bloom outwards from my chest. It’s a battle to stop it from overwhelming me. I try to focus my attention on the here and now. My pedal strokes, my breathing, the grey sky, the wind, even the smell of manure.

The Molenberg.

By the time we reach the Oude Kwaremont, I’m feeling alright again. Which is just as well because I’m not prepared for the length and difficulty of this iconic cobbled berg. My eyeballs are bouncing around in their sockets as I try to find a good line on the stones. There are no good lines, of course – only less-bad ones where the rattling is merely uncomfortable rather than unbearable. As I pass partially deconstructed marquees from the previous week’s Tour of Flanders I’m at my limit and feeling every bit of the fitness I don’t have.

Several times I’m convinced that the top of the climb is just ahead. Several times I’m sorely disappointed when the road ramps up again. I can’t imagine racing up here – just getting up it is hard enough.

The Oude Kwaremont, long after thinking it was nearly over. That’s Escape’s own Dane Cash just up the road.

From the top of the Oude Kwaremont, we make the short transfer to the Paterberg, following the same sequence as the pros in the Tour of Flanders. The climb is mercifully short, but the brutal gradient more than makes up for it.

Again it’s hard to find a comfortable line; doubly so when the narrow farm road rears up at 20%. I can feel both quads starting to cramp up as I slog away. Again, it’s hard to imagine anything other than just getting up this wall. Racing it? No thank you.

Image: Andy van Bergen

Over the top, just one challenge remains, but it’s the hardest of the lot: the infamous Koppenberg. Less than a week earlier, much of the men’s and women’s pelotons had to walk up this infernal berg. Sure, it was wet then, and it’s dry today, but even still, just getting up this thing without walking will be a major achievement.

I’m nervous enough as we sweep around the Flandrian countryside on approach to the base of the climb, not far out of Oudenaarde. And that’s when the hunger flat starts. Whatever strength remains in my legs feels like it’s draining away and the prospect of slogging up another rough 20% monster has gone from nerve-wracking to terrifying.

The start of the Koppenberg. You can see the steep bit up the top there.

It starts off easy enough, but doesn’t stay that way for long. Rough cobbles, an infernal gradient, quad cramps that return and threaten to force me from the bike, that pesky hunger flat – it’s a lot. I’m out of the saddle, trying to find a balance somewhere between a slipping rear wheel and a lifting front wheel. I can see why this climb inspires so much fear.

But before too long it’s over and I can breathe an almighty sigh of relief. Not just for making it up the Koppenberg without stopping, but for getting through my longest and hardest ride in nearly five months. I’m so proud that I gave myself the chance to do so, in spite of all my reservations.

Before the Koppenberg (Image: Andy van Bergen).
On the steep bit (Image: John Natiw).


In the days that follow, I’m waiting for the crash. That’s just the way things have gone the last few months. I’ll start to feel alright, tell myself I’m well enough to get out for a gentle ride, feel OK at the time, but then a day or so later I’ll fall in a heap. As much as I try not to, I’m expecting it to happen again.

This time, though, the crash never comes. I’m tired and sore, my body rebelling against three hours on the bike, but in a departure from the norm, I’m not totally sapped of energy. I start to cautiously believe that maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally reached the end of this bout of fatigue.


A fortnight later, back home in Melbourne, I clip in and set off for the hills north of home. I haven’t visited the punchy climbs of Park Orchards for more than six months now, and it’s a thrill to be back. I surge up one short rise and down the other side. I come to the steep ramp of McIntyres Rd and leap out of the saddle, singing breathlessly along to Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘Two Headed Boy’ as I attack the climb.

My body is responding to this hard effort in a way it hasn’t in months. It’s not easy, but the difficulty comes from a lack of fitness, rather than from my body yelling at me to stop; that something isn’t right.

I’m gasping for air as the road flattens off but when I finally catch my breath, I can’t help but laugh. It’s a pleasure to be hurting myself like this again. After a torturous few months, it finally feels like the fog has lifted. I’m finally feeling like myself again.

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