Bikepacking adventures are essentially about preparing for and meeting challenges. Raining at home? No problem, you'll miss the club ride this week.
Raining whilst bikepacking? You've got the right kit so you hit the rain face on. And the headwind too.
What, even the 40kph headwind? Err... Hang on a second.
So we found ourselves at Dover clutching our bikes and cowering in the face of the broiling brown sea, our smug assurance that we were properly prepared for the next four days ebbing away as we realised we had forgotten to prepare for stage one of the journey, the vomit-inducing crossing to Dunkirk.
On board the ferry we considered our life choices as we lurched and rolled towards the start, which would offer up a 40kph crosswind rainstorm to buffet us the 100km east across the windswept plains of North West France and Flanders.
Worried, we consulted other cyclists and together pored over the weather app and the route app, realising that to keep the dream (and possibly ourselves) alive we would need to reroute. So we took a headwind for a third of the journey in return for sailing the crest of a cross tail for the last 60km to Kortrijk - the destination for our Tour of Flanders adventure.
The Tour of Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen (RVV) to give it its Flemish names is, along with Paris Roubaix, one of two iconic cobbled Monuments in the Spring pro racing calendar. The whole of Flanders hosts the party of the year to celebrate it, and the dreams of iconic racers since 1913 have been born and smashed on the steep cobbled climbs unique to the region.
We planned first to cycle to the RVV route, then to cycle round the route, then to watch the pros do battle on the route and finally to cycle home in a four-day homage to the brilliant race.
In the hasty aborting and redrafting of plans we dismissed our original goal to pop our cobbles cherry via a detour to the Kemmelberg and accepted that our very first cobble experience would be the 22% ascent of the Koppenberg of RVV lore, the first climb on the 74km Sportive we were booked on the day after.
74km doesn't sound far and we had entered the shortest sportive option. But we would be cycling to the start and back (30km each way) so the miles would rack up. Belgium's cycling-obsessed public and a healthy cohort who had crossed national borders to experience the madness lined up to take on the 229km, the 174km, the 139km or the baby 74km route.
We joined the melee at about 10am and linked up with mud-covered, battle-weary riders who had already been out there in the filthy conditions for hours. We were nervous. Cobbles made us nervous. Wet slippery cobbles on 22% gradients made us extra nervous and 16,000 people all trying to climb the narrow, cobbled farm tracks together made us super nervous.
The Koppenberg loomed out of the gloom. When we dared raise our head into the driving rain we could spy it a mile before we met it. "I'll walk this one," I said. "I'll start by riding; do a bit, and once it gets tough I'll walk."
And walk I did, stopping about halfway up as the elevation ramped up from steep to stupid and as all around me the sound of riders gulping for air was replaced by the sound of cleated shoes slipping on cobbles.
But the novelty of walking in a sportive wears off pretty quickly and once we had refuelled and reflected on our first cobbles experience we decided there would be no more walking for us. We climbed everything else thrown at us - nine climbs in total including the Oude Kwaremont and last of all the Paterberg, where we ground our way to the summit, redemption for taking the easy route up the Koppenberg secured. And still the wind howled and still the rain poured.
That night, though just 3km away from the nearest restaurant, we forfeited dinner to retire early. Returning out into the filthy night on our bikes was too much, even for these two avid cyclists.
The next day the pros showed us how it should be done. We returned to the start line for the women's race in time to see the whoosh of the men's peloton as they charged through town, the speed breath-taking.
The coaches of the women's team were parked half a kilometre from the start line and were accessible in a way the men's World Tour teams are not. So we cycled in amongst the greats, in touching distance of Annemiek van Vleuten, Lotte Kopecky, Lorena Wiebes, Marianne Vos, Demi Vollering and other names and characters who are finally rolling unselfconsciously off the tongues of pro-cycling aficionados.
Team Jumbo Visma left their bus and rolled to the start. We jumped on their wheel and enjoyed imagining we were part of the gang, laughing at the idea of this world class team having two new domestiques.
Through the town of Oudenaarde we cycled as the crowds on each side grew broader and noisier - cheering on their idols and laughing at the spectacle of us daring to ride on their wheel. We turned the final corner and found ourselves on the start line with around 50 other World Tour elite women - it was time to relinquish the road and melt back into the crowd. Moments later the start gun fired.
Whilst the women's battle commenced and the men's battle continued to rage, we headed over to the party on the banks of the Oude Kwaremont climb in time to see the men's second, then third ascent where Pogacar made his decisive break for the win. It was arguably the defining moment of the Spring Classics 2023 season. But of course as a spectator you see a moment in time and cannot contextualise what you see against the backdrop of the whole race. We knew we were seeing men in lycra suffering. What we did not know then was that we were privileged to see history being made.
The next day, the sun took control of the skies. The wind still raged but something very special happened. The wind turned 180 degrees and the cross tail that blew us across France and Belgium on our outward journey obliged to blow us back all the way home.
Yes, we had to make last-minute adjustments to the route again - 65km cross tail in exchange of 35km cross head - but that was an easy bargain to make with the weather lords. How glorious it was not to be hunched against the driving rain; how wonderful to hold our heads up to the warming spring sun; and how enchanting the views along the crisscrossing farm tracks which lead us back to Dunkirk.
We had taken a beating. Our bikes were filthy, gritty and bowed against everything we had asked them to endure. But we grinned as we boarded the ferry - we and the other Flandrien cyclists - and shared our adventures of cobbles, chaos and calamitous weather. We knew we would never fear cycling in the rain again.
Headwinds though? Well that's a different matter.