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Big Ride: Taking on the cobbles of Flanders

Henry Catchpole
27 Mar 2018

With the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, we revisit the time we rode the old course - Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg and Muur included.

You can find out all you need to know about the 2018 Tour of Flanders in our in-depth race preview, but to get you in the mood we reminisce over past adventures on the cobbled climbs of Flanders.

It seems only fair to warn you right here at the very start that you don’t go cycling in Flanders for the scenery. Or the weather.

Normally in the Big Ride feature of Cyclist you would be drinking in views of sinuously snaking tarmac draped dramatically over a warm and inviting landscape. A cosy continental challenge played out in short sleeves. 

But Flanders is much more fun than that. Mountain passes can be conquered with compact gearsets, but no amount of sprocket switching will make the cobbled climbs in this part of Belgium any easier.

You come here precisely because it’s hard and unique. And while your tan lines might not improve, you can be sure that a trip to Flanders will leave a more lasting impression on your cycling psyche.

We’re battling into a block headwind. Hands are on the drops and shoulders are being shrugged in as we attempt to cheat the hefty gale blowing straight into our faces.

The distance to the end of the pan flat, dead straight cycle path we’re on doesn’t seem to be shrinking either. Every time I look up, the four tall trees at the end still seem to be the same depressingly small size.

Between us and the poplars there isn’t the slightest scrap of shelter, just bare fields all around. I glance across at Alex and I can tell that this isn’t his idea of a gentle warm-up either.

William is tucked in behind, having taken a cunning turn on the front just before we joined this open sided wind-tunnel. 

I first met William and Alex (who run Pavé Cycling Classics - cyclingpave.cc) last year when I got beaten up by the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.

That exquisitely painful ride remains one of the very best experiences I’ve ever had on a bike, and I’ve spent the intervening year pestering print editor Pete Muir to let me go back across the Channel to try the cobbles of Flanders. So here I am. 

Back to the start

William lives in Lille, so before our ride we drive the half an hour or so out to Oudenaarde (known as Little Brugge) first thing in the morning.

It’s not a picturesque drive but there’s a thrill just knowing that you’re in such a cycling heartland.

Sky, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, BMC and several other teams have their service courses here, while seeing names like Harelbeke and Wevelgem feels like an appropriate build up for a day riding on the cobbles. 

We unload the bikes opposite the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum in the centre of the town and then hand the car over to Flo and photographer Juan, before heading off for a gentle pedal into a hurricane.

After an eternity cycling through treacle we do eventually reach the trees and with leg muscles nicely humming we turn left towards the first climb of the day. 

The Oude Kwaremont used to be more of a first filter for the race, but in the Ronde’s current format this 2.2km stretch is crucial in deciding the finishing order because it’s the penultimate climb.

I can feel my heart beating hard in anticipation as we pedal towards the cobbles. The road actually starts going slightly uphill while we’re still on tarmac, but I can see the cobbles ahead.

I know there’s no point trying to soften the blow, better to attack with purpose and so I hold myself in readiness: Hands on the horizontal section of the handlebars, relaxed grip, but legs pushing hard on as big a gear as you think you can sustain. Here we go…

The violence of those first few metres is still such a juddering shock that it’s difficult to remember to keep pedalling.

The vibrations hit your arms like rapid-fire recoils from ammunition. It’s as though you’re gripping two automatic pistols instead of handlebars and then holding the triggers down.

With fresh legs though, I’m loving it. Speed is absolutely your friend because if you can go fast enough you get this wonderful sensation of skimming over the top of the stones.

It must be because the wheels don’t have time to sink down between each hit, so you’re almost floating across the surface with air underneath your tyres as often as the ground.

The steepest bit of the Kwaremont is only about 600m long at an average of around 7%, but it comes at the beginning and if you drain too much energy before you reach the small halfway crossroads then you’ll suffer terribly on the kilometre or so of false flat that follows.

There’s a sharp right at the top which then leads you onto the main road where you turn left and breathe a sigh of relief as your vision stabilises and the bike stops trying to hop about underneath you.

It’s a very wide stretch of road that plunges downhill and then rises up again straight away and I instantly recognise it as the point where Cancellara motored up to the break and caught them napping in 2011.

We’ve only just regrouped when we turn off the main road again and descend down a winding, singletrack side road.

As we hurtle downhill, William shouts that it’s the Paterberg next. I’m surprised by just how closely stacked these first two hills (last two in the race) are.

There’s barely enough time to drain some of the lactic from your muscles before you’re back on the attack.

The start to the Paterberg is actually a 90° right hander that’s hidden from view by a high bank until you’re almost on top of it.

In the race it would be a real bottleneck and you’d want to make sure you were near the front of whatever bunch you were with.

Today all I need to do is make sure I’ve changed down enough gears, but as I round the corner and see the climb I realise I haven’t.

Cobble tsunami

The Oude Kwaremont’s relatively gentle gradient had lulled me into a false sense of security, and I thought that perhaps Flandrian climbs weren’t going to be quite as tough as I’d expected.

The Paterberg shatters that illusion in a heartbeat. From the bottom it seems to tower over you like some huge tsunami of cobbles and I have no option but to instantly drop to the small ring on the front as the initial 16% gradient kicks in.

It’s actually an artificial climb, created by a farmer who wanted a climb like the Koppenberg that was on his friend’s land. Nothing like keeping up with the Van Joneses.  

The whole climb is only about 400m in length, but with an average of 14% and a sustained section in the middle of over 20% it is a brutal experience for lungs and legs.

And without any speed on your side, there is absolutely no floating over the cobbles here. 

The only upside is that it’s not very long, so you can set your sights on the farm buildings at the top, grit your teeth and push yourself into the red, knowing that it’s not for long. 

I’d always been slightly bemused as to why those who excelled on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix also shone in Flanders. After all, one is flat and the other has steep climbs.

The cobbles are smaller in Flanders too and would only register about two or three stars on Roubaix I reckon, so in theory shouldn’t be as taxing for skinny climber types.

But even after two climbs it’s clear that, just like Roubaix, Flanders is all about the ability to put out big power.

You’ve got to bury yourself deep into a painful short-lived world of lactic acid, firing the big muscles in the top halves of your legs.

You feel them filling up with fatigue quickly, like a hose pointed into a bucket.

Turning left at the top there’s a bit of respite before the next climb, although as we twist and turn through the rural roads back towards Oudenaarde the wind does its best to leap out through gaps in walls and banks and unsettle front wheels.

I’m keen to conserve energy because I know what’s coming next and it’s potentially the most fearsome climb of the whole day.

It’s not often that you see pros walking up hills, but every year the Koppenberg has some of them tottering around on their cleats.

It is so steep, so rough and such a bottleneck that it only takes one person to wobble and put a foot down before everyone behind has to do the same.

Anxious to avoid this fate I press on ahead of the other two as we come round the almost hairpin right at the junction at the bottom of the hill, but I almost end up re-enacting another famous Koppenberg moment.

Too close for comfort

I push myself to the point of explosion trying to carry as much momentum as possible into the base of the hill.

The most treacherous section of the climb is right in the middle of its 600m length – 22% with root-strewn earth banks crowding in on either side.

It’s a very wet hill too and the cobbles deteriorate quickly, particularly under the trees.

At times it feels uncannily like mountain biking up a technical rocky climb as you teeter this way and that, trying to navigate your front wheel between the yawning gaps and the worst of the cobbles that are sticking up proud of the surface.

It’s just at the top of this section that the car that’s been just ahead of me most of the way up suddenly stops.

Even at my snail’s pace I’m closing the metre or two between us fast but if I stop now I’m done for.

There’s no room to squeeze down the side of the car so I use what feels like my last breath to yell words to the effect of, ‘KEEP GOING!’ I’m centimetres from the bumper as the engine roars and the clutch slips… get this wrong and it will roll back over the Bianchi (and me) in a reverse re-enactment of the famous Jesper Skibby moment.

Skibby was in a lone breakaway but had fallen going up the climb. The race commissaire in the car behind was worried about the peloton closing in fast, so simply ordered the car to be driven over the stricken rider’s bike (while he was still clipped in!).

That was in 1987 and it was 15 years before the climb was used again. Thankfully the car doesn’t stall and I just about stay upright.

Everyone emerges from the trees onto the slightly easier top section with only the mildest pong of burnt clutch in their nostrils. 

‘People always forget about the sections of pavé,’ says William as we hurtle along with the wind on our backs, ‘but they’re a big part of the race because it means you can never relax.’

It’s one of these flat Roubaix-like sections that we hit next. Called the Steenbeekdries, it saps strength alarmingly quickly with its slight incline up to a junction and then a fast straight descent towards an open right hand bend that William takes at startling pace.

Then it’s across a railway line, which in the context of the ride doesn’t feel quite as jarring as normal, and on towards the Taaienberg (‘tough mountain’). 

This part of the ride feels immensely confusing as we twist back and forth through villages.

A couple of times we arrive in a main square with a church that looks familiar and I feel sure we must be going round in circles.

William assures me we’re not chasing our tails, but he does say that Flanders was always known as the easiest race to cheat in because of the proximity of the roads to one another and the twisting nature of the course that almost doubles back on itself at times.

Boonen wouldn’t call it cheating (and strictly speaking it’s not) but he does like to use the smooth gutter at the side of the Taaienberg to launch an attack, particularly on smaller classics like Omloop.

William kindly demonstrates how much easier it is to tackle the maximum 18% gradient while in said gutter while I bounce around next to him on the cobbles.

Like a lot of the climbs there’s a shallow build-up then a very tough middle section followed by a near false flat finish that almost feels worse than the steep stuff.

The best way to climb is sitting down in the saddle, because the bike has more traction and remains more stable.

I try standing a couple of times and it’s just horrible as the bike slips and skips underneath my feet and hands.

When Juan asks us to go back and repeat bits of the climbs for the photos I appreciate even more seriously just how tricky they are.

Initially this is because I have to cycle back down, which is faintly terrifying because trying to stop going downhill on cobbles is almost as stressful as trying to keep going on the way up.

Then, once we’ve turned around it’s remarkably difficult to get going again from a standing start on a cobbled incline.

Interval sessions on the turbo might have helped my legs a bit over the winter, but I envy Alex’s bike handling skills, honed during the cyclocross season, as he trackstands and bunny hops his bike into position without ever unclipping. 

Alex has to leave us as at this point as he’s got to get back for his daughter’s birthday party, but William and I have got plenty of kilometres left to do.

It’s the Eikenberg next (curiously suburban), followed by another longish stretch of pavé (the Marterstraat) where the cars seem to come haring past (the Belgians might love cycling, but it doesn’t mean they drive with a huge amount of care around cyclists).

The start to the Molenberg is extremely pretty as it runs next to a working watermill.

However, it’s no doubt a nightmare if you’re racing because the route funnels across a narrow bridge before spitting you onto some fairly rough cobbles beneath trees as you climb steeply around a right hand bend. 

Friends like these

There’s another strength-sapping section of pavé next called the Paddestratt and William makes me work hard.

Although we’ve only met a couple of times we get on well and both innately understand that it is our duty to keep the pace up and try to make sure the other one is hurting sufficiently to enjoy the ride.

When I drop his wheel by a couple of metres he obligingly pushes the pace just that bit harder. Lovely chap.

Thankfully for me, Juan is showing his Spanish roots and has turned into a latter-day Don Quixote, obsessed by finding a suitable windmill to photograph.

When the perfect example appears across the fields, he calls a halt to proceedings and I manage to gulp down a chocolate orange flavoured gel before we ride back and forth through a stiff crosswind for the benefit of his Canon.

Time is pressing on, but William announces there are just two more cobbled climbs to go, so we should be fine for light if we get our heads down.

What he fails to mention is that there are two un-cobbled climbs standing in the way. The most famous is the Tenbosse, which is just a wide-ish street between some houses on the outskirts of Brakel and looks very prosaic without the crowds to frame it.

At 6.9% average and 14% maximum however, you certainly feel it in your legs. 

After Brakel we battle along a slightly more main carriageway with a delightfully grippy concrete surface that makes you feel like you’re using Velcro tyres on a woollen road.

It’s only about 10km to Geraardsbergen but perhaps the significance of the climb that we’re heading towards makes it feel longer.

Between 1988 and 2011 the Kapelmuur or Muur van Geraardsbergen was the penultimate climb and frequently the decisive point of the Tour of Flanders.

This is where Cancellara so memorably dropped Boonen in 2010. However, since the finish of the race switched from Meerbeke in Ninove to Oudenaarde it has been left out, much to the disgust of many fans.

No doubt it will be reinstated to the Ronde at some point, but for now E3 Prijs is using it, as is the Eneco tour. 

Eventually the concrete gives way to tarmac as we reach the top of the descent into the Geraardsbergen, but as we plummet down I can already see the muur or ‘wall’ rising up on the other side of all the buildings.

A lot of the climbs have seemed to materialise in front of us quite quickly so there’s been no time to mentally prepare.

But as we head through the bustling Saturday afternoon shoppers in the high street I can feel the nervous anticipation building as we descend ever further and the climb on the other side looms up ever higher. 

And then before I know it the cobbles have arrived and I’m not ready. My fingers grope through the bouncing for an easier gear and my hamstrings, which are about as taut as a banjo string, begin threatening cramp almost from the first effort.

The climb is longer than I thought, stretching out for the best part of a kilometre before it reaches its 20% denouement up near the golden-topped chapel.

You wind around the town’s church on a wide street that belies the 7% gradient, before turning away from the traffic into the trees to the right. 

The hard yards

Here in the darkness is where it gets really steep, ramping up to 20% on cobbles that seem to be forming an almost serrated surface.

The stretch where Cancellara attacked is surprisingly short but, like all the Flandrian climbs, because it’s short it somehow makes you push that bit harder, ignoring screaming muscles simply because the end is in sight.

There’s a false flat past a building with a cafe, then you burst back into the light as the cobbles kick up once more into their famous snaking flourish.

As I squeeze the last drops of energy out of my legs on the steep left hand sweep, my ears are loud with the noise of pumping blood, heaving lungs and a clattering chain.

I can barely imagine what it must be like with the cheers of a huge crowd on the inside bank adding to the aural maelstrom.

There’s just a large man walking his small dog there today and they both do nothing more than sniff absent-mindedly and look in the opposite direction as I haul myself over the top.

A sweeping downhill is our reward for all the climbing effort, and then we are heading for our final climb: the Bosberg.

It’s not far and actually you’re climbing it before you know it, because it starts out as a long drag on asphalt that just nibbles at your reserves and stops you rushing the 10% cobbled section through the trees.

William kindly mentions that Philippe Gilbert likes to attack in the big ring on this climb, so obviously I try.

By halfway, however, my hamstrings are boiling with lactic and more taut than my spokes (I’m blaming a too high saddle…), so I succumb to clicking the left hand lever.

It’s a suitably pleasing amount of pain to finish the last climb in as I grimace and wobble the last few metres before enjoying the flood of relief at the top. I don’t think I would care about a view even if there was one.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

How we got there

Travel

We took the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Lille which takes just 90 minutes. Once in Lille you can catch a train for about €14 via Kortrijk to Oudenaarde.

Alternatively it’s about a 1hr 45min drive from Calais to Oudenarde. We would heartily recommend a weekend with Pavé Cycling Classics (cyclingpave.cc) who will pick you up from the station/airport and then feed you, guide you, accommodate you and provide you with copious amounts of their own Malteni beer (see what they did there?).

Accommodation

If you’re making your own accommodation arrangements then try the Steenhuyse Guesthouse (steenhuyse.info) or Hotel De Zalm (hoteldezalm.be), both in the centre of Oudenaarde with rates starting at €100.

While you’re there 

If you’re doing this ride (or simply passing through Oudenaarde) you really should pay a visit to the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum in the centre of the city.

It’s located opposite the church, has some wonderful artefacts and you can book
a guided tour from Belgian legend Freddy Maertens. Best of all they even serve Malteni in the museum's bar. crvv.be.