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Is the Koppenberg the greatest climb in Flanders?

31 Mar 2022

What it lacks in length, the iconic Koppenberg more than makes up for in punch

Words Henry Catchpole Photography Alex Duffill

Rather like a single chapter in a book, it might seem slightly wrong to consider the Koppenberg in isolation.

It’s probably the most famous Flemish cobbled climb (although you could spend many nights and get through a lot of La Chouffe beer debating that) but in some ways it owes much of that to its Belgian brethren.

Other chapters such as the Paterberg, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Oude Kwaremont and Kapelmuur are all needed to make up the full, fantastic story of the Ronde van Vlaanderen – the Tour of Flanders.

And yet it’s also fun to inspect and dissect the nuances of a single inclined stretch of cobbles, and this particular hill near Oudenaarde is somehow representative of all that’s tough, yet tantalisingly attractive, about the climbs that captivate the cycling world each spring.

Curiously, despite its status, the Koppenberg has only been a part of the Tour of Flanders since the mid-1970s.

It was apparently used as a training ground by locals for many years (presumably on the basis of ‘train hard, race easy’) but it didn’t make its first appearance in the race until 1976 after a local resident, Hubert Hoffman, alerted the organisers to its existence.

One suspects that Hubert’s name wasn’t on many of the peloton’s Christmas card lists in subsequent years.

Rough and tumble

Even if you know what’s coming, even if you’ve ridden it before, you can’t help but feel intimidated by the Koppenberg, or steengat (stone road) as it’s also known.

The cobbles begin just before the climb, the bike instantly coming alive beneath you as though it’s having a fit.

You try to maintain control, try to remember to relax, try to keep a strong core even though there’s an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach.

You know the best way to tackle it is to hit it at speed so you barrel between the curiously uniform, often redbrick architecture that makes up the village of Melden at the bottom of the hill.

And then you see it – the river of pale grey cobbles rising up in front of you through the fields. Narrow, steep and disappearing into a dark tunnel of trees, it looks like a trap. It’s as though you are pedalling inexorably up the ghastly rough tongue of a monster simply so that its shadowy mouth can swallow you up.

Initially the gradient isn’t too bad but you can still feel the speed built up on the flat bleeding away.

And as your pace peters out so you stop skimming across the surface of the stones and the cobbles become more and more exaggerated until your laboriously grinding tempo is such that each stone is a miniature mountain that your wheels must climb and descend in addition to the overall gradient.

Just before the banks rise up and the trees begin you might notice two new-looking fence posts on the right (you’ll probably have other things to worry about, but trust me, they’re there). This is where the cyclocross course escapes into the fields, but you don’t have that option.

As you hit the hardest section and the incline spikes to over 20%, you’re now committed to your choices. All your balance and strength is needed to stay upright and keep moving forwards, so if your hands are on the hoods that’s where they are staying.

Changing gear isn’t an option either. Certainly the idea of trying to reach for a shifter on the down tube as you would have had to in the past seems preposterous.

Stop altogether and you will have to walk, which might seem preferable until you attempt the clawing, clattering combination of cleats and cobbles. If you do have to stop pedalling you won’t be the first.

The Koppenberg is rarely a decisive factor in producing the winner of the Tour of Flanders – it’s too far from the finish and almost too difficult to allow anyone to make a difference – but it can nonetheless end the hopes of a large proportion of the peloton.

For riders not in the front group going into the climb it is a lottery as to whether someone in front of them will wobble to a stop or touch a wheel and force everyone in the bottleneck behind to grind to a halt.

Then the race splits and those ahead continue up the road, never to be seen again (until after the finish, anyway). Ironically, the most famous fall on this Flandrian hill was by a lone cyclist.

Danish pro Jesper Skibby was on a solo break in 1987 when he stuttered, swerved and then toppled over on the steepest part of the climb. But it was what happened next that made the fall famous.

The commissaire who was following behind, apparently more concerned about the proximity of the peloton than the welfare of the stricken Skibby, barged through in his BMW E28 5-Series, crushing the back wheel of Skibby’s bike in the process and only narrowly missing his feet.

Boos bellowed out from the crowd on the bank – and no wonder, as it’s still shocking to see on film today. The result was that the climb was deemed too dangerous and the race didn’t come this way again for 15 years.

Crushed bikes, crushed spirits

Today the Koppenberg is a totemic part of the Tour of Flanders and although it’s supposedly safer and better surfaced, as you pedal up it’s not entirely clear how.

Pushing on past the halfway point you notice that, although the road is fairly straight, it’s impossible to see the top.

This is because the banks by the roadside are so steep, with their mass of hazel, birch and beech, that they hide the summit from view. But once between the banks, about where Skibby crashed, you see the light as though emerging from underground.

Battle on and the gradient eases as the trees thin. There’s also a bench on the left that, as the view from it isn’t worth the pause, seems to have been placed there purely to taunt you into stopping.

Thankfully the cobbles are more tightly packed near the top and this allows a momentary touch of fluidity back into your pedal strokes.

Yet still you can’t relax because one last ramp remains to wring the remnants of resolve from your legs and lungs.

Then it’s over and as you haul the bike between the houses at the top you can revel in the relief of a road that is flat and featureless. In just two or three intense minutes it feels like you’ve experienced all the physical and emotional extremes of an hour-long mountain ascent.

It’s like a three-course meal compacted into a single pill. But the Koppenberg’s half-kilometre of riding and 62m of ascent are anything but easy to swallow.