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Is the Muur van Geraardsbergen Flanders’ greatest climb?

In-depth
21 Feb 2022
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Opening Weekend is upon us. As is the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the darling climb of Flemish cycling, which takes centre stage this Saturday

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

You can’t keep a good climb down. There was uproar when the Muur van Geraardsbergen (or Kapelmuur, or just the Muur – it took me a long time when I started watching bike racing to realise that they were the same thing) was removed from the Tour of Flanders in 2012.

That year the finish of the race was moved from Meerbeke, where it had been since 1973, to Oudenaarde, which meant that the classic pair of closing climbs, the Muur and Bosberg, were struck from the route.

I remember the photos of Belgian cycling fans carrying fake coffins up the Muur to protest their beloved climb’s omission from the race. It was seen as a national tragedy.

In 2017, however, the race’s start was also moved, from Bruges to Antwerp, and this meant the MvG could once again be included in the race. Brilliant news. La Chouffe all round.

Except that it looked like the iconic incline had been neutered. The peloton would ascend it with fully 95km of the race still to run, making it too far from the finish to have any decisive impact on the outcome. It seemed that what was once a totem would now be just a token.

But when the 101st edition of the race rolled around on 2nd April 2017, another legend of Flanders, Tom Boonen, had other ideas…

Climbing the Muur – which, encouragingly, means ‘wall’ – on a non-race day is a rather different experience. For a start, while the likes of Boonen attracts hordes of cheering crowds behind barriers, it’s unlikely that you will merit more than a glance from someone on their way to work or returning with the weekly shop, however lurid your jersey.

And while you might feel like you’re attacking the bottom of the climb pretty aggressively as you go for a Strava time, you won’t be able to hammer into it quite like the professionals do.

They come tearing down between the shops on a straight descent along Oudenaardestraat and Grotestraat before crossing the river Dander and smashing into the first cobbles on Brugstraat.

 

Into the light

After a rather dark start to the climb you quickly emerge into the wide open space of the market square with the impressive city hall on the far side. Should you be interested, there is the brother to the Brussels statue of the Manneken Pis (little pissing man) just to the left of the stairs.

There’s no relief from the Muur just yet, however, as it’s left in front of Saint Bartholomew’s church and right in front of Remco Evenepoel’s church (it’s actually Bar Gidon with a banner from the young Belgian’s fan club above the entrance, but I suspect he’ll command a religious following among the locals in years to come).

The cobbles are barely worthy of the designation at this point, being nice and flat and wide with the gaps between generously filled. However, the gradient has its first little dig into double digits as you ascend towards some fountains.

Then it’s left onto the wide boulevard of Vesten with the neat townhouses on the right giving an excellent indication of the gradient. At the top you might be tempted to stop at the Cafe de Muur but you need to turn sharp right onto Oudenbergstraat.

From here it’s a bit like following a river of cobbles back to its source as the wide street flows up past gardens and garages before narrowing into more of a trickling stream of stones when the climb enters the trees.

Attack! Attack!

It was here, right at the crux of the climb in 2017, that Tom Boonen accelerated. He looked across at his QuickStep teammate, Philippe Gilbert, resplendent in the kit of the Belgian national champion, checked that he was ready and then laid down the watts. It doesn’t look like much when you see it on television, but this narrow section, barely 100m in length, is fearsome.

Suddenly the gradient rears up to its maximum ferocity of 20% and the cobbles deteriorate to their juddering worst. If you haven’t selected the correct gear before the left-hand bend at the bottom you’ll be in real trouble.

In just a few pedal strokes the three-time winner of the Ronde, riding it for the last time, had exploded the race. Where there had been a cohesive bunch, now there was panic as elastics snapped with the frequency of a catapult competition in a knicker factory.

A group including Gilbert broke away from the main bunch, leaving the likes of Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet floundering behind. Gilbert would eventually strike out for glory on his own with 55km to go and win solo.

Many will remember that 2017 race for Sagan crashing while chasing up the Oude Kwaremont (ironically at almost exactly the distance from the finish that the Muur used to reside), taking down Van Avermaet and Naesan in the process, but that wasn’t the decisive moment.

That had happened at a point much earlier in the race where no one thought it would or should, on the Muur. You can’t keep a good climb down.

Praying for relief

The denouement of the Kapelmuur is the famous curving climb to the kapel (chapel) itself. Perched atop a hill known as the Oudenberg, the Chapel Of Our Lady with its red brick, grey slate and golden statue looks wonderfully neat, like a decoration set neatly on a cake.

The current neo-baroque building only dates back to 1906, but a hermit built a chapel here as long ago as 1294, although that was nearly 300 years after Geraardsbergen was established.

As you lean into the slope and head towards the wooden doors of the chapel it will all seem very tranquil and quite the opposite of the roaring maelstrom that’s televised on a race day, but that has its advantages.

Tired though you may be by your 92m of ascent, or perhaps keen as you may be to head on to the Bosberg, it’s worth taking the time to have a peek inside the small chapel and then walk behind it to look at the view from the top of the hill.

The Kapelmuur might not have a spectacular vista like you will find at the summit of climbs in the Alps or Pyrenees, but it’s still interesting.

In fact the Muur van Geraardsbergen arguably packs a greater variety, richer history and more intrigue into its single kilometre than many of the climbs found in the high mountains.