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Cobbles and lions: Flanders Big Ride

In-depth
23 Apr 2021
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Cyclist hits the cobbles of Flanders to remind ourselves just what it takes to be pro – and ends up riding with one in the process

Words: Philip Malcolm Photography: Robbrecht Desmet

Oudenaarde is the kind of place you can find anywhere in Flanders – a mix of olden-day charm and industrial bustle. A large square dominated by a gothic town hall faces off against blocky apartments and a swing bridge over the Schelde river. It is in many ways just another unremarkable rural town.

The average tourist wouldn’t dally here long, perhaps taking in a visit to the Adriaen Brouwer exhibition that honours the town’s most famous son (he was a painter, if he’s not famous enough for you to have heard of him) before returning to the N60 and heading up to Ghent or to the coast.

For cyclists, however, Oudenaarde is the gateway to a two-wheeled theme park. Just hop over the river and ride south and you’ll be in the heart of Tour of Flanders territory.

While a visit to the Alps or Pyrenees may see a well-trodden agenda of loops and cols, the Flemish Ardennes offers near limitless combinations of steep bergs, cobbled farm roads and underrated scenery.

The wow factor here isn’t in rock formations or valley views, it’s in flying round a slippery corner and suddenly recognising where you are from years of watching the Spring Classics on TV; of realising how tightly packed together all these set pieces are and that you’re riding a route that is, for one month every year, the heart and soul of world cycling.

For those less troubled by time, a later departure may be in order via one of the many cafes in Oudenaarde’s square serving rijstaartjes, the legendary Flemish cycling food like a rice pudding with a pastry handle. But we’re not up and dressed at 7am for nothing. We’re here to catch the sunrise, so we click into our pedals and go.

The big three

Cycling culture and the Ronde are so ingrained here that there are literally hundreds of signposted routes criss-crossing their way across Flanders. We could have plumped for the Rodemolen route through gently rolling farmland to the northeast; or we could have taken the Eddy Merckx route that jumps around the countryside showcasing some of The Cannibal’s most famous battlegrounds. However today it was decided that the Blue Ronde van Vlaanderen route (one of three colour-coded loops out of Oundeaarde) is the one.

The reason? Joining me and Julie today is Dries from Cycling in Flanders, the local organisation responsible for promoting such routes and a Belgian hardman to boot, so of course he’s opted for a route that kicks off with the unholy trinity of the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg.

We roll out of Oudenaarde via the cycle path along the Schelde. The river once made the town an important outpost in Charlemagne’s empire, but today it meanders lazily from France on into the sea at Antwerp.

Robbie McEwen, the Australian sprinter who made his home in nearby Brakel, used to have a 180km training loop along these riverside paths where the only climbs were the bridges. We’re afforded no such luxury. The wooded flank of the Koppenberg seems to taunt us, looming off to our left as we pedal towards the day’s first climb, the Oude Kwaremont.

The Kwaremont may not be the steepest or most roughly cobbled of the climbs here, but it is the longest. We grind up its sharpest section, where the cobbles seem to have been less laid and more thrown down, and it’s tempting to assume the worst is over as we pass a village square that would seem a natural end for the climb.

However this is merely the halfway point. I try for the big ring, attempting to use this flatter section to build some momentum for the last little steep kick. On another day, if my timing was right, I’d get some encouragement from the well-trained children of the school playground to my right. No such luck today.

It’s almost impossible as I pound my way across the cobbles not to think back to events of races past. That’s where Sagan snagged his bars on that jacket; that’s the flatter section where Geraint Thomas set up his E3 Harelbeke victory in 2015.

This is the beauty of cycling here, being able to see the scenes that shaped our sport in their actual context, and then being able to stop in a cafe to receive approving nods from the locals.

We reach the Kwaremont’s peak and as we let our vision clear a familiar figure hoves into view – familiar in the sense that Flanders is a small world, so if you ride here long enough you’ll probably see him. It is none other than Johan Museeuw.

A World Champion with three Rondes on his palmarès he might be, but he also happens to know Dries well, so after a quick exchange of words The Lion of Flanders is convinced to join us, and he soon takes over tour guide duties.

‘Back when I raced you had to be in the top 10 or 20 riders on the Kwaremont,’ Museeuw explains. ‘The elimination started here. Now it’s different – they take it three times and you can be in the first 50 the first time up and still win the Ronde.’ Depressingly, he also reveals he would take it in the big ring, bottom to top.

The It crowd

Skipping across the main road onto Ronde Van Vlaanderen Straat, we get another demonstration of exactly how normal a part of everyday life cycling is here. First comes the monument to Karel van Wijnendaele, the sports journalist who founded De Ronde, then the name of every winner of this race stencilled onto the concrete slabs that make up the road.

Next is the Oude Hoeve cafe, a legendary waypoint for riders that even today is alive with takeaway coffees and snacks in the hands of everyone from young aspirants out training all the way up to professionals honing their form ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

One of these is another Dries, Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Dries Devenyns. Museeuw is of course a natural ‘in’ to this kind of crowd, so we get chatting and Devenyns explains he is off to work having stopped to visit his grandmother, who owned the Oude Hoeve for decades.

It’s a truly special experience that I can’t think can be replicated anywhere else in the world: a few amateurs, a former champion and the current elite of the sport all nattering away on a quiet street.

The fast, twisting descent towards the Paterberg is next and I can’t help but feel like a pro as I pull wide and carry momentum through the 90° bend onto the cobbles. That illusion is quickly shattered once I’m tackling the 20% gradient and wide spaces between the cobbles, but a rider can dream.

Museeuw further pricks this bubble by revealing he would take this downhill at around 80kmh and then go full-gas to the top to eliminate those put in difficulty over the Kwaremont. ‘There was still 100km to the finish, though, so you weren’t going too deep. But those two and the Koppenberg so soon after were where the elimination would really start.’

I, however, am going too deep, and as I haul myself over the final ramp and slump onto the thoughtfully provided benches at the top I at least have the consolation of a breathtaking view over the Schelde valley towards the Kluisberg.

The morning light creeping across the rolling hills and farmland gives me the feeling that I’ve stepped into some bucolic past, with only the wind turbines in the distance to spoil the rural idyll.

There is, however, no time to delay. The Koppenberg awaits. Infamous from both document, such as Fabian Cancellara snapping his chain or Jesper Skibby keeling over sideways to see his bike crushed by a car, as well as anecdote – Walter Godefroot tipping off De Ronde’s organisers to its whereabouts only after he retired – this 600m slope more than lives up to its legend.

The tightly set, uneven cobbles would give pain at any gradient, but the Koppenberg tops out at 21%. It’s a pitch that ensures that when it rains (which it tends to do here a lot), water runs between the stones, weakening their bonds and causing them to drift out of place. Thus to ride the Koppenberg is actually to fight gravity twice, the ground very often moving and morphing beneath you as if you’re riding across living bars of soap.

Museeuw muses and Boonen’s muse

‘You couldn’t win the Ronde on the Koppenberg,’ Museeuw tells me at the top, ‘but you could definitely lose it. It’s so hard that you can only go up it at your own speed. You need to take care of your equipment at the same time as staying with your rivals.’

The lead-in to the first steep section is paved with some fairly standard-issue cobbles that were laid during a refurbishment about 10 years ago, however once we get into the tunnel of steep banks and trees we’re constantly fighting for traction.

Forward motion stalls and my first instinct is to get out of the saddle to get back on top of my gear, but alas that course of action merely ensures I slip my back wheel. I recover only just in time, but on a different day I might have found myself walking up, unable to remount.

The Lion’s insights on these roads highlight the difference between a ride and a race, but also shed light on the old, more linear route of the Ronde, which used to finish in Ninove, 90km from the Koppenberg.

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The new finale centres around Oudenaarde, the race looping and thus able to make multiple ascents of the Kwaremont and Paterberg. In the old race the idea was to race these bergs hard to stay in front and to cross the N60 national road safely and arrive at the foot of the Koppenberg descent with time enough to survey the damage and make a plan.

Clinging to the wheel of a cycling legend down said descent, over the cobbles of Steenbeekdries and down the Sationberg is thrilling but unnerving. Especially when that cycling legend insists on showing how easy it all is by whistling a merry tune and chatting.

Still, as Museeuw’s back wheel eases away from me on the next climb, the Taaienberg (Tom Boonen’s favourite early-season tester, known locally as the Boonenberg), I’m comforted by the fact that I can now at least go at my own pace. But what’s this I see ahead? Museeuw is stopping! Has the pressure I have been passively applying by sitting on his wheel and wheezing paid off? Oh, he’s stopped to say hello to a horse. Once again, my delusions of adequacy are shattered.

The Ronde used to either go straight on or turn left at the top of the Taaienberg, and either way it would end up at the Eikenberg. For this year’s race, however, there’s a new climb up to the Ridge above Ronse, the most southerly point of the race.

Once called Tenhoute Straat, this neglected farm road comprises a steep downhill followed by an even steeper uphill that has a great view for those able to turn around and look at the top. The reason for its inclusion only now is that, in testament to the increasing importance of cycling in relation to the local economy, the decision was made in 2018 to add cobbles and rechristen this old track as Berg ten Houte in a bid to attract the race.

And it worked, turning an ignored piece of road into a monster of a climb that peaks with a cruel left-hand bend at 21%. It soon became a local starlet, and this year the stage is set for its breakthrough performance as the Big Show beckons.

The home of cycling

As with all rides, a coffee stop is mandatory, but in this era of Covid our options are somewhat limited. However one cafe, Romanhof in the market square in Ronse, is offering takeaways, so we stop for long enough to sink a few espressos and then bid farewell to Museeuw. He explains he needs to get home to take his son, Stefano, on a motor-pacing session. We might do well to remember that name.

The way out of Ronse offers a choice of two hills. The Niuewe Kruisberg is a wide, paved road at a gentle gradient, which has boasted the finish of two World Championships, and the Oude Kruisberg is – as the name suggests – its much older cobbled sibling, achieving the same elevation gain in a worryingly shorter distance.

Both lead to the Hotondberg, whose summit at a towering 155m is the highest point in the Flemish Ardennes. Still, Belgium is so nominally flat that a 155m vantage point offers superb views across the rolling Walloonian hills. In much sharper focus though is the road on which a promising Sep Vanmarcke failed by mere inches to bridge back to the Ronde’s leaders in 2015, having valiant fought on after his third puncture.

A right turn takes us back onto the road we criss-crossed earlier atop the Kwaremont, and the fast downhill leads us to Berchem, the village at its foot. Then all of a sudden we find ourselves pedalling back along the river to Oudenaarde, which serves as a stark reminder of what a small area Flanders is.

Indeed we have barely scratched the surface today – the Muur, the Paddestraat, the Bosberg, the Molenberg… these and dozens more lay as if in siege, just beyond the limits of Oudenaarde, begging to be ridden.

And that’s the true beauty of this area of Belgium – you can piece together your own Ronde on any day of the week, and you’ll be doing it in a place where cycling has transcended mere sport and has become something akin to a religion.

Two wheels used to represent a way out of field or factory for a talented few, but a century on cycling has woven itself into the fabric of Flanders in a way you won’t find anywhere else on Earth. The beer’s not bad either.

 

Mapping powered by komoot

Oudenaarde is so well appointed you can just point your bike out the hotel door and ride, but if you need some inspiration the most complete resource can be found at cyclinginflanders.cc/routes.

We opted for the 78km Blue Loop, which starts and ends in Oudenaarde Centrum via the Schelde cycle path. Flanders is a complex web of roads, so to list them all here is not feasible, however the route takes in the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Taaienberg, Kanarieberg, Oude Kruisberg and Kluisberg.

The routes and bergs here are well signposted but the usefulness of a GPX file – available from the Cycling in Flanders website or from Cyclist’s library – cannot be underestimated.

The original hardman

Just why is Johan Museeuw so loved?

While it is all but impossible to eclipse Eddy Merckx in terms of achievement, Johan Museeuw might just pip him in the popularity stakes, at least here in Flanders, where it’s not just what you win that matters, it’s how you win.

Museeuw rode with the kind of reckless abandon that Belgian crowds love, earning himself the nickname The Lion of Flanders and with it the most successful track record in Tour of Flanders history: three wins, including two from solo finishes, plus a further five podiums.

Yet his dominance at the Classics nearly ended prematurely. A horrendous crash on the Arenberg in the 1998 Paris-Roubaix eventually manifested in gangrene, with doctors considering whether or not to amputate Museeuw’s leg. But this was the Lion, so defying all medical odds he fought back to be first across the Roubaix velodrome line in 2000 after an emphatic 44km lone break, his left leg raised triumphantly in the air.

The rider’s ride

Jaegher Hurricane Unlimited, €6,890 (approx £5,950), jaegher.com

Working exclusively in steel, Jaegher is a company steeped in generations of Flemish cycling tradition – Tom Boonen just bought one, for instance – and the Hurricane is its off-road option. Tubes have been picked to be stiff yet comfortable, while geometry is based around a long wheelbase and there’s room for up to 47mm tyres. The Hurricane makes a fine fist of skimming over the cobbles and rough roads of Flanders, while the handling is nippy yet happily tempered by that wheelbase to offer predictability on this region’s treacherous descents.

The bike features Campagnolo’s first gravel groupset, Ekar, with a 1x13 setup rangy enough for road sprints and grovelling up the Koppenberg. Campy’s light and stiff Shamal wheels top off a fine machine nicely.

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How we did it

Travel

A quick hop across the Channel either by ferry or tunnel leaves you with a 90-minute drive on the E40 to Oudenaarde. If you take the Eurostar or fly to Brussels you can take a connection from Brussels-Midi train station straight to the town, or hire a car and drive for about an hour.

Accommodation

Not being a year-round tourism hotspot, rates in Oudenaarde are usually pretty reasonable. If you want the full pro experience, the Leopold Hotel (leopoldhoteloudenaarde.com) is right by the start of our ride and available from €73 per night.

Alternatively, try the ‘t Juiste Verzet (currently closed), sitting at the foot of the Oude Kwaremont, for a warm welcome, rooms stuffed with cycling memorabilia and the best cafe around on race day.

Flandrien Challenge

Think you can handle more Belgium? Try the Flandrien Challenge: 59 iconic bergs spread across three Strava-mapped and measured routes. Complete them all in 72 hours and you’ll get your name engraved on a cobble and cemented into the wall of the Tour of Flanders museum in Oudenaarde. Visit flandrienchallenge.cc for further information.

Thanks

Big thanks to Dries Verclyte of Cycling in Flanders (cyclinginflanders.cc), not only for organising our ride but also for coming along as guide. Thanks also to Julie Borgers for dropping her plans in order to join us too, and een dikke bedankt to Johan Museeuw for sharing his memories as well as a few lessons in how to ride the bergs.