The Flandriens are far from heroic; theirs is a daily effort. They work and they swear, but not all reach the peak. Some proceed on foot - on certain slopes this is almost mandatory - but no one gives up half way, it would make no sense. The walls of Flanders are short, straight scars that climb hillsides a few dozen meters high. At the top there is not even a view to admire, just a wind beaten plain. They were first built by the heirs of the original Flandriens, who kept fields, barns and stables on top of the hills. Modern farmers cursed those walls, building faster roads by paving the old trails or winding new ones around the hillsides, but for a few days a year the simple and obstinate engineering of these ancient sites become the centre of celebration. This happens during the Northern classics, from the Tour of Flanders to the semi-classics and minor races, an entire geography of routes that all wind through these few kilometres of streets.
"I cannot explain what Koppenberg has to do with a bike race. Instead of a competition it is a lottery where only the first five have a chance. What did we do wrong to be sent to pedal in this hell?
Merely looking at the map of the Tour of Flanders will give you a headache, with its constant direction changes. Almost concentric rings envelop the town of Oudenaarde, to cover as many of the walls as possible. There is no hill in the Flemish countryside that does not proudly display a “berg” on each side. The triptych at door of Oudenaarde is decisive in the Tour of Flanders, the most popular among amateurs. On the eve of the Ronde more than 15,000 gather for the amateur test, from semi-professionals on blazing beasts to the most unkempt enthusiasts on the saddles of some old wreck.
Koppenberg is right at the exit of the town, and seeing it from below will make your head spin. The slope resembling a ski jump, only it is paved as its name suggests. It derives from the abbreviation of “kinderkoppen”, literally the “wall of heads”, children’s heads being an affectionate nickname for the cobblestones. A 62-metre altitude difference over 600 metres, with a 22% gradient at some points; a long stretch of rocks between rows of trees, the sky not even visible from the bottom. The most unlikely scenes take place on the Koppenberg, and today you will still see professional riders get of their bikes to push.