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The Epic Tour of Flanders

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The Epic Tour of Flanders 1

“Whoever thought this was a good place to ride?” This question was asked, not without grounds, by the minute Norwegian cyclist, struggling to breathe as he pushed the pedals up the last metres of Taaienberg. I would also have been out of breath, but even if I were not, I would not have known what to say. Or maybe I would.

The walls are hardly suitable for cycling, and this is why it has always attracted cyclists like a magnet; aspiring heroes in a sport with a reason behind the challenge. A gravity defying feat that even led to the creation of a new figure in the Flemish social encyclopaedia: the “Flandrien”, originally Flemish farmers who ventured down from the French plains to gather sugar cane by day. Poor, hunched and tenacious, just like the cyclists of the late 1800s. Journalist Karel Van Wynendaele, founder of the daily paper Sportwereld and creator of the Tour of Flanders, saw the resemblance of their silhouettes and baptized them with the same name, Flandriens.

The Epic Tour of Flanders 2

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?
 (Bernard Hinault)

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. 

The Epic Tour of Flanders 3

There are a few kilometres of pedalling between Koppenberg and the Oude-Kwaremont/Paterberg combination. In fact, the Oude Kwaremont is not particularly difficult: it is long (2200 metres), the cobblestones are discontinuous and the slopes are never extreme. The greatest effort has already been exerted on the previous sprint. This wall is approached by narrow curves, one-lane country roads with 90° bend, where it only takes a second to end up in a jam. “Two races take place on the Kwaremont, one to climb it and the other to reach it, and between the two the latter is worse”, said Peter van Petegem, one of the purest Flandriens of our times. The kilometre leading up to the wall is reserved for “filing”, an ancient cycling specialty that still challenges many a great champion. Working to erode the group one metre at a time, overtaking in the middle or on the edge of the road, to gain positions and get ahead at the right time.  Put that way, it sounds simple; but doing it at 40 km an hour on an unlevelled road is another story. The Oude Kwaremont, Oude meaning old, is the heir of the historical wall in Flanders: when the ascent of the Kwaremont hill was paved to build a provincial road, the organization folded down the adjacent old road, where cobblestones have been mixed with rivers of beer in the most brazen party of the year since 1974. 

On the other side of the hill is the last cry of stone, the Paterberg: 380 metres long, of which 100 at a constant 20% gradient. Legend has it that a farmer in the area traced the furrow, envious of his neighbours in Koppenburg who enjoyed the race passing through each year. The legend is not far from the truth. When the local council decided that dirt roads were obsolete and decided to asphalt it, a group of citizens proposed a paved road in the place of asphalt, given the lower maintenance costs and in the hope of participating in the race. Mission accomplished. Ever since, Paterberg has been a key passage, and 32,280 people have ridden the Strava segment: the fastest was a Spanish amateur who climbed it in 52". The last in the ranking all walked up it on foot. 

The Epic Tour of Flanders 4

There are many walls in Flanders and each has its own characteristics, but there is just one Muur. They say that the town of Geraardsbergen is known for its three Ms: Mattentart, the local delicacy; Manneken Pis, the twin fountain of Brussels, and the Muur. Street signs call it just that, without adding anything else. Only the final stretch is defined Kapelmuur, in honour of the church standing on the peak, a chapel for cycling that is like St. Peter’s for Catholicism. There is no place in cycling that knows how to mix the sacred and the profane so well: from the Dender river flowing at its feet, whose name alludes to archaic rites, to the top of the hill, where the Celts celebrated the equinox. The locals insist that after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the Muur van Geraardsbergen became the most famous wall in the world. The history of the Tour of Flanders suggests the same, reintroducing it this season after 5 years of absence. And although it is over one hundred kilometres from the finish line, the Quick-Step team was forced here on the Muur, where a spectacular solo sprint by Philippe Gilbert began. 

The Muur is the perfect setting for all feats, big and small, and not just those of the Flandrien or the most heroic cyclists: every year the Transcontinental Race starts up there, the crazy 4000 kilometre course across Europe. With a 100-metre climb during just one kilometre of paved road, not even the Muur approaches the status of a mountain. Yet, unlike all the others, behind the chapel an unexpected panorama appears: an undulating, sweet landscape spotted with paved roads and other walls to take on.  

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