Gent-Wevelgem: Riding Through History

Wevelgem Remembered: Riding through the cobbles and bergs of Belgium where thousands died in the World Wars uniquely connects our sport to tragic historic events. Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours knows cycling in Belgium better than most, and offers his take on what makes riding here special.

Eddy Merckx on the Kemmelberg

There is a distinct calm that defines the early morning of a Spring Classic. For locals, cycling fans and the media, the air is filled with a relaxed anticipation for what has yet to unfold. For the organizers, the teams and the riders, there is a subtle confidence that comes with the knowledge of perfect preparation. The favorites are paraded in front of the media, interviews taken, questions asked, and predictions cast. The calm is slowly transformed by an eager crowd, pressed against the barricades, necks craned, cameras held high for random portraits of the peloton at their slowest speed of the day. This scene is played out across cities big and small, under grand cathedrals and in oversized parking lots. And while the faces of the riders vary, from nervous smiles to relaxed laughter, in six and a half hours time, only one man will truly be smiling, as he stands atop the podium and hoists a beautifully ornate trophy, his name forever etched among the greatest in cycling.

The question is often raised, what makes these races so special? What exactly is the history of these older races that is so iconic, when much of it is racked with scandal and factual documentation is sporadic? Is the only interest simply a long list of winners? Or is it the tale of brave riders winning in unthinkable conditions? Each race, regardless of age, has faced developmental issues in modern times and the races we know now are not the same from fifty years ago, let alone a century. But despite two World Wars, economic expansion across Europe, the globalization of cycling, race course changes, different start and finishing cities and of course the riders, the one constant that transcends time in our sport remains: suffering.

This way to the Kemmelberg

Every evening at precisely eight o’clock, the citizens of the Flemish city of Ieper, along with tourists and visitors, gather at the Menin Gate on the city’s edge to hear the sounding of the Last Post by the local fire brigade. The name derives from the practice of inspecting all the sentry posts around a military camp at the end of the day and playing a call at each of them. This ritual has been performed since 1928 to commemorate those soldiers of the British Army who died in the Ypres Salient during the First World War before August 16, 1917 and who have no known grave.

The Menin Gate in Ieper

The memorial’s location is especially poignant as it lies on the eastward route from the city which allied soldiers marched towards battle. Those who never returned are ensured their deaths were not in vain. Synonymous with the war, the Flemish fields and the ritual of the Last Post are poppies, whose inexplicable abundance during the atrocities of war has become the honorary symbol of Remembrance Day.

The flower was also the poignant influence for “In Flanders Fields”, one of the most notable poems written during World War I by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on May 3, 1915 after he witnessed the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer the previous day. The month of April each year from 1915-18 was quite different from the month of April that is now so highly anticipated and labeled the Vlaamse Wielerlente, the Flemish Spring Classics.

Bernard Hinault was the solo winner in 1977

Crossing west over the Schelde and Leie rivers, the city of Ieper is only 50 kilometers from the heart of the Flemish Ardennes, but in so many ways it feels much more. The terrain in Flanders can change as quickly as the weather and the dialect, and the hills of the Flemish Ardennes are quickly left behind for flat, fertile farmland that defines the far western maze of Belgium. A relentless wind whips the vast flatlands and church steeples rise on the horizon, connecting the small towns with a seemingly foreign tongue that fit in between the hay and wheat fields, the sheep and cattle farms, fields that are still pocked with concrete bunkers built by the German army and honorably decorated with meticulously groomed military cemeteries.

Tucked neatly between Ieper and Armentieres in France, where Belgium seems to randomly stitch itself to the French border, there are flowing hillsides that cover this pocket of land, flat fields the color of light toast swapped out for plush green humps decorated with blossoming willow and cherry trees. The highest of these hills, at 156 meters, is Monte Kemmel, known as the Kemmelberg, and scene of one of the fiercest battles in the spring of 1918 during the Battle of the Lys.

Wrapping themselves in a knot over the border and skimming the towns of Baillieu and Godewaersvelde are the tiny roads once stained by the blood of dying soldiers that connect the hills of the Rodeberg, Monteberg, Zwarteberg, Scherpenberg, Baneberg and the Catsberg. The stark white marble crosses that line the rows of the cemeteries near each are silent reminders of the bloodshed and loss of life in the “War to end all Wars”. The beauty of these narrow roads that link these historic sites is aligned so perfectly one afternoon every year, in the competitive grit and glory that is professional bike racing rather than the hellish reality of war, and in the spirit of memorializing one rising star, has grown to honor hundreds of thousands of lost lives.

Cycling in Belgium slowly reemerged in the post war era as a strong cultural entity in Flanders thanks in large part to the success of the Flemish riders Romain Gijssels, Alfons Schepers and Gaston Rebry. Rebry was a native of Wevelgem who followed in Gijssels path and in 1934 became the third cyclist to win both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year. Later that year, the local cycling club in Wevelgem organized a cycling race for juniors to honor Rebry’s accomplishment.

The young and the old: Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen with 2003 winner Andreas Klier

The first six editions were amateur events, and then, like most of cycling in Flanders with the miraculous exception of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the race shut down during World War II. Following the devastation of yet another war, cycling in Belgium returned with more determination than before, with new races created and original events reignited, in an effort to reunite a culture after the physical and psychological devastation of World War II.

The efforts of the culture were set in motion to reestablish Belgium, and in particular Flanders, as an important cycling federation and to gain international prominence for its riders. On July 29, 1945, the first professional edition of Gent-Wevelgem was organized and won by Robert van Enaeme, an independent rider who won two of the original amateur races.

In the decades of racing since 1945, Gent-Wevelgem, like so many other races in Flanders, has seen numerous iterations, course alterations and calendar changes. The race though, through it all, has been organized by the same cycling club, “Het Wiel Vliegende”, the Flying Wheel. The early editions of the race included many of the hills in the Flemish Ardennes on the way from Gent to Wevelgem, including the cobbled Oude Kwaremont, before ascending the hills of West Flanders and France, like the Zwarteberg and Rodeberg. In its third edition as a professional race, Gent-Wevelgem shifted its date and officially became known as a Spring Classic. With this change came greater exposure and brought a growth period of development in the race. After two years of following a route to the coast before heading inland, the 1950 race course began to mix more of the Flemish Ardennes hills with the West Flanders hills, including the addition of the Eikenberg.

The Eikenberg

The period from 1962 was the key developmental stage of the race, and the heart and soul of Gent-Wevelgem would come to lie in the hills of West Flanders, and its iconic place would become the Kemmelberg. Perhaps one of the most beautiful features of Gent-Wevelgem is the inclusion of two ascents up the Kemmelberg. I like to believe this was done in honor of the battles fought here. The First Battle of the Kemmelberg was fought on April 17-19, 1918, and saw the British withstand the onslaught from Germany’s Fourth Army.

The Second Battle of the Kemmelberg was six days later, in which the German General Karl Höfer was celebrated as the hero of the Kemmelberg – Held vom Kemmelberge – as he orchestrated a surprise attack on the British forces. Riding the cobbled climb – just a dirt track until 1956 – clearly shows the strategic position of the hill, as it performs a hard cornered S, the slopes of the north and south sides falling away immediately from the heavily wooded crest. The marble ossuary that sits at the top of the hill honors the Allied’s fallen soldiers, whose replacements took control of the Kemmel five months later during the Battle of the Peaks of Flanders in September 1918. In the poetic words of McCrae, the torch was handed from failing hands, and it was held high.

It’s easy to see how the race itself could get lost amidst the numerous events that include so many of the Flemish Ardennes hills, each vying for the all-important status as an important preparatory race for the Tour of Flanders. While certainly preparing for Flanders on many of the same roads is vital to success in the most demanding of the Flemish classics, the hills and narrow roads of the far reaches of Belgium offer their share of challenges that have helped develop Gent-Wevelgem into the only race it could become, a semi-classic. But the roll call of winners is a proud one, rooted in the strength of Belgian’s greatest riders: Briek Schotte, Rik Van Looy, Raymond Impanis, Herman Vanspringel, Eddy Merckx, Walter Godefroot, Eric Vanderaerden and Tom Steels.

Tom Steels takes a wet Wevelgem victory

Gent-Wevelgem is now raced exactly one week before the Tour of Flanders and includes a more demanding parcours – 210 kilometers with a circuit of eight climbs that is raced twice before the finish in Wevelgem. In the effort to improve its status, increase its exposure and create more anticipation for the Ronde, Gent-Wevelgem carries a pedigree that can challenge for increased prestige on the WorldTour, with the hope it will become an important preparatory race for the Tour of Flanders, while simultaneously representing on its own merits its history and reputation as a classic. But While the Tour of Flanders is indelibly linked with the beauty and difficulty that are distinctly the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes, Gent-Wevelgem is in its own way linked with the Flemish fields of World War I and the region’s symbolic heart, the city of Ieper.

Let’s hope we see a return to normality soon and maybe the Flemish Classics later in the year, or business as usual in 2021.

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