The Koppenberg Up Close
Very few climbs in modern bike racing can still bring a bike racer to his knees. With the evolution of intelligent gearings, the steepest climbs have been tamed, well, as much as they can be. The Koppenberg, however, defies all technological advances and takes us back to a time when plodding upward on foot was just as common as pedaling.
The Koppenberg’s stats are, objectively speaking, nothing to go home crying about. I know, sacrilege, you howl. Hear me out. There are climbs that are steeper, longer, even harder. It’s only 600 meters long, it averages just under 12%, and its steepest section is 22%. I’m not saying these are paltry figures, but climbs like the Zoncolan and Angliru manage figures like that for ten thousand meters. They’re debilitatingly hard, but so is the Koppenberg. There are a few things that are very, very different about the Koppenberg that set it well apart from the horror climbs of the Zoncolan and the Angliru, namely: cobbles, cobbles, cobbles, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
It’s not only the cobbles, but everything about Vlaanderens Mooiste (Flanders’s Most Beautiful) that makes this climb a terror. The basic nature of the race makes for a bloc racing almost from the start, and it never really lets up for over 250 kilometers. Wind, tiny, winding Flandrian roads, hellingen, flat pave sections, and the basic knowledge that this is the biggest day in Belgian cycling each year, makes for a race like no other.
It certainly doesn’t allow for climb specific gearing, nor would it be necessary for the world’s best over such a short climb. You’re never going to see a rider walk up to the start in Brugge on Easter Morning with a compact crankset.
Even if this theoretical rider (who is making present readers and purists grimace and moan as you read this) did, that might not be enough to keep him going. The steepest part of the climb is in a deep, moist trench between two fields and two fences. The moisture never seems to go away on these cobbles, and when the mixture is brewed just right, the surface is nigh unrideable. Really.
Andreas Klier of the Garmin-Cervelo team accompanied Jered on a cold December day in 2011 for this story
It’s not even just the numerical difficulty of the climb or that it comes 200 km into what many would say is the most difficult one day race of the year. It doesn’t matter how much gas, how much power the best racer has left when the rider in front teeters over and puts a foot down. A superstar receives the same sentence with no hope of remounting unless an eager fan helps him up and pushes him onward. For most, it’s the way of the foot.
A Climb To Be Feared
Those reasons are all well and good, but when you factor in the kind of race that the Tour of Flanders is and where the Koppenberg fits into the race’s dynamics, it makes a beastly wall all that much worse.
Italian Classics specialist, BMC’s Manuel Quinziato, speaks of the Koppenberg with an almost reverence, “It’s doubtless the hardest climb in the Tour of Flanders. Above all, because it arrives after two other really hard climbs, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. The three climbs in rapid succession makes it really hard.”
Quinziato has had a fair bit of experience with the Koppenberg, and though he has never suffered the ignominious fate of clip clopping up it on foot, he lets on that it is always a worry. After all, isn’t it one of the biggest fears in a bike race next to injury, crashing, or suffering a mechanical?
“The Koppenberg is an impressive wall. You have to look at it with respect, because if it’s even a little bit wet, you can’t be sure you’ll get to the top without walking.”
Walking in 2010. A common theme throughout the years.
Tire Pressure: A Big Deal
I’ve had the pleasure of riding the Koppenberg a few times, in every type of weather. From bright and sunny with temperatures in the 70’s, to driving rain with temperatures in the 40’s, to the worst of all – a recent rain on previously dry stones. I’ve had to walk once, but it was the manner in which I was forced to walk, which was unnerving: my tires had no traction on the stones. It was like I was riding up a 22% wall of bumpy, frozen river. I got off my bike, scratched my head, and wondered – how is it possible to get up this thing when it’s wet?
I got my answer a little while later in the form of former racer, director, and general cycling genius, Scott Sunderland. Sunderland encountered the Koppenberg as a racer on more than a few occasions and then dealt with it again as a director. I asked Scott the day after my curious experience – how do they get up it in the wet? He smiled a knowing smile and said, “We’ve ridden pressures as low as 3-3.5 bar on bad days there.” Quinziato agrees on the lower pressure, but does not concede as much: “6 bars (87psi) on the front and 6.5 (94psi) on the back. Any more than that in wet conditions, and you’ll have no grip.”
But What Is It Like?
With tire pressure adjusted to the conditions that await you, let’s take an imaginary trip up the legendary wall. The first time you turn the corner to see the climb in front of you is one a cycling fan will never forget. It’s beautiful. It’s everything you imagine when you see it on tv, but bigger, narrower, perfect. Some places don’t live up to expectations when you see them in person, but the Koppenberg does, and it does emphatically.
The view up to the struggle that lies just moments in front of you is humbling.
The cobbles are objectively some of the worst on the route of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and they start early, as you bounce through the tiny town of Melden. The grade starts out moderately enough, but something like climbing out a bowl, it just gets steeper and steeper. As you push forward and upward, and as the grade steepens, you head into the trench – the climb is cut into the hillside. It lies deep below green fields and underneath two parallel rows of regal trees that stand as permanent spectators for the masses, both great heroes and weekend warriors alike, that ply the rough pathway.
The climb hits its peak at about the 22% mark, and soon after, you emerge out of the dark, dank trench and the climb’s most difficult middle section. Gradually, the Koppenberg regains some semblance of a reasonable grade, the sky becomes visible again, and the wet stones that wreaked havoc just meters before are now dryer, more reasonable.
Looking down into the dark trench of the Koppenberg’s sinister middle section.
Don’t think it’s done yet though – the climb pitches again ruthlessly toward the top, and from there, you still have a few more meters of continually uphill cobbles, before you finally reach smooth pavement again. From there, it’s a quick, wind blasted section across the top of the climb, before you head down a screaming descent and the knowledge that you’re still getting started in the Tour of Flanders’s hellingen sweepstakes.
Andreas Klier, safely out of the toughest part, and heading to the final pitch to the top.
A Brief History Of The Koppenberg
The climb we see today is, believe it or not, a tamer, more civilized version of the monster that ruled over the Tour of Flanders in the 70’s and 80’s with a battle hardened fist. The Koppenberg was first introduced to the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 1975. The next thirteen years were a heyday for the climb. It enjoyed a spot of infamy not known to any other climbs the year over. It was a crap shoot whether even the winner would be riding up the Koppenberg. The road, almost a path, was disturbingly narrow, far narrower than it is today (and it’s very narrow even now), and the road surface was laughably atrocious. The road was almost constantly wet, muddy, and subsequently slick, and combined with the narrow road and drunken cobblestones – it was a show stopper.
Eddy Merckx keeps it upright on the Koppenberg this time around, but even he wasn’t immune from the walk.
In 1987, the Koppenberg very nearly stopped the show. In its 13th year on the Ronde route, the simmering pot of ridiculous reached a boil. Jesper Skibby would be the victim of the final straw. Skibby broke away early in the 1987 edition of Vlaanderens Mooiste. He had a two minute cushion when he hit the road that rises straight out of the tiny village of Melden. The gap was falling quickly, and Skibby would be falling momentarily as well.
Jesper Skibby watches and prays that his legs don’t feel the wrath of the oncoming commissaire’s car.
At the steepest, nastiest section, Skibby teetered over. Normally, this wouldn’t be a huge problem, except the race commissaire’s car was hot on his heels and had nowhere else to go with the field just moments behind. Luckily for Skibby, he fell into the grass embankment that makes a war-like trench of the Koppenberg. It was lucky because the commissaire’s car was not stopping – it just kept right on going. Skibby’s bike did not survive the altercation, but at least I’m not reporting on a dead bike racer mowed down by an official vehicle worried about disrupting a bike race.
The harrowing debacle assured an extended vacation for the Koppenberg. The Koppenberg went into a dormant state for the next 15 years. It did not return to professional bike racing again until the 2002 edition of the Tour of Flanders, but not before significant renovations, which included widening and repaving the vile stretch.
The Koppenberg was welcomed with open arms, as the race picked up a decisive climb that had the ability not to decide the winner, but to jettison any also-rans, to severely cripple any riders not going well, and to give an early launching pad for the riders looking to win in Ninove.
The Front: The Only Place To Be
The reintroduction of the Koppenberg in 2002, and its use every year in general, underlines, highlights, shouts, screams, texts, moans – communicates very effectively – one of the mantras of bike racing: get to the front. Anyone that has ever raced a bike has heard those painful words: you gotta get to the front.
Countless eyes have rolled in response to the most basic of directives, but never is it more important than on a climb like the Koppenberg. Positioning is crucial on a climb where you’re not guaranteed the ability to ride up the climb if you’re outside of the top 20. Indeed, most years, only the top 30 manage to make it through unscathed. The poor, suffering masses at the rear are left hobbling up the cruel berg as the leaders howl down the descent en route to the Mariaborrestraat and the Steenbeekdries at speeds close to 60 mph.
It doesn’t take much to lose it on the steep cobbles of the Koppenberg. In this picture, consider that Garmin-Cervelo’s Andreas Klier is doing battle in December with not only the climb, but a debilitating layer of ice and snow. It’s not a simple matter of pedaling.
The importance of being to the fore on the Koppenberg is unquestioned, but Manuel Quinziato points out that the battle for position on the Koppenberg is actually solidified two climbs before – on the winding, narrow run-in to the Oude Kwaremont: “What really matters is the position you have on the Oude Kwaremont…If you are in the first part there, you’ll be in the first part also on the Paterberg and Koppenberg.”
Garmin-Cervelo’s Andreas Klier laughs off that idea though: “A good position on the Oude Kwaremont is important, but you have to continue to fight and continue to ride well to keep at the front. You can lose every bit of work with one slip up.”
One of the underlying themes of the Tour of Flanders is one of the domino effect – once one thing goes wrong, it’s highly likely that more bad things will occur, leading, eventually, to a rider’s demise on the day. A poor position on the Koppenberg could lead to walking, and after that, the slings and arrows continue – there’s a feed zone before heading into the next stretch of cobbles. There’s maybe a 3 minute section of solace on the main road. If a rider is frantically chasing, the feed zone suddenly becomes slightly less important, with regaining the field much higher on the to do list. Missing a feed at 200 km though? Disaster. Not getting that crucial food down? Disaster. Never seeing the front end of the race again? Disaster. And so on, and so forth. So many things can go wrong, and for most of the field, they often do.
How Important Can It Be At Only 200k In?
The years from 2002 to 2006 were a welcome return to the meanest climb in the Vlaamse Ardennen, but 2006 saw yet another nasty situation, and the organizers were left with their hands in their pockets looking with interest at the floor, singing an embarrassed tune as most everyone in the race was forced to walk – only a small, very elite group led by the violent pedal strokes of Tom Boonen made it to the top in their saddle. Many of the walkers returned to the fold, but a huge box of matches was lit to return to the head of the race.
All is well midway up the climb in 2006…
The following year, 2007, was to be another vacation year for the Koppenberg. The deteriorating road surface was cited as the reason, and once again, the road was reworked over the year before making yet another triumphant return in 2008.
…Then Alessandro Ballan, sitting about 10th wheel, loses it, and every rider behind him was sentenced to the dreaded march of the Koppenberg.
The racers once again found themselves luckless. 2008 offered up some of the worst weather seen at the Tour of Flanders in quite a long while. Riders saw everything from rain to sleet to snow to hail to bright sunshine. Of course, the Koppenberg was a mess, and everyone save for the top 30 enjoyed a stroll up the hill. Some of those walkers managed to reintegrate into the race, but at what cost?
2009 wasn’t a major walking year, but the Koppenberg still managed to leave its mark on the race – both in the high speeds at the front and the distinctly slow speed of one rider in particular. At the front, Tom Boonen and Filippo Pozzato showed that they were in a class unto themselves. The two rivals set a ridiculous pace up the 600 meters of cobbles and left the rest of the field trailing in their wake. Neither Boonen or Pozzato continued the effort over the top, but their statement had been made. They were the two strongest in the race. Pozzato and Boonen’s dominance, which ensured that all eyes were transfixed on their every move, along with Pozzato’s unwillingness to work with Boonen, essentially took the two out of the race. This set the stage for the enigmatic Stijn Devolder to take his second straight Ronde van Vlaanderen victory.
In 2009, while Boonen and Pozzato duked it out up front…
Behind the impressive display of force at the front of the race, one rider waded up the climb on foot, took a moment to throw his bike at the trench wall, walked some more, then stopped to show to the world what had derailed him. Fabian Cancellara fell victim to a broken chain on the steepest section of the climb. Cancellara had already had a rough spring beset by illness, but still harbored hopes of a big ride in a race that he confessed openly as one of his big dreams.
…Fabian Cancellara fell victim to a broken chain.
Cancellara would have his revenge in 2010. He summited the climb unscathed, safely in the midst of the favorites, while, once again, Tom Boonen was showing his power at the front. Cancellara quietly bided his time before unleashing first on the 10th climb of the day, the Molenberg, and then again on the Muur. The rest is etched in our minds…
A frustrated Fabian paid his dues that sunny day in 2009. He’d come back and take a spectacular win in 2010.
Once the riders cross the top of the Koppenberg, they still have many more difficult kilometers and bergs ahead of them.