What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Does Flanders: The Hard Part

Closer Look: The traditional route of the Ronde van Vlaanderen changed drastically in 2012, but the old combination of the Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, and Steenbeekdries still stands as the beginning of the finale. Let’s go back to 2009 and one of Jered Gruber’s first rides in the Vlaamse Ardennen with Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours for a rider’s eye look of the course.

My second foray into the Vlaamse Ardennen was not going to be all by my lonesome. I had long-time Flanders veteran, Peter Easton, (owner of Velo Classic Tours) to show me the way through the maze. Peter has an uncanny ability to remember damn near everything there is to know about each and every one of the things. I can’t remember 16 of anything. Peter knows each climb (in order mind you), how to get there, cobbled or not, how long, how steep, who lives along the stretch, and whether or not the strawberries are ripe yet. This is a good thing, considering I can’t find my way to the grocery store in my hometown without much research on Google Maps.

No good bike ride can start without a good breakfast. The Hof ter Kammen did it just right. Keep in mind – those are all cyclists.

The goal was to take in Bergs 3 thru 16 on the day. The only climbs we were going to miss were the Molenberg and the Wolvenberg, but the Molenberg is way out somewhere near Nowhere and the Wolvenberg was already taken care of yesterday. Instead, we headed straight to where the race really begins: the Oude Kwaremont.

Don’t believe me? Just see what Mr. Boonen had to say at his press conference today: “But really the race commences with the Kwaremont. It’s already 1.5 kilometres and then a [narrow] descent immediately follows. That’s the first important moment of the race.”

Indeed, Tommeke’s words are the truth. After riding the insanely difficult section, which covers the Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, and Eikenberg, it becomes apparent that this section, the absolute heart of the Vlaamse Ardennen is where the winner begins to emerge. The granite is chiseled and begins to take shape during this section, and somewhere near the Muur, the sculpture is nearly complete. The winner will show himself.

This has to be one of the most difficult sections in all of bike racing.

But first, before all of the glory and swashbuckling attacks, the potential future winner must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous cobbled fortune.

Oude Kwaremont
Like Boonen said, this is the mother that gives birth to everything else after it. Ok, he didn’t say that, but that’s what he meant. It is the quintessential Flandrian berg. It has a narrow, fast, difficult run-in. Nerves, elbows, words, caution, and anything else worthy of flying are definitely flying at this point. The proverbial pot is about to boil over.

Nico Mattan says hi!

And then it does. They’ll hit the cobbles doing some kind of unsavory speed I don’t care to imagine, and the fun really begins. The climb itself isn’t too heinous. There are steeper, there are longer, but the real fun in the Kwaremont comes not from the climb itself, but very much in the before and after.

The cobbles start…right…NOW!

As you crest the climb, your instincts tell you that it is done. Whew. Where’s the pavement, that was tough, where’s the next one? Except it ain’t over.

Pass through the cobbled square, have a look around, ah hell, more cobbles.

You roll through some kind of town square type place and then the cobbles just keep on going. Off into the distance. You can’t even see the end at this point.

Yep, cobbles as far as the eye can see…or at least my camera can see.

Just past the cluster of buildings that may or may not be a town, you emerge back into the wide open fields, and here the wind always blows. If you think being guttered on a normal road is bad, imagine what it’s like on medieval cobbles.

The cobbles actually do end.

And finally, just when you think things can’t get any worse, you round one more bend and there’s the big road. Whew.

Don’t take too deep of a breath, the real fun is about to begin. With heart rates hovering somewhere near explodation and legs singing the joys of immense pain, a really fast, narrow run-in to the next climb is yours to be had.

It’s all downhill from here.

Imagine 200 desperate riders all trying to make the front of the field going 70+ kph on a farm road that barely fits one car.

See that sign in the distance? That’s the violent right hander you have to navigate to gain the privilege of ascending the Pater-Wall.

Oh, and when you get to the bottom, there’s a crazy right-hander that requires you to almost stop, just so you can look up and see a big, ugly wall of cobbles stretching vertically above you. Oh, and do please try and avoid dropping your chain.

Pretty steep looking down.

The Paterberg is a mean climb. It’s short, it’s violent, and once again the lead-in is a killer, and the technical nature of the entrance make it that much more difficult. The climb is one of the steepest – heading upwards of 20% as it steepens with every meter. It’s one of those concave climbs that just plain suck. It’s on cobbles too, so it’s double bad.

Pretty steep looking up.

At this point, I was getting a wee bit nervous. I wasn’t even racing and this was hard. I can’t even fathom how much pain is being inflicted on the mortals in the race at this point.

The leaders will be able to look back and see riders way back yonder.

If the leaders have to come to a near stop to enter this climb, imagine what rider #150 is doing…track standing? enjoying a picnic waiting for his turn to climb the bumpy ladder to heaven?

Yep, Time For The Koppenberg
The first two climbs are sadistic. At least after these two machine gun efforts, you get a wee bit of a break, and thank the heavens for that, because the next one on the list is none other than the She-Beast: The Koppenberg.

Depending on who you are, the recent weather will bring you either great joy or a twinge of depression. For the supernaturals, a la Tom Boonen, they’re ruing the good weather. As Olympic silver medalist Emma Johansson pointed out yesterday evening, the race is completely different in the wet versus the dry. A wet Koppenberg is exponentially more difficult than a dry one. Considering that a dry Koppenberg is righteously difficult…you get the idea. A wet, windy race allows only the absolute best to keep in touch with the front, whereas the warm, less windy days keep the bunch incredibly intact all the way to Geraardsbergen: 50+ is possible!

With this in mind, some solace should be taken by the hard asses, as the wind is supposed to kick up a bit come Sunday, but it should be dry and fast.

I’ve digressed, my apologies, so…the Koppenberg. It’s steep, it’s hard, it’s everything you’ve heard of and then some. There’s not much more to say. If someone has a problem and falls over, expect everyone else behind him to be walking. That pretty much sums it up.

For me, it’s post-climb where the fun must really get going. Almost immediately after the climb, you emerge into the open and the winds of Hell are blowing full blast. Hurting a little after getting over the climb? Here, have another serving of OUCH (and I don’t mean the new HealthNet incarnation): gutter time! After a few moments of abject misery in the open, the descent starts in earnest, winds quickly down the other side of the ridge, and then it’s a hard right hander to back UP another main road hill.

Take a moment to imagine the desperation of the riders not in the top 50 at this point. Chasing over the top of the Koppenberg, down the other side, doing most likely 40+ kph up a solid incline, oh and somewhere in here there’s a feedzone.

Better eat quickly, because there are plenty more cobbles to come. First…

The Steenbeekdries
This climb is probably the easiest of them all, well, the easiest of the cobbled climbs. The theme is about to be repeated so please bear with me here: it’s all about before and after this climb. This time, the run-in is not tight and twisty and fast. Nope, this time it’s worse: it’s cobbled. The poor riders have all of about four tenths of a second to push some nutrients down their gullets, take a deep breath, and get ready to be vibrated.

The Mariaborrestraat, as the cobbled section is known, is tough, sure, but it’s not crazy. This section leads straight into the Steenbeekdries, which is pretty simple in and of itself, but then you come over the top, and what’s this? Doth mine eyes deceive me? A cobbled descent?

The cobbled climb leads to…

Cobbled descent!

Sure enough, a cobbled descent greets the riders over the top. It’s probably the most unpleasant descent you can ever conceive of. Basically, hold on, hope your bottles hold on, and try to avoid any flying bodies and/or bikes.

Mmmm, yummy cobbles!

Made it through, good job, up next…

From here, the new course changes significantly – racers will turn toward the Donderij, then a lap through Ronse, before heading up the Kruisberg en route to the second lap of the finishing circuit, which includes the second trip up the Kwaremont and Paterberg followed by the Hoogberg/Hotond. For the sake of enjoying an older piece, we’ll continue on with the ‘old’ route…

The Taaienberg is a pretty non-descript cobbled climb as far as cobbled climbs go (it’s Helling #1 in the new edition). It’s generically difficult, pitches somewhere in the teens, and it doesn’t last too long. If it wasn’t for the fact that Tom Boonen adores this climb, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. You’re starting to get used to this whole cobbled nonsense. What’s one more, right? Oh ow, ok, now I remember, these things are never easy. Remember, because this never changes – cobbles are never easy.

Over the top, it stays cobbled, but there’s some nice gutter to ride in, so most riders will be given blessed relief from the Hell Vibrator…unless it’s the day of the Ronde, and there will likely be no recourse for those hoping to avoid the cobbles.

Would you care for a little bit more wind, sir? Why of course I’d like another serving!

The final two climbs aren’t incredibly notorious either. The next in the long series of misery-inducing inclines happens to be a re-introduced toughie:

The Eikenberg
The Eikenberg is not terribly steep (It’s Helling #2 of the new course). At this point, the screws are turned to nearly snapping point, so it’s not going to be pleasant at all, but objectively, it ain’t so bad. Subjectively, oh mother help me, save me, make it all better. Yeah, something like that. It’s a long climb that should have thousands of spectators. It sets up perfectly, a nature stadium if you will.

The cobbles are a bit uneven on this one and there are lots of opportunities to try and alleviate some of the vibrations – a little pavement here, a little dirt there, anything to make it a little easier is welcomed.

As you come over the top of the Eikenberg and get ready for the new climb of Varent, you still have 60 kilometers to go. This section was only about 25 kilometers long. The chances that the winner has been selected through this section is pretty close to null, but the chances that the riders who aren’t 100% today have been sufficiently debilitated so as not to provide any surprises later.

Usually, you can be assured that the field will be whittled down significantly after these six bergs. The field should experience somewhat of a status quo until the Muur. Riders will weaken, suffer, and die a thousand deaths on their bikes, but if they’ve made it as far as the Eikenberg, the next place they’ll really be tested should be the Muur. I’m not saying any of the coming climbs between the Eikenberg and the Muur are easy, I’m just saying that the rotten peaches have been tossed aside by this point, everyone else is sentenced to 60 more kilometers.

Peter describes the course as the hardest of the whole year. There is not a moment of rest, not one easy spot once you enter the Vlaamse Ardennen. The race is full-on till the finish once you hit the Kwaremont. The race demands every bit of anything that you have as a bike racer: power, endurance, driving skill, meanness, toughness, bad assness. You name it, you better have it if you want to win in Oudenaarde on Sunday.

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