‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.’
Travelling to Flanders was for me an unexpectedly spiritual journey. I say unexpected because I never fully equated the cycling Flanders with the Flanders of the First World War. Obviously I knew they were the same place, but somehow I never consciously connected the two.
Flanders has no official boundaries and is simply considered to be the home of the Flemish peoples. It takes in small areas of northern France, Holland and of course Belgium. In Belgium there is a lot of political discourse regarding whether Flanders should be recognised as a separate country. Whether this happens officially or not, there’s no doubt in the minds of the Flemings, all six million of them. They certainly see themselves as a separate entity and even have their own parliament.
You’ve often heard the phrase, “name 10 famous Belgians” – an allusion to the generally held belief that nothing interesting happens there. But the more you delve into the region’s history, the more fascinating it becomes. Flemish references date back to Roman times, though of course the history goes further than that. Flanders itself was made into a feudal area in 862 and quickly became a large cloth-producing area. So much so that Chaucer even mentions it in his famous Canterbury Tales. By the 1500s Antwerp was Europe’s richest city but the Eighty Years War with Spain put the brakes on somewhat, as did the great colonial expansions of the British. As England took over the cotton trade, many Flemish workers moved to England. A large number of the famous British cloths, such as Worsted for example, were created by Flemish migrants.
From then on, small war after small war racked the area until Belgium was recognised as a country by the treaty of London in 1839, which incidentally also created Luxembourg. This recognition of Belgium didn’t sit too well with the Flemish and they were only brought into the nation with the help of the French army. It’s from this period on that the Flemish peoples’ disdain for the French began as the Flemish language was abolished in schools in favour of French. The upper class French for their part saw the Flemish as backward and in the First World War, French generals would stubbornly give commands to the Flemings in French, even though the soldiers were unable to understand the commands.
Much of this was unknown to me as I made my way north out of Paris on the A1 motorway, but it didn’t take long to make its presence felt. It was my birthday and while to most people spending your birthday in Paris sounds horribly romantic, it is less so when for a good part of it is in a freeway traffic jam. Motorways look the same everywhere. But as we finally moved north the countryside became flatter and very agricultural. History is in our collective memories. It defines who we are as well as the people and places which surround us. We are only here because of the deeds of people in our history. My first wake-up call regarding this in this particular journey was crossing the River Somme. This is a name that all of us will recognise from our school history books as one of the worst battles of the First World War. It’s hard to get your head around the figures, even more so when you see its lazily flowing water and tree-lined banks. The first Somme campaign lasted for about four months, losing nearly a million men. At one point the British lost the most men ever in a single day, 60,000. Such extraordinary waste.
The second wake-up call was a bit further north near Lille, right in the Flanders’ heartland and coincidentally, home of the Roubaix velodrome. It was a road sign pointing to the town of Ypres. Ypres was the place where gas was first used in war by the German army in 1914. In the third battle of Ypres in 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, nearly half a million men died.
You may be wondering by now why I mention all this, but to me it’s part of the development of the Flemish national character. Every day as I explored the cobbled roads of Flanders I would come across old pill boxes, ruined defence works and gun emplacements. Or towns and road signs pointing to places I’d only read of in history books. When your country has a history of such horrors it’s bound to result in a sort of nationalistic pride. In Australia we have a fine history, particularly in the First World War. But we have comparatively little that happened on our own shores. For the Flemish, every time they ride up the Koppenberg or the Kemmelberg they remember that these hills were strategic points to be defended with their lives. Is it any wonder then that the flag with the Lion of Flanders is arguably one of the most recognisable images in cycling?
One of the traits of the Flemish if you’re a cyclist or a cyclist fan is to welcome you with open arms, particularly if you’re doing it tough. Making your own way against all odds as it were. It’s not like they give you lots of money or anything, but they look after you. They’ll make sure you don’t starve and help where they can.
One of the first Aussies of the modern period to experience life in Flanders was Henk Vogels. Henk raced with the Novell-Decca-Colnago team and later Team Gan and spent those years in the town of Brakel, part of the route of the Tour of Flanders.
“We were living in a dingy flat with Michael Blardzun,” recalls Henk. “It was on the same street that Robbie lives now. We were living upstairs in the house of the Novell Soigneur, Dominique van der Porten. He gave the hardest rubs I’ve ever had in my life. It was a bit of a tip really, had shower curtains for toilet doors and things like that.”
So you might ask, why stay? Why not go to one of the Paris clubs or Spain and Italy where it’s warmer?
“Once you’ve lived and raced in Flanders, it never leaves you. I had a love affair with Belgium. I had different stints with different teams, but always, always the Flemish locals looked after us. Often the cycling clubs will take someone under their wing. There was a local club at the airport that would look after me and Stuey and also Magnus Bakstedt. It helped a lot when you were feeling homesick, if you were injured or not going well. But what I remember most is a little old Belgian guy who used to cook us pancakes on the street for nothing. Being a pro cyclist in Flanders is like being full forward for Hawthorn.”
The town of Brakel where Henk and Robbie lived is a few short kilometres, 11 to be exact, from Geraadsbergen, home of the Kappelmuur, that famous cobbled climb, that up until this year was the highlight of the Tour of Flanders. For some reason, the organisers have decided to leave the iconic climb out of the 2012 Tour of Flanders. To me it’s like leaving the Champs Elysees out of the Tour de France, though it seems that may happen soon. One suggestion was that the town of Oudenaarde, home of the Museum of the Ronde, lobbied hard for the finish to be in their town. Another was commercial disagreements with the landholder of the Muur. Most likely, the truth is either somewhere in between or a combination of the two.
At the time of writing, Robbie McEwen still had a house between the Muur and the town of Brakel and did much of his training in the area. Indeed there is a ‘portrait’ of McEwen on the bridge columns at the bottom of the hill, which says, “Robbie, don’t leave!” in Flemish. On the way to the Muur I sent Robbie a speculative text to see if he was out training. The reply came back, “See you on the Muur at 1pm.” Anyone who thinks Robbie McEwen is a grump is extremely wrong. I’ve always found him extremely helpful and friendly. Just before the top of the Muur there’s a pub, which also serves some food so after riding up the Muur simply because we could, we sat and talked about the famous climb over coffee and frites. I asked how many times he’d ridden the Muur van Geraardsbergen.
“Oh, countless times. In a lot of the early season races I’ve done it a lot, though it used to be done a lot more often than now. Races like Omloop Het Volk and Omloop Het Nieusblad have it in the early part of the race before the finale begins. And also obviously in the Tour of Flanders, which I personally haven’t ridden a lot in my career, maybe just three or four times.
“Whenever the Tour of Flanders is on it’s absolutely massive on this hill,” he enthuses. “You look up and all you can see of it is just the top-half of that cross. It’s just a sea of people and how they can stand on that hill with their toes pointing down for hours on end is staggering. You see how steep it is, they’re like mountain goats. The atmosphere on this hill is awesome on race day. All the way up from the square, well all the way on the whole course to be truthful, but especially here. This part here between the pub and the top of the hill with everybody screaming, it’s impossible to explain. And they’re just as enthusiastic for the last guys as they are for the first guys.”
The Belgian cycling fans call themselves ‘wielervolk’ and line the entire climb on race day making a huge tunnel of noise. Officially the Muur (which means ‘wall’ in Flemish) is only 475 metres long, but the reality is just over twice that distance, combining the Muur which goes through the town and then near the top, the Kappelmuur. To do it properly you must first cross the old railway bridge and make your way down the river Dender. Straight ahead and into the Brugstraat before heading left and around the market square in a clockwise direction. Once past the church of St Bartholomeus you turn left and head up the hill. At this point you’re in an interesting position between feeling like you can handle the cobbles OK, but also beginning to notice the gradient and the juddering. The average for the Muur van Geraardsbergen is 9.2%.
As you round the sharp right-hand bend into Oudebergstraat, it all starts to look familiar. The narrow street of little houses and the trees up ahead. As the houses finish, the trees are lined with park railings. You head into the deep shade, someone walking their dog on the nearby footpath and a few cyclists challenging themselves on the famous climb. It’s hard by now, one of the more difficult one-kilometre climbs you will experience, but the hallowed location ensures that you’ll make it. You turn left, and wham! Here’s the Kappelmuur, a short, sharp, nasty little pinch of 19.8%. It’s this small section that can make or break your race. It will either turn you into a hero or an also ran. There’s a tiny flat section in front of the pub and then you must turn right onto the final section. The well known crucifix hovers above your head and in front of you is the famous chapel. The wall of grass on your left is filled in your imagination with screaming fans. A few more seconds and you’ve made it to the top of the Muur van Greaardsbergen.
With the hill being so important and having such steep gradients, is there a proper way to approach it in a race situation?
“I know all the roads around here in the lead up to it and that’s important,” says McEwen. “You need to know them so you can get into the correct position, particularly if it’s wet. Even if the Muur is early on in a race, if you don’t have position then your race can be ruined. If it’s wet and slippery, someone will slide and put a foot on the ground. If you’re behind them, then the first guys will be riding away. Wherever this climb is in the race it will be crucial, for that reason.
It’s not just the steepest part, the Kappelmur, that’s hard, it’s the whole thing, beginning right down there on the river. Because even down there you’re already on those rough pavers across the market place. Then there’s a sharp right-hand turn on the cobbles. It’s a very long cobbled climb all the way from the bottom up to the top. I’m not sure what it takes minutes-wise, four and a half, or probably a good five-minute effort right from the bottom. No matter what, you’re always in your lowest gear because if it’s early in a race you want to save your legs. And if it’s at the end in the Ronde, then your legs are shot by the time you hit it.
“One other thing that’s important is to position yourself on the left-hand side. Wet or dry, the left side is better simply because you get much less bounce. If it’s wet and you bounce then you end up losing traction anyway so it’s always much better to stay to the left. It’s like we saw in Flanders in 2010, OK there was a difference in strength, but Cancellara stayed on the extreme left while Boonen was on the right in the rough stuff. All the successful moves go up to the left side.
Not too far away from Geraadsbergen is the Koppenberg, that steep, narrow, nasty little climb that is the essence of the Tour of Flanders. On how many other climbs in all the races in the world do you see riders walking to the top? On the Koppenberg it happens every year. It’s diabolical.
One of the beautiful things about riding in Flanders is the close proximity of the famous climbs. The Koppenberg is only 31km from the Muur van Geraadsbergen and seven kilometres from Oudenaarde, home of the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen Museuam, where you can get a useful cycling map of the area. Indeed there is a wonderful cycle path that will take you from the Leupegem area of Oudenaarde right to the bottom of the Koppenberg in the little village of Rotelenberg. In fact, while we’re on the subject, it continues through to Kluisbergen home of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs.
Looking at the map belies the difficulty of the Koppenberg. The climb is represented by a short, straight line of three dots and two dashes. If you didn’t know about the climb, you’d scan right over it. Look closer though, and you’ll see that the contour lines are extremely close together, indicating a steep climb.
Standing at the bottom of the Koppenberg, I’m of the opinion that those contour lines should be closer together.
One of the local names for this climb is ‘The Torture Chamber’ and it’s easy to see why. In front of me is a straight cobbled road that increasingly rises, like the curve of a rollercoaster or an ocean wave. As it becomes steeper there’s a slight S-bend and the banks on either side rise above it and it narrows, from 20 feet wide where I’m standing, to only 10 feet wide at its narrowest point. This is the section made famous by the photos of commisaire’s car driving over the fallen Jesper Skibby in 1987. On either side a row of trees stands sentinel, making the Koppenberg seem like aisle of a cathedral, and the images of riders struggling up the 22% gradient in their cleats, worshipers heading to the alter of suffering.
One person who knows the Koppenberg intimately is Melbourne rider Simon Clarke. Clarke was involved in a long breakaway with Sylvain Chavanel in the 2011 edition of the Tour of Flanders.
“The Koppenberg is so hard that in the week of training leading up to the Tour of Flanders I never got up without walking because it was so wet,” he recalls. “I was thinking to myself, how the hell does anyone ride up this thing? Even on race day I was planning in my head to walk up it. I’d got away from the pack with Chavanel over the Oude Kwaremont. And then we powered over the Paterberg. There were about three guys in front of us and we caught them right at the bottom of the Koppenberg. It was the best thing for me, but the worst for them. It gave me the impetus to get over the climb while for them it would have been really deflating. Being that much closer to the finish in 2012 will possibly make it the decisive climb of the race.”
Standing at the bottom of the Koppenberg is slightly surreal and very different to the Muur. The houses, buildings and general air of prosperity have been replaced with fields. There’s literally nothing here except farms, not even people. Having just ridden down it, I am aware that the farthest point of the climb that I can see is not actually the top and I have the uncomfortable thought that it’s possible that I may not be able to make it to the top. How is it that a climb that’s only 600 metres long can give you a thought like that? The answer is in the cobbles, which were replaced at a cost of $500,000 in 2002. Interestingly, the new cobbles were imported from Poland instead of using local stone. There are two types, the first, a sort of grey granite are rough and provide plenty of grip. The others are a type of brown flint. Round and smooth, they provide absolutely no grip whatsoever.
Team Sky’s Matt Hayman is someone who knows all about those particular stones.
“The trouble is, that you can’t see the slippery cobbles at all. There’s no way around them, no special line to take. And unless you’re right on the front of the bunch then it’s just a drag race going up there. I had the ignominy of having to walk up there. It was just after I’d won the Commonwealth Games road race and I was on a high. The Koppenberg brought me down with a thud.”
Beginning the climb, everything goes quite easy. The cobbles, while harsh (hey, they’re cobbles) are fairly even. There’s one or two people at the bottom when you’re still in amongst the houses and they watch you begin, perhaps wondering whether you’ll make it to the top or not. For me it was all very pleasant in a sunny, pastoral kind of way. And then the road starts to go up. Clicking down, I found myself in the granny gear much earlier than I’d intended. I forced myself not to look up at the top of the hill. “Just keep looking down and pedal,” I said. A few more strokes and there I was, out of the saddle. Matt Hayman told me, “When you’re out of the saddle, try to keep your weight back to keep traction on your rear wheel.” It’s easy to say, but when the gradient is over 20% and the bike is jumping around it’s a delicate balance indeed.
Entering the section where the road is dug into the hillside I’m reminded once again of Flanders’ bloody past. The sides of the road are just like a trench and it’s not hard to imagine soldiers sheltering behind its steep walls. Despite the summer sunshine there’s still a hint of dampness. I can only imagine what it must be like in wet weather.
The end of the S-bend sees me entering the sunshine again but even so, my back wheel is still slipping on the smooth stones. It has been doing so ever since the road began to go upwards. Riding the Koppenberg is as much an ability to balance as it is to push on the pedals. I can see fields again and bright sunshine. On either side of the road there are wildflowers, purple loosestrife, cow parsley and one or two late poppies. And bizarrely, on the left-hand side is a bench. Is it a bus stop? Or just a thoughtful resting place for anyone walking from the busway station in Melden? Who knows? What I do know is that the Koppenberg isn’t done yet. There’s twist in the road followed by another steep section, horribly steep, but I can now see the top. One last painful effort and I’m at the top and lucky enough to receive a small round of clapping from a Flemish family out for their post-lunch Sunday stroll. I’ve made it up the Koppenberg and now it’s time to roll back down and do it again!