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The end of Flanders’ cobbles? Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont scheduled for paving

The engineers' projection of a post-construction Muur-Kapelmuur

A new finish town appears not to be the only change in store for De Ronde Van Vlaanderen in 2012. The Oude Kwaremont, Koppenberg and Muur-Kapelmuur climbs are scheduled for renovations that include paving later this year.

“The steps taken by the provincial governments have paved the way for a better future for transportation in East and West Flanders,” said parliamentary representative Dirk DeLeugenaar. “Kwaremontplein and Koppenberg remain two of the most challenging passages in the province and this roads project will provide a convenient connection between Brussels, Oudenaarde and Kluisbos.”

DeLeugenaar late last year spearheaded a campaign by the Oudenaarde district to ease protections on the classic climbs of the Belgian one-day races. With a €2.3 million bond approved in January, the transportation authority will replace the cobblestones on the Muur-Kapelmuur, Koppenberg and Oude Kwaremont with pavement as part of the construction of a new highway connecting the Kluisbos recreational resort to Brussels and Oudenaarde.

Former East Flanders governor Edouard De Jaegher said the project would not only improve regional transportation, but also make for safer, more controlled racing at the Tour of Flanders and E3 Harelbeke. “These climbs have seen countless accidents – many involving our Flemish heroes – since they were first used 35 years ago,” said De Jaegher. “With the dangerous stones replaced, sporting competition will be more fair. Perhaps we will not see (Fabian) Cancellara embarrass our stars. I lost a small fortune at the odds table last year.”

The Kluisbos resort is an important regional retreat on the Wallonie border owned in part by provincial deputy Gert Denkbeeldig. Denkbeeldig was himself a junior national champion on the road, but left the sport in 1967 when he could not secure a professional contract. According to a release from the Flemish for Fair Cycling organization that helped orchestrate Stijn Devolder’s move from Quick-Step to Vacansoleil-DCM, Denkbeeldig has worked since his election in 1996 to bring smooth surfaces to the outdated Flemish pathways.

“The deputy has been a key figure in the movement to bring Flemish roads into the 20th century – or even the 19th,” said FFC president Klaus Namaak. “Despite setbacks over the last 10 years where the cobbles on the Koppenberg were actually twice restored, Denkbeeldig has worked tirelessly for this project.”

Construction has already begun in areas not included on the 2010 Tour of Flanders route

The roads project will not only pave the historic climbs, but also widen them to two lanes at their narrowest points. According to the transportation authority, the improvements will likely reduce the drive time between Oudenaarde and Kluisbos – now 15 kilometers apart – by five to eight minutes. The 90-kilometer drive from Brussels would shrink to 75 kilometers.

As they stand now, all three climbs choke to a single, cobbled lane. With a 22-percent maximum grade, The Koppenberg is often an early decisive point in De Ronde, while the Muur-Kapelmuur is the last jumping off point. The pure sprinters met the news of the road improvements positively.

“We Italians have had a tough time in Flanders,” said Lampre-ISD sprinter Alessandro Petacchi. “We’ve only won the race nine times in almost 100 years. But now with the changes, I hope to line my sprint train up for the finale in 2012.”

Referring to the common occurrence of riders outside the first 20 places being forced to walk the Koppenberg and later climbs, Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) added, “If I wanted to shoulder my f–ing bike, I would race cyclocross.”

“Not so fast,” said Flanders organizer Wim Van Herreweghe.

“We are looking at alternatives to maintain the challenging characteristics of these climbs,” he said. “Discussions are ongoing with a number of marble manufacturers, as well as a leading banana peel producer in Nicaragua. The Oude Kwaremont, Koppenberg and Muur-Kapelmuur are historic sites of brutality – and hilarity – and we intend to keep them that way.”

Crews broke ground on the project in March.

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