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Book Excerpt: The Tour of Flanders from ‘The Spring Classics’ part 1

Editor’s note: This excerpt from “The Spring Classics” is republished with permission of VeloPress. “The Spring Classics: Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races” delves deeply into the glorious, beautiful history of cycling’s monuments. The book is available now in bookstores, bike shops, and online. See more at velopress.com including the list of races, more photos, and another excerpt. Part 2 will be published Friday.

Each classic has its own character, but the Ronde van Vlaanderen is utterly unique. For the Belgians’ own Tour de France, the Koppenberg and Mur de Grammont are the Mont Ventoux and L’Alpe d’Huez of Flanders. It’s a race with an epic tale condensed into a single day.

The Diabolical Ronde

A sharp rain is falling like tiny razor blades from a flannel-grey sky that folds over the horizon. Only two tall smokestacks at the power plant in Ruien, near the foot of the Old Kwaremont, help a white sun find a hole through the granite clouds.

We’re on the course of the Tour of Flanders, walking to the summit of its most infamous cobblestone climb, the Koppenberg, which is perhaps the best way of trying to understand why men come here to suffer on their bikes. The humped road, at first more than 20 feet wide, narrows as it climbs and plows upward between two steep, muddy, grassy banks lined with leafless trees, until it forms a fearsome little trench only 10 feet across. Climbed by the riders in this Belgian classic since 1976, the diabolical wall, 600 m in length, carved into what would be called a hill in any other country, has been the stage of the race’s most dramatic moments. The “Torture Chamber” is one of its most pertinent nicknames.

To survive its dangers, riders must race furiously to reach its base in the first wave of dirt-covered coureurs. The rest of the pack is often blocked by those who have fallen or flatted and have to finish the climb on foot, as it’s impossible to regain balance on the 22 percent incline without putting a foot to the ground. Their cleats slip on the wet cobblestones, and they reach the top with their bikes hoisted over their shoulders, waddling like penguins on ice. The best teammates, it’s said, sometimes help their team leaders make a break by intentionally slipping out of their pedals to create a gap in the line of riders, causing the pack of pursuers to collapse like a row of dominoes.

From the 262-foot summit, there’s an unobstructed view across the plain of Flanders, over the scarecrows keeping watch, almost to the North Sea and its bleak dunes, where the early kilometers of this classic are raced. The monotony of the flat, pastoral landscape is relieved here and there by ancient places of worship, red-brick church steeples and cathedrals of dark stone pushing up grimly in the wan light.

These lowlands are also blessed by a geological hallucination known as the Flemish Ardennes, with their score of famed bergs (hills). These rises are scattered over an area measuring 30 km from west to east (from Kluisbergen to Ninove) by 20 km from north to south (from Oudenaarde to Renaix). The farmworkers of yesteryear never took the time to flatten these rolling hills; instead, they laid cobblestone tracks up the steep sides, to give traction for horses and wood-wheeled carts.

Professional cycling’s best backdrops will always be the snow peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees, but the little green bergs of Flanders have for almost a century provided an incredible playground for the sport’s most intrepid athletes. Since the first Tour of Flanders on May 25, 1913, when 37 riders set off from Ghent on a 324 km odyssey, the Ronde van Vlaanderen organizers have barely changed its scenario. As early as 1919, the route was laid out as it is today: a succession of straight roads starting from Bruges or Ghent over 200 km of plains, often including a brief diversion by the coast and its crosswinds, followed by a hectic 100 km rodeo through a maze of twists and turns that jump past green fields to hellacious cobblestone hills and back again. Climbs only a few hundred meters long may seem innocent enough to a layperson, but none of them is easy after five or six hours of intense racing.

Until the 1950s, the course scaled only a handful of bergs: the Kluisberg, Kwaremont, Kruisberg, and Edelare. Today, the number is generally around 15, with a record 19 climbs in 2003. The organizers are constantly seeking to spice up the race by discovering unused slopes or restructuring the course. In 2010, for instance, they switched the route around to make the steep, cobbled Molenberg the day’s tenth climb instead of the first.

The high points of the Tour of Flanders took little time to become legends considering they were rather late additions to the race’s menu. Among them is the Kwaremont. This was originally a wide road of regular cobblestones, edged by a gravel pathway, connecting Berchem and Renaix. The road lost its sporting edge in 1966 when it was paved with asphalt, but the organizers then discovered an older, parallel portion of bumpy cobblestones rising between sloping fields: the Old Kwaremont. By tradition, this serpentine slice of road, just over 2 km long with a gradient that tops out at 11 percent, is the third or fourth of the day’s climbs—but it is also the first real breaking point in the race. It has been featured on every single itinerary since its first appearance in 1974.

The second legend of the course has been less faithful. Rougher, more violent, more unjust, the Koppenberg has been taken off and put back on the course so frequently as to earn its modern nickname “VDB of the bergs,” in reference to Frank Vandenbroucke, a rider known for his phenomenal athletic gifts that occasionally shone through at the Ronde (he finished 2nd in 1999 and 2003), but also for his spectacular failures and his controversial clashes with sporting and civil authorities before his untimely death in 2009.

The Koppenberg was first used as a theater for cycling drama in 1976. It was scratched from the course eleven years later, following the 1987 edition, when the rider leading the race, Jesper Skibby of Denmark, fell across the treacherous track and a following race official’s car flattened his bike and just missed driving over his legs. That was more than enough to energize the Koppenberg’s detractors in their campaign to banish the monster. The image of a sprawled Skibby served as a violent reminder of a series of cruel scenes in which the rugged climb’s opponents saw only a monument to the sport’s blind injustice, a monstrosity as dangerous to the race as to the riders.

Its defenders argue that a Ronde featuring the Koppenberg requires greater know-how, strength, and courage on the part of the competitors. Only those who approach it in the lead make it to the top on their bikes; the others are often left on foot. Bernard Hinault referred to the Koppenberg with the same kind words he usually saved for the Arenberg trench in Paris-Roubaix: a “circus” or “pig trough.”

The Koppenberg does indeed raise regular debates about its dangers. And, like the nastiest stretch of Roubaix cobblestones, it was reintroduced to the race in 2002. It took a $500,000 facelift, with five years of labor and some newly hewn cobblestones from Poland, to reunite the Koppenberg with the Ronde. Talk remains of an underground spring that emerges halfway up and makes the cobblestones uneven, or the rain that makes them impossibly slick. But the most fatalistic observers view this as a false problem; even when the course is dry, most of the pack hoof it.

Bumps and Bad Weather

Another postwar legend is the Mur de Grammont (also called the Muur van Geraardsbergen), which has been used in the Ronde since 1950. It was originally a cobbled street climbing through the city, but that section was paved over in the late 1950s. As a dessert, the organizers in 1981 added the Kapelmuur, a curving, 1 km–long, wall-like hill leading to a chapel above the town, much of it composed of vicious cobblestones. Vitally, the Muur comes at the culmination of a long day. If the pack has not yet been broken into enough pieces to unleash a group of contenders for the win, the Muur takes care of business, before the final climb, the Bosberg, effects the ultimate selection. Even the strongest suffer on the Muur, for it was on its slopes that Belgian classics specialist and two-time Ronde winner Tom Boonen looked up in surprise to see Swiss superstar Fabian Cancellara riding away in 2010, from where he powered to a solo finish with 1:15 to spare.

The Bosberg, located 12 km from the present-day finish line in the Ninove suburb of Meerbeke, is almost 1 km long, paved in asphalt for its first half and cobblestones for its second. Though not especially difficult, and less cruel than others with its average grade of less than 6 percent (with an 11 percent maximum), it has been the launching pad for many Ronde winners. So much so that this climb bestowed a nickname, Eddy Bosberg, on two-time Belgian winner Edwig Van Hooydonck (1989 and 1991), who carved out both of his victories on these last few cobblestones.

If each of these bergs has its own identity, none of them can claim to single-handedly summarize the Tour of Flanders, in the same way that neither the Ventoux nor L’Alpe d’Huez epitomizes the Tour de France. It is the daisy-chaining of these Flemish hills around a maze of muddy paths that constitutes the real difficulty of the Ronde. Practically everything remains to be done at the foot of each climb. On the approach, the peloton accelerates neurotically, knowing that only the first 20 riders will start the climb in ideal conditions. The race will not be won here, but it may well be lost. “The Ronde is a whole,” said Peter Van Petegem, the winner in 1999 and 2003, “not a single berg.”

To the joys of geology must be added those of the roadways. A great number of hills, the hardest of them, are made of cobblestones. In 1913, the cobblestones covered a generous third of the course and did not appear to constitute one of its crucial elements. In fact, to avoid the stones, the racers often chose to ride on the roads’ dirt shoulders. Then, after World War II, the cobbles disappeared in less time than it takes to say “paving.”

The organizers soon realized that the long stretches of asphalt would quickly kill the race and set about looking for alternate routes. While searching for these, they found many of the hidden bergs, with their roads usable but untouched by the modernization affecting the highways. Gradually, the second part of the Tour of Flanders became concentrated in the Flemish Ardennes.

The original cobblestone was made from spotted, grey porphyry, a regional rock extracted from the quarries of Lessines and Quenast— the same ones that also paved the streets of Paris and the docks of New York. The Mur de Grammont features more porous cobbles, made from sandstone. Today, 30 or so kilometers of the course have been renovated, their cobbles replaced by granite of Norwegian, Swedish, or Polish origin.

Since 1993, the cobblestones have been officially protected—like those of Paris-Roubaix—and the bergs, now tourist attractions, have become the objects of everyone’s attention. Each hump is observed and protected like a small ecological reserve. The bergs even enjoy their own microclimate as a result of their particular exposure to the sun. A few plants have chosen to settle on their slopes, such as the lathrée clandestine, a purple flower that can survive without light by parasitizing poplar or willow trees. More common is the amphibian fire salamander, a guest welcome for its very diplomatic design featuring the Flemish flag colors of yellow and black.

Cobblestones have done as much for the myth of the Ronde as for that of Paris-Roubaix, but they are not savored with the same sauce. Those of Roubaix are approached on the flat; the best method of attack is to fly over them in a high gear. But this method cannot be used during a climb because it is impossible to maintain the necessary speed. The more specialized riders keep their center of gravity as low on their bike as possible for optimal stability. Dancing on the pedals is of little help, especially in the rain: not enough grip. The best riders keep their hands low on the handlebars and try to power their way up the middle of the road to attack the gradient at full strength. Despite the 15 or so earlier hills, they still need enough left in them for another kick, one last acceleration to hoist themselves to the summit.

The most moving images from the Tour of Flanders, the ones that leave a permanent imprint, are those born of horrific conditions. Real Flanders weather (rain, cold, wind, and hail, with snow an optional extra) has graced only 26 editions of the race, which takes place during the first two weeks of spring. But, naturally, some of the most memorable wins have come in the most terrible weather.

The worst of these corresponds to the victories of Fiorenzo Magni in 1950 and 1951, Eddy Merckx in 1969, Eric Vanderaerden in 1985, and Edwig Van Hooydonck in 1989. Vanderaerden even went so far as to attribute a tactical element to the day’s harshness. “Without these conditions, the Ronde would not be the Ronde,” he said. “They accentuate the power relationships between riders. If the weather had not been so awful in 1985, I would never have been able to catch back on after my flat tire [on the Koppenberg]. In good weather, the race plays out at higher speeds, and unlucky riders lose any possibility of catching up with the breakaways. Rotten weather offers strong riders more possibilities.” The hellish conditions have greatly contributed to the race’s legend: The spectators in the heroic era cheered on whimpering riders and—so goes the tale—picked up pieces of frozen fingers from the ditches.

The bergs, the cobblestones, and the weather are all that remain to link us, every April, to the 37 pioneers of 1913. They bequeathed what no one today is quite able to pinpoint: the Flandrian spirit. Attempts at defining this vary somewhat, depending on memories and to which generation the question is asked. But, in essence, the Flandrian is a hardworking, never-say-die cyclist, born and raised in the region.

“A tough man,” said Walter Godefroot, who was born in Ghent in 1943, won the race in 1968 and 1978, and was an excellent Flandrian himself. “He chooses to attack even if he must disappear, even if he must die.” And Marc Sergeant, born in Aalst in 1959, the Belgian national champion in 1986, and now a successful team manager, said, “A Flandrian gives all the strength he has over the course of a single day. He is someone generous, with rare willpower. He holds nothing back.”

Part 2 will be published Friday.

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