I don’t really know how many times I’ve covered the Tour of Flanders. And I don’t really remember how many times I have covered Het Nieuwsblad or Ghent-Wevelgem. I know that it all started somewhere back in the early 90s, but to be honest, the years, like the many “muurs” and “bergs” simply fade into one another in the fog of my memory.
I remember Paul Sherwin referring to Het Volk — the other newspaper that previously organized Het Nieuwsblaad — as a training race. I remember the make-shift betting booths that bookies set up in the parking lot before the start of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. And I remember when Ghent-Wevelgem was a sort of mid-week dress rehearsal for Paris-Roubaix. Sure it was respected, but it had none of the near-monument status it currently holds.
And yet every time I return to these roads, I am quickly disoriented. Sure I know that the Oude Kwaremont, Kopenberg, and Paterberg are all interconnected. But on the narrow farm roads, and the maze of left and right turns that they offer, I am quickly lost. I have driven through the crossroads town of Ronse so many times that I have been on every road in and out of that town. And yet, I know none of them. Instead, it seems, I am suspended in a perpetual state of déjà vu.
Somehow though, I find this disorientation quite fitting. I actually like floating through Flanders, adrift as I may be. For in these moments I am simply absorbed by a sea of green, blue and gray that is the Flemish landscape. There is nothing readily beautiful about the countryside in this corner of the world. And yet, it has an uncanny ability to get under your skin. The landscape is both lush and muscular. And it is no surprise that this rugged stage has often produced some of the toughest cyclists to ever climb on a bike.
But while I have often seen these roads on race day, I was curious what they looked like the other 360-odd days of the year when there is no Ronde, no Nieuwsblad, and no Ghent-Wevelgem. What would they look like when they were just a bunch of country roads? So to find out, this past winter I ventured up to spend a day simply admiring the Flemish landscape, as it waited for its next race.
This small Flemish village peaks out midway up the Oude Kwaremont. And while the first half of the climb is the steepest, the long false flat after the village always splinters the peloton.
The mural on this celebrates the cycling history of Ronse, host to the 1988 world Championships.
While the Molenberg is not the hardest climb, the windmill that sits atop marks the long exposed stretch that follows.
In what can only be an ominous sign to the riders, the number 13 marks the beginning of the climb up the Oude Kwaremont.
This sign points to the war monument atop the Kemmelberg honoring French soldiers who perished in the Flanders Fields during World War I.
Sitting atop the Paterberg, this sign identifies the 20 percent pitch on this climb that is so crucial in the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Peaceful at first glance, this winding road is the much dreaded false flat that defines the Oude Kwaremont climb. Often exposed to crosswinds, more than one race has been decided here.
While the summit of the Muur in Geraardsbergen is highly celebrated, this narrow turn at the foot of the climb always hosts a dramatic battle for position.
This sign at the foot of the Kopenberg identifies the length and pitch of this gruelling climb.
This tunnel of trees disguises the true difficulty of the Koppenberg.
This forlorn cafe always greets riders at the top of the long climb out of Ronse.
Ronde Van Vlaanderenstraat, honors the great race near the summit of the Oude Kwaremont.