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.