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Fabulous Flanders — part 2

Cobbles & Climbs


Speaking of high anxiety. I'd never ridden on them prior to my trip to Belgium. Just the thought of them had kept me awake at night on several occasions. From afar, they looked extremely hard and unforgiving. Amid the advice from our two guides, we were cautioned against grabbing our bicycle's handlebars too tightly.


Yes, I'm talking about the cobbles. And in particular, the history-making ones gracing the roads of Flanders. While intimidating in one sense, these bone-jarring stones were a major reason for deciding to embark on this Trek Travel cycling vacation. Like a moth to a flame, I just needed to experience them for myself — no matter the possible danger.


One of the cobbled climbs in Belgium.

On Spring Classics-Flanders, we had the opportunity to encounter the cobbles on three separate days — opening with a relatively flat 29-mile spin around Ghent, which served as a breaking-in jaunt. This was followed by two 50-mile journeys that incorporated the climbs — the very ones I'd read about in countless cycling books and seen many times during race highlights on my laptop. Yes, the latter two outings involved the famous bergs, the Dutch word for mountain, where we found ourselves traversing the same routes used in the Tour of Flanders — both past and present.


While our group toiled bravely over several climbs during the trip, I've identified nine that really got my attention — either because of their well-known status or because of the brute force required to reach the top. Here they are, in alphabetical order:


Berg ten Houte

1.04 kilometers in distance, with an average gradient of 6.4 percent. It is the newest cobbled climb in the Tour of Flanders. Formerly paved, it was rebuilt with cobblestones in 2018. It is actually one of the oldest "stone roads" in the Flemish Ardennes.


Kanarieberg

It means "canary hill." It is paved, with a distance of .92 kilometer. It has an average gradient of 9.2 percent and a maximum gradient of 14 percent.


Koppenberg

It literally means "Heads Mountain" and is a 253-foot-high hill in Oudenaarde in the Flemish Ardennes. It is .55 kilometer in distance, with an average gradient of 11 percent and a maximum gradient of 22 percent. Often described as "rutted, with worn cobbles, and having a constantly greasy surface," it is listed as a national monument. It was the only one I failed to climb up the entire way. In fact, all but three pros walked up Koppenberg during this year's Tour of Flanders.


Molenberg

A cobbled surface .42 kilometer in distance, with an average gradient of 6.6 percent. For a long time, it was the first pivotal point of the Tour of Flanders. Two-time winner Peter Van Petegem always said: "If you're not in the first ten to take the Molenberg, it will take you at least half an hour to get back in front."


Famous church at the summit of the Muur.

Muur

Muur van Geraardsbergen (Grammont Wall), the cobbled surface is .91 kilometer in distance, with an average gradient of 9 percent and a maximum gradient of 20 percent. A local joke that often surfaces in Geraardsbergen is that there are only three famous walls in the world, Berlin, China, and theirs. For decades, the Muur was the decisive climb of the Tour of Flanders. Located on the summit is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Oudenberg (1724).


Oude Kwaremont

It is 2.11 kilometers in length, with an average gradient of 4.3 percent and a maximum gradient of 11.6 percent. It is the longest cobbled climb of the Tour of Flanders and ridden three times in men's pro race and once in the women's pro edition.


Paterberg

A cobbled surface, it is .35 kilometer in distance, with an average gradient of 12 percent and a maximum gradient of 20.3 percent. A recent addition to the Tour of Flanders, it was constructed in the 1980s on farmland by a landowner jealous of his friend's proximity to the Koppenberg every year.


Taaienberg

The cobbled surface is .53 kilometer in distance, with an average gradient of 6.3 percent. It means "tough hill" and was pro cyclist Tom Boonen's favorite hill for testing his early season form. It is casually known as the "Boonenberg."


Wolvenberg

Its paved surface is .66 kilometer in distance, with an average gradient of 7.9 percent and a maximum gradient of 17.3 percent.


So what was it like, these cobbled climbs? In a word — amazing! An experience that I strongly believe cannot be duplicated anywhere in the United States. While we have much higher hills in Maine with longer ascents, the ones in Belgium are different. Yes, they are shorter, but inhumanely steeper.


It almost didn't pay to look up while cranking for dear life on your pedals. The incline staring you in the face was heart-stopping. The things I remember most were the ever-present wind, the narrowness of the road surface, and often high banking on both sides — giving a kind of tunnel effect. In addition, during rainy conditions, it was important to stay stuck on your saddle to keep from spinning your rear wheel on the mud-covered cobbles.


While frightening at first, after a while one gets into a rhythm and rides "with" the cobbles — as opposed to battling against them. Along with that, the other "oh, wow" moments for me occurred when realizing the historical significance of these spiritual grounds — where the likes of Eddy Merckx, Fabian Cancellara, Johan Museeuw, Mathieu van der Poel, and others have ridden to glory on the very same cobbled climbs.


It should be pointed out that there was a fourth day of riding — but I had to catch my plane home — and longer-distance course options available. Regardless, it didn't detract from my wonderful experience, which again was made possible through Trek Travel.



NEXT WEEK: Fabulous Flanders — part 3 ... Tour of Flanders


Bouncing along on one of the many cobbled roads I experienced in Belgium. (Photo courtesy of Trek Travel)

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