Rising like a monument from the rolling farmland of northern Belgium is the infamous climb known as the Kemmelberg. Named after the village of Kemmel on its eastern slopes, during World War One it was the scene of brutal slaughter. Today, it is the focal point of the Gent-Wevelgem, one of the great Classics and whose two ascents of the Kemmelberg’s notorious cobbled pavement, or pavé, continue to court controversy. For if the riders must climb the Kemmel twice, they must also descend. With its 20 per cent gradient over unpredictable terrain, the Kemmelberg has witnessed some truly horrendous crashes, most recently in the Gent-Wevelgem of 2007. This is the landscape that has shaped some of the hardest of cycling’s hard men, a dark, brooding theatre with a romance and history all its own and which, in many ways, represents the quintessential Belgian racing experience.
This is the landscape that has shaped some of the hardest of cycling’s hard men, a dark, brooding theatre with a romance and history all its own and which, in many ways, represents the quintessential Belgian racing experience.01 April 2008
The customs and rituals particular to Flanders make the area unique among the great road racing arenas of the world. In April, 2008, a group of riding friends travelled there to tackle the Kemmelberg’s fabled slopes. Having negotiated the pavé unscathed, they joined a highly knowledgeable – and highly partisan – Belgian crowd to experience the rich atmosphere of Gent-Wevelgem first hand.
The 60 miles east from Calais scarcely merit mention in dispatches. A laden bike, a headwind and unmarked roads mean you have to ask the way at every blind junction before the old Route Nationales kick in. You ride this first leg head down, on the rivet. Any inclination to complain will not do, however: destination Flanders and Flandrians scoff at such minor irritations as a gale in your face. Ahead lies the brooding prospect of open fields dotted with what look like abandoned farms, for lorn cattle and weather-broken trees and long hard miles unblessed by signposts. The straight path alongside the Canal de Calais and a brief spin by the Aa river lift the spirits until a fingerpost reading Point du Jour – daybreak – offers a wake-up call: you came to ride, so ride. Back roads give way to the long, straight lorry-blasted causeways of the RN, bike lane stitched on like a wide hem. Cassel sits atop of a large boss of land, an aberration in this flat terrain. It’s not all cobbles, Flanders. It has hills, too. Not high hills, admittedly, but the Kemmel is one of a line of them,the so-called Monts de Flandre, big excrescences left exposed by the sea’s receding floodwaters. They look horrible, too. You know how it is, you get used to riding the flat, even into a wall of stiff breeze, and the mere sightof a climb gives you the creeps.
The morning of the Gent-Wevelgem. Try the aspirated rustle of the Flamand pronunciation: Fayfel-h’m. Ypres rests quiet and still.The cathedral’s celebrated carillon is yet to sound. The Specialized Paris-Roubaix tyres, inflated to 120 psi, popple on the stone gooseflesh of the boulevard. There’s a post-dawn nip in the air but this early sun has a bright April, spring shine about it, like a rider who tells his team: “Aujourd’hui, c’est moi qui gagne…Today I win.” In hotels dotted around the start in Deinze, 20 kilometres outside Gent, today’s race men are slipping into their pre-start rituals, the breakfast carbo load, the twitchy waiting, massage, meeting, team plan. It’s only when they arrive on stage towards the end of the race that they’ll properly engage our interest, on the sharp gradient of the cobbled Kemmelberg which they must climb twice. Their tightly programmed, behind-the-scenes preamble is less intriguing, right now, than the sweet immediacy of our own high-cadence excursion into tranquil countryside, at this hour deserted, bird songsters limbering up on branch and twig, a cockerel getting the reveille call almost right, a dog earning his food bowl with a warning bark as the tyre treads ripple, the chains whirr on the single fixed cog and we feel the warmth zinging up through chest and legs. This is the real deal, the pleasure of riding quiet roads unmolested by traffic and ahead of us, the thickly wooded promontory on the horizon, the Kemmelberg. Buried in the earth of these croplands is sown, still, a lethal harvest, residue of the four million shells which hurtled down between July andNovember during what was officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, more grittily as Paschendale… Passion Dale. Do we reflect on half a million men killed all told? Perhaps we should. The silence in this landscape is only ever uneasy and so should it be. Most of the riders in the peloton are older than the majority of the men who died in that and most other wars.
Along the disused canal to Voormezele onto Wijschaatestraat,then Slipstraat, Kriekstraat and Nieuwstraat, into Kemmel and round the little square, barriers in place, past the tiny comical bronze statuette of the Kemmel badaud or ‘gawper’. He recalls the time when the Kemmel villagers first went to far off Ypres to sell their produce and stood in distracted amazement in front of the magnificent Lakenhalle, the Cloth Hall, thinking: “Wow! Who built that? Was it angels… giants…the Belgian god of brickwork?” This is the way the riders come. From Deinze, north-west towards the coast, cut back inland, and their first sight of the Kemmelberg is ours: a tree-cloaked prominence heaving sharply out of the horizon like a vast molehill, wildly disproportionate in this low-lying land. Of no great height, in truth, at 156 metres, but having to hit it from a near-standing start over wicked pavé? A vile lung- and leg-buster. What’s it like to ride cobbles? It’s lumpy and the harder you go, the higher your cadence and the nastier it gets. The dire stress on the entire body, legs, trunk, arms, translated through the stress on the machine, is unlike any other. Put pavé and gradient together – worse downhill than up – and you have Kemmelberg. A narrow central gully about two and-a-half centimetres wide splits the concrete slabs of the approach road. Known as ‘the valley of death’, peloton old lags are wary of it but a newcomer may catch a wheel in it and go down. Without the pressure of racing we go circumspectly. And here it comes, the right-hander onto the cobbles. A wickedly steep, lock- tight stone pile.A gradient cursed with petrified, inside-out potholes. Back and ball-breaking. Kemmelberg. “They come up here twice?,” one of our group asks as we pant and strain up it. No more than four and-a-half kilometres but a hellish percentage. Avoiding back-wheel slippage, the fixed gear tight as a shackle on both calves, cobbles jerking the halter.“They come up here twice,” another replies. The final section kicks up abruptly on a narrow, twisting uneven and unkind rumble strip of misshapen cobbles, twisting like a convulsion of pain constricting a nerve. And suddenly the cobbles fuse with asphalt and the road flattens. The smooth surface is a relief but climbs on, imperceptibly, through the woods. Sparse trees tower over shallow craters, the imprint of the hideous iron rain of artillery and mortar shells in that Third Battle of Ypres now overgrown. Phew. What else do you say when you top out on such a climb? And here? Think of what happened here in 1918 and be grateful that, like these trees, you missed out on such horror, that 20 per cent and pavé is a doddle by comparison. 10am. The Belvedere restaurant, the place to be. Pre-race bonhomie builds. Politie motos ride through. Television crews set up. Across the road, a cameraman adjusts his gantried elevating chair. A scattering of race officials. A catering truck reverses in.
East, across Flanders fields, an innocuous gun fires and the race departs. The waiting on the Kemmelberg officially begins. Time-fillers are talk, longueurs of silence, and observing the slow leach of fans up the narrow defiles behind the barriers lining the pavé from the right-hand turn below. Road now closed to all but authorised vehicles. “What time does the television transmission start?” “Two-thirty.” Time, dismounted, trudges doggedly by with two punctures, front and rear, and no spares. Luncheoneers arrive. The crowd inside the Belvedere swells. TV trailers feature interviews with Big Tom Boonen, who won here in 2004 but hasn’t quite topped his big Flandrian wins of 2005, the year he won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Ignoring what he says, merely registering his smiling presence, the entire company of spectators goes doolally with a Flemish version of “O-way, O-way, O-way-o-way”. When Stijn Devolder appears, the winner of this year’s Tour of Flandersheld the previous weekend, the entire company starts up again. Then, a reporter reflecting on the mayhem on the Kemmelberg in 2007, accompanied by grisly footage of the calamity.
The dining room of the Belvedere bulges, 140 to lunch. Rik and. Sylvie, the owners, and their staff work at full tempo like the bunch in echelon against a crosswind, chasing down escapees. The television screens fill with action, like a boy’s eyes opening to a birthday surprise of a new pair of Bontragers and one of the tables launches into a sort of mindless football-crowd chant, endlessly repeated: “Nico Mattan, Nico Mattan, hey-oh, hey-oh,Nico Mattan.” The hectic enthusiasm of those rendering this monodic mantra indicates that it may actually mean something and I enquire. Periodically (it seems) they pick a rider (Belgian) from the bunch. “Not le top,” it is explained, “not a best one but a good rider and it helps when his name fit the la-la-la, so Nico Mattan, he’s right because he does okay in the la-la-la.” Somewhat embarrassingly, Mattan ballsed up by winning in 2005, albeit he’s reckoned to have taken a draft from the commissaire’s car near the finish to out sprint Juan Antonio Flecha. Perhaps the Spanish lobby have a rival chant:“Flecha was robbed, Flecha was robbed, olé olé, Flecha was robbed.” The serveurs weave through the boisterous mass of lunchers, male and female, the waitresses fielding flirtatious ribaldry with good humour. One waiter grips four large steins of Leffe in the cup of his right hand, a fifth lodged against them on his lower right forearm, a sixth in his left hand, which also steadies the cartage of the right as he shimmies through the dense scrum of boozers and bingers. The occupants of one table resolutely play cards throughout proceedings, believing perhaps that the race is not to the swiftest and that after a nice boozy lunch it’s gotta be time for a hand or two of rummy and yet more bottles.
Time for the race to come through. Out boys. Fans line both sides of the Kemmelberg gauntlet like insulation packing in a cavity wall. They gaze back down the eel-black, lizard skin of the ascent as the publicity caravan roars by: Politie outriders; a few photographers ahead of the bunch; the Feldweg (race) car warning of imminent approach and the commissaire’s saloon. Necks stretch, bodies hunch over and a crescendo roar rolls up the slopes as a lone rider, Ermanno Capelli, breasts the empty cobbles. The spectators are mostly Belgian but about solo heroics they are unpartisan. The Italian is shaping an exploit so they cheer him to the spindly ceiling laths of the tree canopy. Hot on Capelli’s tyre, like a flotilla of motor launches following the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, comes the billowing wake of cars, motorbike-mounted shutterbugs and police. Dotted among the crowd are English club cyclists, drably dressed in pavement-pizza-patterned Lycra. Nine or so minutes into Capelli’s lead, the blaring tocsin of klaxons wells up from the valley and the pursuers are on us, out of the saddle, faces taut with effort, strung out within the strait confines of the Kemmelbergweg, the favourites identifiable to a sharp eye. There’s Cavendish, named as a possible winner (is the new team well drilled enough?), Boonen, Hincapie, the rest a blur. Another lull before the second passage. Capelli again, still clear, just, his lead now cut to seconds as we watch the bunch speed up into the narrow, tree-lined corridor and past. They’re. looking composed, flexing themselves to regroup on the flatlands below the Kemmel, the last fierce acceleration to the red kite and banderole. We all meet up back in the beer tent in time to see Oscar Freire become the first Spanish winner and avenge Flecha. With a couple of fresh beers to round off the occasion, we observe a curious individual in conversation with some locals. He leans upon a staff whose bottom half is composed of a furled, Flandrian yellow umbrella. To its upper extension is attached, on one side, a miniature Stars and Stripes, on the other a Lion of Flanders flag and atop the whole, a double- bladed Viking axe, in chewed gum-grey plastic. This bizarre assemblage also bears a sticker with the legend: Healing Power of Beer. In the way of all cycle races, once the cataract of bikes, cars and motos has crashed by our viewing platform like an express train, the scene takes on an air of instant neglect, abandonment, purposelessness. The barriers are swiftly denuded of attendants, the dribs and drabs on the Belvedere forecourt begin to drift off and even inside there is a notable thinning. Later, as the removal men strip the Kemmelberg of all evidence that a bike race ever came through, we rumble and bump back down the unforgiving cobbles, the hard pavé of this Flandrian cycling mecca, heading for the cheerless miles back to the coast. But the sun smiles and so should we.
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