When the riders of the 94th Ronde van Vlaanderen scale the race’s 15 defining climbs on Sunday, they’re unlikely to be surprised by what they find there. Sure, there are the much-photographed team reconnaissance rides that take place throughout this week, but those are mostly a little extra media exposure, maybe a chance to give the punters a bit of a peek at some classics-specific equipment. At their most useful, those rides are probably a bit of a security blanket – a feeling of doing something, anything, to prepare for the chaos to come, a final cram session before the test, a last look at the angle of approach. But absent the race conditions that influence speeds and racing lines, those jaunts can tell only so much. No, the real recon rides for the Ronde have come during the string of Belgian classics that precede the Ronde: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Nokere Koerse, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. In addition to these UCI 1.1 and 1.HC single day races, a pair of 2.1 stage races, the Driedaagse West Vlaanderen and the Driedaagse DePanne also traverse much of the same terrain.
All told, from Het Niewsblad in February through the Ronde in early April, the Flemish Ardennes, a.k.a. the hill zone, is a beehive of activity. A small section of a small country, this hilly little patch of woods and farmland bordered roughly by Kortrijk to the west, Gent to the north, Ronse to the south, and Aalst to the east, becomes the epicenter of the cycling world for two months a year. So dense is the racing activity in the area, so intensive the use of its indigenous climbs, both cobbled and paved, that if you overlaid the winding routes of all the spring races on a single map, it would look like the Spirograph work of a drunken madman.
This Year’s Debutantes
Come Sunday, the most battle hardened classics men lining up for the Ronde will likely have seen, in competition, all but five of the race’s featured hellingen.
The Ronde’s first two climbs, both paved, have yet to be used in top level competition this year. At only 450 meters, the Den Ast climb (km 131) tickles the minimal requirement for listing in the roadbook, while the Kluisberg (km 165) is more formidable at 925 meters at an average gradient of 6.8 percent and a maximum of 14.5 percent. Both fall early enough in the race that absolute intimacy with their contours is unlikely to be terribly important.
Not so with the legendary Koppenberg (km 189), the climb that lurks in a steep trench in the farmland outside of Oudenaarde, a spiritual center of Flemish cycling that's home to the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum. The 600 meter cobbled climb averages 11.6 percent and maxes out at 22 percent, and though still early in the race, presents a danger for several reasons. To apply the cycling cliché, you can’t win the Ronde on the Koppenberg, but you can lose it there. Shaded and little used for the rest of the year, the Koppenberg has had issues with moss growing on the cobbles, adding to the slickness that already abounds with smooth stones, rain, and the region’s abundant use of manure as fertilizer for its fields. Combined with the grade, the slickness causes, if not outright crashes, an ample number of bobbles and dabs, with the ensuing loss of momentum bringing trailing riders to a screeching halt. The same factors make restarting on the climb difficult, and as the front of the race accelerates over the top, several riders will see their chances of making the finale evaporate.
Lack of mechanical support on the Koppenberg also poses a danger. After the legendary commissaire-running-over-Jesper-Skibby incident in 1987, the Koppenberg was ejected from the race for a number of years, deemed too constricted for the safe passage of the race. Forgiveness and reinclusion in 2002 were predicated on both a re-laying of the cobbles, as well as an accompanying race caravan diversion. As a result, riders who suffer mechanicals between the Koppenberg’s turf walls won’t receive help quickly, and for front runners, any delay at all here could spell disaster. Just ask Fabian Cancellara.
All of that makes a good position at the front of the race crucial as the Koppenberg looms. Obviously, being near the front means less riders to potentially bog down in front of you, but it also means more teammates behind you to hand over a wheel or a bike, or to give a starting shove if need be. With that in mind, previewing riders will be examining the approach just as much as the hill itself, looking for landmarks to warn of its approach and stretchs of road where they can pick up a few spots.
Hot on the heels of the Koppenberg comes the Steenbeekdries (km195), which also hasn’t seen use yet this spring. Compared to its predecessor, it’ll feel like a picnic. While longer than the Koppenberg at 700 meters, and just as cobbled, the Steenbeekdries rises at a comparatively modest 5.3 percent average and 6.7 maximum.
The final first-look climb at the Ronde is also its final hill – the Bosberg. At 980 meters long, with intermittent cobbles and an average of 5.8 percent, the Bosberg isn’t as distinctive as the Koppenberg or the Ronde’s signature climb, the Muur de Geraardsbergen, but it makes up for its milder character with an impeccable sense of timing. Coming at kilometer 250, several key selections will have already been made, and the Bosberg will provide one final chance for a rider or group to shed their companions before the flat 12 kilometer drag race into Meerbeke. While last year’s winner Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) seems to prefer an earlier launch pad, Edwig Van Hooydonck proved the effectiveness of the Bosberg several decades ago, attacking on the hill on his way to winning the Ronde in 1989 and 1991, and earning his nickname “Eddy Bosberg” in the process.
Green Hills of Flanders
So what of the other 10 hills of the Ronde? All of them – including the iconic Muur de Geraardsbergen and Oude Kwaremont hills – have already been used in competition this year. By the finish of the Ronde on Sunday, the classics specialists will have scaled 44 different hills in the region during the top-flight spring races (if we include the three French hills introduced to Gent-Wevelgem this year). One hill, the one alternately known as the Tiegemberg and/or the Vossenhol, stands above the rest this year, getting five races worth of action, while many are used just once. It’s worth noting that Belgium has one of the densest road networks in the world, allowing organizers to create almost endless combinations of hills and routes between them, so in any given year, the prevalence of any single hill can shift. For instance, had the Oude Kwaremont factored into the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year, as it often does, it would have also received 5 visits.
Here’s how use of the various bergs breaks down – so keep this in mind if you’re looking to buy a vacation home in Flanders. Remember -- location, location, location.
HN: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, February 27
KBK: Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, February 28
WV: Driedaagse West Vlaanderen, March 5—March 7
NK: Nokere Koerse, March 17
DDV: Dwars Door Vlaanderen, March 24
E3: E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, March 27
GW: Gent-Wevelgem, March 28
DP: Driedaagse DePanne, March 30—April 1
RVV: Ronde Van Vlaanderen, April 4
5 Races (1 Hill)
Tiegemberg/Vossenhol: KBK; NK; DDV; E3; DP
4 Races (5 Hills)
Berendries: HN; DDV; DP; RVV
Eikenberg: HN; DDV; E3; RVV
Knokteberg/Cote de Trieu: KBK; DDV; E3; RVV
Leberg: HN; DDV; DP; RVV
Oude Kwaremont: KBK; DDV; E3; RVV
3 Races (7 Hills)
Kemmelberg: WV; GW; DP
Kruisberg: HN; KBK; DP
Monteberg: WV; GW; DP
Nokereberg: KBK; NK; DDV
Paterberg: DDV; E3; RVV
Taaienberg: HN; E3; RVV
Valkenberg: HN; DDV; DP
2 Races (6 Hills)
Edelareberg: KBK; DP
La Houppe: KBK; E3
Molenberg: HN; RVV
Muur de Geraardsbergen: HN; RVV
Rodeberg: WV; GW
Tenbosse: HN; RVV
1 Race (25 Hills)
Berg Stene: E3
Berthen (FR): GW
Den Ast: RVV
Mont des Cats (FR): GW
Mont Noir (FR): GW
Oude Kruiskens: E3
- Yes, I do have a flashier chart version of the information above, but it’s not cooperating well with the blog format.
- It’s important to note that the information above only counts the number of races that have visited each hill, not the total number of times they’re climbed. For example, Gent-Wevelgem scales the Kemmelberg twice during the race, but Gent-Wevelgem is still counted as a single race visit for that hill.
- Hill-wise, I have to admit to being partial to the Oude Kwaremont. It’s long, cobbled, and there’s a pretty good restaurant near the top, and if you sit in the terrace area you can see the riders coming from far enough off to get back out to the street for the live view. And though the climb is tough, the locals will tell you the sting is in the tail – once you’re over the top and through the tiny town, you pop out into an open field where you get flattened by crosswinds. Fun.
- The number of riders who could win the Ronde seems to be dwindling quickly, doesn’t it? With Heinrich Haussler and Andreas Klier (Cervelo) and Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) out with injuries, Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) apparently under the weather, and riders like Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) showing little form of note lately, it feels like a diminished field. Fortunately, we started the season with a wealth of riches, so we still have Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma), Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Nick Nuyens (Rabobank), Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank), and a host of other riders in with a shot at carrying off the victory. I’m not too worried.
- Enjoy the race on Sunday. As for how you enjoy it, that’s up to you. If you’d like some pointers, though, I start seeing hits on this beer post and this frite post again, so there they are.