This year, ten thousand cycling fans have climbed the slopes to consume absurd quantities of Jupiler beer and watch our tortured souls suffer round the parcours.
I’m labouring up the lower slopes of the Koppenberg, midway through the KoppenbergCross, a classic cyclocross race held in the hills of East Flanders. For three decades, the event has taken place on November first, All Saints Day, a national holiday in Belgium. This year, ten thousand cycling fans have climbed the slopes to consume absurd quantities of Jupiler beer and watch our tortured souls suffer round the parcours.
A dispute between the event’s organisers and a local farmer changed the track for this edition and resulted in the “easier” billing. The farmer, assuming that his property was indispensable to the race, demanded a one-day usage fee that far exceeded his entire year’s rent. The organisers, unimpressed by his audacity, just moved the race entirely to the field on the other side of the road.
Easier. Harder. Right. Wrong. I’ve no time to ponder the Belgian concept of relativity. I’ve popped from the grassy pasture and onto the cobbles. Before me, rises the steepest stretch of stones on this ferocious hill in the Flemish Ardennes.
On a profile, the Koppenberg is but a molehill compared to the peaks of the grand tours. But this 65-metre mound of grass and cow pies is legendary. It’s one of the centrepieces of the Tour of Flanders, where legends are written and spirits broken. Museeuw. Van der Poel. Boonen. Cancellara. Sagan. Rivera. Van der Poel.
I bounce across the cobbles, slick with mud and moss, aiming for left-hand gutter. If I can stay balanced, five inches of curb will offer respite from the bumps. The pedals fight back, as the pitch steepens towards 22% in the midst of a canopied gully. It’s my sixth trip through this tunnel of pain in the last 50 minutes.
The arms stretch over the barriers, as I emerge. My flank folds like an accordion, as I dance up the gutter. The fencing closes in, mere inches from my knuckles, but I dare not stray from the curb. The fans are a foot away, but they scream as if I’m across the field. I reach the crest passing the finish line, relocated to the top, no doubt, for this easier edition.
“Nog drie ronden” I hear. Three laps to go…
The track hooks right, back into fields. But there’s little respite from the undulating track.
I speed past the fans that line the serpentine plunge back to town. Twisting, turning, carving through the pastures. I’m way back in 25th place, but the crowd cheers nonetheless. I see a torso leaning over the fence, beer in one hand, other arm outstretched. I barely feel the gangly appendage, as I speed by at 40 kilometres an hour. It is but another bump in the field.
As I labour toward the cobbles, a whistle pierces the air. It’s from the official. I’ve two laps left to ride, but a charging trio of Mathieu Van Der Poel, Toon Aerts and Wout Van Aert have come too close. I’m pulled from the race. My day is done.
I crumple onto the cobbles. Wheezing. Heaving. Moaning. Groaning. My body will have no more. I’ve been saved. But by God, even in that moment of agony, what I wouldn’t have given for one more trip up that berg. For one more pass by the roaring crowd. For one last ronde on those glorious, miserable stones.
Cover photo: Cor Vos