The Road to Hell is Narrow and Cobbled
One year ago this week, I was in Belgium. It essentially was a press junket – a collective invitation from Flanders tourism and Eddy Merckx to visit the heartland during Holy Week. During those eight days, I did many things that I will never forget—like drink Trappist ales at the monestary at which they’re made and pedal alongside the greatest cyclist who ever lived and test my meddle on the fabled cobbled roads of Flanders. As I type that last item, I can feel the muscles in my shoulders starting to cord, as if I’m recounting a gorgeous former lover who turned out to be sadist who almost pulverized me with a steamroller.
Granted, I arrived in Brussels physically unprepared for what I faced — I was a bit pudgy and beleaguered and low on fitness. Over the years, I’ve shown up for big riding capers in deplorable condition before and survived without lasting trauma, but I was about to learn that faking it on cobblestones is beyond my abilities.
With that bitter lesson in mind, I’ve assembled a cheat sheet on some of the more famous hellingen and cobbled sectors that I rode that week. Please, feel free to learn from my mistakes — or simply laugh at them. I’m here for you.
Haaghoek (1.8km; -1%)
This long, flatish stretch—a standby in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), E3 and Dwars door Vlaanderen—was my initiation to rock and roll, and it made an instantaneous hurtful impression on me. I had been hoping for early-onset numbness but instead, my hands and wrists were in pain immediately and I felt violent shock waves throughout my soft tissues. My companions were out of sight within moments. I heard distressing new sounds coming off the bike and felt new sensations, so I pulled over after 500 meters to inspect my Merckx 525. Perhaps one of my quick-release skewers needed tightening or the chainstays were fractured? Alas, the bike was fine; it was I who was falling apart. I had read the advice many times to pedal hard and keep my ass planted and my grip on the handlebar light, but following these gems of service journalism did not diminish the abuse. I believe that the first thing I said aloud after I finally got to smooth tarmac and collapsed on my handlebar was “Holy fucking shit.” That’s the best three-word summation of riding cobbles that I can think of even now with a year of reflection.
Molenberg (463 meters; 7% average; 14.2% maximum)
You never forget your first berg. This one, which plays a starring role in the Omloop and a supporting role in the Ronde, is only moderately cruel at low speed. I was new to climbing the hellingen, still a purist of sorts, so I followed the elevated centerline of the narrow path as it wound through the bare trees. The Belgian hardman who was our guide for this particular ride had already pegged me as the weak American, so I focused on limiting my losses (translation: keep my mouth shut.) I took it as a moral victory that when I got to the top everyone waiting was still breathing a little harder than normal. It could have been worse, thought the quiet, optimistic American.
Paddestraat (2.1 km; 1% ave)
I could tell that our friendly little two-hour beatdown was nearing it’s end, so I decided to hit the afternoon’s final stretch of cobbles with everything I had. I must have done 15 mph, which almost feels like race pace on cobbles. (This speed felt way more satisfying at that moment than it did a week later, when I visited Strava and saw that Niki Terpstra had ridden it in the Omloop at 25 mph). There were patches of dirt or smooth road on the right-hand shoulder and I grabbed every one of them, and in those moments I vowed never to ascribe any weakness to pro riders who do the same. The pain in my arms, shoulders, and back was being displaced by numbness and soreness, which felt like a big upgrade. The last 40 minutes of the ride was all on conventional pavement, and it felt like a hot stone massage for my battered soul.
Oude Kwaremont (2.2km; 4% ave; 11.6% max)
The next day we tackled the final 60km of the Ronde route and the first crime against humanity took place on this renowned stretch of cobbles—famous not for its steepness but for its undulating topography and length. This section figures in the Ronde three times these days, and this season Geraint Thomas launched his winning move at E3 on the upper slope. I kept eying houses in the middle distance that might signify the top, but this device did not bring me the closure I sought, and the pounding went on for 10 minutes. I have a refined admiration for pros who fight to get back on the wheel in the aftermath of this climb; when I swung left onto that wide, windy highway I was fighting off an ontological crisis. I felt like I had just barely survived three rounds of Floyd Mayweather body-punches while riding a rollercoaster shaped like a laterally-stiff carbon-fiber bicycle.
Paterberg (360 meters; 12.9% ave; 20.3% max)
After a couple minutes of what I’d call spiritual recovery on the main road, we sliced left onto this fast serpentine descent that looked exactly like one I’ve seen on a thousand crappy live feeds, although this was the first time I recall feeling a bit unnerved by it. (Also: I didn’t recall the penetrating smell of manure from the Sporza coverage). In the past couple years, the Paterberg is the final climb of the Ronde—the climb where Cancellara dismissed Sagan in 2013, but my own meltdown played out like a Milan San Remo slo-mo blooper. With no barriers in place, I hugged the left side and crawled uphill. About halfway up I just wobbled right off the road. Pro tip: Don’t put a foot down on the shoulder of the Paterberg if you intend to pedal up it. I had to clatter to a nearby driveway to clip in and start crawling again. This was the first time I’d walked a bike uphill in nearly a decade (Eroica, 2006; I’d rather not talk about it), and I arrived at the top feeling like I needed to call up Eddy Merckx and apologize for what had just happened on a bike bearing his name.
Koppenberg (600 meters; 11.6%; 22% max)
Starring over my little cue sheet over a spectacular bowl of muesli and yogurt earlier in the day, this climb had looked to be the crux of the route, so after the Paterberg debacle I was about as confident as Team Sky on a rainy descent. Everyone else in my group seemed excited to crush the Koppenberg—Logan from Velo, bless his Cat. 2 soul, was literally shaking with joy to throw down a big Strava segment (it’s worth noting that the Strava record for this berg belongs not to a Terpstra or Boonen but to super-shooter and KOM hoarder Jered Gruber). I mercifully was given a two-minute headstart, which gave me enough time to get halfway up this deceptively long straight drag before everyone blew by me at 4.9 mph or whatever. But I made it! At the top, people slapped me on the back and my then-colleague Bill Strickland took iPhone photos of me slumped on my handlebar and tweeted that I had “cleaned” the Koppenberg. I don’t recall feeling happy at that moment—I remember feeling relieved that I had pedaled to the top of the Koppenberg without incident; I bet a lot of pros feel that way, too.
Taaienberg (475 meters; 6.6% ave; 18% max)
Tom Boonen has made this little grind famous for launching early efforts, and now it features in the last hour of the Ronde. In my case, it highlighted the final hour of my own mini-Ronde-deathmarch. Even then, with my heart rate hovering in the 170s and my forearms paralyzed, I was aware that I would remember this ride forever in a light as sublime as the shafts that were slanting down through the bare trees. The roads that loop around Oudenarde are brutally gorgeous. This came to me later, not on the Taaienberg, with it’s beautiful gutter on the right side, which I pedaled as hard as I could. I definitely wasn’t stronger than I had been when I started riding cobbles, but I was less weak in some real way.
Kemmelberg (500 meters; 11% ave; 17.8% max)
My final cobbled climb of my Belgian pilgrimage took place two days later during the Gent Wevelgem sportive. On paper, this event had seemed far easier than the famous cobbled climbs in the Flanders fondo, but in retrospect it is obvious that I was equally unprepared for five hours of cross-headwinds. The Merckx folks had assigned our little group a caretaker—a Dutch track racer in his 60s who had been full of mellow reassurance at dinner the night before, but who throttled it right from the start. By the time we reached the first rest stop—in the shadows of the Sint-Sixtus abbey, where trappist monks brew the world-famous Westvleteran beers—I was totaled. I soothed myself with a half dozen yummy waffles and very sweet energy drinks I had never heard of. After a couple more hours of pedaling flimsy squares, we reached the town of Kimmel, which I can’t visualize at all even now because the main street was cobbled, too. I was tired and bemused, but my stomach was feeling pretty pissed off—maybe it was the waffles? But I was determined to make a reputable showing on the crux of the ride. I really tried to give it everything I had left. A little more than halfway up the Kemmelberg, my rear wheel struck a large roundish cobble that looked like a baby’s head and an immense shock wave traveled right up the remarkably rigid seat tube of my Merckx, passed through my saddle, and penetrated the very core of my gastrointestinal being. It was an instant crisis. When I got to the top, Bill was waiting and I had to interrupt his friendly chatter to communicate the full emergence of my situation. Our cue sheet highlighted a rest stop only 5km in the distance but during the fast, smoothly paved descent of the Kemmelberg it became obvious that deep inside of me, the red wire had touched the blue wire—an explosion was eminent!
I am sorry to report what happened next. I pulled my bike onto the grass on a lovely country lane near the Belgian-French border, stumbled out into a fallow field already littered with manure, added my 2 cents, and then utilized my beloved Bontrager Wheelworks cap to complete and obscure the deed. I trundled back to the bike, a new man in certain key ways, ready to continue the slow, cobble-less march back to Wevelgem, where a big pile of fries and a cold Omer surely awaited.
In short, I went to Flanders to ride the fabled cobbles. I cursed, I rode at 3 mph, I walked, I learned to love the gutters, I cleaned the Koppenberg, and I used a cycling cap for a primordial emergency. In other words, it was a total triumph.
P.S. Yes, I know the cobbles along Paris-Roubaix are worse. And yes, I’d go ride them in a second. What’s the worst that could happen?
Lead image: John Pierce, Photosport International