Just as the various peoples living inside the Arctic Circle are supposed to have some large number of words for snow, Flandrians have an entire vocabulary devoted different kinds of cobbles, of which pavé is merely one among many.
In the true spirit of cycling one-upmanship, you’re about to learn five of those Flemish words. All so that while watching De Ronde or l’Enfer and enjoying your Moules frites with your riding buddies, you’ll know your bordsteen from your kinderkopje. And they won’t.
Image courtesy Thomson Bike Tours
Our guide to these polyglottal hijinks is Anne Barnes, a Chicago-based road racer (and certified bike fitter) who’s spent months in Belgium over the decades: riding, making friends, drinking
Floridian Flandrian red ale late into the night and of course, going to bike races.
Anne is married to SRAM tech nabob Ed “Taco Eddy” Nasjleti. I mention this because they are the kind of couple who spent two weeks huddled together in the rain in 2002, watching Belgian bike races. For their honeymoon.
“It’s wet and cold and earthy there,” Anne says, “but the people are warm.” One of those warm Belgian friends is Dieter, a native Flandrian (and therefore, native Flemish speaker) residing in Ghent, who is backstopping her on the finer points of kasseitjes for this article.
Face it: Pavé is Passé
1. Kassei or Kasseien (pl) “KOSS-ay,” or “Koss-AYEN”.
These are the two most important words in building your Flemish vocabulary. An individual cobble, or a cobbled road or grouping of cobbles, respectively.
So the trophy for winning Paris-Roubaix is a kassei, given to the best rider on the kasseien.
Kasseitje is the diminutive form, and kasseitjes—in case you want to point out a particularly cute little stretch of cobbles—is the plural diminutive.
Anne says: “In some part of Belgium—Antwerp to Breugues—the Ss are pronounced more like Zs.”
• A kassei is known to the Dutch as a kinderkopje (babyhead). Mostly used in the plural, kinderkopjes.
• When used in a sidewalk, a kassei is called a dal (plural dals) in Flemish. In Dutch, it’s a stoeptegel (step tile).
• Also known to the English as a causeway. Straatsteen, (plural straatstenen) in Dutch. Pavé to the French and Italians, of course.
2. Sett or Setts (usually used in the plural)
More precisely cut kasseien, arranged in a pattern; randomized cobbles of similar dimension but not (necessarily) interlocking. Originally created to give a better grip for horses’ hooves.
Anne says: “Cobbles may have started out as ballast for ships and later discarded. Flemish and Dutch economies were the world leaders in shipping for hundreds of years, and piles of ballast were everywhere. Put to use on the wharfs and roadways for carts. Nowadays there are piles are shipping containers, so cobbles are quarried just for paving purposes.”
• Belgian Block(s) in English, Sampietrino or Bolognini in Italian.
Rectangular kasseien set longitudinally to the road, separating it from the gutter, which is usually dirt. Sometimes laid flat, sometimes tipped up sideways to create a sharp 90° tire-shredding edge sticking up from the main road.
Anne says: “Careful! These little bastards will either help keep you on the road or flip you into the ditch. So you either ride next to the bordsteen or in the dirt on the other side of it. Picking a complex line that takes you on and off various surfaces for the smoothest riding is the sign of an experienced rider.”
Porfier refers not to the cobble itself, but to its texture. Geologically, this would describe igneous rock, often granite. Especially treacherous in the wet.
Granite is a hard-wearing rock, so it tends to get polished instead of pitted. Plus people drive diesel cars in Europe and the oily fuel drips onto the stones, lubricating them even further.
Anne says: “Porfier is one of the first things you learn about when you go over there and try to ride this shit. You can be a strong bike handler, but you still have to be paying total attention…sometimes for a couple hundred kilometers.“
5: Lastige (or sometimes moeilijk) kasseien
Literally, a “difficult section.” As the addition of the word kasseien suggests, lastige or moeilijk refer more specifically to the cobbles within a section than to the section itself.
Anne says: “You see the lastige sections mostly in Flanders. Netherlands does not have as many cobbled streets, or such tough ones (or the lore associated with them). As the Dutch like to say in disparagement of their Flemish neighbors, ‘our streets are properly paved.’”
The Final Word
The Ronde van Vlaanderen Museum in Oudenaarde has an entire section devoted to different classification of the rocks used in cobblestones. This includes geological type as well as where the rock may have been quarried.
If you’re ever in Belgium for the Spring Classics, it’s well worth your time—a pilgrimage on par with the stone showers in the Roubaix velodrome.
Tell them Anne sent you.