Race defining bergs
If Milan-San Remo is all about the finishes, then Tour of Flanders is all about the bergs. In this year’s edition, the riders will have to climb a total of 18 hills over 255km. While none are taller than a couple of hundred metres, these hellingen can be hellishly steep and are mostly cobbled, making them extremely tricky lung-busters. Crowded with passionate Belgians and often the scene of brilliantly daring exploits from the riders - last year Sagan powered away from a cramping Vanmarcke on the Paterberg to a solo win - Flanders’ bergs offer up some of the greatest spectacles in professional cycling. We take a look at the race-defining climbs of this weekend’s race.
Koppenberg – 40km to go
This is one of the only climbs on earth where you’ll see pro riders get off and push – last year Pozzato got caught up and had to rough his cleats on the Koppenberg’s cobbles. The combination of terror-inducing gradients up to 22% and the roughest, bounciest cobbles of the entire route have led to many calling this berg unraceable, and it has been banished from the route several times in the past. Although it makes for great watching and can give an early indicator of the key players, the climb is too early in the race to be of much strategic importance as most of the dropped riders will regain contact on the following flat section. The most infamous moment on the Koppenberg came in the 1987 edition of De Ronde. In what makes for some unbelievable watching, Jesper Skibby – the last survivor of the day’s breakaway – was hit halfway up the climb by the race director’s car, which then mangled his bike (and almost his leg) trying to get past him and away from the fast-arriving peloton. A volley of abuse, stones and mud from fans awaited the car as it arrived at the finish line.
Kruisberg – 22km to go
A long-serving staple of De Ronde, the Kruisberg is a 9% gradient up a 1.8km carpet of cobbles. Whilst perhaps not one of the best known climbs in Flanders, the Kruisberg was the finish line for the 1983 Belgian National Championships as well as for the 1988 World Championships, won by Italy’s Maurizio Fondriest after Canadian Steve Bauer had forced Claude Criquielion into a fence, denying the Belgian victory. This will be the 47th time the riders take on the Kruisberg in the 85 years since it was first included in the Tour of Flanders route.
Oude Kwaremont – 12km to go
While not as steep as the others, with only a 3% average, the cobbled Oude Kwaremont berg compensates with its length: 2.2km. Imagine having to ride up it for a third time, after nearly 250km of ups and downs all day. That’s what faces the riders this year. De Oude was the launch pad for one of Eddy Merckx’s greatest-ever rides, as he attacked on its slopes in 1975, with more than 100km to the finish. The Cannibal dragged poor Frans Verbeeck with him up and over the remaining bergs, finally dropping him with 5km to go. Verbeeck’s verdict on Merckx, as he was helped off his bike at the finish? – “He’s from another world.”
Paterberg – 8km to go
Rising up above the village of Berchem, with a pleasant view and lush grassy banks alongside the road, the Paterberg is classic Belgian countryside. None of that will matter on Sunday, though, as the pros power up these 360m of 12% average gradient – the last chance to stretch the elastic on the cobbled climbs. Like Oude Kwarement, the Paterberg will be ridden three times, although after the final effort all that remains is 13km, mostly downhill, to the finish. Back in 2013 Peter Sagan was on the receiving end of a Paterberg-based race-winning move when Spartacus motored him and everyone else off his wheel – a must watch.