Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Bergs of Flanders

Molteni Merckx Mobile
My workmates don't understand me. 'Ah you're away this weekend....anywhere nice?' Erm Belgium. 'Oh' I think they thought I'd head off for somewhere nice and warm to ride. 'Oh well I hope the weathers nice'. 'I don't'. They look at me all odd like. Nope I want the full on Belgian experience, Bergs, century old cobbles, wind, grit and rain.
Fraser and I left Friday night to meet Phil who had recently moved to a nice little suburb just outside of Ghent. Phil and his wife were to be our hosts for the weekend, with Phil being our ride guide for two days. We drove through the night to the sound of Ibiza mixes arriving to barking dogs at 2am, unloaded the bikes, downed a Kwaremont beer and went to bed.
Phil, barking dogs, coffee and pastries were our alarm call. Not poncing about, eager to get going in the wind under very dark skies we were dressed and out the door in no time.
As usual it takes a while to accept motorists actually giving way to you. The cycle lane thing takes a while as well. Road system dialed in, we set off for our first Berg the Oude Kwaremont, but before that we'd have two flat sections of cobbles to get over. The first is the Huisepontweg, the cobbles were damp and far more disordered than any I'd ever been on, and what followed was a total mince. That is until a helmetless flat nosed old bloke tanked past before banking it around a corner. So I manned up to manage a slightly faster mince. I felt better on the next section, the Doorn, riding the high centre of the ridged road. It seems counterintuitive not to ride in the safety of the flatter verges, but the cobbles are closer together on the tops, as I learnt when my bike slid sideways off the top and into the looser widely spaced cobbles!
Pretty soon we reached the Kwaremont, and pretty soon I realised I prefered climbing cobbles. The Kwaremont was a kind introduction to the cobbled bergs and climbed with ease.
Next up was the Paterberg. This is reached by riding some ace country lanes, which after all the riding on the cobbles seem like silk roads. Phil leads us to the start, a very tight right hander into the berg. And there it is, one straight line of cobbles pointing skywards. It looks a monster from the bottom. Thankfully the Paterberg is in good condition and only requires pure strength and traction to get to the top. Phil explains that riding the cobbles on the bergs is just weightlifting, not cycling. Then he is on a 'Belgian compact' whilst Fraser and me are on plain old compacts. I get to the top and take some photos, but they just can't show the steepness, but Phil points out the fence where the panels are about a foot lower than the one next to it. We go the other way yo the Merckx route and head for the biggy, the Koppenberg.
Within a few kilometres of the Koppenberg the heavens opened. We pretty well knew at that moment we were never going  to climb it, Phil tells us he only has a 50/50 success rate on it, so not looking good. And talking of not looking good, any climb that starts with a white painted line across the road and the actual word START painted above it sort of says you're in for something.
It was hopeless, we were all over the place, wheels were spinning but not going forward. Up ahead Phil was off and walking. I can tell you here and now that walking it is no easy task, what you need is  a backpack for your bike and walking poles, not a bike that wants to go back down and carbon soled racing slippers. That was a big shame not riding to the top, but many a pro tour rider has done the same.

So now we're on the home leg. We ride the Steenbeekdries. Then the Stationstraat a downhill! cobbled section that I'd been told I'd probably not enjoy as it included a few off camber tight wet turns. Thankfully by then I felt okay on the stones, realising that no matter which way they were laid it made no difference to the ride, and to be frank I also felt 'oh fuck it' and let rip. I lived.
Two more bergs came up, the Taainberg and the Eikenberg, but by now I was a hardcore cobble king.
To complete the experience it rained, proper hard rain that is so heavy you can't see down the road. We pressed on resigned, but also looking for a cheeky café. Then pressed on harder for home with thoughts of a good meal and plenty of fine Belgian beers in Ghent on our minds.
The best cheeseburger I've ever had and some crazy beers BTW.
The second day was shorter with the Muur as our finish. We set off in better weather and aiming for the Molenberg. Phil pulled this one up on the net for me, it looked like Thor had taken a hand in it's construction twisting this way and that with gravity defying cambers and broken up sections. When we got to the foot of the berg I took it upon myself to have a right go at it. Well that worked for a bit, thankfully the worst bit, but then it just kept going....quite long for a berg. Still I was feeling comfortable on the stones and going gloveless was helping. The berg took us into rose fields which is something I'd never seen and the smell though late in the year was just still there, nice.
Those flowers must have tinted my oakleys because when we hit the long flat cobbled section the Haghoek I tried it again. Then I have a WTF moment I'm shaking myself to bits. My helmet is spinning on my head, armwarmers are round my wrists. I look down at my hands, I seem to have ten hands or is that the vibration playing tricks and my arse feels like it's had a good kicking. The Haghoek is harsh.
The next surprise berg is the Leberg a little taster of what's to come.
The Muur. There's a busy market in the town that sits at the base of the Muur and pretty soon I'm separated from Phil. Though thanks to Youtube I recognize the way, well that and you just point up and take the narrowest roads. At first it isn't too hard, but then you go under the trees onto the perma-moss, finesse, finesse and subtle power sees you though. then you're on a steady section past the bar. What's next is the iconic turn to the chapel that marks the summit. It's no Alp, but an equally great place to be with your bike.
The turn on the Muur for the summit

The weekend is all but over, we sit in the bar near the top with coffee and tart watching the world go by, well the two wheeled world go by anyway.

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