Saturday, October 21, 2006

Hill Repeats in Flanders Fields

I wrote this in late March, 2006, shortly after our trip to Flanders earlier that month. A few people were kind enough to pretend they enjoyed it, so here it is, rescued from the oblivion of my mailbox.

... in which our correspondent discusses climbing a wall, visiting a museum, and chatting with the locals.


I did hill-repeats a week ago Zaterdag.

I was based in Ghent, in eastern Flanders, and my destination was an obscure town due south named Geraardsbergen. Geraardsbergen is big enough to warrant a train to it from Ghent, but only just. Its four-track station was peopled by: a ticket-seller, three bored teenagers, and a confused-looking middle-aged person who wordlessly stared at us the whole time. The cafe, uninhabited by people or goods, represented the triumph of economics over hope.

I wasn't supposed to be at the station at all. I'd based myself in Ghent so I could ride to Geraardsbergen, but a nasty bronchitis meant I had little energy to spare, especially for the numerous wrong turns I was sure to make on rural roads. The train was a fair compromise when the alternative was going nowhere at all.

The previous day, while we stumbled jet-lagged around Ghent, it rained and rained. At night I went to the receptionist to ask whether she had a weather forecast for the next day. She smiled and arced her hand toward the outside. “You mean it's Flanders in the spring?” She smiled again in eloquent silence. Fair enough; had it been warm or dry, I'd have felt robbed of some fundamental part of the experience.

Moreover, I was prepared. I'd asked a Flemish friend, Kim Mens, how to pack for this. It will be cold, he said, and I should expect lots of rain. I was more concerned about snow, which could ice and turn roads—especially upwardly-inclined cobbled ones—nasty. But that at least, he said, was one thing I shouldn't need to worry about in Flanders.

We woke on Saturday to thick snowfall.

Any town with “berg” in its name is sure to be interesting, and the town's French name offers confirmation: Grammont. But Geraardsbergen goes one better: its hill is called the Muur, an altogether better name that means “wall” (think “mural”). The Muur, one of the final climbs of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), is often the decisive point in the race with mud, cobbles, pitch (up to 20%) and screaming crowds packed into a tiny space. The town has signs with the word “Muur” and a cycle icon. The burghers know why we're here.

Ignoring the people and the workings of the invisible hand, I wheeled out of Geraardsbergen station. I'd printed the Ronde's maps, but the route seemed to slash across town like a flailing snake—a ploy, I felt sure, to maximize the town's chances of seeing the race. But some of those could be one-ways, and nobody was holding traffic for me. So I'd mapped another little street that avoided all the meandering and instead got down (up) to business.

I was soon in the market square, an atmospherically dark gothic town hall watching over a parking lot. A few obligatory wrong turns (and descents) later, I found my chosen street. I saw that it rose absurdly (think Jencks St in Providence, but 2-3 times as long, and cobbled), but hey, that's what I'd come for. So I set off in the haze, squirming over the terrain...only to be greeted by a barrier.

A barrier? Kim Mens's father had confirmed that repairs on the Muur were long done; but here it was, and it forced me to dismount. Well, you don't easily clip back in on an incline like that; you don't easily, and I don't at all.

What to do now? I couldn't possibly *walk* up the Muur, but up ahead I saw my savior. I'd read about the Hard Men of Flanders, and there was one obstacle they were not known to master: stairs. This could not be The Way. Reassured, I pushed up (which, on slick cobbles, meant I frequently caught my slide by locking my cleats into the edge of stone), descended, and finally got to a different cobbled road that was barrier-less and stair-free. I was on the Muur.

After all these hijinx it was a relief to find it at all, so the repeat climbs, which I'd earlier used to justify the trip, became essential for reconstructing the experience.

The Muur is in two parts. The lower streets have small, very rectangular, cobbles laid out with the long side perpendicular to motion. Here you are in the midst of of town, the streets are wide, and these cobbles look fresh. Then you take a 120 turn—which, surprise, is precisely the route marked on the Ronde map—and everything changes. The road narrows so much a large SUV or truck would have trouble squeezing through, and probably couldn't turn the sharp corners. And the cobbles are more square, like the one in the Paris-Roubaix trophy. They are gapped, chipped, and sometimes missing. There is little sidewalk to speak of, an interesting way to host hundreds of drunk, screaming fans.

The lower part is on a sensible incline, so the natural instinct is to accelerate. The resulting ride is is straight out of a cement mixer, but this seemed the most pleasant way to tackle the unworldly vibrations; indeed, all week long I found myself accelerating over cobbles (and rather enjoying it). On the square cobbles, the trick is finding a line. In the steepest stretches you can't sit for need of power, but can't stand for lack of stability (due to moss on the cobbles that makes your wheels slip); I nearly fell three times.

The rest of the week I rode around in cobbled Brugge and out of town. Even in the middle of a working day we were passed by ones, twos and groups of bikers on road machines, all dressed in the proper European fashion of team or club kit head-to-toe and beyond. The area around Brugge is filled with paths along canals bordered by perfectly aligned poplars; the roads are straight as arrows, offering no protection from the wind. My speed differential attributable just to wind was 4-5mph.


This past Saturday I visited Oudenaarde, also in south-eastern Flanders; once the home of Flemish tapestry, now host to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen museum. They museum bills the Ronde as one of the two great “cobbled” classics. Flanders had a fit of asphalt surfacing in the sixties, which greatly altered the route of the Ronde; the race has been part of a restoration and revival of cobbles, especially on the hills—though the museum offers no perspective from the locals who have to negotiate these hills daily.

The museum's organizational conceit is that you pick from a menu of twelve past winners. You then hear about “your” rider at various exhibits along the way. I suggested that Museeuw and Merckx must be especially popular. Without disagreeing, the ticket person noted seriously that Schotte was quite popular too—an indication of the museum's demographics (Schotte reigned just after WW II; a legendary Hard Man, he was nicknamed the Last of the Flandriens). Then he broke out into a broad grin and confessed, “But Eddy is number one.” (I felt obliged to tilt the statistics, and figured Godefroot would be good for a quote or two—which he was.)

One of the museum's main attractions is a trainer set up before a projection TV so you can ride against Peter Van Petegem. (I can't wait for this to become cheap enough to put in a basement.) The outcome is precisely what you'd expect, though nobody all day (including me) spent more than about thirty seconds on it—keeping up with them is a pretty sweaty activity. Besides, what trainer can compare to the real terrain?

Amidst all this fun I skipped the museum cafe. I discovered just as was leaving to run to make my train that Ludo Dierckxsens was visiting for the day, and holding forth in the cafe on Milan-San Remo. The museum has a steady round of visiting “speakers” such as him, especially in the spring season. It vastly exceeded my expectations and I'd heartily recommend it to anyone who's read this far.


The Bike Friday is, of course, a wonderful conversation piece. At the top of the Muur we meet a late-middle-aged couple. After the usual stumble through 3-4 languages we settle on English. Do we know what the Tour of Flanders is? That's why we're here. Wonderful! A great race! And there's a pause as they remain standing there with us.

I fill the gap. Are you from the town? This is their opening. Oh no, they're from Antwerp. They're scouting out the climbs on the race route. By foot? We have bikes back in town, he tells us. And then very precisely, a bit sternly, he adds: “First we do it by foot. Then by cycle.” She smiles sweetly.

So have they looked at other hills? Yes, they're working backwards. They have been to the Bosberg, then, I ask, waving in its general direction? Slowly, and with pride, he replies: “We have spent the night on the Bosberg. (pause) We are with...” I recognize the trailing voice of the vocabularly gap, but my suggestions—friends, family, etc.—aren't helping. A moment, and he straightens up and repeats slowly: “We are with camper.” This is a habit? No, this is their first time, he says with pure joy (she smiles very sweetly). They will be amongst the masses; you can tell he will yell loud Flemish invective at the riders while she smiles at the proceedings and lets out a little whoop as her favorite rider comes by.

I play to the crowd. They're Flemish, so there's an easy guess: I toss out that they surely have great hopes for Tom Boonen. Tom Boonen!, he echoes, as she smiles sweetly. (I'm still pronouncing it like the English language commentators, not quite getting the intonations right, but we're past that.) He tells me Boonen has excelled in Paris-Nice but, looking ominously around, and dropping his mouth into a frown, he confides that Tom's climbing is not so good.

We ramble about TV coverage and other things. Looking to wind up and depart this miserably chilly hilltop battered by gusting winds—he has called the view from here “beautiful”, an indication that regional pride has entirely trumped aesthetic sense—I decide to play the trump card: Tom will be riding in the world champion colors, yes? His breath catches. So maybe, I offer, we will see Boonen win the Ronde wearing the rainbow stripes. She grins very broadly, but he is too choked up with emotion; his heart-rate seems like mine was when I crested; if he could breathe, I reckon, he would break out into the Belgian national anthem(s?). On that note we wave these fine people goodbye. She wishes us well but he does not seem to notice, his mouth puckered with pride and his eyes distant.

It is not our only encounter.

As the holder of an Indian passport, I have developed a host of techniques to disarm immigration officials who express too much interest (it's rarely of the positive kind) in me. Lately I have been waved through immigration, but at Brussels airport I notice the staff are in a questioning mood. Kathi's passport warrants none, but me he asks where we are going. To Brugge eventually, but tonight to Gent.

He relaxes. “So you are in the Flemish part of Belgium!”, he says, not disapprovingly. But he's still talking, so I want to distract him. Yes, I say, and I add, “We go also to Geraardsbergen.”

“Geraardsbergen!” he echoes, correcting my pronounciation but smiling. “You go for the <something that sounds like it would translate to mutton pies>?”

It is my turn to correct. I stiffen, straighten. As my hand makes a sweeping upward motion, palm down, subscribing an angle about 65 degrees greater than reality, I say, “We go for the Muur”. You can hear the capital `M'.

“The Muur!”, he roars. “Amateur cyclists!” (I bristle slightly at the entirely accurate but unnecessary adjective.) The trainee sitting beside him has said nothing, given away no emotion as she has looked at me; but now she breaks out into a partisan smile. He, meanwhile, is grinning a mile wide as he thumps a stamp into my passport with a passion you would not have thought possible of a government official.

Suspending the passport between us, he pauses. “When you go to Geraardsbergen, you must try the <something that sounds like it would translate to mutton pies>. It is the local speciality.” He returns the passports so he can make a small round shape with his thumbs and forefingers, and looks down at it a little wistfully, as if hoping that by the powers vested in him by the Kingdom of Belgium, he could make a mutton pie manifest itself in the ring of his hand. (She does not appear too impressed by this gustatory passion.) When the round refuses to fill, he looks back, smiles broadly (but, I feel, just a little more sadly this time), and wishes us a excellent trip.

It is in the nature of contemporary journalism to make the most of episodic data, to extrapolate wildly from a single incident. The journalist wants, most of all, to be seen as the spotter of a trend before anyone else. Your humble correspondent is not above such frailty. Thus I am forced to report that when a citizen's first reaction to hearing “Geraardsbergen” is to think mutton pies—pies that, my instinct tells me, will not be on the WeightWatchers approved list—over the Muur, the state of cycling is in jeopardy. Tim Moore has pointed out that Eddy Merckx looks like he stayed on his racing diet long after he stopped racing; and we have citizens worried that Tom Boonen's climbing is not so good. I have toured the breadth of Flanders this week, folks, and I have assembled the evidence to report that it will be a while before we see another Lucien Van Impe. You read it here first.


On reading this report, Kim Mens pointed out that the officer was referring to mattetaarten—made, he said, of “butter, milk, sugar and almond”. So I now regret having missed out on them.

Oh, and Tom Boonen won the Tour of Flanders in his rainbow jersey.

No comments: