The new Ewoud Dronkert Clause: All old articles that are re-run shall have a full disclosure at the top. This story originally ran in April 2009, but it has been revamped in a big way, so please, enjoy it again…and click on the thumb for a surprise BIG picture.
Note: The route of Gent-Wevelgem was heavily revised in 2010 and will remain more or less the same in 2011. My pre-ride of the course still stands as a fair view in on the critical section of the race, namely the Kemmelberg, but racers have a whole bunch more to deal with now, as the race has added a small army of new climbs, including a small jaunt into nearby France to gobble up a couple of hills. In conclusion: the once bunch sprint oriented race has been shifted very much in favor of a breakaway.
Without further ado…
The great weather of the first five days in Belgium finally broke this morning – the rain was coming down something fierce as I looked out the skylight in the Hotel Jan Brito in Brugge. I knew the rain had to come at some point, but it doesn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
The rain eased off early on, but the mud was there to make sure to remind us that this was in fact Belgium.
We got another great breakfast, packed up, and drove over toward the latter part of the day’s course. We were going to pick up the race route in Poperinge and follow it to the expected sprint finish in Wevelgem.
The first thing to know about Gent-Wevelgem? Apart from a small portion of the race, it is almost perfectly flat. Peter Easton of Velo Classic Tours took us on some incredible roads today, and actually managed to do the normally impossible for me: make a flat ride fun.
This tractor was the source of the worst smell that I have ever, and I mean ever, smelled. The whole spreading manure thing is fine. It smells a bit, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. This tractor, however, was spreading the worst concoction of heinous smelling crap conceivable. It was amazingly putrid.
The Kemmelberg stoops over the flat landscape of West Flanders, visible from miles and miles in every direction.
Gent-Wevelgem is famous for its crosswinds. The winds whipping off of the North Sea meet nary an impetus as they howl along the Belgian plain. The roads leading into the decisive section of the course are predominantly wide carriageways. That’s good news for us, because that just means we get those great pictures of giant echelons stretching from the right to left gutter.
The numerous little towns that the route rolls through provide a temporary respite from the evil-hearted boxer waiting just outside the walls of town to beat the poor riders up some more. The only problem with the whole town thing is that of course new problems come into play – turns, road furniture, cars parked on the side of the road. No biggie.
Back out in the fields, the large ridge that cradles the race’s only real elevation changes loomed: the fun was about to begin. See, we’re having fun.
The first climbing begins with a sort of combination hill – the Zwarteberg and the Rodeberg. Both peak at 10%, but both will be big ring bangers. Significant elevation is gained, but considering the frenzied approach to the Kemmelberg, these two bumps aren’t going to do much except get the boys worked up a bit more. It’s like poking a rattlesnake.
Welcome to West Flanders!
After tromping over the top of the Rodeberg, a sweet, fast descent is in order – we’re getting closer and closer to the Kemmelberg.
It’s not all grey and gloom.
In this area, the earnest lead-in to the Kemmelberg, the road becomes distinctly unflat.
Rolling hills, twisty roads, and a little less wind characterize this part of the course. The Monteberg is up next. We’re done with the lead-ins; here comes the Gent-Wevelgem Special.
The motorhomes are parked and ready to go for Wednesday.
The Monteberg is nothing spectacular, I guess you could call it the intermezzo before the big dessert of the Kemmelberg. Or maybe it’s not wise to describe the Kemmelberg as a dessert.
From the top of the Monteberg, it’s a short ride across the ridge to a fast drop into the hard left that signals the start of the Kemmelberg.
Or maybe it’s the cobbles and the uphillness that signify the start of the Kemmelberg.
After riding Flanders’ meanest bergs over the past few days, the Kemmelberg seems unbelievably tame. The cobbles aren’t easy, the slope is anything but shallow, but it just seems like it should be oh so much more. It’s the infamous Kemmelberg we’re talking about! This is only further proof that it is indeed the racers that make a bike race difficult. Scott Sunderland confirms that the climb isn’t terribly difficult on its own, but put in conjunction with the tough, wild lead-in, and it’s a mean thorn in the arch of your foot.
Over the top of the climb there is an agonizing flat section before the descent starts. This must be a couple hundred meters of abject misery. Then again, that descent is somewhat notorious…
At the end of the flat section, you have two choices: the old scary descent, which eats people, or the new, twisty descent, which just makes riders nervous. Both go to the same spot. I opted for the scary descent because, well, because that’s just what you do in these situations. The monument? World War I Memorial.
The cobbled descent of the Kemmelberg is pretty much everything you’ve heard about – it’s crazy steep and the cobbles are a hideous excuse for a ‘road.’ Best bet to get down in one piece? Hold on, let your steed buck left, right, center and just keep it pointed in a generally downhill direction.
After the lead-in, the climb, and the descent of the Kemmelberg, the suffering gladiators are treated to more rolling terrain over tiny roads. They’re beautiful roads to ride on, but they spell nothing but stress and misery for the racers.
Looking back on the approach into town. Once in town, the race curves back around and takes in another lap of the hills. After Lap 2, it’s time to head for home.
We thought he was a ski jumper until we realized he wasn’t wearing skis and he was wearing a soldier’s helmet.
Note: Actually, I was completely incorrect. The statue is not a ski jumper or a soldier. John Rutter tells us the real story: “Being the pedant that I am, the statue of the man in Kemmel is called ‘De Gaper’ – the gaper (to gape). He isn’t wearing a soldier’s helmet, just a hat! The name is slightly perjorative but that is the knickname for folks from Kemmel.” Thanks, John!
My favorite part of the course was just after the Kemmelberg. The first section of road back out in the fields as the race heads to Wevelgem is incredibly fast and technical. The desperate chase to bring back the inevitable breaks up the road cannot get off the ground on these paved farm paths. No team can really hope to set up a proper chase on these roads. Sunderland points out that this is a section where the breaks stand the best chance of success – much ground must be made here to make it through the horrible, straight, flat run-in on the N8 into Wevelgem.
The road isn’t quite flat in this area, and there are some hills, but it’s the generally helping wind coupled with the scent of blood through here that rockets the pace into the realm of spacecraft.
The wide open fields are gorgeous.
The wide open N8 is not gorgeous. Once the race hits here, the odds are suddenly very much against the breakaway. The wind no longer seems to help, and the ugly face of development rears hard and takes away my broad grin from the fields.
Yahoo, the finish in pretty Wevelgem.
In 2009, Scott thought a bunch sprint was inevitable. He wasn’t too close on that pick, but he did have the pleasure of picking up the winner in 2009 for his new Sky Team: Edvald Boasson Hagen. Boasson Hagen is having some achilles issues at the moment, so he’s touch and go, but again, this year, like every year, we’re debating the eternal debate: sprint or break, break or sprint?
Peter Easton of Velo Classic Tours has us enjoying the wonderful city of Gent at the moment. We get two nights in the town. Brugge and Gent are without a doubt two of the prettiest cities that I’ve ever seen.
All photos ©Jered Gruber.
A big thanks has to go to Peter Easton and Velo Classic Tours for making my trip happen in 2009. I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity. Look em up if you’re thinking about doing a trip. You won’t regret it.
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