There are very few climbs in modern bike racing that can bring a pro racer to his knees. With the evolution of intelligent gearing, the steepest climbs have been tamed. However, defying all technological advances, the Koppenberg takes us back to a time when plodding upward on foot was just as common a means of forward movement as pedaling.
We’ve always felt a tie to Belgium, cycling’s other heartland.
When it comes to cobbled climbs, few can compare to the Koppenberg for difficulty. It’s not massively long, and the stats are nothing to go home crying about, but with gradients of up to 22 percent and an average of just under 12 percent over 600 meters, it’s an incredibly challenging climb, even for the professionals.
There’s only one ascent of the Koppenberg in the Tour of Flanders, but it comes 224 kilometers into what many would say is the most difficult one-day race of the year, and with just 46 kilometers to go, so no one can afford to take it easy.
There’s no real run-up to the Koppenberg. When you come around the 90-degree corner in Melden, the village at its foot, the long cobbled stretch rears up in front of you like a wall, and the grass banks enclose you in a dank corridor as you climb. The grade starts out moderately enough, but somewhat like climbing out of a bowl, it just gets steeper and steeper.
As you push forward and upward, and as the grade steepens, you head into the trench between two fields and two fences. The moisture never seems to go away on these cobbles, and when the mixture is just right, the surface can be slippery and cause chaos.
THE HILL THAT MADE EDDY MERCKX WALK
In the past, the only place to ride was in the gutters, because when the Koppenberg first appeared in the Tour of Flanders, in 1976, the head-sized cobblestones were so rough and muddy that they created mayhem, with cyclists forced to walk. The first four riders made it up, but rider five spun his rear wheel and the rest stumbled into him.
In 1987, the Danish rider Jesper Skibby fell on the climb, and his bike was crushed by the official car that was following him. The organizers decided to take the Koppenberg out of the race for the next 15 years, until the road was widened and a new surface of Italian cobblestones was laid in 2001. The Koppenberg made its return to Tour of Flanders in 2002.
“It’s doubtless the hardest climb in the Tour of Flanders. Above all, because it arrives after two other really hard climbs, the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg combo. The three climbs in rapid succession, all within 10 kilometers, make the Koppenberg really hard,” said Team Sky rider Dylan van Baarle.
“It’s doubtless the hardest climb in the Tour of Flanders” – Dylan Van Baarle, Team Sky.
The Tour of Flanders covers 267 kilometers, with 17 bergs and five stretches of pavé. The 2019 edition takes place this Sunday, April 7. The race starts at 10:30 and the finish is expected around 17:00 local time.
A LOOK AT THE KOPPENBERG IN NUMBERS
Summit height: 75 metres
Height gain: 64 metres
Average gradient: 12.6%
Maximum gradient: 22%
KOM: Cameron Bayly 1-39 (Strava)