“Some stones … seem to have aged perfectly and shine in the morning sunshine.”

The wind is blowing frantically and heavy rain is running down the windowpane. The thought of riding in such conditions, for most, is unthinkable. But before long I am on the road where the surface is smooth and a pleasure to ride—even though I know I’ll need to lower my tire pressure to provide much-needed grip on the sleeping cobblestones ahead.

The surroundings are quiet; most people are still with their home comforts. I’m glad the sun seems to be driving away the rain as it rises. The landscape is green but damp. The road twists, and as it turns through the fields of Belgium there’s a chance to move forward in the saddle and dip down to break the wind, accumulating speed and, with it, energy.

It’s like taking a step back in time. The stones form a road surface that dates from Roman times. These cobbles have weathered every element and endured for generations. They grasp my tires. Some stones are cracked and some are covered in moss, waiting to force a wheel-slip; others seem to have aged perfectly and shine in the morning sunshine.

For any rider to endure these infamous cobblestones, determination and willpower need to drive the quads into the pedals. They’ve given rouleurs terrific glory, but others immense pain. They are mysterious. A minefield awaits. This is the Koppenberg.

The climb begins with a drop in speed as I rumble over the uneven stones. My eyes scan frantically to spot cracks that could simply end my day. While I’m focusing, the rain intensifies, the clouds darken and the wind picks up. The sounds are eerie as my chain tracks up and down on the chainring with the intensity of the cobbles.

I look up this “cliff” faced with brickwork. The gradient has dramatically increased with no chance to change gears or even stop, because the cobbles will gobble me up. Rising out of the saddle, the climb continues and matches my determination to succeed. But the cobbles have other ideas and do all they can to propel me every which way.

Only trees line the Koppenberg today, but I imagine I can hear the crowds and the other riders around me. The theatre is offering me quite a spectacle as I feel riders nudge me, some falling, others trying to overtake. When will it end?

Over the rise, I can sense the end in the distance. A metallic taste is present in my mouth.

A momentary pause for reflection is needed. It didn’t seem that physically demanding beforehand, yet, when I am meeting the task, there’s simply no turning back and no chance to move the gear lever. When you commit there is no stopping.

I take a sip from my water bottle and, a click of the cleats later, I roll down the road in search of more legendary cobblestones. The Koppenberg lies quiet, ready to threaten the next rider who dares leap to the challenge.

Images: Marshall Kappel

Words:William Holtham

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