“The Koppenberg, for example, can actually make you weak in the knees when standing at its foot.”
We got back to sleep after the nighttime thunderstorm and by 7 a.m. the sun was out in force—a brilliant white against a dark-blue sky. Everyone laughed and talked about how worried they were the night before. Riding cobbles in Belgium is no joke. These are not the nicely laid, neat, new cobblestones you might find in parts of Paris or even New York City. These are wildly irregular stones with wide gaps and uneven surfaces that almost always produce bad results—sometimes very bad.
As a result, many have never been fond of the most infamous cobblestone climbs of Flanders. The Koppenberg, for example, can actually make you weak in the knees when standing at its foot. You need a certain technique to be good at climbing these appropriately named hellingen. It’s a technique that Wendy’s husband Vince explained. And it was great advice in view of the day’s forecast of more rain.
The cobbles can get very slippery and, especially when climbing, you have to balance your weight so that your back wheel does not lose its grip on the cobbles—and that can be true even in dry conditions. You need to let your bike find its way over the cobbles, and not come out of the saddle. You need to keep some weight on the back wheel so that it has more grip on the stones. Otherwise, your back wheel will start to slip and you’ll make little progress up the steep grade.
It all comes down to finding your equilibrium on the bike—it’s a fine line between not putting too much weight on the front wheel so your back wheel will start slipping, and not putting too much weight on your rear wheel, which will lift your front wheel off the cobbles or give you a sensation of tilting over backward.
Wendy and William got started riding as I followed along, jumping in and out of the truck to capture images of them, as they rode from town to town. Our plan was to start near Wevelgem and ride east to the Muur van Geraardsbergen and, along the way, hit the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg, ride the cobbled stretches of Mariaborrestraat, Steenbeekdries and Stationsberg, and climb the Taaienberg before finishing on the Muur.
We did most of this—except by the time we reached the Koppenberg the most torrential rainstorm started again. Even the truck was slipping on the climb’s 20-percent grades, forcing us to drive to the closest pub and wait it out. And then the sun returned and with it we pushed forward ever closer to the Muur—whose short, but steep climb to its iconic 18th century chapel provided a fitting end to our tumultuous journey.
Images and Words: Marshall Kappell (with Wendy Janssens)