Bergs, cobbles & beers with Sir Bradley Wiggins
We invited Sir Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s most decorated cyclist – winner of five Olympic gold medals, Tour de France champion and hour-record holder – to ride the bergs & cobbles of Flanders, starting in Ghent, the city the city where he was born. This is the route we did. Enjoy!
Ghent, a small city of just over 250,000 people is the unmistakable capital of cycling in northern Europe. Home to the Ghent Six Day and the opening cobbled classic of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Ghent, the birthplace of Sir Bradley Wiggins is a beguiling mix of ancient buildings and youthful, creative energy; its cobbled squares and narrow streets are full of quirky shops, cafes and restaurants and echo to the chimes of the city’s three towers and the trundling of its trams.
The route passes the famous Kuipke Velodrome in Ghent, the track where Wiggins' late father, Gary, once raced and where Bradley finished his own career. “My earliest memory of watching a cycle race was in Ghent in 1986 when I was six,” he recalls.“I rode my first Ghent Six Day when I was 19". The velodrome is a special place: Merckx, Sercu and all the rest used to race there.
Head south along the river Schelde for 30km to arrive in the Flemish Ardennes.
These are the roads that put hairs on your chest; where careers are forged, where dreams are both created and shattered, and where generations of riders have come to seek betterment through battering in the Belgian kermesse scene.
The Molenberg was for a long time the first pivot point in the Ronde. Indeed, much hinged on the poor state of the cobblestones and the bottleneck that ensured when the peloton attacked the Molenberg. Two-time winner Peter Van Petegem always said: “If you’re not in the first 10 to take the Molenberg, it will take you at least half an hour to get back in front.” The Molenberg was also the place where Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara broke away from the pack in 2010. On that occasion, Cancellara went on to win the Tour of Flanders. This is a climb you want to hit hard.
This is one of the signature cobblestone roads in Flanders. The cobbles in this two kilometre stretch are rough but what makes this road really special is how it sinks in the middle, causing a slight descent at the start and a rise at the end. The Haaghoek is featured in races such as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Tour of Flanders.
This asphalt climb is regularly featured in the Flemish spring classics. It's positioned immediately after the legendary cobbles of the Haaghoek. The Leberg is 700m long and has an average gradient of 6,1% with its steepest point, 14%, in a right-hand curve at the bottom of the climb. The climb connects to the last bit of the Pottenberg which is less steep, but runs exposed through fields and acres, causing wind to have a significant influence. Look out for the road graffiti in support of local riders that can be seen on your way up all year round.
This is Greg Van Avermaet's absolute favourite climb. Boasting a maximum gradient of "only" 10% it seems to feel harder than it is, perhaps because you can always see exactly where you're going. It's usually encountered reasonably early in professional races, which means it isn't taken full-gas, but that will be of scant consolation as you grind your way up.
Bar Gidon is located on the market square in Geraardsbergen, next to the Vesten and close to the famous Muur, where cycling history is written. The cycling café bar is owned by ex-professional Frederic Penne who was active in cycling for 20 years, of which 5 years as a prof. Perfect place to taste the local specialty: Mattentaarten. It’s a unique regional cake that enjoys great fame, even beyond the national borders.
De Vesten & De Muur
The legendary 'Muur van Geraardsbergen' (Grammont Wall) takes you to the 110 meter high summit of the Oudenberg. The 910m long climb has an average and maximum incline of 9% and 20% respectively. For decades De Muur was both the penultimate and decisive climb of the Ronde. Also other races such as the Three Days of De Panne, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and BinckBank Tour use the hill to separate the men from the boys. Don’t forget to pay a visit to the lovely neo-baroque church on the top of the Kapelmuur, which will be a welcome stop after a 20% steep climb.The rather dated joke in Geraadsbergen is that there are only three famous walls in the world, Berlin, China and theirs. You can, if you are sure you can get moving again, stop on the very roughest section to pay homage at a poetic tribute to Eddy Merckx or you can take a pause at Bar Gidon on the Market Square, which is festooned with race-worn jerseys and autographs of riders past and present. It is also headquarters to Remco Evenepoel's fanclub.
The 750m climb starts going gently uphill from the center of Ronse. The upper – and steepest – part of the climb has a roughly-paved cobbled surface, totaling 450 m of cobbles. The climb was first included in the Tour of Flanders route in 1973 and has become a fixed location in the route since the race's restyling in 2012. In recent years, it comes at 26 km from the finish in Oudenaarde, as the last cobbled climb before the iconic Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs. The Kruisberg is also regularly included in the Three Days of De Panne, E3 Harelbeke.
Three: that’s how many times riders must climb the famous Oude Kwaremont during the Ronde. The Oude Kwaremont is the longest cobbled climb of Flanders at 2200 meters long, and 92 meters of climbing. While it averages a nice “easy” 4% gradient it’s maximum gradient of 11.6 % lies in the middle of the climb – it’s not an easy feat to recover from that over cobbles. Indeed, if you fail to recover from it in time, you can consider a pause at In 't Palet on the corner of the village square.
Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat
In the Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat in Kwaremont you can pay homage at the monument of Karel Van Wijnendaele, creator of the Tour of Flanders. You can also enjoy an outdoor Hall of Fame as the names of every winner of his race are stencilled onto the road. If you want to prolong your encounter with cycling royalty, the cafe D'Oude Hoeve offers the best in Belgian beer, a coal fired range on a cold day and a warm welcome from owner Joelle whatever the weather.
It’s only a relatively recent addition to the Tour of Flanders, constructed in the 1980s on farmland by a landowner jealous of his friend's proximity to the Koppenberg every year, but the Paterberg has already achieved legendary status. With a maximum gradient of 20.33% and an average gradient of over 12%, it’s one of the steepest climbs in the region. The descent to the sharp right hand corner at the foot of the climb requires care and usually claims at least one victim every year on the Tour of Flanders.
We finished our ride in Oudenaarde drinking beers in the Carillon, the oldest bar in town.
If you want to ride back to Ghent, it's an easy, car free spin along the river Schelde (as long there is no headwind ;-) ). The route back is about 30km. You can download the gpx here.