Sadly, cycling’s heroic cobbled classics races are now over for the year. Always one of the high points of the season, we were very fortunate to get to see one live this year. While in Belgium, our hosts, Ridley Bicycles, generously arranged for us to to be able to see the Ronde van Vlaanderen from the slopes of the Paterberg– a once in a lifetime chance we won’t soon forget.
While only paved and added to the Ronde in 1986, the Paterberg has already achieved legendary status in cycling. This small hill– only about 260 feet tall and rising innocuously out of the Flemish countryside– seems insignificant when compared to giants like the Alpe d’Huez or the Angliru, but the Paterberg is a small monster in its own right: blowing apart races, ripping apart chains, and sometimes forcing even the hardest of the hardmen to dismount and walk.
We climbed the Paterberg as part of the Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo ride the day before the actual pro race, and it was every bit as difficult as it looks. Rising steeply at a pitch of nearly 13% and at times maxing out at a leg searing gradient in excess of 20%, all of it cobbled, the Paterberg is truly in a class with few equals. The hill is a devil to climb, with a grade that makes your breath scrape in your lungs and cobbles that don’t lightly forgive the rider who loses his focus, but it offers unparalleled rewards. At the top, you find yourself in a broad meadow covered in tall, waving grasses. Looking out from the Paterberg’s summit you take in a vista of rolling Flemish farm country, often viewed under the shifting light from racing clouds. Sheep and cattle graze in lush green fields that have been farmed for thousands of years.
Climbed twice in the race’s finale, the Paterberg is often the scene of an attack that detonates the race and truly separates the weak from the strong. And seeing that the Paterberg’s second ascent is also the final climb before the finish, it’s definitely where we wanted to be to witness what’s frequently the race’s deciding move.
When we got to the Paterberg, it was like arriving in cycling heaven. In a pasture field alongside the narrow road, hundreds of Belgian, Dutch, British and French cycling fans milled around, watching a giant outdoor video screen, waiting for the race to come through. The Lion of Flanders, the iconic yellow flag with a black lion that has been a symbol of northern Belgium for centuries, was on display everywhere. Lotto-Belisol and Omega-Pharma-Quickstep supporters waved small flags, and everyone wore the cycling cap or jersey of their favorite team. Nearby, a small stand was set up to sell Jupiler beer—a staple of Belgian cycling events, and another to sell frites in wax paper cones. Small children wandered around waving multiple Flanders flags and chanting “Tommke! Tommke! Tommke!” (Tom Boonen, the hometown favorite).
We settled into a decent spot where we could see both the screen and still be close enough to the road to get a good spot when the race came through. We could always tell where it was by watching the hovering helicopters covering the race. The closer the race got, the more crowded the hill became and the more the energy built.
Belgium is a country with cycling close to its heart. It’s difficult to explain how deeply two wheels run in Belgian culture– but these guys grow up riding, spend their autumn watching ‘cross, and come out by the millions to watch the Ronde. By the time the women’s race came around, the crowd was already pretty fired up, and cheered loudly as the first riders charged up the hill. One of the last riders in the group, a rider from Estado de México-Faren Kuota, broke her chain and was forced to walk. The crowd began to chant “Give her a bike! Give her a bike!” as team car after team car drove past.
Several hours later when the men’s race came by, the crowd was in full-on party mode. As Tom Boonen came charging in with a group including Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and other favorites, the crowd rushed to the barricades, cheering for their hometown hero. The biggest show of support, though, was for a virtually unknown Cofidis domestique. His rear derailleur broke less than half way up the hill. With no team car in sight to get a new bike, he was forced to sit by the side of the road. By the time his car got to him, the rest of the peloton was far out of sight. At this point in the race, there would have been no shame in stopping. The Cofidis team was completely out of contention, and what remained was over an hour of brutal cobbled hills and roads with terrible headwinds, all of which he would have to ride alone. When his team car finally showed up, instead of getting inside he pulled a fresh bike off the roof, got back on and started pedaling. The crowd went nuts. Belgians love this kind of stuff. The guy who doesn’t give up, who keeps on going even when there’s no hope of winning.
After watching Mr. Cofidis get to the top, everyone moved back into position at either the Jupiler tent or in front of the big TV screen. Shortly after the first run up the Paterberg, Boonen found himself flailing and out of contention. At this point crowd allegiances switched to everyone’s favorite adopted Belgian, Fabian Cancellara. This subtle but quick shift didn’t seem to particularly bother anyone, so we just rolled with it too. When the race came around to the Paterberg the second time, the crowd rushed to the rails to watch Cancellara and Sep Vanmarck duel it out on the climb, trying to chase down a breakaway, then immediately proceeded to ignore the rest of the peloton and ran back to the video monitor.
In the closing kilometers, the crowd packed in tighter and tighter to watch. People cheered on their favorite riders in a cacophony languages, and the crowd took on a collective energy that felt almost overwhelming. It was without a doubt the most intense excitement we’ve ever felt during a bike race. In the final meters, as the race came down to a match sprint, the crowd roared and the tension built. When Cancellara finally edged out Greg Van Avermaet for the win, it felt like a wave finally broke over us, the tension released with a huge rush of cheers.
Walking back down to the car, we stepped over discarded paper Lion of Flanders flags, crushed Jupiler cans and lost Lotto-Belisol team caps. The dust from the race still hung heavy in the air over the cobbled roads. The people we passed seemed subdued, spent somehow from the excitement of watching the race. In the absence of the cheering crowds, the Flemish countryside seemed oddly quiet and empty. To watch live and in person that we’d seen so many times on TV was an experience that would take us a long time to really full comprehend. The riders go so fast, and the race is so frenetic, that it’s not until long after the riders have passed that it sinks in what you’ve just seen. But it’s not something we’re ever likely to forget.