There are very few climbs in modern bike racing that can bring a bike racer to his knees. With the evolution of intelligent gearings, the steepest climbs have been tamed (well, as much as they can be). The Koppenberg, however, defies all technological advances and takes us back to a time when plodding upward on foot was just as common of a means of forward movement as pedaling.

The Koppenberg’s stats are, objectively speaking, nothing to go home crying about. I know, sacrilege, you howl. Hear me out. There are climbs that are steeper, longer, even harder. It’s only 600 meters long, it averages just under 12%, and its steepest section is 22%. I’m not saying these are paltry figures, but climbs like the Zoncolan and Angliru manage figures like that for ten thousand meters. They’re debilitatingly hard, but so is the Koppenberg. There are a few things that are very, very different about the Koppenberg that set it well apart from the horror climbs of the Zoncolan and the Angliru, namely: cobbles, cobbles, cobbles, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

It’s not only the cobbles, but everything about Vlaanderens Mooiste (Flanders’s Most Beautiful) that makes this climb a terror. The basic nature of the race makes for a bloc racing almost from the start, and it never really lets up for over 250 kilometers. Wind, tiny, winding Flandrian roads, hellingen, flat pavé sections, and the basic knowledge that this is the biggest day in Belgian cycling each year, makes for a race like no other.

It certainly doesn’t allow for climb specific gearing, nor would it be necessary for the world’s best over such a short climb. You’re never going to see a rider walk up to the start in Brugge on Easter Morning with a compact crankset.

Even if this theoretical rider (who is making present readers and purists grimace and moan as you read this) did, that might not be enough to keep him going. The steepest part of the climb is in a deep, moist trench between two fields and two fences. The moisture never seems to go away on these cobbles, and when the mixture is brewed just right, the surface is nigh unrideable. Really.

It’s not even just the numerical difficulty of the climb or that it comes 200 km into what many would say is the most difficult one day race of the year. It doesn’t matter how much gas, how much power the best racer has left when the rider in front teeters over and puts a foot down. A superstar receives the same sentence with no hope of remounting unless an eager fan helps him up and pushes him onward. For most, it’s the way of the foot.

Tire Pressure: A Big Deal

I’ve had the pleasure of riding the Koppenberg a few times, in every type of weather. From bright and sunny with temperatures in the close to 30, to driving rain with temperatures barely above freezing, to the worst of all – a recent rain on previously dry stones. I’ve had to walk once, but it was the manner in which I was forced to walk, which was unnerving: my tires had no traction on the stones. It was like I was riding up a 22% wall of bumpy, frozen river. I got off my bike, scratched my head, and wondered – how is it possible to get up this thing when it’s wet?

I got my answer a little while later in the form of former racer, director, and general cycling genius, Scott Sunderland. Sunderland encountered the Koppenberg as a racer on more than a few occasions and then dealt with it again as a director. I asked Scott the day after my curious experience – how do they get up it in the wet? He smiled a knowing smile and said, “We’ve ridden pressures as low as 3-3.5 bar on bad days there.” General consensus puts riders in the 6-6.5 bar range for the climb though.

But What Is It Like?

With tire pressure adjusted to the conditions that await you, let’s take an imaginary trip up the legendary wall. The first time you turn the corner to see the climb in front of you is one a cycling fan will never forget. It’s beautiful. It’s everything you imagine when you see it on TV, but bigger, narrower, perfect. Some places don’t live up to expectations when you see them in person, but the Koppenberg does, and it does in emphatic fashion.

The cobbles are objectively some of the worst on the route of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and they start early, as you bounce through the tiny town of Melden. The grade starts out moderately enough, but something like climbing out a bowl, it just gets steeper and steeper. As you push forward and upward, and as the grade steepens, you head into the trench – the climb is cut into the hillside. It lies deep below green fields and underneath two parallel rows of regal trees that stand as permanent spectators for the masses - both great heroes and weekend warriors alike - that ply the rough pathway.

The climb hits its peak at about the 22% mark, and soon after, you emerge out of the dark, dank trench and the climb’s most difficult middle section. Gradually, the Koppenberg regains some semblance of a reasonable grade, the sky becomes visible again, and the wet stones that wreaked havoc just meters before are now dryer, more sane. It’s almost over! It’s going to be ok! And then - of course - she hits you one last time in the final meters before the top just after a small bench (which is opportunely placed for allowing riders the chance to take a moment and really appreciate the stones, because sometimes one needs to do that after something so stunningly difficult as the middle part of the Koppenberg).

After, perhaps, a quick break at the bench, or maybe at the top after walking back to peer back down the path from whence you just came, there’s a quick, wind blasted section of road across the top of the climb, followed by a screaming, somewhat terrifying descent back down to the N60, before commonly turning right and heading toward Mariaborrestraat, Steenbeekdries, the Taaienberg, and oh so many more famous names in the Tour of Flanders’s hellingen sweepstakes!

A Brief History Of The Koppenberg

The climb we see today is, believe it or not, a tamer, more civilized version of the monster that ruled over the Tour of Flanders in the 70′s and 80′s with a battle hardened fist. The Koppenberg was first introduced to the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 1975. The next thirteen years were a heyday for the climb. It enjoyed a spot of infamy not known to any other climbs the year over. It was a crap shoot whether even the winner would be riding up the Koppenberg. The road, almost a path, was disturbingly narrow, far narrower than it is today (and it’s very narrow even now), and the road surface was laughably atrocious. The road was almost constantly wet, muddy, and subsequently slick, and combined with the narrow road and drunken cobblestones – it was a show stopper.

In 1987, the Koppenberg very nearly actually stopped the show. In its 13th year on the Ronde route, the simmering pot of ridiculous reached a boil. Jesper Skibby would be the victim of the final straw. Skibby broke away early in the 1987 edition of Vlaanderens Mooiste. He had a two minute cushion when he hit the road that rises straight out of the tiny village of Melden. The gap was falling quickly, and Skibby would be falling momentarily as well.

At the steepest, nastiest section, Skibby teetered over. Normally, this wouldn’t be a huge problem, except the race commissaire’s car was hot on his heels and had nowhere else to go with the field just moments behind. Luckily for Skibby, he fell into the grass embankment that makes a war-like trench of the Koppenberg. It was lucky because the commissaire’s car was not stopping – it just kept right on going. Skibby’s bike did not survive the altercation, but at least I’m not reporting on a dead bike racer mowed down by an official vehicle worried about disrupting a bike race.

The harrowing debacle assured an extended vacation for the Koppenberg. The Koppenberg went into a dormant state for the next 15 years. It did not return to professional bike racing again until the 2002 edition of the Tour of Flanders, but not before significant renovations, which included widening and repaving the vile stretch.

The Koppenberg was welcomed back with open arms, as the race picked up a decisive climb that had the ability not to decide the winner, but to jettison any also-rans, to severely cripple any riders not going well, and to give an early launching pad for the riders looking to win in Ninove in those years and now in Oudenaarde (which is coincidentally less than 5k from the top of the Koppenberg).

The Front: The Only Place To Be

The reintroduction of the Koppenberg in 2002, and its use every year in general, underlines, highlights, shouts, screams, texts, moans – communicates very effectively – one of the mantras of bike racing: get to the front. Anyone that has ever raced a bike has heard those painful words: you gotta get to the front.

Countless eyes have rolled in response to the most basic of directives, but never is it more important than on a climb like the Koppenberg. Positioning is crucial on a climb where you’re not guaranteed the ability to ride up the climb if you’re outside of the top 20. Indeed, most years, only the top 30 manage to make it through unscathed. The poor, suffering masses at the rear are left hobbling up the cruel berg as the leaders howl down the descent en route to the upcoming cobbles.

One of the underlying themes of the Tour of Flanders is one of the domino effect – once one things goes wrong, it’s highly likely that more bad things will occur, leading, eventually, to a rider’s demise on the day. A poor position on the Koppenberg could lead to walking, and after that, the slings and arrows continue – there’s a feed zone before heading into the next stretch of cobbles. There’s maybe a 3 minute section of solace on the main road. If a rider is frantically chasing, the feed zone suddenly becomes slightly less important, with regaining the field much higher on the to do list. Missing a feed at 200 km though? Disaster. Not getting that crucial food down? Disaster. Never seeing the front end of the race again? Disaster. And so on, and so forth. So many things can go wrong, and for most of the field, they often do.

Ride It

Don’t let my words dissuade or discourage you though. This is one of the best climbs in cycling.

I’ve always loved the cobbles. I still remember the first time I watched the Tour of Flanders on a VHS tape. I still remember the first time I read about the Koppenberg, saw the pictures, imagined what that must be like. I remember the feeling that it evoked in me. Wonder.

Many years later, I got that chance to visit Flanders for the first time. Minutes later, I was on my bike in search of the Koppenberg. I got lost, lost again, then happened to look over my shoulder - and there was no question what I was looking at.

Looking at it from the small cluster of houses at the base, it looked impossible - there’s this tiny string of rocks, seemingly placed one on top of the other, disappearing up the hillside into the trench between two fields.

I stood at the bottom and gawked at the stern test that lay before me. Then I started into it. I struggled against the rocks and the gradient and the eternally slick section at the steepest point. I got nervous - could I make it up the thing? But through it all, I smiled as I fought the Koppenberg. It was an ugly effort, but I made it, and as I stood at the top and looked back down the cascade of cobbles, I knew that we were going to be friends.

It was magic.

Then we spent more and more time in Oudenaarde. I see it nearly every day each spring, and I still feel the same way. I love that climb.

It’s an imposing, beautiful sight. The climb is tough, but it’s only 600 meters long, and the really hard part in the heart of the trench is only a fraction of that. It’s a climb that can be enjoyed, because it’s not insanely long. And if one does have to put a foot down - as I have on a number of occasions - it’s not the worst walk in the world. You’ll be following in the footsteps of many, many great riders who have been forced to their feet on these cobbles.

I love the Koppenberg, because I can close my eyes and see it from every angle, and feel my way over each and every cobble. I love it, because it makes me smile when I think about it.

Again, this might not be for everyone, but if you love cobbles, the Koppenberg is a special spot.

Author: Jered Gruber