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Dateline: Vlaamse Ardennen!

A pop quiz: When you hear the words "Tour of Flanders" do you think this:


Or this?


If the latter, join me for words and pics, on the flip...

Like a Muslim to Mecca, today was the end of a long journey. A fulfilling, exhilirating, and more or less painful end.

I headed down from Gent at 1pm (stoopid jet lag) toward the Vlaamse Ardennen for my date with this destiny. Now, staying in Gent means lots of prelude, but there are advantages of doing 20 miles on the Fietsroute before starting this nonsense. First, the fietsroute along the Schelde is like a cycling superhighway. I think it might actually be open to cars, though thankfully they don't seem interested. But for a couple sections under construction, it was brilliant. My only disappointment was making it to the Schelde but not seeing any European nations fighting for control of it. One other note: according to several signs, water skiing is permitted in the Schelde. I would guess that drinking from the Schelde is also legal, and about as appealing.

After a stop in Oudenaarde for some lunch, I skipped on down the Schelde just a few km more to the approximate location of the Koppenberg. It doesn't take long before you see it looming; just work your way past the gravel pits and it immediately comes into view. I messed up the route a bit and wound up trekking around a little church in Melden, where I hit my first real stretch of cobbles. In Gent, while you can find some nasty stones, they simply aren't as jagged as those out in the country. Fair warning...


Not a great picture but you can see the trail on the left going straight up. Closer view:


It's hard not to use a lot of profanity in the presence of the Koppenberg. It awes and mocks you. It also tosses you around like a rag doll, explodes your thighs, and shunts you to the side of the road. Well, me at least. Part of the problem is the spacing of the stones, wide enough not only to bounce you around but to bring the "mortar" into play, that being some nice Flemish spring mud. Sure, it's mostly cobbles, but the mud catches up before long. And by the middle 22% section, my tires had acquired a nice layer of brown to them. I can get up 22%. Up to a point I can spin up the cobbles. But no way am I going anywhere if my wheel slips, even a scintilla. Hence, the profanity. I hold this hill in immense respect, and not the type that can be properly captured in unsalted language.

Six hundred meters doesn't sound nearly as long as it is. I noticed in a couple of today's hellingen that the steepest part is in the middle section, which means that the grade sets your thighs on fire, but you don't get to put it out when you're done; there's another 200 meters at like 8%. And when you get to the top, you're exposed to whatever wind is around (not necessarily a problem down below). So it's not a climb for the climbers; it's a climb for a guy who can put out a massive amount of wattage for a good two minutes.

Speaking of the top, this is the only picture that does the gradient any justice:


I would quit the sport before I would descend that in the rain. I am proud to say that I remounted for the last third, to appease the cycling gods, and I have not given up on the idea of making it to the summit in one piece before this trip is over. Perhaps there's a technique I am missing, though the only one that comes to mind is "try riding in July when it's dry".

From the top, I wound to the bottom of the Korte Keer, the closest berg and a 6% average/max 17% paved delight. I had little trouble getting up, once the tractor passed by and cleared the way, which immediately impressed me with the significance of the cobbles. It never even occurred to me to stop on this climb, not even close. Seattle has similar grades, and nowhere near as cute. But litter it with lumpy stones and we have tears.


Next up was a bit of traversing to the vicinity of the Taaienberg, Stationsberg and Steenbekdries. The Stationsberg came first, but as a descent, thankfully in the 3% vicinity as it's pure cobbles. But it can also be taken together with Steenbekdries from the other direction. I made that my last climb and headed instead for the Taaienberg. "Boonen's Berg" as it's now being called, given the consistency with which he launches attacks here. I don't have the statistics of every Boonen attack memorized, like some of my current neighbors, nor do I care to look it up. But he blasted off this sucker on Saturday, that I recall.


Recall, there was some talk in the live thread about how going up the gutter is cheating, but if I learned anything today, it's that professional cyclists have no business whatsoever climbing up the center of this road. You can do it if you want, but if your objective is to marshal your energy in the hope of a win, it's insanity to forego the nice, smooth gutter route. I took it, and summited the 9% avg/18% max grade with great satisfaction, spurred on by some dismounted teenagers saying "courage!" as I passed them by. Neither Boonen nor I have any regrets here.

Lastly, the Sationsberg/Steenbekdries double. There's a small descent between the two, but I practically got thrown off my bike from those infernal stones, and only the fear of the angry dog at the base of the Steenbekdries kept me moving quickly. The latter is a perfectly lovely ascent, not too hard, though not to be scoffed at in any way.


In general, riding around the Vlaamse Ardennes is like riding in LegoLand. Yes, I am aware of what I should know about the tiny roads, but I didn't appreciate just how tiny and precious it all is until getting there. Gent isn't tiny, it's a city, so this part really made me love the place. OK, very late now. Driedaagse de Panne tomorrow.