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Putting the "Hell" in "Hellingen"


I know that you know that cobbles + gradients = pain. And that rain makes matters worse. As does distance. And cobbled flat sections. And narrow, twisting roads. I know you know how it all comes together in the Ronde van Vlaanderen in one big stew of suffering. But it's Flanders Week, and this is the Podium Cafe. If we can't obsess over some of the finer points of riding up and down the Vlaamse Ardennen now, when can we?

Basically, here are a few ways in which the famous hellingen (hills) of Flanders set themselves apart from those of, well, anywhere else.

1. The Stones

What's it about: Cobbles in Flanders don't come in quite the variety that they do in France. The Arenberg Trench, for example, is more a bunch of shapeless stones arranged in a vaguely cobble-like array than an actual, functioning road. That won't fly on an 18% gradient, or, you can have a road like that in Flanders but the race won't go over it. The historical treatment of the Koppenberg gives pretty good insight into the race organizers' views, and the bottom line is, nothing can be worse than the all-neat-and-tidy version of the Kopp.

But there are at least two categories of stones in Flanders. The run-of-the-mill type, either newer or more uniform or packed tightly versions on one hand, and the kinderkoppen on the other. The latter is Flemish for "baby heads," not my favorite image for something people drive trucks over, but that aside, they're big, rounded and smooth. All cobbles bounce you around pretty good, but these are something more.

Why it matters: Obviously the blunt force trauma your bike experiences with each stone is the headliner, but a subtly crucial matter is traction. In extended nice weather it's not an issue, and in miserable slop all the cobbles are slippery. But on an average day the kinderkoppen can mess you up even when they look dry, beacuse of one extra factor: mud. For example, the Koppenberg is packed in mud dirt at the bottom and the top, with only the famous trench portion in the middle reset in concrete to hold the stones in place for more than one winter (and to discourage theft). I first rode the Kopp on a dry day after a period of on-and-off showers, so the stones were ostensibly dry. But by the time the road started kicking up over 15%, my rear tire had acquired a coat of brown mud, and on the big, smooth, round kinderkoppen it slid out on me at the first opportunity. This is why even the top pros, who have the strength to stay seated and keep their weight over the rear wheel, will still slip. This is why they can't remount until the road flattens out. This is what makes the Kopp so devilish.

And this is why Boonen lost the Tour of Flanders last year. On the flip:

Here's Boonen and Cancellara approaching the key moment on the Muur:


Here's a closeup of their tires:


R Mc has pointed this out a few times, so pardon the repetition, but even in this blurry shot you can see that Boonen is running a lower tire pressure than Cancellara. Why? The kinderkoppen... and the fickle forecast of rain that never really materialized. If the rains had come, this lower pressure would have enabled Boonen to get better traction and attack on the Muur. In dry weather, it was Cancellara who had the zippier setup. OK, maybe Cancellara was unstoppable regardless, but the weather gods didn't help Tommeke last year.

Where you find them: Koppenberg, Muur, Paterberg... to name a few.

2. The Hill Shapes

What's it about: We tend to deal in statistics when we talk about climbs, a method that is shaped by the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, etc. In the mega-long climbs of cycling, the average gradient tells you about half of what you need to know, and the other half is a mix of particulars like consistency, pavement surface, max ramps, exposure, etc. On many of the short climbs of the Flemish Ardennes, the average number means very little, because you spend almost no time at the average gradient. Mostly, they're either no big deal, or they contain a wall which will put you in the red. In the latter case, what comes before or after matters as much as the wall itself.

I'm neither a geologist nor a Flandrian (dagnammit), so don't ask me the whys, but it seems like the Ardennes contain an elevated middle and several miserable approaches to that rolling plateau that look like this:


Image courtesy of

In other words, you get 15-20 seconds to warm up, then you get completely clobbered for a minute or more, and after that, as your legs are screaming for recovery, you have a ridiculously long runout which keeps you sealed in your pain cave seemingly for-fucking-ever.

Why it matters: Maybe this is something the pros don't care about as much as the cyclotourists (hello!), but for me the psychological progression is as follows:

  1. terror;
  2. pain;
  3. relief!
  4. there's more?
  5. when will this be over??
  6. Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh
  7. oblivion

To the pros, the runout may not have quite the effect on the mind that it did for me, but it does prevent recovery, particularly on the kinderkoppen. If you're attacking, you need to make it stick. If you're in trouble, you won't be out of it anytime soon. 

Where you find them: The Taaienberg, pictured here, is a classic example, but the top is paved so it's not quite so deadly. The Koppenberg, shown at the top of the post, is probably the worst, because you never get off the stones. In that shot the stones you see are still some 4%. Just below the crest is a 14% section, which follows some 11% stones. This mix of low double-digit grades is what's waiting for you after the famed 21% trench.

3. The Hilltops

What's it about: So now you've climbed a hellingen. And what goes up must come down... at some point. In some cases, like the Muur and the Bosberg, once you've summited there is no place to go but down. In other cases, like the climbs heading into the heart of the Vlaamse Ardennen, getting to the top just puts you on top of the plateau -- an open expanse of lovely farmlands which you won't appreciate at all unless the inevitable wind happens to be at your back. From there you might go up or down on the rolling terrain, or just keep hammering away on a false flat. In the crosswinds.

Why it matters: It's a universal principle in cycling, from the Mortirolo to the Muur to my local practice crit, that if you attack on a climb you want to make it stick by attacking over the top. Here, if the top is an open exposure with a nasty crosswind, you can really make that attack stick. Or detonate yourself.

Where you find them: Again, the Kopp. Memory isn't great but I believe the Paterberg, Molenberg and Steenbeekdries all fit the bill. The earlier stuff. Later climbs tend to be up and down.

4. The Placement

What's it about: Some climbs come later in the race. It's a hard race. Therefore, those climbs are harder.

Why it matters: Harder and later means winner.

Where you find them: This is really just a vehicle to discuss the Muur. By itself, I'm not sure it's all that hard, based on some of the earlier criteria. Yes, it's got its share of kinderkoppen, particularly near the top, but the bulk of the climb is down in the town where the stones aren't so bad. It has no long false flat at the top. It hits you early, but what the profile doesn't tell you very well is that it eases up a bit in places, long enough to keep you out of the red until the very top. Really, the Muur is probably in the top five hardest owing to the length and the famous 18% stretch but that's it.

What makes the Muur is the character: it's very accessible to fans, unlike the Kopp or the Paterberg, where you run out of parking on the little farm roads pretty fast. The clearing at the top is a great place to party, even before accounting for the pub. There's plumbing behind the chapel and plenty of places to park a frietenmobile. All this matters because if you're a race planner, you want the key climb to happen in front of the most fans. The Muur won't be decisive if they rearrange the course to make it too early. You'll lose some guys who weren't going to last anyway, but that's it. What makes the Muur so perfect is that after 235km it really does hurt, much more than it would after 180.

5. The Rain Gutters

What's it about: Boo! That said, they aren't always rideable. Sometimes people are standing in them. Sometimes they're too wet or muddy. On dry days, though, look out, because the train is coming, single file.  

Why they matter: Whatever a cyclotourist may think of them, if you're paid to race in a way where saving energy is paramount, and you can hammer up the hellingen in a straight enough line to stay in the gutter, then you really have no choice. Also, you can mess with others because of the single file thing. Boonen has at least once put a teammate behind him, who failed to match Tommeke's pace ahead, and forced people to either let the gap out or get on the stones. Great blocking potential.

Where you find them: Taaienberg, Paterberg.