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For the Love of the Cobbles, by Chris Fontecchio

A journey into the heart of cycling's cobbled races.

For the Love of the Cobbles - A Journey Inside Cycling's Cobbled Classic Racing Season, and a Ride Across the Hard Surfaces of Belgium and France, by Chris Fontecchio
For the Love of the Cobbles - A Journey Inside Cycling's Cobbled Classic Racing Season, and a Ride Across the Hard Surfaces of Belgium and France, by Chris Fontecchio
Chris Fontecchio

For the Love of the Cobbles, by Chris Fontecchio Title: For the Love of the Cobbles - A Journey Inside Cycling's Cobbled Classic Racing Season, and a Ride Across the Hard Surfaces of Belgium and France
Author: Chris Fontecchio
Publisher: Chris Fontecchio
Year: 2016
Pages: 447
What it is: An American in Europe, for cycling's cobbled season
Strengths: For cobble heads it's a feast of facts and colour
Weaknesses: The love is lost amid all the details

For the Love of the Cobbles - A Journey Inside Cycling's Cobbled Classic Racing Season, and a Ride Across the Hard Surfaces of Belgium and France is the story of an American in Europe and his obsession with cobbles.

The American is Chris Fontecchio, founder and editor of this website.

The obsession, Fontecchio tells us in the book's prologue, began in the spring of 1985, when he got to watch Marc Madiot win the second of his four Paris-Roubaix titles (he'd already won the junior edition of the race and went on to add another senior title as a rider and then another as a manager):

"The American broadcaster CBS did its best to enhance the drama. Anyone who got caught up in the LeMond Era of the mid-1980s will doubtlessly remember their approach: selective editing heavy on crashes, uptempo synthesizers, shameless use of dramatic language (you can say 'hell' on TV, apparently... over and over...), and the tag-team of John Tesh and some unfamiliar British guy calling the action.3 I don't know how CBS tried to sell cycling to an American audience back then, but the race was a gift from the Cycling Gods: unfathomable visuals of riders so caked in mud that only their eyes and mouths could be recognized. Action that featured the sport's biggest names, including 'our guy.' And a fantastic slugfest of a race with all the drama, aggression, tactical nuance and brute athleticism that veteran cycling fans prefer."

3 Phil Liggett, who's no longer even slightly unfamiliar.1

A quarter of a century later Fontecchio's love of the cobbles had blossomed and bloomed and he made the pilgrimage to Belgium for the spring races. Here he is just after touchdown:

"My head reeled from the deadly combination of sunlight and sleeplessness as I got off flight... whatever it was in Brussels to face my first real Cycling adventure. Lo! the banality of adventure. Airports almost never fail to dampen the excitement of a really cool trip, and for one of the world's great transportation hubs the Brussels airport is drab and disappointing. I'd hoped that the runway would be made of cobblestones, or that Sporza announcer Michel Wuyts would deliver the recorded multilingual messages to people in the immigration line, followed by a video of Peter Van Petegem reminding us to fill out a customs declaration. No such luck. A smattering of Dutch and French reminded me that I was in Belgium, but just barely. The airport had been tastefully renamed Brussels International Airport (from Zaventem, I think) just to remind you that you were, in fact, in Europe. And from what I can tell, that's the airport's claim to fame. It's in Europe."

The story of that trip forms the backbone of For the Love of the Cobbles, the book being a travelogue with the story of the 2010 season loosely wrapped around it. Adding bows and ribbons are stories about the history of the races, the climbs that feature in some of them, the cobbled sectors in others, some of the winners, as well as women's racing and cyclo-cross. Oh, and an appendix that features a number of posts from this site in 2016 about Tom Boonen.

For the Love of the Cobbles tries to offer its readers a little bit of everything. This is from a list of the races that were on during Fontecchio's European sojourn, a bluffer's guide to the Ronde:

Day 8. Ronde van Vlaanderen

Name: Tour of Flanders.
Date: Usually the first Sunday in April. The historic 2013 running, the 100th anniversary edition, was March 31, about as early as it gets.
Course: An actual tour of Flanders. Starting in Bruges, the race has settled into a pattern of deciding who wins by forcing the pack to meander around the Flemish Ardennes for the last 100km. But the first 150km changes every year, offering the race a chance to visit the small towns of Flanders and give the country a chance to experience its most treasured sporting event first hand. It's the national race by much more than reputation.
Hellingen factor: if this race isn't their reason for existing, then I don't know my geology.
Cobbles: The race that made them famous. Well, one of the races at least.
Unique Character: Superlatives aside, the Tour of Flanders is the ultimate combination of climbs, cobblestones, a thousand tiny roads, and a million sharp left- and right-hand turns, over the longest distance of the Belgian classics. It's everything you want in a classic, but bigger, harder, longer and lovelier.
Recent winners: Alexander Kristoff (2015); Tom Boonen (2012, 2005-06); Nick Nuyens (2011); Fabian Cancellara (2010, 2013-14); Stijn Devolder (2008-09); Alessandro Ballan (2007).
Assessment: This is really the main event. Paris-Roubaix is the only other cobbled race of equal stature, and the course itself is a bit of an outlier. That's a compliment, mind you. But Flanders defines the cobbled classics.

Later we go into detail on hills and cobbled sectors. One of the climbs of Vlaanderens mooiste, as an example:

7. Taaienberg

Stats: 530 meters long, 6% average grade, 15% max. Or if you count the runout all the way to the Bossenaarstraat, call it 800 meters and 5.6%. Sometimes called Boonenberg for the predictability of Tom Boonen's attacks launched there during the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. Literal translation is 'tough mountain.'

Cobbles? Yes, on the difficult part of the course, the first 500 meters. The stones are pretty big, and in fact it was on the Taaienberg where I had my moment of clarity about using the gutters, although I jumped back on the stones when I realized there were people watching. But they aren't Class A kinderkopje, and there is some nice muddy pavement at the top to finish things off.

So How Bad Is It? 500 meters of climbing on the cobbles puts it squarely in the Koppenberg-Paterberg Greater Oudenaarde trilogy of awesome, but of the three it's the easiest for an amateur to survive. To the pros the length allows for more of a sustained attack and those guys might have more concerns about staying in contact over the Taaienberg than the Paterberg.

History: A ronde staple since 1973, the Taaienberg has also featured pretty often in the E3 Prijs, the Omloop Het Volk/Nieuwsblad, and even Driedaagse de Panne. Basically everything except the Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix.

Strategic Importance: Evolving! Mostly, the Taaienberg has been where legs go to get tested, not to die. In de Ronde it traditionally figured about halfway through the last 100km, the bumpy part. Occurring within 4km of both the Steenbekdries and the Eikenberg, it makes for a nice package of climbs, the hardest of that set. Then things got worse for the Taaienbeerg after the Grand Reorganization when it was moved up to ascent #2, a thoroughly irrelevant spot. But its proximity to Oudenaarde kept alive the chance that it could figure in the end of the race at some point. [It's not overly VIP-friendly, boxed in by steep embankments and forest. So there's that.] And sure enough, that's where it landed in 2014, fourth from the end, and the last in the Koppenberg-Steenbekdries triptych. It's got big potential going forward, and in 2016 it was the scene of an actual winning move, or the prelude to one, when Michal Kwiatkowski jumped, drew out Peter Sagan, and set the scene for the final card-shuffling that ended with the Slovakian soloing home to his iconic win.50

Most resembles: A kinder, gentler Koppenberg. Like several of the area ascents, the worst of it is close to the bottom, with the upper slope relaxing a bit, running on, an interminable runout waiting for the survivors. I think of these climbs like meeting a friendly-looking stranger who shakes your hand for about a second, then punches you in the face, leaving you semi-conscious for a while... but takes the time to call the paramedics, who slowly revive you and help you back on your feet. You're fine in the end, and in truth you were only briefly in jeopardy, but you don't remember enjoying anything after the first few moments.

Take-Home Message: Always do what the races do and toss it in with a few others. The headliners will remain further up this list, but the approach was memorable. Coming from the south, if you choose to approach it via the smaller road to the east, you spend about 30 seconds riding below the climb, in reverse direction, headed toward the entrance, looking up through the leafless trees (in early spring). It beckons you.

50 So this book is going to be published like seconds after the 2016 race. My biggest problem in writing this has been knowing when to put the pen down (and having enough time to write it at all). Anyway, I guess it could be awkward to be adding this information about 2016 in almost real time, but there you have it.

Continuing the bluffer's guide theme, a section on the stars of the past, present and future offers potted biographies of Stijn Devolder, Filippo Pozzatto, Steffen Wesemann, Leif Hoste, Andrea Tafi, Peter Van Petegem, Fabian Cancellara and Johan Museeuw.

The real story of the book, though, is supposed to be the races, that 2010 trip, the story of a long distance love affair that finally gets its hook up, from IRC to IRL, digital to face to face. Here Fontecchio is at the only race that matters, the Ronde:

"And when it arrived, it was everything we had hoped for. Boonen and then Cancellara appeared around the corner, onto our ramp, riding more or less in unison, Boonen visible first only because he was taking the outside line. Both riders looked like the picture of cycling heroism: Cancellara bearing the white cross on red field of the Champion of Switzerland; Boonen in his Belgian flag color scheme, wide vertical bands of red, yellow and black driekleur that match so well with the brooding spring landscape. Two giants wrapped in their colorful flags, symbols of excellence and pride, digging deep as they swung into view, shoulder to shoulder, gliding up the stones with uncommon dignity.

"Then it happened. Watching them approach us they really were in a dead heat, but inside their respective quadriceps the Tour of Flanders was being won and lost in this very instant. With no chasers in range, we turned to watch them climb the rest of our section of stones, and with each pedal stroke it became clear that Cancellara was inching ahead. We screamed instinctively, god knows what -- I can't recall practically anything I would have yelled. One of their names? "GO!"? "OMIGOD!"? A stream of profanity? I have no idea, because primal excitement was in complete possession of my brain. Through the fog of this war, though, we saw it: at the top of the road, where the riders turn left to go past the pub, Cancellara disappeared. And Boonen... well, Boonen wobbled just a bit. It was a good five seconds after we lost sight of the Swiss Bear before Boonen too was gone. There was no mistaking what we were witnessing. Cancellara had won the Muur, and maybe the entire race."

* * * * *

So, who's it all for? Given there's explanations of things like drafting you might think this is a book you could begin with, pick up if you know nothing about cycling in general and the niche world of the cobbles in particular and become an expert by the time you get to the end of its four hundred and odd pages. But lots of cycling books feel the need to explain basics like drafting -€” none bother to explain essentials, like how to peel a banana while riding along -€” and you could argue that some discussion of wind is important when talking about races which can be won or lost by inattentiveness when echelons form. So not necessarily a book for beginners. More one for hardcore cobble heads, for people who want to immerse themselves in the whole thing and can cope with the sensory overload of so much information, so many names, so many places, coming at them.

Does the love of the cobbles come across, do we feel the passion for them that Fontecchio and so many other cycling fans have, does the love of the title dare make its presence felt, inspire the reader to want to feel the same? For me, no it did not. We can see that Fontecchio is passionate about the subject -€” we can see that so many are passionate about the subject -€” but I don't think we ever really get to see why, get offered the chance to feel the passion for the cobbles ourselves, not in the way, say, that books like The Spring Classics and Paris-Roubaix pass on the passion from writer to reader.

We are invited into the world of cobble heads, we are given the language and we are given the rituals (Belgian beers and frites). Anyone reading For the Love of the Cobbles could quickly act the part, could even pass themselves off as a cobble head. Anyone reading For the Love of the Cobbles could quickly learn the rites needed to celebrate spring in the hills and on the cobbled lanes of Flanders, pick up the patois and the in jokes. In time, doing that often enough, maybe the love will come.

* * * * *

You can find an excerpt from the book here.

1 Brian O'Nolan invented the footnote in cycling books in 1939 when he added them to Basset and Hackjaw's biography of Harry Reynolds (no copies of the book exist today – due to some of its content being considered salacious no Irish printer would touch the manuscript and the book had to be printed in America. All copies were lost when the ship taking them to Ireland was sunk in the North Atlantic in 1940). Sixty years later, in August 1989, UCI president Luis Puig's attempt to have footnotes in cycling books banned was voted down at the UCI's annual congress (endnotes were to be allowed, if permission was applied for in advance). Puig vowed to return to the topic the following year but died in July of 1990 and his successor, Hein Verbruggen, did not feel the same animosity toward the footnote as Puig did. Brian Cookson's views on the matter are not known. Chris Fontecchio, one quickly realises, loves them, For the Love of the Cobbles coming with 165 of the little beasties, most with a humourous intent, asides, such as the identity of that British commentator.