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The pilgrimage: Oude Kwaremont

From issue 72 • Words by Ben Edwards with images from James Startt

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To say the cobblestone climbs of Flanders hold a sacred place in cycling is no understatement. They offer suffering and beauty in equal measure. They inspire epic deeds on a human scale. They are both playground and anvil—challenges that can make mortals immortal. Their allure is inescapable.

So it was that we found ourselves in the old market town of Oudenaarde, Belgium, gateway to those fabled cobbled climbs. It was late March, the most holy of weeks for those who cherish these back roads of ancient stone. We had come to test ourselves on their slopes only days before the Ronde van Vlaanderen when the greatest athletes in the world would write another masterpiece across them with wits, wheels and wattage as their quill.

The energy in the air that week was palpable, but as we prepared for the ride our mood was subdued. There was the inevitable discussion of tire pressure and weather—knowing that a few psi can make all the difference on slick, raw cobblestones. Gears were run through. A hesitant shift could be the difference between riding and walking over steep cobbles. Our PowerTap Joule GPS+ computers were powered up, reaching out for signals and finding their power meters and heart-rate straps, as hungry to begin the effort as we were.

Riding the cobbles well takes many things, from bike-handling skills to a unique technique at the bars. The impulse is to hang on tight as your bars buck and strain in response to the battering at the contact patch. That’s a mistake. You need to let them dance under a light touch at the tops, simply controlling the range of that dance to keep your wheel on target. But above all, riding cobbles takes watts—and riding them well takes an enormous amount of watts. Speed is your friend on cobblestones, but speed on that perfectly imperfect surface requires power. Lots of power. That was the question we were here to answer: “Did we have the power to take on the cobbled climbs of Flanders?”

Later, over beers and warm Flemish stew, we would look at the numbers our PowerTap P1 pedals and C1 chainrings faithfully supplied; but the Oude Kwaremont, a 2.2-kilometer climb with 1,500 meters of cobbles, was occupying our immediate attention. With just a 4-percent average grade it would be easy to assume the Kwaremont is one of the more manageable Flemish climbs, but that ignores the fact that its lower slopes hit 12 percent—coincidentally, over the worst cobbles in all of Flanders, with yawning gaps and a hellish crown. To make this section with any style requires delivering watts to the pedals with a reckless abandon, knowing the price will be paid as the cobbles continue beyond the small village of Kwaremont, at the climb’s midpoint.

Once in the village, where the grade eases, the desire is to back off and gather yourself for the final slopes; but, again, the cobbles prove that the initial instinct may not be the right one. As your speed drops, the tires begin to impact every crevice between the cobbles, instead of skimming across the tops. It’s like riding with your brakes on. So we swung levers in search of bigger gears, our PowerTap C1 chainrings effortlessly holding the chain as we shifted to the big ring under significant wattage.

Winding up the gear, our speed increased and we were rewarded with calmer bars. We flashed past the green fields and white tents on the flatter slopes of the Oude Kwaremont. Belgians were already hard at work building the VIP zones for race day. These workers see thousands of riders on the climb over the week, many walking or barely turning the pedals. As we flashed by, we went almost unnoticed, save for one man who rested his hammer for a moment to watch our progress. With eyes that have grown up watching the legends make history on these climbs we considered his attention, even for a few moments, an honor.

As we crested the final true pitch, through a tunnel of trees, cobbles and barbed wire, the grade eased again. Still in the big ring, lungs and legs screaming, we built speed once more, skittering through the final right turn, careful to avoid the cobblestones on the left side of the road that are slowly but surely returning to the earth once more in the farmer’s adjacent field. The tarmac at climb’s end is a lifeline to a drowning man: the first moments of salvation since the cobbles began.

A quick glance down at the now-still bars revealed a peak wattage of 856, achieved somewhere along the Kwaremont’s steeper pitches where the only answer to the question is more power. We’d have loved to scroll through the PowerTap Joule GPS+ screens to see more data, but that would have to wait. Heart and head had to be calmed, lactic acid cleared.

The Paterberg was next… just 3 kilometers away.

From issue 72. Buy it here.