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The Kemmelberg: 6.30am
The morning of the Gent-Wevelgem. Try the aspirated rustle of the Flamand pronunciation: Fayfel-h’m. Ypres rests quiet and still. The cathedral’s celebrated carillon is yet to sound. The Specialized Paris-Roubaix tyres, inflated to 120 psi, popple on the stone gooseflesh of the boulevard. There’s a post-dawn nip in the air but this early sun has a bright April, spring shine about it, like a rider who tells his team: “Aujourd’hui, c’est moi qui gagne…Today I win.”
In hotels dotted around the start in Deinze, 20 kilometres outside Gent, today’s race men are slipping into their pre-start rituals, the breakfast carbo load, the twitchy waiting, massage, meeting, team plan. It’s only when they arrive on stage towards the end of the race that they’ll properly engage our interest, on the sharp gradient of the cobbled Kemmelberg which they must climb twice. Their tightly programmed, behind-the-scenes preamble is less intriguing, right now, than the sweet immediacy of our own high-cadence excursion into tranquil countryside, at this hour deserted, bird songsters limbering up on branch and twig, a cockerel getting the reveille call almost right, a dog earning his food bowl with a warning bark as the tyre treads ripple, the chains whirr on the single fixed cog and we feel the warmth zinging up through chest and legs. This is the real deal, the pleasure of riding quiet roads unmolested by traffic and ahead of us, the thickly wooded promontory on the horizon, the Kemmelberg. Buried in the earth of these croplands is sown, still, a lethal harvest, residue of the four million shells which hurtled down between July and November during what was officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, more grittily as Paschendale…Passion Dale. Do we reflect on half a million men killed all told? Perhaps we should. The silence in this landscape is only ever uneasy and so should it be. Most of the riders in the peloton are older than the majority of the men who died in that and most other wars.
Along the disused canal to Voormezele onto Wijschaatestraat, then Slipstraat, Kriekstraat and Nieuwstraat, into Kemmel and round the little square, barriers in place, past the tiny comical bronze statuette of the Kemmel badaud or ‘gawper’. He recalls the time when the Kemmel villagers first went to far off Ypres to sell their produce and stood in distracted amazement in front of the magnificent Lakenhalle, the Cloth Hall, thinking: “Wow! Who built that? Was it angels… giants…the Belgian god of brickwork?” This is the way the riders come. From Deinze, north-west towards the coast, cut back inland, and their first sight of the Kemmelberg is ours: a tree-cloaked prominence heaving sharply out of the horizon like a vast molehill, wildly disproportionate in this low-lying land. Of no great height, in truth, at 156 metres, but having to hit it from a near-standing start over wicked pavé? A vile lung- and leg-buster. What’s it like to ride cobbles? It’s lumpy and the harder you go, the higher your cadence and the nastier it gets. The dire stress on the entire body, legs, trunk, arms, translated through the stress on the machine, is unlike any other. Put pavé and gradient together – worse downhill than up – and you have Kemmelberg.
A narrow central gully about two and-a-half centimetres wide splits the concrete slabs of the approach road. Known as ‘the valley of death’, peloton old lags are wary of it but a newcomer may catch a wheel in it and go down. Without the pressure of racing we go circumspectly. And here it comes, the right-hander onto the cobbles. A wickedly steep, lock-tight stone pile. A gradient cursed with petrified, inside-out potholes. Back and ball-breaking. Kemmelberg.
“They come up here twice?,” one of our group asks as we pant and strain up it. No more than four and-a-half kilometres but a hellish percentage. Avoiding back-wheel slippage, the fixed gear tight as a shackle on both calves, cobbles jerking the halter. “They come up here twice,” another replies. The final section kicks up abruptly on a narrow, twisting uneven and unkind rumble strip of misshapen cobbles, twisting like a convulsion of pain constricting a nerve. And suddenly the cobbles fuse with asphalt and the road flattens. The smooth surface is a relief but climbs on, imperceptibly, through the woods. Sparse trees tower over shallow craters, the imprint of the hideous iron rain of artillery and mortar shells in that Third Battle of Ypres now overgrown. Phew. What else do you say when you top out on such a climb? And here? Think of what happened here in 1918 and be grateful that, like these trees, you missed out on such horror, that 20 per cent and pavé is a doddle by comparison.