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by Graeme Fife
Rising like a monument from the rolling farmland of northern Belgium is the infamous climb known as the Kemmelberg. Named after the village of Kemmel on its eastern slopes, during World War One it was the scene of brutal slaughter. Today, it is the focal point of the Gent-Wevelgem, one of the great Classics and whose two ascents of the Kemmelberg’s notorious cobbled pavement, or pavé, continue to court controversy. For if the riders must climb the Kemmel twice, they must also descend. With its 20 per cent gradient over unpredictable terrain, the Kemmelberg has witnessed some truly horrendous crashes, most recently in the Gent-Wevelgem
This is the landscape that has shaped some of the hardest of cycling’s hard men, a dark, brooding theatre with a romance and history all its own and which, in many ways, represents the quintessential Belgian racing experience.
The 60 miles east from Calais scarcely merit mention in dispatches. A laden bike, a headwind and unmarked roads mean you have to ask the way at every blind junction before the old Route Nationales kick in. You ride this first leg head down, on the rivet. Any inclination to complain will not do, however: destination Flanders and Flandrians scoff at such minor irritations as a gale in your face. Ahead lies the brooding prospect of open fields dotted with what look like abandoned farms, forlorn cattle and weather-broken trees and long hard miles unblessed by signposts. The straight path alongside the Canal de Calais and a brief spin by the Aa river lift the spirits until a fingerpost reading Point du Jour – daybreak – offers a wake-up call: you came to ride, so ride. Back roads give way to the long, straight lorry-blasted causeways of the RN, bike lane stitched on like a wide hem. Cassel sits atop of a large boss of land, an aberration in this flat terrain. It’s not all cobbles, Flanders. It has hills, too. Not high hills, admittedly, but the Kemmel is one of a line of them, the so-called Monts de Flandre, big excrescences left exposed by the sea’s receding floodwaters. They look horrible, too. You know how it is, you get used to riding the flat, even into a wall of stiff breeze, and the mere sight of a climb gives you the creeps.