Saturday, October 23, 2010

My favorite cobbles

Every race in Belgium has some cobbles, but none are more famous than the kasseistroken (cobblestone sections) in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The Ronde website identifies 11 stretches that have been featured in the race at various times. Seven were covered in the 2010 edition. The website distinguishes kasseistroken from climbs or hellingen,  although most climbs -and certainly all the well known ones- are cobbled as well. 

Kasseistroken are between 800 m (1/2 mile) and 2,500 m (1.6 miles) in length and all are flat or nearly flat. Nevertheless riding a cobbled section is hard work and requires extra effort. It also requires extra attention and vigilance to avoid flats and other mayhem.

Kasseistroken are invariably on narrow country roads. Some are nearly flat in cross section while others have a distinctive crown or elevation in the middle. When the crown is extreme, the road may pose hazards not just to bikers but also to vehicles and it is not unusual for cars to get badly scraped or even to get stuck on certain sections. Always watch out when you ride or drive on cobbles.

The condition of the various kasseistroken varies. Some are in very poor condition while others are brand new and as smooth as a cobblestone section can get. When conditions deteriorate too much, the race sometimes skips the really bad sections. Such was the case with one of my all time favorite sections, the Huisepontweg in Wannegem. That road was in such bad shape that the Ronde skipped it until it was fixed in July of 2008. It is now as good as any cobblestone road out there.
Huisepontweg and Schietsjampettermolen

The Huisepontweg starts at the church in Wannegem and runs along the crest of a slight rise in the landscape making it a very scenic ride. It is easy to reach from Oudenaarde, either on the well-marked blue loop (blauwe lus) of the Tour of Flanders route or for those who want to go there directly, by taking the Wannegem-Lede exit on the road to Kruishoutem. It is preceded by 500 m of cobbles in Wannegem dorp. Those are as hard to ride as the marked section and a great deal more slippery in the rain.
Huisepontweg before the 08 remodeling

The Huisepontweg has two scenic attractions apart from the spectacular views. It goes by a great historic windmill (see photo) and by Wannegem castle (not a castle really but a 17th century mansion). The latter was just recently sold and is unfortunately no longer visible from the road because the new owner planted tall hedges.

If you follow the Huisepontweg to the Ledekerkweg (essentially turn right at the end of the cobbles--it is a blind turn so be careful) you will get to another famous section, the 1,650 m Doorn section. There are some unmarked cobbles when you course through the center of Lede (by the church) and you should be careful there when it rains because the road is off camber. Then follow the blue signs and hit Doorn. Doorn is a slight downhill section but the contrast with Huisepontweg (in its current state) is shocking.

Doorn is considered a 4/5 when it comes to difficulty. The cobbles are in relatively bad shape and there are many potholes here. You really need to watch out. If you ride Doorn fast you will know immediately  how good your technique is. If at the end of it you don't feel your arms anymore, or if you teeth feel like they are about to fall out of your mouth, you have some extra work to do. But either way Doorn will punish you.

I also like the Mariaborrestraat in Maarkedal/Etikhove, on the Southeast side of Oudenaarde. You can get there by following the road to Ronse and making a left to Maarkedal. This stretch is on the orange loop (oranje lus). It is a long and difficult stretch (4/5) that starts with a slight descent and ends in the climb known as the Steenbeekdries. The cobbles are in good shape but the road is punishing nonetheless. Add the climb at the end and you will get a flavor of what the Tour of Flanders is all about.

Finally there is another section of cobbles that is great fun and one that you can experience first hand as part of a real race. It is not in Tour of Flanders but it is featured prominently in local kermis races. It is the kasteeldreef in Lovendegem. Every year, there are races there in the beginning of August, both for nieuwelingen and juniors. The kasteeldreef is 750 m long (1/2 mile) and in excellent shape. It is flat and there are no potholes worth talking about. But it is a real cobblestone stretch in the good tradition of Flemish racing.

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