THE COBBLED ascent to the old church looked like the gnarled back of a giant prehistoric reptile.

A silent, brooding beast likely to stir at the slightest provocation.

Snaking down the hillside, its rough, broken tail was now just metres away.

The battle to tame the Kwaremont was about to begin.

My usual psychological defence was deployed – a mental checklist to ensure breathing was controlled, cadence smooth and body relaxed.

But then the monster reared and within seconds a desperate, chaotic fight with stones, mud, debris and crumbling confidence ensued.

Upper jaw smashed lower jaw, vision became blurred and the handlebars became a manic pneumatic drill.

The back wheel was banging so hard on the uneven surface I was unsure whether I’d punctured, while an audible crack beneath the saddle could only mean one thing: the bike was disintegrating beneath me.

Tired, heavy legs – cruelly tortured during earlier ordeals up the Eikenberg and Taaienberg – now begged for mercy as once again the Flanders cobbles absorbed every pedal stroke and refused to grant forward propulsion.

The beast of Kwaremont revelled as man and machine engaged in a violent, exhausting wrestle to gain each precious metre.

And then vibrating eyes stinging with sweat glimpsed something truly wonderful.

It was the cross atop the church of Sint-Amanduskerk.

The pretty white-washed Classicist chapel was built in 1787, but it felt too perilous to even glance in its divine direction. All attention remained focused on simply keeping the front wheel straight.

I was half way up.

Once past the church and through the little square of Kwaremont, the gradient dropped but a long, sapping drag up to the main road lay ahead to complete the punishing 1.5 mile ascent.

Daily Echo: The unforgiving Flanders cobbles

Near the top I noticed a small crowd had gathered by the roadside. I’d hoped for some well deserved words of encouragement, but they ignored the disturbing rasps of a knackered old timer and instead admired the nearby statue of a man whose bust sat upon a plinth.

Chiselled into the stone alongside was the name ‘Karel Van Wijnendaele’, the newspaper editor who originated the Tour of Flanders a century ago “to give confidence to the Flandriens.”

Daily Echo: Tour originator Karel Van Wijnendaele

What he created – one of the hardest and most prestigious one day cycling races on Earth – has since inspired generations of fans to sample the cobbles and hills of ‘De Ronde van Vlaanderen’ for themselves.

Equipped with half-pumped tyres and extra thick handle-bar tape to ease vibration, they make the pilgrimage to Belgium’s Flemish Ardennes to push themselves to the limit.

Reverence is duly paid as they ride in the slipstream of the greats, their collective discomfort eased by stirring memories of Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx storming the Kwaremont in 1969, Britain’s only winner Tom Simpson winning in apocalyptic conditions in 1961 and Fabian “Spartacus” Cancellara powering to victory in March’s centenary race.

Daily Echo: Eddy Merckx wins the Tour in 1975 - six years after his first Flanders win

Daily Echo: Swiss cycling star Fabian Cancellara on his way to Flanders victory in 2010. He also won the 2013 centenary edition

The hallowed names of the short, sharp, cobbled ‘hellingen’ (hills) are as famous as the men of steel who attempt to conquer them: Koppenberg, Kruisberg, Paddestraat, the Muur and the Bosberg have a mystical, almost spiritual resonance for cyclists.

The historic cobbles have witnessed so much drama, so much pain and so much courage that some have even been declared protected monuments.

The surface of the soaring, iconic Paterberg, just two miles from the Kwaremont, was safeguarded in 1993.

And reaching its 20 per cent summit and surveying the rolling Flanders plains beyond was, I unashamedly pronounce, one of the most exhilarating moments in my life.

Cycling can do this to you. The greater the sacrifice and suffering, the greater is the cleansing deliverance.

Don’t take my word for it. Just enter the Tour of Flanders Centre in Oudenaarde – the city where the race now finishes – and absorb the haunting images which adorn the museum’s walls.

Mud-caked faces are streaked with rivulets of tears; wild, burning eyes blaze triumphantly towards the heavens; and faces contorted in pain belong to those who gave too much.

All human emotion lives here, swirling amid the collection of historic bicycles, memorabilia and mesmerising footage of desperate, cobbled combat.

And wandering through it all is a Ronde legend, Freddy Maertens, who is now a museum tour guide.

Twice world road race champion, the cheery Belgian who won 36 stages in the ‘grand tours’ of France, Italy and Spain poses happily for endless photographs. But glory in Flanders, where he was born in Nieuwpoort, eluded him.

Outside, in a market square guarded by a Gothic town hall of towering proportions, the race’s centenary celebrations included the annual “Retro Ronde” nostalgia event.

Following a priest’s blessing, a penny farthing, an ancient tandem and a bizarre threewheeled contraption joined hundreds of vintage machines for a convivial spin through the countryside. Their riders, suitably attired in period costumes, were loudly cheered as the procession of velocipedes embarked.

Daily Echo: The Flemish Ardennes

Oudenaarde, a beautiful city founded on tapestry making, is now synonymous with a sporting spectacle which is more than a mere bicycle race.

The Tour of Flanders is an expression of an entire culture, its geography, its landscape, its people and passions. In turn, the race’s exemplary virtues of courage and determination epitomise, nurture and perpetuate the proud and unbreakable Flandrien spirit.

Hence Flanders race day is like combining the World Cup and the Olympics in one day. An unforgettable, intoxicating atmosphere pervades the packed Oudenaarde streets, and an almighty roar rumbles through when the gladiators arrive.

But the silence of solitude can be just as overwhelming for us lesser mortals who have scaled the Paterberg and sat to reflect at the bench on top.

For in Flanders fields we can all be heroes.

Just for one day.



THE TOUR of Flanders is one of cycling’s five “Classics” or “Monuments” – single day races deemed to be of “the highest standard with lasting significance.”

Each Spring, 700,000 spectators watch the world’s top riders tackle the winding cobbled roads and forest hills of the Flemish Ardennes in the south of East Flanders.

In addition, 160 million people across the globe receive images of ‘De Ronde’. Yet its beginnings a century ago were humble.

The first Tour in 1913 saw just 37 racers compete in a 201-mile epic won by Belgian Paul Deman.

Fast forward a century to 2013 and the Tour comprised of 208 participants in 26 teams of eight riders each – plus a following media entourage numbering 450.

And while the 1913 riders repaired their own bikes and carried spare inner tubes looped around their shoulders, the 2013 teams had support vehicles to help along the 159-mile route.

Daily Echo: Paul Deman - the first winner of the Tour of Flanders

Food intake has also radically changed. Before the era of sports science and special nutrition bars and gels, the Flanders racers carried raw steak in their pockets and cooked them in local cafes before the start.

Hardly the best preparation for a cyclist expected to use the energy equivalent of almost 6kg of spaghetti – or 18 plates of pasta – during the race.

Over the years the gruelling route has changed with starts in Ghent, Sint-Niklaas and now Bruges from where riders head to the finish in Oudenaarde.

The Belgians have recorded most wins in the race – in fact, four have won three times.



Flanders is a cycling mecca and the centenary year of the famous Tour is a perfect time to visit. The Eurostar, which carries bikes on board, takes two hours to travel from St Pancras London to Brussels Midi. The connecting train to Oudenaarde takes just one hour.

In Oudenaarde head for the superb Tour of Flanders Centre in the central market square where you can pick up an excellent map detailing three cycling loops from the city which take in many of the classic climbs.

There are also five new recreational cycling routes starting in major towns for those who want a more leisurely introduction to the glorious Flemish Ardennes.

For full details on cycling in Flanders see which also contains accommodation recommendations. See also and