The memories still foment in my mind. They don’t keep me up at night, but they are there, hidden in the recesses of my recall mechanism or whatever it is called, sitting there waiting, waiting to remind me of the darkest day of Keepers Tour ’12. The day of the Ronde, and the horrors that befell me and a half dozen other wretched souls, when any number of factors within and beyond our control conspired against us, just as they had against many men more equipped to deal with them so many times before.
The day hadn’t started well, the excesses of a week-long binge of riding, drinking and myriad other distractions, good times for sure, now turned on me in some kind of cruel punishment dished out by a body bent on reaping revenge on itself. Why does it hate me? It hadn’t complained at the time, continually and gladly accepting the wickedly delicious Belgian nectar so eagerly without recourse or reflux. Maybe it decided that since the sky was grey, the air cold and the ground wet, it would team with the elements in a joint offensive to make a long, hard day even more difficult. As if the cobbled bergs couldn’t complete the hatchet job alone.
Although I’d been coughing like a coal miner all week, the cacophony now included most of the party; Bob Fleming would’ve gone unnoticed among this rabble. Some made comment on the increased frequency and ferocity of the phlegm rockets exiting my throat; it seemed G’rilla was also suffering the same fate, but was probably too well-mannered to make it as obvious as I. He would later pay dearly.
We were wet from the off, soaked to the bone and cold even before we’d missed the turn-off to start the 120km journey through the fields of Flanders, following as much of the Ronde route as possible, taking in the fabled climbs and faeces-riddled farm tracks we held in such esteem. Bergs came and went without much fanfare or incident; their names reeled off as we hit them en masse, then crested strung-out, disheveled and panting, the shortness more than offset by steepness and of course the greasy stone surfaces, not as rough or randomly scattered as those of Roubaix but unanimously considered to be tougher. Throw a climb at a cyclist, no matter how smooth or shallow, and the ride will always have just gotten that much more painful. We were revelling in it, quietly and with no outward boasting. We knew there was much worse to come.
But when? Each famous climb would just pop up out of nowhere, as the hills in the region don’t really present themselves to you from any distance away. There were some landmarks to help us, ones we’d seen in photos or on videos of races from years past. The smokestacks and jagged fenceline signaled the arrival of the Paterberg, and its reputation prompted a warning from our cheerfully sadistic guides, snickering with evil intonations as they pointed out the gradient and how to tackle it. Neither of which really help, all you can do is hang on grimly and try to keep the rear wheel planted and rolling just enough to prevent it spinning, avoiding the dreaded zzzzzing that heralds the death knell for both first-timer and Pro. Done, with a full set of pass marks for the students.
The first clue you are about to enter sacred territory is the sign. I’m sure nothing was said as we approached, or maybe by this time I’d slipped far enough from the front and into a deep enough state of fatigued resignation that I didn’t hear it. But I saw it, and think I spoke it out loud, or as loud as I could at this stage. “Koppenberg” to no-one in particular. The pecking order was soon established as it had been all day, all week even, but this time we all desperately scrambled to put some form of daylight ahead of us, the fear of no traction and a kneeful of cobbles seemingly more present. The reputation of the hill well and truly preceded it, and the levels of respect shown grew tenfold among the bunch. I wasn’t badly positioned, and felt that those around me were keeping a high enough tempo that nothing much could go wrong. It is probably at that point when falsely inflated confidence plays its card, and the traction you were clinging to just seconds ago is now laying alongside you on the damp cobbles.
There’s no way to get remounted, clipped in and in motion again, no matter if you’re leaning against the grassy bank with your wheels in the smooth(er) ditch. It’s just too bloody steep. If there were a crowd here three deep, maybe they could help, but my own saviour came in the form of a mate, a true comrade who, like me, had travelled halfway across the world for this and now gave up his own fight with the hill to help me out. Bianchi Denti is that kind of man, as is Alex, more than our guide cum faithful pusher of strewn bodies and bikes. Away again, riding yes, but the sense of defeat was hard to swallow. There was no going back, our one shot at the legend had come and gone, and the legend had won.
We all made it to the top, some in one piece, others in two, but becoming a single entity again as we continued across fields, on to the next berg, the next tiny nondescript town, the next brush-stroke on the canvas of the bigger picture that we all painted together, and signed ‘Keepers Tour’.
The next time we meet will be in the name of redemption. The Koppenberg shall succumb, revenge and honour will be mine. As Museeuw is my witness.
Keepers Tour: Cobbled Classics 2013 packages and information here.