The Vlaamse Ardennen are a small range of rolling hills in a corner of Belgium that is notable mainly for being almost entirely unremarkable. Outside the cosmopolitan and international triangle of Brussels-Antwerp-Ghent, far inland from the coast and the tourist trap of Bruges, on the opposite side of the country and over the linguistic border of the old industrial centers of Wallonia, the Vlaamse Ardennen are interesting for cycling. fans, and few other people.
Draw an irregular, elongated pentagon linking the towns of Oudenaarde, Zottegem, Geraardsbergen, Ronse and Kluisbergen, and the Vlaamse Ardennen sit roughly on the edges, a bucolic but functional agricultural landscape of fields, narrow roads, small forests and many and many small towns. Unlike cycling’s other great landscapes, such as the wild grandeur of the Alps and the Pyrenees, or the postcard tourist landscapes of the Mediterranean and Tuscany, this is a working landscape. Stand atop any of the Flemish bergs and the wind carries the muffled hum of rural industry and the ever-present background smell of fertiliser.
The range reaches 150 meters above sea level in the Hotondberg, near the top of the Kruisberg rise, north of Ronse. (Pedants and geographers will rightly point out that the Pottelberg is actually seven meters higher, but it’s a couple of kilometers over the federal border in Wallonia, so while it’s geologically and topographically in the Flemish Ardennes, culturally it is not). in a way, the Vlaamse Ardennen are not of an epic dimension. If you were to attempt Everesting on the Oude Kruisberg, for example, you would have to climb it 103 times.
But they are quintessentially and undeniably Belgian.
Furthermore, the way this landscape intersects with its habitability pattern, climate and local culture has created a network of roads that presents the racing cyclist with a complex challenge. Science has simplified the challenge of an alpine pass, for example, by reducing it to a simple equation involving watts, weight, time and lung capacity. These things also come in handy when racing in the Vlaamse Ardennen, but a great engine is just the price of entry. To win the Tour de Flanders, or the E3 Classic or the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the rider must analyze several layers of challenge. They need to understand how the roads rise left and right around the fields, where they narrow, where they are exposed to the wind, whether the organizers send them left or right at the top of this or that climb and, above all, what other two dozen. teams of drivers are doing it and could.
Civil engineers and planners have of late tried to tame the crazy network of zigzag lanes in the Vlaamse Ardennen with larger national roads connecting the bigger cities. But in the context of bike racing, the bigger roads are often where the action is, and while the business traveler can now drive much faster between point A and point B than 50 years ago, the ‘entrepreneurial organizer of the race can use the N roads to improve. connect any amount of climbs, narrow roads and tricky racing challenges.
The N8 runs between Oudenaarde and Brakel and then proceeds towards Brussels, but links the Eikenberg and the paved section to Mater; the N36 runs parallel to the Oude Kwaremont and is the site of one of cycling’s biggest annual shitfights as the pack heads down the wide main road – you can’t go up the Kwaremont because it’s too narrow and not you can move up either of the two narrow roads leading to the bottom, so counting down, this is the last chance to be in good position at the bottom of Kwaremont, which is the only way to be in good position at the upper part from the Kwaremont, which is the only way to be in good position entering the Paterberg, the next climb on the route, which is the only way to be in good position to the Koppenberg, etc.
You might think, as a tourist riding the cobbled bergs of the Vlaamse Ardennen, that the hills are the challenge, but in a bike race, they are only a small part of it. A team can turn up at the Tour of Flanders with a plan, but the roads, other riders and circumstances can punch them in the mouth. The Vlaamse Ardennen, a quiet working landscape of tame hills and forests, is also the purest expression of the complexity and depth of road cycling.
We’ll start at the Muur van Geraardsbergen, because while it’s unusual compared to most of the other famous bike climbs in the Vlaamse Ardennen in that it’s a predominantly urban climb, it’s one of the most photogenic and atmospheric places in the sport. The octagonal dome of the chapel at the top and the sharp turn of the last 50 meters of cobbles towards it are part of cycling iconography. The mound by the side of the road is an amphitheater buzzing with noise and color when the races go by.
It’s a place that means a lot to Bert Roesems and Allan Peiper, who are extremely local riders, each in their own way. The couple have known each other since Roesems was a Lotto runner in the 2000s and Peiper a DS. If you step back and look at the younger man’s career, you could not find a more stereotypical Belgian rider: he rode in Vlaanderen 2002, Landbouwkrediet, Palmans and Lotto over a 12-year career, winning races such as Nokere Koerse and Brussels-Ingooigem. He was also Belgian time trial champion.
Australian Peiper is a Flemish by adoption: he may come from the other side of the world, but he settled in Flanders as a young runner in the 1980s and lives in Geraardsbergen, on the west side of the river Dender overlooking the city valley as it climbs the Oudenberg towards the Kapelmuur at the top.
From the Kapelmuur, the Tour of Flanders used to go down the other side, climb the Bosberg and head to Ninove to finish the race. The current iteration of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad follows this route. “If you continue on the road past the old finish, 18 kilometers later, you end up almost at my house,” says Roesems, who comes from Halle, east of the Flemish Ardennes and south of Brussels. “My bit of Flanders is at the crossing point between Flemish-speaking Belgium and French-speaking Belgium. If I continue south, I reach Hainault, in the French-speaking part, and still enjoy fairly quiet roads good for training, a little up and down. If I go west I can enter the Vlaamse Ardennen. Without having to do too many kilometers, I can quickly access the whole region between Brakel, Geraardsbergen and Oudenaarde from home” .
The 49-year-old is philosophical about the effect of the passing of years on his ability to climb mountains quickly. “Now I go around the hills, not over them,” he laughs. “You’re not the same person anymore. You add years and weight. If you want to go through them quickly, you have a heart rate that’s not comfortable.”
As a rider, Roesems had a strong set of assets. He was a good time-keeper and, at six-foot-five, he could handle himself in a heap. He didn’t sprint, but he didn’t want to take the path of least resistance to the life of a domestic: he maintained a healthy ambition to try to win races with a knack for reading his rivals, especially at the end of a day carry. . He liked to ride for the smaller Belgian Landbouwkrediet and Palmans squads because his situation was perfect there: the teams were usually selected for the bigger races and Roesems had enough seniority and skill to be able to compete on his own. Later, in Lotto, he was in a much bigger suit, but the winnings dried up a bit. “When you can’t sprint, you have to crush the other guys,” he says. “Either wear them down over a long period, or just be the strongest.”
He was good at psychology and recognized that other good pilots who had gone down the path of being tame would lose the ability to make lucid decisions if they were actually in a winning position. “The freedom to try something allowed me to keep that tactical sense, unlike the guys who always worked for a leader in a bigger team. If you end up with them in the final, you see that they were never able to make the decision right. They were too eager and didn’t know how to play that tactical game anymore. When you’re in a race with your heart rate and lactic acid level up, it seems like having a fully functioning brain isn’t that easy.”
Roesems’ tactic was always clear: run away and go in solo, outmaneuver his rivals and, in any case, where they looked as strong as him, work them over with the smallest of kicks as they finished their turn. “Now it hurts to get back on my wheel, so I’m slowly killing him, but he doesn’t know it yet,” she reflects with satisfaction.
Roesems now works as a sports marketing coordinator for Shimano. It is the link between professional cycling teams that need equipment and the company that manufactures it. As an ex-rider he understands the sport; as a Shimano employee he understands how to supply gear to teams. “Everything we do with teams, or them with us, I’m more or less in the middle,” he says. “I’m the go-to guy for everything Shimano. Marketing, communications, advertising, but also the technical stuff. Everything that needs to be supplied from Shimano, that’s what I do.”
It’s a more complicated job than it seems, and a job that has gotten more complicated over the years. “We’re a lot further along than a rider on three bikes,” he says. “They have six or seven, easy. Race bike, second race bike, third race bike. already three Then a home bike, a TT bike, a home TT bike, so that’s six. The classics have bikes for Paris-Roubaix; GC riders may have a special climbing bike etc. From a component and equipment standpoint, that’s a lot of wheels, derailleurs and brake kits for one rider.”
Covid hasn’t made things any easier: pre-season training camps used to be an ideal opportunity to meet riders, but health restrictions have gotten in the way. Shimano also moved its flagship Dura-Ace groupset from 11 to 12 speeds last August, and will change every bike for every rider on every team over a period of time, which also includes the end of a season and the ‘beginning of the next, is a logistical challenge. “As a rider, you were never aware of what it took to be able to ride your bike, or even to own a bike. There is a lot of work behind the scenes. We don’t have a lot of equipment there and they can just turn around and say, give me an amount. It needs to be ordered. It comes out of a budget. There is planning and monitoring,” he says.
Shifting between Roesems the rider and Roesems the Shimano boy was a smooth and satisfying touch. “There’s no point in dwelling on the past,” he says. “I was part of a particular generation and there is nothing you can change. I don’t want to be the guy who says, if I ran now, my career would have been different, or I would have made a lot more money. You are in the generation you were part of and that has to do with the year you were born.”
The view from the top of the Muur has therefore changed for Bert Roesems. “This was a place of suffering,” he says. “Something I had to conquer as quickly as possible, to be up there with the best and follow them. The magic is not just fighting against the natural environment: cobblestones, climbs, riders and elements. But also culturally, in the sense being from Belgium, this is part of our heritage and upbringing.
“This time we rode the Muur to Review the cobblestones and show a little what it means to ride a bike in Belgium in February or March. It was as hard as ever.”