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KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — No climb is linked to the heart and soul of the Tour of Flanders as much as the Muur van Geraardsbergen.
De Ronde clicks into gear Sunday as one of the absolute highlights of the international racing calendar. The unique mix of history, distance, weather, cobbles, wind, and fans create the recipe for a can’t-miss day of racing.
At the center of the Flanders mystique is the Muur, the iconic cobbled climb that’s emerged as the symbol of De Ronde.
Also known as the Kapelmuur, Muur-Kapelmuur, or Mur de Grammont, among cyclists it is simply the Muur. It’s that one-word reverence that rings true across the decades.
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The cobbled climb delivered some of the most memorable moments and iconic photographs of the race’s century-plus history. At little more than 1km at 9.3 percent, the Muur punches above its 100-vertical-meter weight.
For decades, the climb emerged as the decisive make-or-break point of the race, where attacks were made and gains cemented. The Muur was the gravitational symbol of the race, and became its symbol.
In 2012, however, the Muur was removed as part of a new course design that moved the finish line from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde. There was no room for the Muur on the finishing loops lined with beer tents that are now the modern circuit of the decisive final hour of racing.
The extraction of the Muur from the race was nothing short of heresy among the Flanders faithful. In 2017, there was much celebration among the die-hard fans after the Muur was integrated back into the race after the start was moved from Bruges to Antwerp.
There’s no Muur this year, however, but that’s not stopping VeloNews‘ European editors Andrew Hood and James Startt digging into why it is unlike any climb in cycling.
What makes the Muur so unique as a climb?
James Startt: Well, it is just daunting with that long, steep sinuous cobblestone path that leads up to the top. The bottom is technically very difficult and positioning is so important. Even today the best riders in the world sometimes have to unclip as they just cannot keep their balance. And then the summit with the little chapel is so symbolic.
Andrew Hood: On paper, none of these Belgian hills really stand out, at least not statistically. It’s only when you add the cobbles, the history, and the absolute speed and desperation that the peloton approaches them that the climbs acquire their mystical proportions. The Muur stands out for its historical significance as the deciding climb in so many editions of De Ronde. Now that it’s reintegrated into the modern course design it still retains its special place. It’s the pilgrimage for fans and cyclists, and it’s the first major focal point of the race. It’s not decisive anymore, but its gravitational pull creates the alchemy to stand apart.
Does the Muur lose its importance since it’s not in the same place in the race?
Hood: Certainly yes. For decades, the climb was either the penultimate or final climb on the Flanders course. It’s where the legends of the sport would launch their winning attacks. When course designers ripped it out of the new-look course when the finish line was moved to Oudenaarde, it was akin to mow over “Amen Corner” at The Masters, or replacing the red clay with cement at Roland Garros.
Since its return, the climb played a different but pivotal role. For many teams and riders, it’s the new reference point of marking the point when things get serious. Positioning coming over the Muur is key, and sets the tone for the real drama to play out in the next few hours.
Startt: For sure. But even if it is not in the race every year, it is still the mythical climb of Flanders. I was talking with my friend Allan Peiper this winter and he said, “You know the Muur is still the greatest climb of the Ronde.”
It is funny the aura it possesses. Even back in the day the Muur was not the final climb of the race. That honor went to the Bosberg. And often the winning move happened well before. But still everyone is at the Muur. It has this cult status and people flock to have that place.
And once the riders final crest that last turn at the wrap around the summit there is sort of a communion between the passion of the fans and the passionate efforts produced by the riders digging so deep. It is always a special moment in the year.
Does one year on the Muur stand out?
Startt: Not really. It is always special. But that year in 2018 when Philippe Gilbert one was pretty special. That year the Muur just played a crucial part in the race. Sure it was nearly 100 kilometers from the finish, but the Quickstep team really surged and blew the race open there, setting Gilbert up for that stunning solo victory. Going into the race, nobody really thought that the Muur would play much of a role in the race. But it sure did because, well, the Muur is just a really special climb.
Hood: The most recent famous incident on the Muur came in 2010 when Fabian Cancellara absolutely rode Tom Boonen off his wheel. The attack was so searing and decisive that it raised the specter of mechanized assistance, unfounded rumors that still bounce around today.
Another recent standout edition came in 2017, when Boonen attacked hard on the Muur to create the race’s first major selection in what was the final Ronde for “Tomeke.” Several top riders were caught out and never came back on. Taking advantage was Philippe Gilbert, who used the wedge to later attack solo to win the race.