Crossland: How hard is the Koppenberg?

Our man in the Belgian mud answers reader questions on the difficulty of the Koppenberg hill and why U23 racers jostle with the elites

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Editor’s note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question for your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story about the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to

A long holiday weekend in Belgium means four big European cyclocross events: on Thursday it was the legendary Koppenberg for the second round of the Bpost Bank Trofee series; on Saturday many of the elite men will head to the G.P Région Wallonne in Doittignies, while women, juniors, and under-23 men cross the English Channel for the European Championships in Ipswich; and on Sunday, all four groups will reconvene in Zonhoven for the second round of the Superprestige series.

Of the four races, of course, it’s the Koppenberg — with its 22 percent cobbled climb used in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and spectacular views of the surrounding countryside — that draws the biggest crowd.

Though the race is a relatively new addition to the calendar — some more established events go back more than half a century — it rocketed to classic status in the last decade, and for good reason. The brutal climbs and slick, dangerous descents made for some very exciting racing.

Since 2001 Sven Nys (Landboukrediet) has won on the Koppenberg eight times, including a seven-year-long winning streak that was finally snapped last year by Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor).

On Thursday he tallied win No. 9, and in dominant fashion. He shed world champion Niels Albert on the final climb, then held on to take the victory and some much-needed time in the series’ overall standings. Once down nearly 90 seconds to Pauwels, winner of round one, Nys now sits 54 seconds behind new series leader Albert.

Among the women, Helen Wyman (Kona) — who lives just a few kilometers away in Oudenaarde — collected her second career Koppenbergcross victory in a close race with an inspired Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea).

After a day off on Friday, men’s cyclocross action resumes Saturday in Dottignies, in southern Belgium, just across the French border from Roubaix. The women will toe the line in Ipswich, England.

Dottignies is not attached to a series, it’s a smaller event and a good opportunity for mid-pack riders to score a few extra UCI points to boost their overall standings. But it’s not an easy race. If the rainy forecast for Saturday holds, an already saturated course could turn truly epic.

Meanwhile, with Britain hosting its first-ever European championships, British riders including Wyman and Harris will be especially motivated to claim a major title on home soil.

Finally, the capper for a busy weekend comes in Zonhoven, a race best known for its dramatic plunges into a deep sand pit. These always cause chaos, especially during the crowded early laps of the race.

Though the sandy descents are the most visibly difficult feature, the rest of the course is both quick and quite physical, and could prove a real challenge for anyone who opts to race all three days. Though there is a women’s race, it has an early morning start time — some five hours before the men — and that may keep some of the best riders away. Nonetheless, expect a final day of exciting racing on Sunday.

Now we turn to a couple of your questions.

The Koppenberg hill

How bad is that Koppenbergcross hill, really?

—Matthew in Maine

Having ridden the climb myself more than once, I can assure you that the hill is tough. A wet, slippery, 22 percent cobbled climb is always going to be very hard. Moreover, if you should fall or just falter, getting the bike moving again can be a real challenge. But the upper part of the cobbled climb, responsible for the dramatic images we see in the Ronde van Vlaanderen each year, is not included in the cyclocross version. Instead, the course makes a hard right into a field about halfway up the climb, and riders follow a meandering track through the cow pastures to the top of the course. Make no mistake, this climb is no easy task, either. It’s just not quite as steep the whole way up as the traditional road route.

What makes the Koppenbergcross really difficult are the seven rapid-fire switchbacks that line the steep descent back to the bottom of the hill. In bad weather the conditions degrade quickly and the descent might resemble a giant-slalom ski race as much as a bike race. Mistakes can be costly, and not just in timing terms: more than one rider has walked away from a botched trip down the hill with a broken bike and shattered helmet.

So, yes, the hill is really that hard, and not just going up. To win on the Koppenberg requires not just climbing tenacity, but sheer, reckless descending bravery as well.

Under-23 points count towards the elite ranks

Why is Lars Van Der Haar always on the front row? Do his U23 points count as elite points?

—Brandon in Vancouver

You’ve answered your own question. Indeed, although juniors and U23 racers receive fewer points for their efforts than elites, their points add up in just the same way as elite’s points do, and for successful young riders looking to make the jump to the elites, these can even earn you a spot at the front of the starting grid.

For the speedy young Rabobank rider, the 2011-12 season was a points bonanza. Van Der Haar kicked off his season with an overall win at CrossVegas and never looked back. He claimed three of four possible U23 World Cup wins; the U23 world, national and European titles; 16 total victories; and 24 podium finishes. Those races alone would net him nearly 1,200 points, enough to land in the front row more often than not. Factor in his recent World Cup second place in Tabor and Van Der Haar now has amassed enough points to be ranked seventh in the world and a guaranteed front-row start for the near future.

By the way, if you want to see exactly how his points are added up, the UCI posts detailed tables for every ranked rider on its website. If you want to see exactly how much any given finish is worth, all the details appear in the points tables at the end of the UCI rulebook.

An American in France

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