Photo Essay: 2015 Koppenbergcross

The Koppenberg, a short but precipitous little bump in the Flemish countryside overlooking the village of Melden, just outside of the city of Oudenaarde, is among Belgian cycling’s most sacred places. Twice a year, fans throng it, hiking up through the cow pasture that drapes steeply down its sides to watch legends get written.

In the spring they come for the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), to see what destruction the hill’s slippery, fractured cobbled road will wreak on the peloton. In November they come for the cyclocross, one of the year’s hardest, with its vicious climb and slaloming descent. When the weather is bad, the race is among the biggest spectacles in cycling. When the weather is good — and it was as good as it gets on Sunday — it becomes one of the biggest parties in cycling. Fans, mechanics, team staff, and supporters were having fun on Sunday in the sun-drenched, summer-like conditions, a little gift in a season that is more often chilly, dark, and damp. It takes a lot of beer to keep that party rolling, and they were serving it up as fast as they could on Sunday. In the under-23 race, Telenet-Fidea’s Quinten Hermans turned an attack in the first half of the race into a convincing solo victory over Jonas Degroote. But Degroote’s second place in the Bpost Bank Trofee’s first race in Ronse, at the beginning of the month, kept him in control of the series lead. Most Belgian race days follow a similar pattern: the youth categories in the morning, then a bit of a lull before the elite races start in the afternoon. For the men, the break is a chance to get out on the course for a few practice laps; for the women it’s warm-up time. Meanwhile, for fans it’s a chance to grab lunch or a souvenir. Teams stock truckloads of jerseys, caps, scarves, and flags, all personalized for supporters’ favorite riders. The Koppenberg is defined by the steep, cobbled climb so well-known for its role in the Tour of Flanders. The cyclocross race uses only the lower section of the road before swinging off into the fields. So while the cobbles can break up the race in the early laps, they rarely prove decisive to the outcome. 19 year-old Femke Van Den Driessche (Kleur op Maat) isn’t all that well known — at least, not yet — her best finish to date was third place at last year’s Superprestige finale in Middelkerke, Belgium, last February. But that seems sure to change.

On Sunday, she raced right to the front of the field, gapping established veterans like Nikki Harris, Sanne Cant, and Helen Wyman on the first climb. Her gambit paid off, and she rode to her most important result yet, earning second place on the infamous Koppenberg.

Meanwhile, from behind Van Den Driessche came Belgian schoolteacher Jolien Verschueren, charging up the hill and opening a one-minute lead over the rest of the field. Before she emerged as one of Belgium’s top women a couple of years ago, Verschueren was mainly competing in little amateur races around farm fields. But she is rapidly gaining stature and popularity, and she earned louder and more enthusiastic support from the crowd with every lap she stayed away. For the second year running, Baltimore’s Twenty 20 Cycling signed on as a sponsor of the Koppenbergcross, providing the money that made the race the first in Belgium to pay equal prize money for men and women. Twenty 20 also provided support to bring Richard Sachs rider BrittLee Bowman to Belgium to race the Koppenberg.

“I’d love to do this again,” Bowman said after finishing 21st. “This was a really cool opportunity to get to do this. I wasn’t expecting to come here this year, but [Twenty 20’s] Kris Auer gave me an opportunity. That uphill is a lot of uphill, and I liked the downhill though. It was fun.”

On the packed slopes of the Koppenberg, riders can almost get lost in the crowd. Gertie Willems (Kleur op Maat) was almost invisible among the fans as she negotiated a nasty switchback on the descent. It was not a great day for Belgium’s Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP) who showed off her European champion’s kit one last time before she will have to defend it next weekend. Cant finished a respectable fourth, but was never much of a factor in the race.

“It was better than in Ronse,” she said after the race, referring to the Bpost Bank Trofee’s first stop at the beginning of the month. “When you want to win here, you have to be in the best shape, and I’m not there yet — but it’s coming.”

For Vershueren, it was the biggest result of her career, an emphatic win on one of the hardest circuits in the sport, and she didn’t hide the emotion of the moment at the finish.

“I’m incredibly happy,” she told reporters. “This is the most incredible victory of my career. A lot of fans were here today and, even though I had everything under control, I had to pay attention in the last meters because a mistake or crash could cost the victory. Still, I did enjoy the last lap because of all the cheering.”

It was a big day for Verschueren’s family and supporters too. The top step of the podium and the race’s cobblestone winner’s trophy was a gratifying payoff for the people who have followed her from the amateur ranks to the top of the sport. When the Koppenberg is wet, the race tends to fracture quickly. The cobbles are slick, the climb is almost impossibly hard, and the descent treacherous. In dry conditions, the bunch tends to stay together much longer, as it did on Sunday. The first trip up the cobbled part of the climb was a fierce sprint for position; slip up here and you can find yourself trapped deep in the field very quickly. Swiss champion Julien Taramarcaz was the first to make the turn off the climb, leading an early charge that was answered by Telenet-Fidea’s Thijs van Amerongen and Taramarcaz’s ERA-Murprotec teammate Diether Sweeck soon after.

An early attack is a good strategy in dry conditions, said eventual winner Wout Van Aert after the race. “When it’s a little dry here, it’s the classic recipe,” he said. “Guys who are not very often in the front take their chance, and they do a good attack. We saw also this week Thijs van Amerongen and Diether Sweeck were close in the final result, so they were pretty strong I think.”

When Wout Van Aert pounced near the midpoint of the race, everyone else was left to scrap for the last two spots on the podium, a struggle that eventually boiled down to a fight between Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) and Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin).

“Today I had some problems with the heat,” said Pauwels, who finished second. “I was thirsty and could not get to the front in the beginning. So when Van Aert went, I was much too far away. However, on the climbs I could move up every time.”

“Today was harder than in the last years, because it was not as fast as you’d think it was,” said van der Haar. “It looked fast and we rode it fast, but the whole time it was like the ground was sucking all your power away. It was not like [hard ground], it was really thick and hard to get through. It was a very tiring lap and then the downhill was like ice, so it was difficult.”

When Van Aert went solo, Telenet-Fidea’s Tom Meeusen was the man who bore brunt of the attack. Van Aert surged on the climb, Meeusen, sitting in next wheel, tried to counter, but the battle was won in seconds and Meeusen found himself racing for one of the lower steps on the podium.

Though he would eventually finish fourth, he told reporters later it was nonetheless a moral victory after an inconsistent early season and a very hard race.

The Koppenberg prides itself on being an international race, and indeed, it often draws an international crowd. Swiss champion Julien Taramarcaz represented just one of the many nationalities on course on Sunday, many of the others reflected by the flags flying near the bottom of the descent. It was not a great day for Sven Nys, who was chasing a 10th and final victory on the Koppenberg, a race he has called one of his all-time favorites. Nys couldn’t match Van Aert early on, but he was in the hunt for for a podium place before a nasty mechanical in the closing laps knocked him out of the chase. A good result decidedly out of reach, there was little for the Belgian legend to do besides hike off the course with his broken bike. For Van Aert it was another unrivaled win, but it was also a chance for a bit of redemption after a controversial finish in 2014 when teammate Jan Denuwelaere interfered with Nys in the sprint.

“Last year was a really spectacular final, but for me it was not fun that Jan was [in the way] in the sprint,” he said. “I would love that I could do that race without Jan there and still win the sprint, because I felt strong. But I think today there was a bigger advantage for me and nobody can say there was someone better. I managed to make a big gap, and it was nice to finish like this.”